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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

From away in Ely: reflecting on geographic exceptionalism

Catie Clark
Posted 8/30/23

“From away.” That’s what natives of Maine call everyone else. It’s a succinct way of summarizing geographic exceptionalism. Geographic exceptionalism is everywhere, even in …

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From away in Ely: reflecting on geographic exceptionalism


“From away.” That’s what natives of Maine call everyone else. It’s a succinct way of summarizing geographic exceptionalism. Geographic exceptionalism is everywhere, even in Minnesota.
I dislike geographic exceptionalism for the simple reason that its snobbery based solely on where you are from. It has nothing to do with merit or achievement or even good looks. It’s a way to feel superior to strangers based on where your parents decided to live when you were born.
New England is full of geographic exceptionalism. You’re nobody if you aren’t a native, born and raised there. It’s better if your family has been around for at least three generations. Having ancestors who fought in the American Revolution or came over with Governor Winthrop’s fleet is even better.
In Northern New England, “from away” means you’re a cheap import. You are “less than” because you don’t have roots in the place where you live.
As a form of discrimination, the “from away” stigma is subtle. Very few will disrespect you overtly for being from elsewhere. It manifests in the cold shoulders and the exclusion from the tight circles of old friends who are polite but seldom friendly — unless you’ve lived there for at least 20 years, and even then, it’s only a grudging acceptance.
“From away” effect
Growing up in New England, I’ve seen the “from away” effect up-close. My best example is from when we ran a business in Maine. About four years after moving to Maine, I volunteered for a committee with the local Chamber of Commerce. I got turned down by the chamber’s executive director, who was a native of the town where our business was located. The reason? It was because I was “from away,” and would therefore not understand adequately the nuances of local business. The term “from away” was said to my face, but by someone who didn’t even realize how insulting it was.
The “from away” put-down wasn’t a positive, affirming experience. We did not renew our membership with the chamber of commerce. When it came time to decide if we would close the business or try to move it to the next level, one of the main factors in leaving Maine was the way the natives treated everyone born elsewhere as second-class citizens.
Canadian loan words
I once thought the expression “from away” was confined to Maine, which is where I first heard it. I have since learned that the expression has its roots in the Maritime provinces of Canada. It leaked into Maine from New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.
I’ve met quite a few folks from the Maritime provinces. The use in Canada isn’t as pejorative as its use in Maine, but it still has that us-versus-them character to it. What’s sad is that geographic exceptionalism shows up all over. It’s not exclusive to New England or the Maritimes.
“From away” in Ely
If you’re sharper than a marble, which includes everyone who reads the Timberjay, you’ve likely guessed where this is going. Geographic exceptionalism is at the core of who is an Elyite and who gets to decide.
My opinion should be obvious by now. I believe a sense of superiority based on being born in a specific location is a pile a horse pucky. So, let’s look at what might motivate the “from away” effect, which is really the same phenomenon as those who think transplants (long dubbed “packsackers” here) can never be real Elyites.
Part of the “from away” effect is a simple pride of place. There’s nothing wrong with loving where you were born and raised, and nothing wrong with the sense of belonging to an established family or circle of long-standing friends.
The downside of local pride is the decay into a false belief that locally-born is always superior. I have often wondered if fear is behind such a belief. When enough new people move into an area, it can dilute local history. Long-term residents may fear that new folks will not value that sense of the past that isn’t just history to a native of a place. It’s a form of local identity for those families who have lived in Ely since the mines were still in operation.
The “from away” effect is born out of local pride and local identity as well as fear that the world outside will not value the past that created the community and its unique culture.
Those nasty transplants
There’s another variable to the “from away” phenomenon and that’s the very real attitude of many new people who move to resort communities like Ely.
Ely is a lovely place next to a world-class wilderness attraction. It draws nature lovers from all over the globe, and many of them come—not because of Ely but because of the storied outdoors of the Boundary Waters.
The perception that the Boundary Waters should trump issues that affect Ely is an ugly belief. It’s a slap in the face for families that have been here for four or five generations, especially those who lost their guide or resort businesses or vacation cabin when the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was created.
Long-standing residents of Ely share a common history of the federal government taking property through eminent domain and driving people out of their homes and businesses in the BWCAW. The resistance of one of those residents became well-known nationally and after she died, her friends created the Dorothy Molter Museum in her honor.
Since I moved here nine months ago, I’ve observed some Elyite geographic exceptionalism in action. Some old Elyites believe that new residents lack an appreciation of Ely’s history and culture. Given how some new Elyites behave toward residents from the old mining families, the allegation has some real teeth. New Elyites could make an effort to understand the three-legged stool (iron ore, timber, tourism) that long formed the basis of the Ely economy. New Elyites could also profit to remember that not all old Elyites want to see copper-nickel mining.
There’s another flipside hiding here. It has to do with those old Elyites, the ones who don’t think anyone but descendants of the earliest Ely residents can call themselves a true Elyite. It’s a slippery stance given how old Ely isn’t, and it’s a turn-off for visitors and new residents. In a town that relies heavily on tourism, geographic exceptionalism can drive away customers and people looking to move and work here. It’s bad for business and it’s bad for the city’s reputation.
So, who then is an Elyite? The semantic answer is the correct one: an Elyite is someone from Ely. It’s that simple. If you live in Ely, you’re an Elyite, just like the great grandparents of all those old Elyites who never lived anywhere else.
In a great little city like Ely, no one should be “from away.”