The Ojibwe People
The Ojibwe/Ojibwa or Chippewa are an Anishinaabe people in what is currently southern Canada and the northern Midwestern United States. They are one of the most numerous Indigenous Peoples north of the Rio Grande. In the United States, they have the fifth largest population among Native American peoples; in Canada, they are the second largest First Nations population.
According to oral history and recordings in birch bark scrolls, the Anishinaabe originated from the mouth of the Saint Lawrence River on the Atlantic coast of what is now Quebec. The tribe gradually migrated southwest along the Saint Lawrence River to the Ottawa River and finally to the Great Lakes. They traded widely across the continent for thousands of years, and knew of canoe routes to move north, west to east, and then south in the Americas. Alongside this slow migration, they separated into subbranches.
The “first stopping place” of the Anishinaabe was Mooniyaang where present-day Montreal developed. The “second stopping place” was in the vicinity of the Concave Waterfalls, i.e. Niagara Falls. At their “third stopping place”, near the present-day city of Detroit, the Anishinaabeg divided into six groups, of which the Ojibwe was one.
The first significant Ojibwe cultural center was in their “fourth stopping place” on Manitoulin Island. Their new political center was referred to as their “fifth stopping place” in their present country at Sault Ste. Marie. The Ojibwe call Sault Ste. Marie Baawitigong, meaning place of the rapids. Continuing their westward expansion, the Ojibwe divided into the northern branch, following the north shore of Lake Superior, and the southern branch, along its south shore.
The identification of the Ojibwe as a culture and people may have occurred in response to contact with Europeans. The Europeans preferred to deal with groups, and tried to identify those they encountered. The first historical mention of the Ojibwe occurs in a French Jesuit report by the missionary priests to their superiors in France. It is from the year 1640. Through their friendship with the French fur traders, the Ojibwe gained guns, acquired European goods, and began to dominate their traditional enemies.
By the end of the 18th century, the Ojibwe ruled over nearly all of present-day Michigan, northern Wisconsin, and Minnesota, including most of the Red River area. They also controlled the entire northern shores of Lakes Huron and Superior on the Canadian side. In the west, their dominance extended to the Turtle Mountains of North Dakota.
Feather decoration, Photo by DW Davis | Pixabay (Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ojibwe)
Finnish Settlers in Upper Midwest
Between 1860 and 1940, approximately 400,000 Finnish emigrants left their homeland for North America in search of a better life. Scraping together a living in Finland had been hard, but the settlers did not find bliss in their new homeland either. Much like today, immigrants struggled against prejudices held by the English-speaking majority. But there was work to be found in the mines and the forests of the Upper Midwest, where the Finns came in contact with the Ojibwe people.
Finnish immigrants mainly settled in Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Ontario, where they forged bonds with members of the hard-pressed Ojibwe tribe. Just like the Ojibwas, Finns hunted, fished and foraged. The indigenous inhabitants valued Finns’ handicraft skills, such as their ability to build a boat or carve skis. The newcomers also lent their expertise in building log cabins and weaving shoes out of birch bark. Finns, in turn, learned from the locals how to cultivate corn and use medicinal herbs. The Ojibwas called Finns with words Madoodiswan-inini and Omaakikiiw-inini. They mean ‘sweat cabin people’ and ’people who sound like frogs’.
While the Ojibwas and Finns worked together in forestry and fishing, they made friends little by little. In parallel, they noticed how much in common they had. Above all, they were united by their intimate relationship with the forest as well as nature at large. They did not only share a similar view of the world but they also faced identical racial discrimination:
- A deep respect for nature, in particular their appreciation of the forest
- Similar understanding of land ownership: land as a fully shared resource, along with air, water and sunlight; freedom to roam
- A long tradition of sweat lodges (cf. saunas)
- Similar humor
- Analogous communication style, e.g. feeling comfortable with silence without constant talk
- A tradition of singing oral poetry
- Prejudices of the mainstream society against the marginalized => discrimination and exclusion
The majority population formulated their views on these two minorities in proverbs and sayings: ”The weather is so cold that only a Finn and an Indian will survive outdoors.” “It is only the crazy Finns and Indians that live in the woods.” Moreover, there were often signs on the saloon doors in those states where Finnish immigrants were concentrated: “No Indians or Finns.”
Due to these common traits, the fear of first contact between the Ojibwas and the Finns was lower than with other European settlers. The two groups coexisted so closely that some individuals established familes and got children, which resulted in a new ethnic population. Their joint descendants came to be known as Finndians.
Log cabin, Photo by Zhugher | Pixabay (Sources: https://www.bonnierrights.fi/books/in-the-land-of-the-finndians/ | https://www.nordicmuseum.org/exhibitions/fintiaanit | http://blog.asjournal.org/finndians-a-journey-to-distant-cousins/ | https://www.finlandia.edu/universitygallery/2019/05/29/in-the-land-of-the-finndians-tradition-bearers/ | https://www.aamulehti.fi/kirjat/art-2000007475276.html | https://www.iltalehti.fi/tv-ja-leffat/a/b83b85dd-04bf-4562-abaa-3b8d6d4c82eb)
The term Finndian refers to an identity between two different cultures. Hundreds or even thousands of people cherish the ways of both cultural traditions in their everyday lives in the Great Lakes area. Most Finndians live in small villages on reservations in the area ranging from North Minnesota through Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to Ontario, Canada.
On reservations, there is a lot of social problems related to poverty, unemployment, alcoholism and drug addiction. Casinos offer the rare job opportunities almost exclusively. The housing consists of austere concrete buildings or trailers. The Finndians’ harsh living environment counts as a backward hinterland and stagnated periphery due to its closed businesses and empty houses.
Despite the hardships mentioned above, the Finndians maintain their peculiar culture alive and feel pride in their roots more than ever before. These strong, self-sufficient people are building their communities, living from nature, distinguishing themselves as environmental activists, and reviving their original indigenous language. There is no longer shame attached to a Finndian identity. However, one’s awareness of the Finndian identity varies considerably from a person to a person. It means a great deal to some individuals, whereas others do not even recognize their Finnish ancestry in spite of a Finnish family name.
Many Finndians have a Finnish surname, since the early Finnish immigrants used to be young males who married an Ojibwe wife. However, the Finnish language is no longer heard in their villages. Some of the Finndians still speak the language of Ojibwa. The present-day Finndians tend to feel closer to their Native American roots than to their Finnish heritage, while the links with Finland have withered away.
Life between two cultures causes pressures if a person is considered an outcast by both sides. On one hand, the Finndians are not regarded as whites; on the other hand, they not accepted as full-blooded indigenous people either. Hence, this small unknown group of double outsiders is struggling for the formal recognition of its status.
The Finndians compare to the Métis, who are mixed descendants of European (primarily French) trappers and fur traders and Cree or Ojibwa women in Canada. Canada recognized the Métis as indigenous people in 1982. Lyz Jaakola, musician from Minnesota, belongs to active advocates of the Finndians’ pursuit of recognition (view the photo below).
Translating a certain important book into English might help the Finndians gain publicity and make an issue of their cause. The last chapter below introduces this very book. An international reviewer characterized it as a cultural act.
A singing woman with a drum, Lyz Jaakola (Nitaa-naganokwe) in Helsinki, Finland, Photo by Ville-Veikko Kaakinen | Helsingin Sanomat @ https://www.hs.fi/ihmiset/art-2000002916008.html (Sources: https://fi.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fintiaanit | https://www.aamulehti.fi/kirjat/art-2000007475276.html | http://blog.asjournal.org/finndians-a-journey-to-distant-cousins/ | https://www.facebook.com/OregonDocumentaryFF/photos/a.1117271575076141/1574298832706744/ | https://www.iltalehti.fi/tv-ja-leffat/a/b83b85dd-04bf-4562-abaa-3b8d6d4c82eb)
The Book as an Awakener
In the Land of the Finndians is the first book to uncover the story of the descendants of the Finnish immigrants and the North American natives. It describes the lives of the Finndians today in an honest and unembellished way – exactly how both Finns and Ojibwa would want it…. This monumental work of non-fiction turns history into a narrative told through people’s lives, impressive photographs and sometimes even fictional tales.
The method of presentation is inventive and multifaceted, which reflects the project’s extraordinary, multidisciplinary team. Meeri Koutaniemi is a photographer; Maria Seppälä is a journalist and documentary filmmaker; Katja Kettu is a bestselling fiction author. These three Finnish women take readers on a on a bittersweet journey through the mines, casinos, and reservations of the Finndians. Although the authors put a great deal of effort into gathering information, they also leave room for the authentic voices from emotion-filled interviews.
The trio’s work consists of facts and personal stories compiled and edited in a coherent, reader-friendly way, with an appropriate amount of commentary. In addition to the huge number of biographic data and vivid memories, the book includes tales that Katja Kettu was inspired to write on the subject. Those short stories describe people’s mentality and traditions through fiction. Meeri Koutaniemi illustrated the book with wonderfully varied and narrative images, though the work also includes a few historical photographs. It is Meeri Koutaniemi’s splendid, capturing photos that make the difference as compared to any standard non-fiction.
At the end of the day, the book is not just about Finndians, but it is about any indigenous people, and how they are affected in the same ways, even in different countries. Furthermore, it is about immigration, exposing how immigrants do not always receive the warmest welcome even when the industry badly needs their input. All in all, it sheds light on mechanisms of marginalisation as well as societal pressures for change. The strong message of the publication is the fundamental irrationality of racism and xenophobia.
The lengthy book project took three years, requiring several fact-finding trips to the Great Lakes area. Getting a contact with the target group, overcoming people’s reservations, winning their trust, reaching the same wavelength with them, and persuading them to participate in the undertaking took some great effort. Maria Seppälä summarized her sentiments as follows (a quote):
“This journey that took me to follow the life of the people who called themselves Finndians to reclaim their identity between two cultures, in the Indian reservations, from Finnish saunas to pow wow grounds and endless woods of Minnesota and Michigan, that so greatly remind of the woods in Finland has been amazing, life changing and touching both for the people I met and to us who were so warmly drawn into their lives and homes. Two nations, from the opposite parts of the planet, Ojibwe and Finns, have so much in common, in good and bad, in sickness and in health.”
In the Land of the Finndians was published in Helsinki in 2016. In 2019, Finlandia University Gallery presented an exhibit of photographs documenting the descendants of Finnish immigrants and Native Americans from the book by Katja Kettu, Meeri Koutaniemi, and Maria Seppälä. The event and the exhibition took place in the Finnish American Heritage Center, Hancock, Michigan (Upper Peninsula). The illustrated book was followed by a short documentary film, directed by Maria Seppälä in 2019.
Two Finndian men, Photo by Meeri Koutaniemi | Yle Kuvapalvelu @ https://www.suomi24.fi/viihde/korkeat-itsemurhaluvut-viina-ja-huumori-yhdistavat-intiaanien-ja-suomalaisten-jalkelaisia (Sources: https://www.bonnierrights.fi/books/in-the-land-of-the-finndians/ | http://blog.asjournal.org/findians-a-journey-to-distant-cousins/ | https://www.facebook.com/OregonDocumentaryFF/photos/a.1117271575076141/1574298832706744/)
(2018). Fintiaanit, introduction to an exhibition, National Nordic Museum, Seattle, WA | https://www.nordicmuseum.org/exhibitions/fintiaanit
(2019). Fintiaanit, synopsis of a short film, Oregon Documentary Film Festival, Wilsonville, OR | https://www.facebook.com/OregonDocumentaryFF/photos/a.1117271575076141/1574298832706744/
(2016). In the Land of the Finndians, book release by Bonnier Finland, Helsinki | https://www.bonnierrights.fi/books/in-the-land-of-the-finndians/
(2019). In the Land of the Finndians & Tradition Bearers, introduction to an exhibition, Finlandia University Gallery, Hancock, MI | https://www.finlandia.edu/universitygallery/2019/05/29/in-the-land-of-the-finndians-tradition-bearers/
Mißfeldt, Dagmar (2019). Finndians: A Journey to Distant Cousins, blog, American Studies, Lüneburg, Germany | http://blog.asjournal.org/finndians-a-journey-to-distant-cousins/
(2021). Ojibwe, article from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia | https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ojibwe
Saarinen, Jussi (2016). Uutuusteos teki löydön USA:ssa – intiaanin ja suomalaisen jälkeläinen viihtyy saunassa ja juo viinaa, newspaper article, Aamulehti, Tampere, Finland | https://www.aamulehti.fi/kirjat/art-2000007475276.html)
Uotinen, Jenni (2019). Ojibwa-intiaaneilla on suomalaisille oma sanansa – ”Ihmisiä, jotka kuulostavat sammakoilta”, newspaper article, Iltalehti, Helsinki, Finland | https://www.iltalehti.fi/tv-ja-leffat/a/b83b85dd-04bf-4562-abaa-3b8d6d4c82eb