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The story of Finns’ distant cousins

Text Silja Massa Photography Meeri Koutaniemi

Part Finnish, part Native American

In the Great Lakes region there are people with roots in Finland and among indigenous North American peoples. It’s impossible to know how exactly many of these so-called ‘Findians’ exist, but their numbers are estimated in the hundreds. Author Katja Kettu, journalist Maria Seppälä and photographer Meeri Koutaniemi documented their lives over the course of three years. Their experiences form the basis for their book, ‘Findian country’.

A pow wow is a social gathering held in many indigenous North American communities. Dancing is a way of honouring participants’ ancestors.

Descendants of immigrants

Between 1860 and 1924 some 370,000 people left Finland for North America to seek a better life. The main reasons to emigrate were unemployment, social problems and the period of ‘Russification’ before Independence--but a desire for adventure was also a factor. In America Finns worked in the forests and the mines. While out in the woods and at trade union meetings they met Native Americans and even married some of them. The majority of marriages were with members of the Ojibwa tribe, the largest in the region. Finns tended to have less knowledge about their new home country--and therefore also fewer prejudices about the people native to the land than immigrants from other European countries.

In the Great Lakes region there are places called Oulu, Finland, Nisula and Toivola.
25-year-old Findian Shyloh Lussier studies at the college on the reservation.
Lyz Jaakola, 48, is a musician and teacher. Her father is Finnish, her mother Ojibwa.

United by forests

There are many reasons for the common understanding forged by Finns and Native Americans, but above all they were united by their intimate relationship with the forest. Just like the Ojibwa Finns hunted, fished and foraged. The locals also valued Finns’ handiwork skills: the ability to build a boat or carve skis. Finns learned how to cultivate maize and use medicinal herbs, among other things. In return they lent their expertise in building log cabins and weaving shoes out of birch bark.

Finnish ‘sisu’ is a well-known quality in the Great Lakes region. Everyone featured in the Findian country book have a sauna at home.
Arne Vainio had a difficult childhood and adolescence. But he has persevered, even after the suicide of his Finnish-American father and a life in the midst of two marginalised minorities.
Finnish-American Rebecca and Findian Jim Gawboy met in 1990. Jim’s mother left Finland in the early 20th century, and his father was Ojibwa. Rebecca’s father’s family left Finland in 1909.

Fighting for the forest

Large corporations are threatening to expand natural resources extraction in both the reservations and the surrounding forests and waterways. Native Americans are continually fighting to protect their environment, and have close links with conservation organisations.

70 percent of remaining sources of energy in the US and Canada are located on indigenous lands.

Life on the reservation

Most Findians live on reservations. They tend to feel closer to their Native American roots than to their Finnish heritage. Links with Finland have withered, and the majority have never visited. On the reservations there is a lot of poverty, drug problems and unemployment. The reservation is no longer, however, a synonym for poverty. There’s now more pride in their roots, and there’s no longer shame attached to a Findian identity.

Rebecca Gawboy and her husband run a home for abused and orphaned Native American children in the Minnesotan backwoods. One of the residents is young Findian Isaac Sulo Gawboy.
Carl Gawboy spends his winters in traditional reindeer-hide moccasins.
Nowadays many young Findians are interested in both their Ojibwa and Finnish traditions.


Pow pow at East Lake reservation.


Writer: Silja Massa
Photography and video: Meeri Koutaniemi
Designer and editing: Katju Aro
Development: Eemeli Martti


Meeri Koutaniemi, Katja Kettu and Maria Seppälä – Fintiaanien mailla.

Published 10 August.

Updated 13 August 2016. Added more information to Arne Vainio's childhood story.