Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Finns of Sointula and the ‘Namgis of ‘Yalis (Part 1)

Fishing spirit person from Karelia, National Museum of Finland; 'Pugwis 
with Kingfisher', Stan Hunt, Cantor Arts Center, Stanford University 



In an earlier post I told about how a shaman found my spirit guardian (haltija) in a cave in Finland where she saw red markings on the walls. It was part of a soul retrieval that she conducted for me near Algonquin Park in Ontario.  

At that time I knew little about the prehistory of Finland.  Since then I have learned that only a few kilometres from my father’s family homestead in North Savo in Finland are habitation sites, as identified by archeologists, of people of the shamanic Neolithic Comb Ceramic culture. They lived there as many as six thousand years ago.  One site that is twenty kilometres away has recently been confirmed as even older, from the Mesolithic Suomisjarvi culture, from 10,000 years ago. 


This means that the shore of the large Juojarvi lake system, where my father swam as a boy, would have been witness in 4,000 B.C. to many long dugout boats of the ‘wilderness people’ gliding past.  The boats might have been heading 80 kilometres south to a yearly visit to Ukonvouri, the sacred ceremonial centre for the Comb Ceramic people.
The centre consists of a cave with red ochre rock paintings from the Comb Ceramic period, as well as rock altars and a spring on the cliff above it.  I believe that this is the cave that the shaman visited in her soul retrieval journey for me.  

With their boats anchored in the bay, the people who travelled there so long ago would have observed the sacred performances of shamans, including communication with the rock painting persons.  Their singing and drumming would have been amplified outward into the bayb y the fine acoustics of the cave   One of their own shamans, who had travelled from the north with them, would have been one of the celebrants. 

Through shamanic means, I had been reunited with these people—who I consider to be among my very early ancestors—and a previously lost aspect of my identity.  

Photo: Center for Finno-Ugric Shamanism, Helsinki
As part of the process of actively incorporating this new ‘soul part’ into my life, I began this blog, Spirit Boat, and took advantage of practice and learning opportunities through the Center for Finno-Ugric Shamanism in Helsinki. 
I also took a trip with my wife and younger daughter to Ukonvouri in 2011, that was the subject of an earlier post on Spirit Boat. 

Canoeing to the cave of Ukonvouri in Kolovesi National Park



Return to Ukonvouri

An experience that I had while on the 2011 trip to Ukonvouri  was very challenging.  I only briefly touched on it in my earlier post, and I will explain more about it here because it seems significant and has remained unresolved for me.  It occurred when my daughter Sarah and I slept overnight in the cave, at the foot of the rock paintings from the Comb Ceramic period.

At right, rock painting called the Shaman of Ukonvouri

Late in the night I went on a shamanic soul journey, sitting at the foot the rock painting person known as the ‘Shaman of Ukonvouri’.  Afterward, I wrote of the my experience in my journal:
The shaman took me through a cleft in the cliff to the shore in front of the cave.  A spirit boat was waiting there and we paddled out into the middle of the bay.

At the request of the shaman, we were joined by spirit beings who I recognised as being of the Kwahkwah’kwah peoples, from images I have seen of masks and totem poles carved by aboriginal traditional artists of the West Coast of British Columbia in Canada.
Together with the shaman, the spirit persons forced me to jump from the boat into the water.  I struggled for a time, and then submerged and drowned.  My body floated to a rocky shore.  The spirit persons found me there and put me in the dugout with a bear robe over me.  I came back to life, and as the journey ended I was sitting up, wearing the robe. 


Later, reflecting on what had happened, I saw the drowning as a form of ‘shamanic dismemberment’. This is an ancient ritual common to shamanic and even some Buddhist traditions in which a person is cut into pieces by spirit persons—in my case drowned—with loss of ego, and then reconstituted with a new identity. 
I found this experience both powerful and puzzling.  I interpreted it in the following way.  That is, I recognised that incorporating the soul fragment that was recovered from Ukonvouri had been significant at the time in transforming my sense of self.  However, now through the dismemberment I felt I was being directed by the Shaman of Ukonvouri and Kwahkwah’kwah helping spirits to continue the process of transformation, through seeking new experiences in North America. 

On reflection, that seemed only natural, since while I have ancestral roots in Finland that may extend back to the Neolithic Age, and perhaps even further, I have roots in the United States as well, where my parents and grandparents immigrated to from Finland, and in Canada, where I moved and now live with my family. 
But what do my roots in North America mean for my practice in the Finnish shamanic tradition?  What role might the spiritual tradition of the Kwahkwah’kwah First Nations play in it?  I had no answers, but I had confidence in the process and was willing to wait for answers to emerge.  I present Part 1 of the story as it unfolded for me in this post of Spirit Boat. 

Sointula and ‘Yalis

The story begins when my wife Joyce and I took a holiday trip to Vancouver Island in British Columbia with Ross and Catherine, my son and daughter-in-law who live in Victoria. 

Map: Canadian Geographic Travel Club

My son suggested that, because of the ‘Finnish connection’ of our family, we pay a visit to a small Finnish community by the name of Sointula—that can be translated as ‘Place of Harmony’.  Sointula is located on Malcolm Island off the northern coast of Vancouver Island.
I had a special additional reason for wanting to go. That is, when we were considering visiting Sointula, I read that there are Kwahkwah’kwah rock carvings on the island.  I saw that this might be the opportunity I was looking for, to continue the journey that began at Ukonvouri. 


We travelled the last leg by ferry from Port McNeil. 
In advance, we had read that Sointula was originally a utopian community, set up in 1901 by a group of idealistic, mainly socialist, Finnish immigrants.  Some of them had directly arrived from Finland and others had been living for a time in Canada, the U.S. or Australia. Their common goal was to live a communal life in a natural setting, free from the exploitation they had experienced working in mines and factories.

Their communal experiment failed after about four years, but the community of Sointula went on to have a storied history of radical politics, labour activism in the fishing industry, and establishment of successful cooperative ventures. By the 1950’s, 90% of Sointula residents were still of Finnish heritage, although the percentage has dropped since then.

Photo: Sointula Museum


On arriving in Sointula, I found much that was familiar to me from memories of my upbringing.  My mother and father had been a generation younger than the original settlers of Sointula, but they had  also been participants in the radical and idealistic culture of Finns who immigrated to the U.S. Pacific Northwest and British Columbia, from the late 1800’s to the early 1920s. 
This culture existed in the ‘Finn towns’ all along the Pacific Coast of the U.S and Canada, including the port town of Aberdeen, Washington, where I was born.  In fact, a number of Sointula residents had come from these coastal communities of Washington and Oregon. 

Like others from the Finnish community in Aberdeen, my father was active in unions in the logging industry and had worked in the salmon cannery industry.  My parents—both lifelong socialists and environmentalists—had been early founding members of two cooperatives, including the local branch of a national farmers cooperative and a cooperative plywood mill.


There was one difference between the experience of my family and that of the residents of Sointula that was critical for me personally, in view of the events at Ukonvouri. This is the fact that the residents of Sointula have lived for 111 years in close proximity to—in fact, literally upon the traditional lands and waters of—two Kwahkwah’kwah First Nations, the ‘Namgis and the Kwakiutl, both of whom have earth-based shamanic traditions that remain vital to  this day. 
This fact was highlighted for us when we were guided through the Sointula Museum by Gloria Williams (pictured below), a long-time resident who had helped set up the museum and is extremely knowledgeable about the story of the community. 


Gloria’s husband Alfred, was a member of a prominent original Sointula family who had changed their name from a Finnish one, Honkala, to Williams.  She showed us the tracing of an aboriginal rock carving (petroglyph), on the shore of Malcolm Island, that her husband had made directly from the rocks in the 1970's, under the guidance of an archeologist. This rock carving on the southeast tip of the island is still a sacred site of the ‘Namgis people.

‘Namgis First Nation

Although the cultures of the ‘Namgis and the Kwakiutl are very similar, the main characteristic that unites them and the other Kwahkwah’kwah peoples (pronounced "kwa kwa ka wak”) is that they originally spoke the Kwak’wala language. (The famous anthropologist Franz Boas incorrectly applied the name Kwakiutl to all Kwahkwah’kwah peoples, and the confusion continues to this day.)   

I focus here on the ‘Namgis First Nation, headquartered at ‘Yalis (next to Alert Bay) on nearby Cormorant Island.  ‘Yalis is about eight kilometres by ferry from Sointula.  Because of the close proximity of the two communities, their histories are particularly closely intertwined.

Left: Unidentified Kwahkwah'kwah family, 'Yalis, Archives of B.C.
Right: 'Yalis,

Above are photos are from ‘Yalis in about 1901, the year that the Finnish settlers arrived on Malcolm Island. 

Encountering a Sacred Site

I saw in my visit to Malcolm Island an opportunity to continue what I had begun at Ukonvouri.  That is, while exploring the linked histories of the Finns of Sointula and the ‘Namgis of ‘Yalis—both with heritages of earth-based spiritualties and both based in Canada—I would look for implications for my own practice in the Finnish shamanic tradition.  

As the first step, I had an extraordinary encounter with the ancient world view of the ‘Namgis.  It happened near where we stayed in the southwest of Malcolm Island, near lands’ end, facing the mainland.


The hosts of the bed and breakfast said they believed that there were Kwahkwah’kwah rock carvings close by.  However, there were no published directions and no one in Sointula could help direct us.  Finally, our hosts called a neighbour who said he knew of a site located on the beach, just around the bend on Donegal Head, in the area between low and high tide.  Early the next morning I went searching for them. 
As I began my search, I was accompanied (guided, I believe) all the way to the spot by a seal person, swimming along with me about 5 metres from the beach.  Because seal persons live both above and below the water, they are considered in some traditional cultures to be spirit travellers between the water and the land—the lower and middle worlds.


After searching along the beach on Donegal Head, I was excited to find two large sandstone rocks with rock carvings (petroglyphs) on them.  One was a large upright, tilted rock and the other a rectangular flat rock about two metres behind it. 
As we had been told, the two rocks rested in the zone between high and low tides.  They would be at least partially submerged at high tide, but as this was the beginning of low tide, they were fully exposed.  Their placement here in the intertidal zone is highly significant, as I was shortly to realise. 


I requested permission from the spirit persons guarding the site to view and photograph the rock carvings.  I let it be known that I came as a Finnish Canadian person only with the intention of learning from the carvings.  When I felt I had received permission, I proceeded, with deep gratitude.
I have searched scholarly sources, but I have not been able to find any books or articles that discuss these or similar rock carvings.  For this reason I offer here my own personal interpretation, drawing heavily for background from several excellent B.C. First Nations websites, as well as related readings.  However, I recognise that the only true authorities about the site are the elders of ‘Namgis First Nation. (Two websites that I consulted were and

There were three rock surfaces with carvings at the site.  The large tilted rock had carvings on both sides.


The rectangular rock two metres behind it also had a carving.  Lying flat on the gravel of the beach, this rock had other large rocks around it that seemed to be protecting it.


I looked down at the rock lying flat and was amazed to see—somewhat difficult to make out because of faintness of the lines in the sandstone—the large face of a ‘stone person’ gazing back. 

Next to the face was a deeply carved grooved line that ran across the full length of the stone.


Later I found an image very similar in appearance to the stone person.  It was in a photo from a recent ‘Namgis First Nation ceremony—that may have been a Potlatch—taking place in the ‘Namgis Big House on Cormorant Island.  Below, I have outlined the stone person image and placed it next to it to the photo for comparison.

Photos at left:  'Namgis First Nation

Distinctive because of  his prominent teeth, the stone person appeared to be Pugwis, a major spirit being in the Kwahkwah’kwah cultural tradition.  An undersea serpent who can also assume human form, Pugwis is messenger or intermediary of the lord of the sea, . 


Living in the intertidal zone, the stone person Pugwis is above water during low tide.  He looks at the world above the waves, perhaps occasionally engaging with human persons.  As suggested in the photo above, at high tide he is below the water, looking upward at his marine realm and able to interact with its inhabitants.
The grooved line running alongside the face of Pugwis appeared to be a spine or backbone.

This spine-like groove of the Pugwis rock carving is very similar to the spine of another serpent being—Sisiutl—as pictured on the ‘Namgis sign at ‘Yalis (top right above), and in the detail from a  Kwakiutl painting (bottom right above).   

As the ‘Namgis sign shows, Sistal is a giant three-headed sea serpent. It is said that his look can turn an opponent into stone. 


The backbone or spine of the rock lying flat continues onto the carved back of the tilted rock in front of it, running from the bottom right to the top left.  Other carved lines run off of it in a distinct pattern. 
The pattern appears to be the outline of the waterways of the traditional territory of the ‘Namgis, as pictured in the map at the left, below. 


The carving seems to include a representation of Broughton Strait (the gray area on left side of the sandstone rock, where the hard brown surface layer has been removed), and of the Gwa’ni (also called the Nimpkish River), and its watershed.
In effect, the Gwa’ni and its watershed form part of the spine of Pugwis the stone person.  This is highly significant, because the 'Namgis consider themselves to be the people of Gwa'ni. The Gwa'ni is where  the salmon, central to their cultural heritage of the ‘Namgis, came to spawn. 

The spine continues on the other side of the rock, from upper right to lower left, thereby uniting the carvings on the three rock surfaces, forming a single elongated serpent being.


Three pairs of eyes are carved on this third rock surface. 


The pair of eyes on the top left above appears to include a mouth, while the pair on the top right appears to include a nose.  As these two pairs of eyes are high up on the rock where they likely remain dry during normal high tides, giving Pugwis the stone person a continuous view of the realm above the water as well as ability to interact through smell and speech.
The eyes on the bottom right above are at the bottom of the rock face, meaning they are probably submerged during high tide.  They would allow Pugwis to view the undersea world from a second vantage point. 

This whole rock face—with eyes, mouth and nose—seems to constitute a second head for the serpent being Pugwis.  When all the rock carvings at this site are taken into consideration, Pugwis the serpent stone person is equipped to carry on his life both above and below the sea, just as he is portrayed in the Kwahkwah’kwah oral tradition.


The ‘above water’ eyes of Pugwis look out onto Queen Charlotte strait.  When the ‘Namgis were coming to shore to visit the site for ceremonial purposes, they would have been able to easily spot the prominent rock that was one of the heads of Pugwis— the stone person—and in turn he, Pugwis, would have easily seen them—the human persons—as they approached in their boats.

Right: 'Pugwis with Kingfisher, Stan Hunt,
Cantor Arts Center, Stanford University

Pugwis the stone person—with the sentient capacities of smelling, seeing and talking—would have been capable entering of into social relations with the ‘Namgis in his role as intermediary between human persons and the lord of the sea. 

Kwahkwah'kwah shaman of the Hamatsa secret society
in a possession trance, Edward Curtis, 1914

Because he physically incorporates the Gwa’ni, this stone person Pugwis was an other-than-human person with whom the ‘Namgis—the people of the Gwa’ni—could communicate directly about many matters critical to their survival and well-being.  Shamans might have done so in the traditional way:  through performing a  sacred dance, dressed in masks and other regalia associated with Pugwis, in order to enter a possession trance and ‘talk’ with him.
They could have asked for help regarding fishers who drowned but whose bodies had not been found.  They could have made offerings for fortunate catches from the sea and the Gwa’ni.  This would have included the sockeye salmon—the primary life source of the ‘Namgis—and also the other undersea residents upon which the ‘Namgis depended, such as sea urchins, halibut, roe herring, rockfish, crab,  geoduck, prawns and clams. 
And they could have thanked and honoured him for the abundance of the marine environment.  Altogether, the ‘Namgis would have been able to maintain a relationship of reciprocity with Pugwis—and thereby  maintain harmony and balance between the human and non-human worlds—the sacred waters and marine beings of their primordial home.   

Photo: Women's potlatch being held at 'Yalis,

The ‘Namgis also honoured Pugwis in Potlatch ceremonies, in which he was always represented when the undersea kingdom was portrayed.  
The social life of the ‘Namgis revolved around the Potlatch ceremony, in which one of the main activities was giving to others.  For the ‘Namgis, status was gained not by how much a family possessed, but by how much they had to give away.  

Map:  Google Earth

The early potlatches would have taken place at Xwalkw, the ancient year-around dwelling place of the ‘Namgis.
Rock carving was a sacred ceremonial practice of the Kwahkwah’kwah, as were carving of masks and totem poles, painting, weaving and dance. How long ago did a ‘Namgis rock carver assist Pugwis to transform into a stone person? 

Photos:  Edward Curtis, 1914

Fire cracked rock and stone tools dating from 6,300 – 6,400 years before the present have been found on ‘Namgis territory.  (

The carvings at this site are worn and indistinct from many years of waves lashing against them, but from their relatively sound condition I think that they are more likely to be hundreds—rather than thousands—of years old.  Also, the tide line that today places the carvings in the intertidal zone—that seems essential to its meaning as a  sacred site—would have changed considerably over a period of as much as a thousand years.
John M. Horton, "Cheslakees Reception", Fidelis Art Prints



The ‘Namgis encountered white men for one of the first times in 1792, at Xwalkw, when Captain George Vancouver of the British Navy moored his ships at the mouth of the Gwa’ni.  Later history was to show fewer than a hundred years after that, the traditional way of life of the ‘Namgis was to change utterly. 

A Powerful Learning

In the dualistic, Cartesian view, there are no sacred places that are imbued with spirit—places of power—there is only inanimate land and water.  However, at this place between the tides, I believe I ‘saw’ Pugwis the spirit person who had been assisted by the ‘Namgis to take living form there hundreds of years ago through the sacred art of rock carving.  He lives on there, and I could sense his energetic presence.
I approached this extraordinary site as a non-‘Namgis, without the initiation and deep cultural knowledge that would make it possible to ceremonially communicate with Pugwis the stone person.  At the same time, in my brief visit, I was  deeply inspired by this sacred being and felt that he was a helping spirit, as I believe he had been for me at Ukonvouri  a year before.

The marine environment and coastal landscape of this site were very familiar to me, as I had spent time over a number of years at our family home near a small seaside town in the shadow of the coastal hills and mountains, a half hour out of Aberdeen, Washington.  Visiting this place on Malcolm Island had opened a unique opportunity for me:  with the help of the 'Namgis, to look upon a landscape that is very familiar to me with a relational—not a human-centred—gaze, like that of the stone person. 


I believed that this followed from the message to me at Ukonvouri:  to train this gaze on the linked histories the ‘Namgis of ‘Yalis and the Finns of Sointula, and through them on family influences that were formative for me.
‘Namgis Lands
In observing the incredibly faithful likeness of the Gwa’ni and its watershed in the carving on the tilted rock, an extraordinary aerial ‘map’ perhaps many hundreds of years old, it was clear to me that the land of the ‘Namgis had originally included a large swath of territory. What had happened to their rivers, lakes and lands? 
B.C. Treaty Commission, 1997:  Statement of Intent,
Traditional Territory Boundary, 'Namgis Nation

The traditional territory of the 'Namgis First Nation (earlier called the Nimpkish Indian Band) had originally covered 600,000 acres, including the giant watershed of the Gwa’ni. 

However, in 1886—a bare 94 years after Captain Vancouver first contacted the ‘Namgis at Xwalkw—the white colonial government of British Columbia moved to restrict the ‘Namgis to two small reserves that together made up of fewer than 600 acres.  They said that the ‘Namgis lived off of marine species and therefore needed little land. (

An eagle person we encountered on our
second visit to the rock carving site

To understand this colonialist encroachment on the land rights of the 'Namgis, we need to explore the backdrop of the dramatic large-scale events of the early 20th century in British Columbia.  They can be summarised in terms of three linked assaults:  on the lands and cultures of aboriginal peoples, on other-than-human persons of nature, and on the rights of workers in logging and fishing.

Exploring this history will also help set the context for looking at the establishment of Sointula by Finnish immigrants, beginning in 1901, and the influence on them and their utopian experiment, from the ancient relational, animist tradition of Finland.

This story will continue in the next post on Spirit Boat:  'The Finns of Sointula and the 'Namgis of 'Yalis (Part 2)'.


  1. I so very much enjoyed this inspiring spirited,soul- journey share..Anita

  2. I found your blog yesterday and have so enjoyed reading it. I too am Canadian, but now live in Australia. I am part of a medieval group and I chose Finnish shaman as my persona because I was drawn to it so strongly. In the course of my research I found your blog and felt peaceful and comfortable here. Thank you for sharing your journey, your experiences and insights, and for the links to others. I will be a faithful reader. :-)