Monday, April 11, 2011

Practicing Finnish Shamanism: Spirit Connections

In an earlier post I said that as we reclaim the indigenous heritage of the Finnish shamanic tradition, we are able to access the spiritual knowledge embedded in its ‘original instructions’.  This knowledge can in turn assist us in our personal and collective healing.

I also said that there is work to be done to reconstruct Finnish shamanism as a form of spirituality that is relevant for today, including for North Americans.  Much of this work needs to be centred in Finland. 

Lemminkäinen's Mother by Akseli Gallen-Kallela,
illustration from Kalevala, part of a gallery show
display ad in Helsinki subway station, 2009 * 

(*This photo and all others in this post,below, are by
Leppä, unless otherwise noted.)

At the same time, I believe that those of us in North America who wish to do so can begin contributing to this process.

One way to do this is through an exercise that I have personally tried and found useful.  It makes use of ‘spirit connections’ that we feel to Finland, but takes them farther than we normally may be accustomed—based in part on the animistic worldview of ancient Finns.

If a number of us use this practice or similar ones and then share our results with others, I believe that a fund of personal experiences in North America can be accumulated that complements those of practitioners in Finland.  Then if these two streams are joined in creative ways, they can help form the foundation of a Finnish shamanic spirituality that is both true to its Finnish roots and at the same time relevant to those of us in Canada and the U.S. who identify with the Finnish shamanic tradition.

Before I explain the exercise built around our spirit connections to Finland, I will provide some context for it.  In doing so I will address what is perhaps the most crucial facet of the ‘original instructions’ of Finnish shamanism:  the relationship of humans to spirits. 

Talking with tree persons

Anna-Leena Siikala observes that the “cornerstone of shamanism is the belief in an alliance between humans and spirits.” (Siikala: 2002a)

I will explore three questions related to this alliance: 

1.    What spirits were honoured by ancient Finns?  
2.    What was the nature of the alliances that ancient Finns formed with spirits? 
3.    How can we form similar alliances with spirits in the present day as part of a reconstructed Finnish shamanism? 

1.     What spirits were honoured by ancient Finns?  

The ways in which the indigenous ethnic groups of Northern Eurasia with shamanic traditions have understood the world of spirits—their identities and their relationships—is complex and varies considerably.  For this reason we must study each group on a case-by-case basis.  (Siikala: 2002a )

The most familiar gods and goddesses of Finland include, among others, Ukko, the thunder god, Tapio, god of the forest, Ilmatar, god of the sky.  Unto Salo says that ancient Finns did not see these deities in hierarchical terms, in part because to a large extent theirs was not a stratified society.  As well, they did not see the principal deities as making up a family, or as based on a structured theology.  (Salo: 2006)

The attempt to force-fit these Finnish deities into the model of a Greek, Roman or Scandinavian cosmic pantheon came later with figures such as Mikael Agricola, Bishop of Turku in the 15th century and Elias Lönnrot, in the Kalevala in the 19th century.  (Salo: 2006)

Statue of Lönnrot and Väinämöinen, Helsinki 

Väinämöinen was originally seen as a deity connected with water.  It was only later that he took on the features of a divine creator and culture hero.  (Siikala: 2002a) Similarly, with early Indo-European influences and beginning in the 12th century with the impact of Christianity, the image of Ukko was transformed over time from the personification of the sky to the image of an all-powerful patriarchal god.  (Siikala: 2002b)

In the beginning, for the earliest Finns and Saami, the world of spirits was to a large degree personal and local:  In a reference from 1917 Billson says:

“As a man would naturally call a neighbor to his assistance rather than a stranger, so the ancient Finns and Lapps would pray to familiar spirits, like those of well-known trees and streams, rather than to remote sky-spirits, whom they did not know and could not expect to control.” (Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics: 1917)

The most influential spirits were those of the dead, who as local spirits were seen as guardians of the household, the forest and other important settings.  They were incorporated in what is referred to as an “ancestor cult”.  This term refers to the practices and observances of ancient Finns toward their ancestors, as based on a strong animistic sense of the continuity of humans within the cycles of nature.  These practices survived many centuries of opposition from the church and can still be glimpsed in rituals that persist in Finland to this day.  (Shepherd: 1999)

Stone with cup marks, used in Iron Age offerings and rituals
related to ancestors , National Museum of Finland

While ancient Finns gave enduring names to the animated spirits of the water, air and forest, according to Shepherd these spirits were otherwise “nearly formless”.  (Shepherd: 1999).  For example, Uno Harva writes about Tapio the Forest Spirit: 

“Like the animal spirits dwelling in the forests, the animated forest itself aspires to anthropomorphic features.  In attempting to simulate a human being, however, it cannot hide its original self.  Standing among tall pines, the Forest Spirit is as long as these, and moving in the underbrush it again shrinks to the height of this.” (quoted in Shepherd)

What are the implications of the way that ancient Finns honoured their spirits for a reconstructed Finnish shamanism today? 

Most importantly, as we attempt to live by the ‘original instructions’, we need not focus on a fixed pantheon of remote and highly anthropomorphized sky gods, based on a structured theology, in the manner of the so-called ‘religions of the book’.  Instead, in keeping with a Finnish shamanic spirituality that was closely related to the earth, we are inspired to honour the deities of the elements—air, water, weather—as well as the local and personal spirits of ancestors, forests, lakes, animals, and in common objects and everyday actions—spirits commonly referred to by the term ‘genius loci’. 

In turn, tracing the relationship the spirits where we live, in Canada and the U.S., to the ones in Finland becomes a matter for creative exploration.  Ideally this exploration would be conducted in alliance Finnish practitioners and with the spirits, both here and in Finland. 

2.    What was the nature of the alliances that ancient Finns formed with spirits? 

What we have been discussing to this point is animism, which in its original sense refers to the belief that non-human beings such as animals and objects such as lakes, mountains and trees are peopled with spirits or souls. 

Siikala says that shamanistic cultures “are known for attributing animacy to the natural environment”, and that these “animistic concepts are in fact characteristic of Northern cultures”. (Siikala: 2002)  Specifically referring to the Finns, Sheppard says: “The original folk traditions of Finland arise from an animistic belief system rooted in wilderness culture.” (Shepherd: 1995)

How did early Finns ally with spirits?  An account of a healing ritual from 1896 reported by Siikala can make the nature of this animism clearer, and the relationship between the shaman figure and spirits upon which it was based. (Siikala: 2002)

In this account, a tietäjä in Kitee, Finland determined through means of divination that the source of the illness of a patient was a forest spirit (haltija) that had infected him with forest-väki. (Väki is a potent type of dynamistic strength or force. Humans, animals, spirits, and inanimate objects were endowed with varying quantities of it.)  However, he needed more information in order to know which incantation would be most effective in curing it. 

The tietäjä entered a trance-like state and “bound” the forest, i.e., compelled the attention of the spirits there.  Then he directly addressed it:

“Renowned forest, great king,
Old man of the forest, gray-beard,
Come listen with your ears,
Come watch, come survey,
Come see the things with your eyes...”

The tietäjä requested information from the forest spirits, within whose sphere of influence the illness was believed to have originated.

“Honkatar, good mistresses,
Tapiotar, careful wife,
Mielikki, forest’s daughter-in-law,
Tellervo, Tapio’s maiden,
Listen my dear darling,
Listen to this poor one’s voice!”

He also spoke directly to the trees:

“Rise, forest with your men,
Wilderness, with all your folk,
Pine grove, with your kin,
To see a vile infirmity….”

The tietäjä then recited the names of all leafy trees in a loud voice, and the person accompanying the sick person listened closely, if one of the names is followed by an echo, then the source of the illness was not from that leafy tree.  If this did not yield a clear answer, each of the forest spirits were then questioned in turn.

In the above dialogue (shortened from the original) between the tietäjä and forest spirits and tree spirits, it is clear that the tietäjä treats these spirits as relational, actively communicating beings with independent will and intentionality.  Billson observed in 1917, of ancient Finns and Lapps:

“Indeed the relations between men and spirits were….as Castrén has pointed out, like those between men and men.”  (Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics: 1917)

Tietäjäs were particularly adept at negotiating the close relationships of humans with spirits.  They were also adept at managing väki, both of objects such as trees as well as that of humans, called luonto.  (In fact, the luonto of tietäjäs needed to be particularly “hard” or potent for their success in the battles they waged with illness and other threats to the community.) 

According to Laura Stark, a scholar of Finnish folklore, the nature of väki is explained by according to what she identifies as a ‘dynamistic’ theory that captures the unique nature of the practices of the tietäjä.  Speaking of the forest- väki that issued from trees and infected the tietäjäs patient, she says that:

“…inanimate objects in the body’s environment were…perceived to ‘act’ upon the body – and these acts were motivated, meaning that humans attributed to these objects a will, an intentionality.  These motivated acts by objects blur the line between subject and object….” (Stark: 2002)

Sick children were passed through a naturally
grown loop of rowan—the sacred tree of Finland—which
was considered rich in väki. The piece of wood was inscribed
with the date of 1741. (National Museum of Finland) 

We can say that in both cases—the animistic communication of the humans with nature spirits and the dynamistic subjectivity of väki —the lines between subject and object were blurred in the indigenous Finnish shamanic tradition. 

The ‘new animism’, a recent addition to anthropological discourse, easily accommodates this subject/object ‘blurring’.  (See Harvey: 2006 for an overview of the new animism.)  Using the terminology of the new animism we can say that the tietäjä viewed the forest spirits and trees not as objects but as persons, or more descriptively, as “other-than-human persons”. 

This is a term was introduced by anthropologist Irving Hallowell in an article on Ojibwe (Anishnabeg) beliefs based on his work in Manitoba, Canada that has been foundational for the development of the new animism. (Hallowell: 2002)

The new animism is based on what Bird-David calls a relational epistemology, one that radically bridges the Cartesian subject-object divide that arrived with modernism and is central to its project.  Reflecting the emphases of the new animism, Bird-David says of communication with “rock persons”, “tree persons” or “animal persons”:

“Persons may be spoken with.  Objects, by contrast, are usually spoken about.  Persons are volitional, relational, cultural and social beings.  They demonstrate intentionality and agency with varying degrees of autonomy and freedom.”  (Bird-David: 2002)

Some persons may be referred to as spirits, but only on the condition that this does not impute a supernatural existence to them.  This is because the opposition of a ‘nature’ on one hand to a ‘supernature’ on the other is neither required by, nor consistent with, the relational epistemology of the new animism. (Harvey: 2006)  In a similar way, according to archeologist Deborah Shepherd, ancient Finns saw little distinction between ‘this world’ and the ‘other world’. (Shepherd: 1999)

The central figure of the “old animism”, Edward Tylor, writing in 1871 said that the animistic phenomenon arose from the experience of dreams or visions, in which a “spirit” or “soul” being was seen to move free of the body.  He saw it as a worldview common among children and what he called ‘primitives’.  (Harvey: 2006)

Tylor considered animism as an error both of ontology—he did not see spirit as a valid category of being—and of epistemology—he did not believe one could obtain valid knowledge through conversing with one.  He expected that this double error would disappear with the advance of empirical science. 

Fishing God, made of birch bark, National Museum of Finland

According to Harvey, the term ‘animism’ inherited from Tylor:

“…clearly began as an expression of a nest of insulting approaches to indigenous peoples and to the earliest putatively religious humans. It was, and sometimes remains, a colonialist slur.” (Harvey: 2006)

In the new animism persons are defined as those with whom other persons interact with varying degrees of ‘reciprocity’.  Again, Bird-David says, recalling the example above:

“To ‘talk with a tree’ – rather than ‘cut it down’ – is to perceive what it does as one acts towards it, being aware concurrently of changes in oneself and the tree.  It is expecting response and responding, growing into mutual responsiveness and, furthermore, possibly into mutual responsibility.” (Bird-David: 2002)

Animists don’t begin by attributing personhood to whole classes of objects and beings—animals, rocks, rivers.  They meet particular objects or beings, develop respectful relations with them because they see them as important for their welfare, and only then do they become “persons in relation”.  

We saw above an example of how a tietäjä became a person in relation to particular forest spirits for the welfare of an individual with epilepsy.  He negotiated with forest spirits in order to obtain information needed for his healing, individual healing being the predominant role of the tietäjä.

In another example, we know that the proto-Finns inhabited a wilderness that could be harsh and unforgiving.  They depended on reciprocity with the spirits of game such as the elk in order to subsist. 

Figure from rock painting at Astuvansalmi 

Pictured above is a female figure with a bow that appears as part of a rock painting at Astuvansalmi in Finland, created in the Comb-Ceramic period.  Experts suggest the figure may either be the ‘mistress of the forest’, called Mielikki in later Finnish folk traditions (Siikala: 2002), or the ‘keeper’ of the elk species and mother of the elk clan, as referred to in Finnish and Karelian folklore (Pentikäinen: 1999).

In either case, it is believed a shaman (noita) would have maintained respectful relations with this deity on behalf of the tribal group in order to ensure access to a steady supply of food for the collectivity.

3.    How can we form similar alliances with spirits in the present day as part of a reconstructed Finnish shamanism? 

Learning from the early Finns, a reconstructed Finnish shamanism can help us today to ally with natural forces and entities to achieve personal balance, including enhanced healing and well-being.  This will in turn provide us with greater capacity to support the healing of others, the principal activity of Finnish noitas and tietäjäs.  The exercise explained below is meant to provide a first step toward this goal.  

With relation to the role of Finnish shamanism in helping maintain collective balance, Mihály Hoppál, a distinguished Hungarian researcher of shamanism, calls Siberian and Northern Eurasian shamanism a “giant reservoir or refrigerator”, which has preserved the ideas of animism with relation to the environment.  What he calls the “real message” (or as we have been calling it, an ‘original instruction’) of this tradition is: 

“…if everything in nature has a spirit (or soul), then we ought to behave in a way so that we avoid hurting, insulting, or polluting them.” (Hoppál: 1997) 

Hoppál calls it “eco-animism”.  One implication of it is that as animists—and shamanic practitioners are by definition animists—we are called upon to ally with spirits of nature to help confront the world-wide ecological crisis.  Again, the exercise explained below can help provide a first step.  

Exercise:  Spirit Connections 

Graham Harvey, a lecturer in religious studies and himself a Pagan, observes that:

“People become animists by learning how to recognize persons and, far more important, how to engage with them.”  (Harvey: 2006) 

How do we recognize and engage with the other-than-human persons in the manner of the shamanic tradition of Finland?  In many ways the reconstruction of Finnish shamanism is not yet advanced far enough to answer this question.  However, I believe that we can begin today with an exercise that is based upon the animist heritage of Finland.  Experience in shamanism would be helpful here, but as I show in the examples below there is much to be gained from the exercise without using shamanic means.  

To participate in this exercise, pick out at least one thing that you feel gives you a spirit or heart connection with Finland, whether you are of Finnish ancestry or are inspired by the Finnish shamanic tradition.  Because of its personal significance for you, it can act as your bridge to closer engagement with the ancient worldview of shamanic Finns.

Your choice might be a family story, a favorite Finnish deity or nature spirit, a Finnish relative, a family name, a food, a significant astrological alignment, a place in Finland, a cherished memento, a meaningful dream, a folk custom that survived in the family, or a technique of Finnish folk healing.   

When you have identified the object of your spirit connection, follow the steps below, adapting them as necessary:  

Explore your choice:  Fill out your memory or knowledge of it through reflection, reading in the library, consulting sources on the Web, and discussing it with others.  Discover your ‘felt sense’ about it; note any dreams in which it appears.  If you practice shamanism, journey to your helping spirits for guidance in connecting with it and its ‘story’.  

Relate to the original instructions:  Look for a connection to the Finnish shamanic tradition and its ‘original instructions’ in what you have chosen.  What is its possible significance “beyond civilization”? How it may connect us to the “ancient, timeless relations with nature and the universe” that were honoured by the early Finns? 

Engage with väki and with persons:  If following the above steps you recognize väki as it is described above, or other-than-human persons, consider using respectful means to try to engage with them.  Be creative to discover the ‘language’ or gestures that make this possible.  (A caution:  If you use shamanic journeying, be aware that in the Finnish shamanic tradition some spirits harbor ill will to humans so be cautious when first relating to any that you may encounter.)   

Explore the healing potential:  As you explore your choice, try to sense its potential to enhance your personal balance, healing and aliveness, as well as its potential for contributing to greater collective balance.  If you have a regular spiritual practice, incorporate what you have chosen in it in some form. 

Journal and share:  When you feel ready, write in a journal about your experience.  If you feel it is appropriate, share the results of your practice with others who are interested in Finnish shamanism.  Consider posting it on Spirit Boat. 

The exercise describe above is a beginning one, meant for initial exploration related to the Finnish shamanic tradition.  Please be modest in your expectations for yourself in terms of results.  

To help you choose a spirit connection, I will suggest several examples of familiar aspects of Finnish culture that that are already recognized as possessing exceptional väki and/or animacy.  You can use one or more of them as a starting point, then following the above steps in a personal way. 

Example:  The Sauna 

The sauna, or Finnish steam bath using water on hot rocks, is common across North America, including well beyond Finnish enclaves.  The word for the sauna steam is löyly.  The steam was considered to have active agency, or väki force, in the sauna baths employed by tietäjäs as part of their healing rituals. (Siikala: 2002) The following is a runic incantation prayer called “For a Healing Bath”: 

“Whatever water I throw on these hot stones, into honey may it change, may it turn into luscious juice; may a river of honey flow, a lake of virgin honey plash through the stove of stone….may the…warm breath dash through the bones and joints, through the sinews and flesh, through the warm blood, the red arteries.” (Abercromby: 1898) 

Take a sauna, and as you do sense the power of the steam as a healing agent and how it can be of benefit for your healing at a deeper level.

In the sauna, by Akseli Gallen-Kallela 

According to Juha Pentikäinen, a foremost scholar of Finnish and Saami shamanism, Finno-Ugric peoples believed in more than one soul, and that in addition to meaning sauna steam the word löyly also means the soul that is connected with breathing. 

“In this sense löyly is in fact the spirit leaving the cold body as warm steam.  The Finn has in most cases called this life-force ‘spirit’.  It is a prerequisite for the bodily functioning of both man and animal.  Life has been observed as relying on the spirit and vanishes with the person’s last breath.” (Pentikäinen: 1985) 

The other soul is itse, referring to the soul that leaves one during sleep or in a trance state, and that after one’s death takes residence in a member of a following generation when a baby is given one’s name.   

Example:   Our Ancestors 

If you have a Finnish heritage no matter how distant, you are still “sukulaiset”, a member of a family.  This means that your ancestors will always be a resource for you. 

Pentikäinen says of the interdependence of the living and the dead in traditional Finnish society: 

“Finnish people believed the boundary between life and death was only a hair’s breadth.  The kin was a unity, and there was an intimate interaction between the living and dead members….The end of a person’s physical life was not seen as an abrupt cutoff signifying the end of contacts between members of the kin.”  (Pentikäinen: 1985) 

Harvey says that in many animistic cultures, and this applies to early Finland, “To be an ancestor is to continue relating.”:  

“If ancestors are spirits, then the term ‘spirits’ needs to be understood in ways that disconnect it from associations with disembodied or non-material realities.  Ancestors…are very much part of the world of ordinary human and other-than-human personal interests.”  (Harvey: 2006) 

Use this knowledge:  Call upon your ancestors for advice and assistance. 

Example:  Finnish “Magic Songs” 

Siikala explains that the words of the ritual incantations used by tietäjäs to control disease and other forces:  

“…were seen not merely as signs indicating their referents, for example, an animal helper or a spirit, but as having have a ‘real’ connection to them and having their magic force or väki. Moreover, telling of väki-filled events “makes these events actual in the present”.  (Siikala: 2002) 

In other words, when a tietäjä entered into relationship with them, the incantation runes possessed väki and were powerful.  This is similar to the Ojibwe, whose seasonal stories that were passed from generation to generation and were seen as living persons that joke, gossip, teach and give gifts.  (Harvey: 2006) 

You can choose one or more epic rune or incantation, perhaps from the Kalevala or Abercromby’s Magic Songs of the West Finns.  Enter into relationship with ones that are meaningful to you. Many Finns view the runes as embodying part of their sacred history.  Do they evoke a similar feeling in you?  Explore them. 

Sharing our Spirit Connections 

We as Canadians or Americans who have Finnish heritage or who have another kind of heart connection to Finland look to practitioners of the shamanic tradition who live in Finland for knowledge, help and inspiration.  However, if we try the Spirit Connection exercise or similar rituals and share our experiences, we can begin to help create a Finnish shamanic ‘story’ and practice here.   

Our ancestral or spirit connections began in Finland, but they are now intertwined with our lives in North America.  This means we bring to the work of reconstruction our own distinctive spiritual heritage and practices, including for some of us contemporary or core shamanism, which were developed here and now shared around the world.  

The Finnish shamanic spirituality under development must be a large enough container to accommodate the whole range of time and culture and geography— embracing Finland, Canada, the United States, and anywhere else where there are people who are inspired by it.  If it is inclusive in this way, we will be able to build bridges among ourselves, wherever we live.  We can use these bridges for sharing, learning and creating together.  This will be an especially exciting part of the venture.   

The ‘original instructions’ of Finnish shamanism need the efforts of all of us to put them into practice in a contemporary way for the benefit of human and other-than-human persons, and for the planet. 

Sample Spirit Connection:  Talking With Alder Trees 

I followed the steps of the exercise over time with one of my spirit connections, the alder tree, and will now share my experience as a sample of what the process might look like.  

The alder tree is common to Finland as well as to where I have lived on in North America: Oregon, Washington, California, British Columbia and Ontario. 

A town in Finland with alder both in its
name and pictured in its coat of arms. 

The alder was my father’s favorite tree; he had brought his love for it from Finland where he was born.  In Finland, the alder was seen as a sacred tree.  The Spirit of the Alder, named Tuametar, was seen as a powerful “liminal” spirit: living between the worlds of water and fire.  That is, alder grows best on wetlands and its oily wood can be used for underwater pilings, and when burned it is good for making charcoal and for smoking fish and game. 

My father’s family name was Leppänen, containing as its root the Finnish word meaning alder: 'leppä'.  Originally in Finland leppä meant both the colour red and blood, related to the soul and healing, because of the red sap that rises out of the wood when it is freshly cut.

After immigrating to the U.S. my father changed his name from Leppänen to an anglicized one, Alden.  He had been blacklisted from employment by the management of Weyerhaeuser Company for union activity in one of their logging camps in the 1930’s, a time when politicians and elites were raising the alarm about “immigrant radicalism” and singling out Finns as some of the most radical.  He believed that this had led to his first application for U.S. citizenship being turned down, and changed his name in part to appear more ‘suitable’ for citizenship. 

Fittingly, my father chose Alden from the last name of the main character in a movie he had seen about an ‘enlightened capitalist’ who treated his workers as human beings, in spite of the prevailing practices of the time. Changing his name might have had an influence because his second citizenship application was successful.

Below is a picture of some of the alders on our former family farm on the coast of Washington State, our own ‘sacred grove’.

Alden alder grove in Grayland, Washington 

Several years ago I participated in a vision quest in Algonquin Park, through Northern Edge Algonquin. I chose as the spot to spend my time alone a low mound that was covered with alder bushes, in the middle of a wetland.  I went on a drumming journey to the Spirit of Alder to request permission to stay there, and received it.  I was alone there for 30 hours there, a time of personal healing.

My drum and journal on the wetland mound.  

I feel that the alder persons there helped protect and guide me during this time—even though I was from their standpoint an “other-than-alder person”—and provided a powerful container for my experiences.

I journeyed to alder a second time, this time for permission to represent the Spirit of Alder at a gathering of the ‘Council of All Beings’, in the Spirits of Nature workshop. It was held at Northern Edge Algonquin, which has a thick border of alder bushes along part of its lakeshore.

Me as representative of the Spirit of Alder at a
meeting of the Council of All Beings
(Photo: Martha Lucier)

As part of our preparation for the Council we were to construct a mask, and in anticipation of this I had gathered alder branches on a trip to our family farm in Washington.  While in Washington I heard a story that was on my mind now as I prepared for the meeting of the Council at the Northern Edge. 

The story is as follows:

The Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians centred in Oregon had entered into harvesting of alder, a hardwood suited to making furniture, electric guitar bodies, and other items. The Siletz are a Coast Salish people, as are the Chehalis, on whose ancient ancestral land on the coast of Washington our family farm was located. 

Weyerhaeuser Company also entered the West Coast alder market in the 1980s.  In 2003 the Confederated Tribes brought a lawsuit against Weyerhaeuser, alleging that it had bought large quantities of alder logs in Oregon and Washington and stockpiled them, preventing the Confederated Tribes and others from accessing logs independently.  They also alleged that Weyerhaeuser had even let stockpiled logs rot in their holding yards, rather than see them go to other companies.  The Confederated Tribes alleged that these practices were responsible for their own company going out of business.

Weyerhaeuser was convicted in federal court for violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act and agreed to settle by paying the Confederated Tribes $34.5 million.  However, in 2007 the Supreme Court overturned this judgment.  Observers said Weyerhaeuser had benefitted from a wave of hostility toward anti-trust laws during the years of the Bush administration and the intervention on behalf of Weyerhaeuser by large corporations such as Microsoft and Dow Chemical.  (Harrison: 2007) 

Returning now to my participation in the Council of All Beings, the story of the Confederated Tribes was on my mind as I spoke on behalf of the Alder Spirit with the representatives of humans and other-than-human persons, including birds and animals. 

I don’t remember the exact words I used when it came to be my turn, but what is still vivid for me is the solidity and richness of the alder species that I felt, as well as their place of deep and ancient wisdom.   

I spoke to humans in general, but not to condemn their actions regarding the environment.  Instead I requested that they simply become still and listen—that they allow space for myself as alder and the other spirits there to show ourselves as persons, as subjects.  I felt that if we were able to do this through a means like the Council of All Beings, things could become much clearer and more workable. 

In my mind I thought that if all of us as humans beings were doing this—in effect, remembering the original instructions of our early ancestors—we would act, for example, with respect and reciprocity toward alder persons and not try to “own” or control the species in a region or let alder logs rot rather than be made into furniture for families to use. 

I also remember feeling a strong sense of optimism that a problem of even much larger scope—the world-wide ecological crisis, one that our ancestors could never have dreamed of—can be addressed in new and creative ways if the subjectivity of other-than-human persons, including Tuametar, is recognized again. 

Speckled Alder – alnus glutinosa,
Toronto, Canada, 2010


  1. As a child in the 60s and early 70s, I traveled every Christmas with my family to the winter wonderland in the Upper Peninsula Michigan. On Christmas Eve we went by car to search the sky for lights, specifically Rudolf's nose.

    The light theme returned to me not long ago when I learned about a paranormal light phenomenon not far from my grandparents’ house (about 50 miles east). The decades old mystery was explained this past year by university students who demonstrated the "ghost" light was actually due to an inversion layer (a meteorological term) that causes a strange appearance on car headlights from a distant highway.

    As a child I knew it wasn't really Rudolf's nose, and when I heard about the paranormal light, I knew it could and would be explained rationally. A rational explanation doesn't close the mysterium tremendum for me. I am even more intrigued by a "captured" inversion layer at the source of decades of mystique. How many in the local Finnish-American community will think of väki?

    Here is a Wikipedia entry about it:

  2. I am so glad I came across your website. I am not of Finnish descent, but have experienced a Finnish connection throughout my life. Let me begin...I lived in Southern Florida in the 1990s in a community where that had a considerable Finnish population. We then moved to Seattle, a city with strong Nordic heritage. One of my first boyfriends was of Sami heritage on his father's side although he was Norwegian. His last name is Questad. I liked him very much even though the relationship did not work out. I lived there for 10 years. My grandmother died in Oregon surrounded by a landscape not unlike Finland.

    I watched a documentary on Finland two weeks ago and I felt like I had been there since the trees and landscape of Washington State, Oregon and British Columbia looked similar to Finland. When I saw the Finnish forest it felt like 'home' even though I never traveled there. I was particularly drawn to the sauna ritual where you fan yourself with the leaves because it reminded me of the spiritual rituals performed in my culture. I have been researching my shamanic heritage lately and I find this Finnish connection fascinating even if my ancestry is not Finnish or Nordic for that matter. What you say about forming spiritual connections wherever you are is so very true.

  3. Thank you so much for this post, and for writing this blog - I am so glad I stumbled across this page while looking for pictures of cave paintings on google! I was looking for much more than that, really, but never expected I'd actually find it! :)

    It was wonderful to read this, and I really resonated with what you wrote about your father. I live in Washington State, and am the granddaughter of a Finnish logger. He was born in Kortesjarvi, in South Ostrobothnia. Our family name was originally Krootila, but was changed to Johnson shortly after immigration. My grandfather was also known for his union leanings, and what they then labeled 'radical' or 'communist' activity back then. Though he died before I was born, I have always felt a strong connection to him and to my Finnish ancestors.

    Many times, since early childhood on, I recall speaking to them, or having dreams about them. I still feel my grandfather's presence now, and have given his original surname to my son. I have long wanted to root myself deeper in my ancestral tradition, as along with the feeling of strong family connection, I feel I've always experienced the natural world around me as filled with voice and spirit. I suppose in my own way, I was practicing my old religion before I knew it existed, and was lucky enough to emerge from sunday school and formal education with my animist heart alive and well. :)

    I'm looking forward to reading more of your blog - thank you for taking the time to share your perspective and knowledge!

    ~ Kate