Shamans & Storytellers

Back in February, I posted about an event presented by the Vancouver Society of Storytellers. One of these storytellers was Kira Van Deusen, who brings to professional storytelling and music a background which includes a BA in Russian Language and Literature from Cornell University and an MA in Folklore/Ethnography from Antioch University. She has done extensive research with indigenous people in Siberia and the Russian Far East.

Her fascinating website relates her explorations into Siberian folk tales and their storytellers, musicians and shamans. She writes: Storytelling in Siberian societies is very closely linked to shamanism [and] can act as a healing. Kira van Deusen’s site offers many links to explore and learn about this mysterious part of the world.

I enjoyed this online exhibition from the Museum Centre Vapriikki in Tampere, Finland: Shamans – Secret Life of the Peoples of Siberia.*


*Sadly, link has expired.

new native museum

National Geographic News has some interesting pages about the new National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. Native by design, it incorporated suggestions from Native Americans throughout North, Central, and South America. Most people said they wanted the museum to have an organic and handcrafted quality to it, and for its forms to be inspired by nature and set in native landscaping. For example, the east face features an overhang that evokes rock formations of the U.S. Southwest. This newest of the Smithsonian Institution’s eighteen museums opens next Tuesday.

Have a look at the photo gallery and visit the many links. Another NG article, concerning the exhibits, Artifacts Are “Alive” has more interesting reading and also has some more photos.

And this sounds very exciting: 20,000 American Indians are planning a march to the opening.

(This museum reminds me of the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver, BC, which was inspired by the Northwest Coast native longhouses.)

World Congress of Finno-Ugric Peoples

“Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, will host the Fourth World Congress of Finno-Ugric Peoples from 15-19 August 2004. The theme of the congress is “The Youth Is Our Future” and it will bring together approximately seven hundred delegates, observers and guests from Russia, Scandinavia, and Central and Eastern Europe. The Congress aims at developing and protecting the ethnic identities, cultures and languages of the Finno-Ugric peoples; promoting the co-operation between Finno-Ugric peoples; discussing and finding solutions to their most urgent problems; and promoting the implementation of their right to self-determination in accordance with the norms and principles of the international law.”

This Congress is convened every fourth year. Previously it was held in 1992 in Syktyvkar (Komi Republic, Russia), in 1996 in Budapest (Hungary), and in 2000 in Helsinki (Finland). This event is currently underway with Finnish President Ms. Tarja Halonen attending along with other heads of states, guests from UNESCO, ECOSOC, the European Council, the Nordic Council of Ministers and so on.

This is interesting news for my Finnish, Estonian and possibly Russian readers, and anyone interested in linguistics and ethnology, and for me in that I did not know such important and extensive meetings have been and are taking place.

Some related links:

  • Official site of the IV World Congress of Finno-Ugric Peoples and the association pages.
  • A chart of Uralic languages showing the numbers of speakers, note how many are endangered.
  • More about Finno-Ugric people especially of Russia.
  • My archived articles under the category of ethnology, such as this on preserving languages and about Fenno-Ugrian people.

    UPDATE: Current news on this event, such as the opening address by Prof. Janos Pusztay
    UPDATE Sept.13.04: Speech by President of Finland Tarja Halonen – This is excellent – well worth reading!

  • Karelia’s Rock Art & History

    Andrew Heninen is a Karelian (Finnish-Russian) programmer with a keen interest in the history of lost Finnish territories. Karelia (or Karjala in Finnish) is a territory which straddles the present-day border between Finland and Russia, and is home to the Karelian people, related to Finns. Heninen’s site has numerous pages in English, Finnish and Russian about Karelian history that is like walking into a museum.

    These pages about the area’s rock art fascinate me the most:
    Karelian petroglyphs in drawings and photos
    The Stone Labyrinths
    Sami Sacred Stones or Seidas

    Another interesting note, when on the home page, if you click “refresh”, the photos change.

    In case you missed it, I wrote a related post some time ago called visiting Karelia.

    Read about the sad history of the Many Karelias** from which this quote:

    Karelia holds an important place in Finnish cultural history. The material for the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala and numerous other collections of folk poetry were gathered mainly in the northern parts of Finnish and Russian Karelia. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries Karelia provided the inspiration for many of Finland’s leading artists, composers and writers and played an important role in the 19th century national awakening and the development of a Finnish national identity. (link added by me.)

    ** expired and removed link

    the Sami and Siida

    Part of my ongoing research into my Finnish ethnology has been learning more about the other groups in the Finno-Ugrian family of people. The Sami (formerly called Lapps) of Northern Finland, Sweden, Norway and Northwest Russia are one group and they have a wonderful centre, Siida***, located in Inari in Finnish Lapland.

    Siida is the home of the Sami Museum and Northern Lapland Nature Centre, both a meeting place and an exhibition centre devoted to the Sami culture and the nature of the far north. It includes an open-air museum begun in 1960 and restored in 2000. There are many interesting pages to explore and learn, for example, that this is the oldest area in Northern Lapland inhabited by people and that some archaeological findings from the area are from 9,000 years ago. People have lived there as early as the prehistoric times, the Stone Age and the Early Metal Age, about 6,000 -2,000 years ago.

    Like many indigenous people around the world, the Sami have been actively reviving their ancient culture and this centre offers many events celebrating it and others, for themselves and for visitors. One of this summer’s visiting exhibitions is from Hokkaido: The Ainu and the World of Gods. (I happened to write about the Ainu a while ago.)

    The Calendar Archive lists the rich variety of past events. Skolt Sami includes a digital slide show with narration about the wartime evacuation and settlement of this group of displaced peoples. The annual Skabmagovat Reflections of the Endless Night Festival in January 2004 is interesting – click on “Northern Lights Theatre” (left sidebar) which is made entirely of snow and lit with real candles. The coldest shows have taken place at -40C! Then click on “Animation” and see the Aurora.

    More about the Sami.

    ***March 21st, 2012: These links have been updated. Some of the mentioned pages are no longer at their specified locations after nine years, I’m sorry to say, but do search around the site if interested.

    visiting Karelia

    Going through some of my old bookmarked links, I came across a favourite saved sometime around the year 2000, The Karelian Journal. It is a fascinating real-life story about an international group that travels to the northwestern region of Russia called Karelia to attend a conference to save the beluga whales of the White Sea and see the best petroglyphs in Scandinavia. It also gives us a glimpse of life in this much-ignored region of Russia after perestroika.

    The author is Jim Nollman, who was invited to join the expedition. He is “an American conceptual artist who works with themes pertaining to human/animal protocol, and a musician who has spent twenty years attempting to communicate with various whale species in the wild. [In 1997, he] staged a theatrical performance on the subject of shamanism in Helsinski, which was promoted by a poster displaying [a] petroglyph.”

    Leader of the group is Rauno Lauhakangas, an engineer with Nokia and “a researcher at the European Laboratory for Particle Physics in CERN Switzerland. CERN is where the World Wide Web got started and Rauno was there at the inception”. He started The Whalewatching Web, “which promotes the idea that wherever whalewatching flourishes, whaling must wither. Today, the site flourishes with tens of thousand of hits every day, and has helped instigate the growth of whalewatching around the world, especially in Japan, the Azores, and Spain… Rauno is also the president of the Finnish Society for Prehistoric Art, and an avid student of Northern European history which dates back several thousand years.”

    “Scandinavian bedrock is adorned in many places with petroglyphs, some dating before 5000 BC. The images run the gamut from moose, swans, whales, ships, astronomical motifs, men with giant hands, battle scenes, and depictions of village life so effusive in their detail that they could have inspired Breughel. No one can say for certain whether this art was created by Finno-Ugric people…, or by ancient Saamis (Lapplanders)…. Some of the best petroglyph sites are found in Karelia, the Russian Republic that shares a long western border with Finland….Much of the oral folklore upon which the Finnish epic poem, The Kalevala, is based was actually collected in Karelia.”

    Because of this Rauno Lauhakangas “organized an international conference on petroglyphs in collaboration with the Russian Academy of Sciences. A secondary reason for organizing the conference relates to his compassion for whales. One of the best known Karelian petroglyph sites on the White Sea displays several reliefs that depict human beings interacting with cetaceans. Many scholars believe they are the oldest pictures of whales found anywhere in the world. The fact that belugas still reside in the White Sea, suggests to Rauno that whalewatching tied to a program of petroglyph interpretation could provide the spark to ignite Karelian tourism. Because Russia was one of the world’s most active whaling nations until ten years ago, the current economic pessimism could easily entice them to start it up again, perhaps focusing on coastal species like belugas. But if whalewatching is established on the White Sea, it will obviate the resurrection of whaling, while contributing one more building block to the edifice of Karelian self-sufficiency.”

    “Two of our traveling companions in the backseat are Estonians, Vaino Poikalainen (president of Estonian Prehistoric Society) and Loit Joekalda, author and designer of the first book in English on the subject of Karelian petroglyphs.” Other participants include “Juhani Gronhagen, a Finnish archeologist who conveys the most uplifting story of the day’s long journey. Frustrated by the illegibility of ancient paintings found at a lakeside dig, Juhani brought in two Finno-Ugric tribespeople from Siberia to help interpret.”

    Nollman writes that the region “is the worst of the Third World. The town is falling down before my eyes, as if years have passed since anyone bothered to change a street lamp, repair a window, or pick up the trash.”

    There’s a great deal of interesting reading here, full of interesting connections.

    This story is very personally meaningful for me for two reasons. The first is known to regular readers of this blog concerning my interest in my Finnish ethnicity and the ancient rock art of northern Europe.

    The second is about synchronicity again. My research into this area started around 1999 – 2000. In 2002, in conjunction with an exhibition in Finland with two colleagues, we made a trip a trip to Tallinn, Estonia, where we met Loit Joekalda and saw his work about the Karelian petroglyphs. It wasn’t until later back at home, rereading this web page that I made the connection, not having remembered Loit’s name in the article!! One day I hope to go and see these sites for myself.

    Additional information on Karelia: from wikipedia, the Many Karelias*, a map*, and
    on travel to Karelia (this is mostly in Finnish, some English, and with good photos).
    * links expired and removed)

    The Ainu

    Feeding my fascination for ancient as well as the indigenous cultures of the world, I was excited to find at the rich Mysterium** a post about the Ainu: A beautiful audio-visual presentation on Japan’s Indigenous Ainu people, their origins, art and religion. This was put together by the Arctic Studies Center of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

    Astonishing examples of Ainu sculpture, which to me look remarkably similar to the Northwest Coast First Nations’ totem poles next door to Vancouver on Burnaby Mountain Park. The more than a dozen carved poles were created by Ainu sculptors Nuburi Toko and his son, Shusei to commemorate the goodwill between Burnaby and its sister city, Kushiro, Japan. The spectacular setting inspired the Tokos to imagine it as Kamui Mintara, or Playground of the Gods.

    The poles represent the story of the gods who descended to earth to give birth to the Ainu. Animal spirits such as whale, bear, and owl adorn the tops of the slender poles that are bunched together in groups of twos and threes. A killer whale and a brooding raven stand apart from the rest, looking west over Vancouver and across the Strait of Georgia towards Vancouver Island (and Japan).

    Have a look at these photos of these gorgeous works in their stunning setting.

    ** updated Feb.29.2012 – this site no longer exists so link has been removed.

    The Spell of Rock Art

    A prize possession of mine is the 2003 Finno-Ugric Calendar published by the Estonian Society of Prehistoric Art and the Fenno-Ugria Foundation. The photo work was done by society member Loit Joekalda, whom I met in Tallinn in 2002.

    It is full of gorgeous colour photographs of the rock art of the Finno-Ugric region as well as short bits of ancient folk tales and songs in the original languages and in English. It is an inspiration to me in my art work and because of that, I may quote some of the writings here from time to time.

    Vaino Poikalainen, chair of the Estonian Society of Prehistoric Art, wrote a most beautiful introduction, which I quote here in its entirety (though it is long):

    A great deal of ancient art is to be found in the present and historical territories of the Finno-Ugric peoples. Various figurines functioned of bone, wood, clay, or metal, figures painted onto rock (petrograms) or carved into it (petroglyphs), as well as cult constructions and arrangements (barrows, sacred seita-stones, labyrinths etc.) were created to animate ancient religion. Myths, traditions and rituals served the same purpose. They all reflected a vision of the world order and corresponding behavioural and communicative patterns.

    Ancient art and religious practices were used to explain natural phenomena to heal the sick, to teach children and to ensure sufficient food for the community. Rock art provides perhaps the richest source of information for our present knowledge of ancient beliefs. But the very roots of our modern world views, our national identities, legislation, natural sciences, medicine, as well as many other branches of sciences, art and education were nurtured by ancient art in general and rock art in particular.

    The richest sites for Finno-Ugric rock art are found in: the Tom River basin of Western Siberia (Proto-Ugrian tribes); the central and southern areas of the Ural Mountains (Proto-Ugrian and Proto-Permian tribes); the eastern coast of Lake Onega and the Vyg (Uiku) River estuary in Eastern Karelia (Proto-Finnic and Proto-Saami tribes); the islands of Lake Kanozero, the middle courses of the Ponoi River and Cape Rybachi in the Kola peninsula (Proto-Saamis); and in southern, Eastern, and Southeastern Finland (Proto-Finnic Tribes). Most of these monuments, which were created by ancient hunters, fishers and gatherers, date back to the Stone and Bronze Ages, for which no contemporary written sources are available. The oldest rock art ever discovered are the cave paintings found in the southern Urals. They are thought to be 15-17 thousand years old. The Karelian petroglyphs and the Finnish rock paintings are considered to be about 4-6 thousand years old. The Kola and Alta rock art was produced between 2.5-6 thousand years ago, while the age of the rock paintings of the middle and southern Urals as well as the Tom River petroglyphs is estimated at 3-6 thousand years.

    Although the ancient images found on rocks may at first seem primitive, they eventually cast a spell over anyone who takes the trouble to look at them more deeply. Part of the reason for this may lie in their slightly childish yet aesthetically pleasing appearance. A more significant reason, however, is hidden in their power to reveal and make sense of the universality of creation, as it was reflected in ancient belief systems and a way of life closer to nature.

    The significance of rock art is further enhanced by the very locations chosen as sacred sites. These were singularly shaped natural formations, bodies of water, rocks and stones where the essential magic and rituals necessary for the tribe’s existence were carried out. The aim was to achieve a harmony between the man and the environment and to ensure the continuation of the traditional way of life. Any conflict with nature, any wasteful misuse of resources or deviation from familiar patterns might have posed a threat to the livelihood and very existence of the tribe itself.

    This is a way of thinking that has almost been forgotten today. In our consumer society, prosperity and a sense of security are ensured through constant growth and an increase in consumption, which can only result in constant change. Perhaps for this reason alone, it becomes difficult for the modern person to comprehend rock art. Moreover, the ancient world view and system of beliefs were doubtless part of a considerably larger whole than the fragments that have been passed on to us in the form of rock art. And yet, we can use our rich capacity for imagination together with our sense of the time and place to penetrate this ancient world in order to bring it to life in our minds, if for no more than a brief moment. The resulting spiritual contact with our ancestors from beyond millennia will prove to be an unforgettable experience; much like the first sensations in childhood: fragmentary, perhaps not fully understood, pictures, sounds and smells out of one’s memory, full of emotion and fascination, coming back to each person in its own way.

    preserving languages

    Recently NewScientist published an interview of linguist Alexandra Aikhenvald. Here are some excerpts :

    “Imagine how different politics would be if debates were conducted in Tariana, an Amazonian language in which it is a grammatical error to report something without saying how you found it out – as Alexandra Aikhenvald tells us its speakers tell her. Tariana is in danger of dying. With each such disappearance we risk losing insights into different ways of thinking.”

    “Why is it important to preserve these languages? First, to learn about how people communicate and how the human mind works.

    What are the categories that are important enough for people to express them in their languages?

    If these so-called “exotic” languages die, we’ll be left with just one world view. This won’t be very interesting, and we’ll have lost a vast amount of information about human nature and how people perceive the world.

    Second, without their language and its structure, people are rootless. In recording it you are also getting down the stories and folklore. If those are lost a huge part of a people’s history goes. These stories often have a common root that speaks of a real event, not just a myth. For example, every Amazonian society ever studied has a legend about a great flood.”

    “And there are so many languages to work on. A dictionary means that the language is not completely lost and it empowers those who speak the language to preserve their cultural identity.”

    Aikhenvald also thinks Finnish may be the most difficult language she had come across!

    Whale Rider

    I saw Whale Rider for the first time this weekend, on DVD. Though I do not intend to be a film critic on this blog, this movie is so astounding that I would like to share my excitement about it.

    It is a work of art visually and it moves the heart, mind and spirit. The multiple themes running through it make for an excellent story, but uppermost is that of the culture and traditions of the New Zealand Maoris. The DVD gives excellent background information about the filming, so if you have already seen it in the theatres, it’s worth seeing it again for this reason. I plan to view it again, it’s magic, to quote the film ads!

    Read an excellent review*, but be warned that it describes the story at length, so see the film first.

    Update Jan.2014 *link has expired. You may like to read more about it in wikipedia.