The day I encountered the Micmac of Finland and what I learned from them

An ethnographic journey through memories and photographs of a pagan counterculture that bloomed in the early ‘90s.

Starting when I was ten years old in the early ‘70s, following some old logging roads from the ‘50s, I used to walk and explore the woods alone behind my parents’ house in Nova Scotia. It didn’t matter the season, I spent many hours walking and exploring — sometimes in boots, sometimes on skis and snowshoes — from sun up to sun down, sometimes overnight if I lost the light. I discovered pristine lakes and rivers, rapids and waterfalls. After many years of walking and exploring, fishing and hunting, I knew every prominent tree and rock, every brook and swamp. I knew the fauna, how they moved and migrated. I knew the flora, especially its detritus that could be used to light a fire when it was wet.

One day in winter I had to spend the night under a tree in deep snow, -16°C, too exhausted to move further. With a rabbit and partridge I shot earlier in the day to sustain me, I struggled to keep a fire going all night to keep from freezing to death. I waited until morning and found my way out.

There was one place, though, that frightened me, and it was on the route I took to hunt and fish. From the very first moment I went there when I was ten, regardless of how many years passed, no matter the season, I used to shake with fear whenever I got close. It was that fear one gets while lost in the deep woods alone, that feeling of being stalked, taunted, and laughed at. In this place there were voices, calling my name, many of them, sometimes tens of them, like children taunting, laughing, and bullying me at a playground. As I walked through this place, sometimes the voices were just in front of me, sometimes they were just behind me, and sometimes they were all around me. I could never see the owners of these voices, they always stayed just out of sight.

Then one day I had had enough of them, I lost my mind, I ran screaming towards them, to confront them. I cursed them as I ran, and they always stayed just out of my sight, taunting, laughing and calling my name. When I could run no more, I sank to my knees, and as I caught my breath, they laughed my name through their voices. I got up and walked on, the voices had defeated me. I accepted them for who they were in this place, my companions in this part of the forest.

I can still hear their voices calling my name, taunting and laughing at me, to this very day.

Though the anthropological debate is widespread and continuous, it’s generally agreed that modern homo sapiens emerged from our distant ancestors some 300,000 years ago. Though I can’t say for certain the exact thoughts of someone who lived 300,000 years ago, I can say for certain that because they were modern homo sapiens exactly like me — they had the potential to think exactly like me. Their auditory pareidolia, like mine, created a deep animistic spirituality from nature.

Symbols, visual and auditory, operate culturally as mnemonics, not about pragmatic techniques, but about cosmologies, values, and cultural axioms, whereby a society’s deep knowledge is transmitted from one generation to another.[1]

They, too, heard voices in the forest, calling their names.

They, too, were frightened.

People made representational art: cave paintings of horses, ivory goddesses, lion-headed idols, showing artistic flair and imagination. A bird-bone flute hints at music.[2]

I’m connected to 300,000 years of homo sapiens. All our spirits are in harmony with nature, for those of us who are sensitive enough to hear and feel it.


In 1990, I wanted to be a biologist. I applied and got accepted into a local university in my hometown. After a year, I found out how much I hated biology and loved social anthropology and decided to pursue the latter as a career. From 1991 to 1993, I studied social anthropology under two professors.

One, a Dr Cooper, who was free-spirited — though dressed enigmatically conservatively in her own eccentricity — not much older than me, who taught me anthropological theory and indigenous First Nations’ beliefs. Her lectures were unscripted, unselfconsciousnessly humorous on occasion, and brilliantly and superbly full of ideas and analyses of diverse social and spiritual interaction and anthropological theory.

Through him, I was awash in symbolism, identity and personality, animism, and pagan counterculture, studying the works of Victor Turner (1920-1983) on liminality, communitas, rituals, and rites of passage and Clifford Geertz (1926-2006) with his thick description meaning the detailed account of field experiences.

He made it very clear to the class that even though we were students of anthropology we mustn’t think of ourselves as mere students. We were “bona fide anthropologists.” she said, “as no one’s theory is above another’s, everyone’s theory can be trailblazing and relevant. Everyone and everything can and must be challenged.”

The other, a Dr Marshall, was a conformist, scripted, consciously humourless, who thought of the indigenous as a “culture” in a stagnant Edward-Tylor-esque manner. Her anthropology was as brilliant as it was traditionalist. She was regarded as the authority on a few indigenous First Nations peoples in California and was greatly respected for it.

Through her, anthropologically I became straightlaced and pearl-clutching, conventional and prim-and-proper. I studied the works of Marvin Harris (1927-2001) on cultural materialism, the emic and etic, and infrastructural determinism and Tim Ingold’s (1948) environmental perception. It was pure Marxist anthropology.

She made it clear that participant observation was to be objective, period. I was to be a social scientist, she said, totally and anally empirical, dedicated to detached and unbiased observation. If anthropologists were in the habit of wearing white lab coats to differentiate themselves from “the other,” I would have worn one, complete with horn-rimmed glasses and clipboard, long sideburns, and pipe.

With Dr Marshall as my thesis advisor and my thesis topic settled, I got a grant for fieldwork in Finland in May 1993 to implement detached and unbiased participant observation of Marvin Harris’ cultural materialism and Marxist anthropology. I was all set, I thought.

Then, a couple of weeks before I left for Finland, Dr Cooper ran up to me in the hallway of the university department and gave me a newspaper article she had photocopied. “When you’re over there in Finland, ask about this,” she said. When I read the headline “The Micmac … of Finland,” I was quite intrigued. However, because I had my thesis topic to worry about, I didn’t think much more of it.

The Micmac of Finland: An Introduction

April 1993: University of Helsinki (Finland), face-to-face interview through a Finnish to English interpreter.

Me –  The who?

Dr Silk –  The Micmac [of Finland]. You’re from Canada, surely you must know who the Micmac are.

Me – I know who the Micmac were, however, these days those indigenous First Nations people want to be called the Mi’kmaq.[1]

Dr Silk – These Micmac say they’re descendants of Canadian soldiers who stayed in Europe after the Second World War and had children with European women. The rest are disenchanted Canadians who had departed Micmac reserves in the Maritimes (Canada). I mean, regardless of whether they’re legit Micmac, they want to live in the Finnish forests like the Indians[2] once did. Over the next seven years, we want them to create an open ecological and sustainable university, where everyone can learn their religion and beliefs, recreate their housing, and forage and grow the food they’ll eat. The Micmac have been living off the land for thousands of years in Canada, they’ve learned to survive, we need their knowledge.

I wasn’t here to talk about the Micmac of Finland, and yes these were the very same ones from that article whom Dr Cooper showed me. I was here to talk about my thesis: Marvin Harris’ cultural materialism and Marxist anthropology. Dr Silk brought up the topic of the Micmac and he was very eager to talk about them despite my attempts to steer him away. Eventually, the more he talked about them the more intrigue I became.

Me – Can I meet these Micmac?

Dr Silk – Absolutely. Stay by your phone tonight and you’ll receive a call from their leader giving you instructions on what to do next.

My interpreter said she wanted nothing to do with these Micmac or this research. She had heard about them in the media and was frightened of them.

Interview with The Leader of the Micmac of Finland: Omaa

April 1993: Vantaa, Finland, interview in English over the telephone.

Omaa – I was born in the woods in Québec between two Micmac reservations, I see myself as an ‘unreserved Indian.’ I was exiled from Canada twenty-five years ago for political reasons and came to Europe because I wanted to live free.

Me: Can you speak a few words of your Micmac for me? I know a few words of Mi’kmaq; are they similar languages, can we have a conversation?

Omaa – I could, however now I want to speak English because you are using English. It makes no difference to the person who’s speaking what their mother tongue is simply because they are speaking a particular language and other people label them as speaking this or that language. I speak a proto-Micmac language, I have chosen to have this proto-Micmac language speak for me and that’s the way I and my people think.

It was assimilation or death in Canada. I am cynical because I was persecuted by [Pierre] Trudeau, but I have no hard feelings.

During the interview, all the references he made were about the Europeans observing the Mi’kmaq in the 1600s. As I knew these observations, too, it was obvious that we both read the same ethnography on the Mi’kmaq from Pierre Biard (written observations from 1611 to 1616). When I asked him to elaborate on Biard’s stories, to tell me something that his grandmother told him about her time as a child — a story about her own grandmother while she was making a Mi’kmaq basket, for example — he only told me more of the same from Biard’s ethnography.

He gave me nothing new, I knew as much as he did about the Mi’kmaq.

Just before the phone call ended, he gave me these parting words: “You know, they call us ‘Indians.’ I’m not an ‘Indian,’ I’m a human being. All indigenous people around the world call themselves this no matter who or what they are, it is the purity of our minds that reveals this to us. We chose to live this way; we believe in our way of life.”

These last words were impactful, and through them I was beginning to understand what was going on anthropologically with the Micmac of Finland. Three hypotheses came to mind.

First, Omaa was an indigenous First Nations Mi’kmaq by birth and because of assimilation (i.e.: The Revised Indian Act of 1951) was never taught his family’s history, language, beliefs and rituals, and now he was attempting to regenerate them based on what he read in the earliest ethnographies of the Mi’kmaq. Second, that though Omaa wasn’t an indigenous First Nations Mi’kmaq by birth, he was now attempting to regenerate the Mi’kmaq history, language, beliefs and rituals based on what he read in the earliest ethnographies of the Mi’kmaq and then claiming to be an indigenous Mi’kmaq.

Third, Omaa wasn’t an indigenous Mi’kmaq by birth, and was attempting to regenerate the history, language, beliefs and rituals of whatever indigenous First Nations peoples existed in the ethnographies — from Canada and the USA, it didn’t matter which ones as long as they looked and sounded “Indian” enough — and then claiming to be an indigenous Mi’kmaq. For this third option to work, Omaa had to count on the fact that no one in Finland knew who the Mi’kmaq were, that no one knew their history, language, beliefs and rituals.

My initial assumption: Omaa wasn’t an indigenous First Nations Mi’kmaq.

However, what was significant anthropologically, Omaa was identifying as an indigenous First Nations Mi’kmaq. This was exactly what Dr Cooper was teaching me.

At the end of the phone call, Omaa gave me a date, time, and directions to meet the Micmac of Finland.

The Micmac of Finland, Face-to-face

From a distance, everything the Micmac of Finland wore looked exactly like the clothing the indigenous First Nations people from North America wore when they posed for cameras in the 1800s. When you got closer though, you could see that everything the Micmac wore only looked like indigenous clothing, lacking the authenticity of materials, symbols, and construction technique. Their clothing was a jumbled array of styles and symbols reminiscent of the indigenous plains First Nations peoples like the Apache, Blackfoot, Comanche, or Crow.

When Ogaan walked up to me — he said he was my guide — he was someone that stood out from the crowd, and not just because he was tall. He was wearing a bright red polyester top and pants, which was odd considering polyester’s negative impact on the environment. Under this red top he wore a black wool long-sleeved tunic. His pants were jeans with leather strips sown into the inseams to look like pants a cowboy would wear from a classic spaghetti western. His hair was braided into two ponytails which hung from either side of his head over his ears. The headband he wore was made from plastic beads and had numerous chevrons on them pointing in different directions. He wore a round pendant which hung to his sternum, with the same style of pendant fastened tightly around his neck.

The enormous symbol he had sewn into the middle of his top, a large yellow disk with a five-armed starfish, was a traditional indigenous First Nations Mi’kmaq symbol. Another striking Mi’kmaq symbol was on his loincloth, two stylized moose with intertwined antlers and lightly touching foreheads.

Ogaan (in English)

I’m the Secretary General of the Seattle Experts on Environmental Development Syvilization (SEEDS[5]). I’m strongly against the world becoming one culture. If I want to take on a Native North American style of living and thinking, that should be my right. What I feel is important, what you feel is important, and neither of our feelings are better than the other.

There are many ‘Indians’ in North America who are trying to gain their status of who they are. Some are rejecting their forced Western assimilation, their forced Western ways. They want to become recognized for who they are, as are we.

Many [Finns and others] may find our ideas good, who knows what the case may be. Many will react positively and agree. We have certain spiritual duties to the planet; spirituality is not a dirty word.

Communication is the key to who we are. Language is not the structure by which to see us, simply because understanding us for who we are is. For you to come see us for who we are, and then understand us, then we can say that we communicated successfully.

All the Micmac [of Finland] you see here today, they were once Western educated people. We all rejected that part of us to go back to nature. The Micmac [of Finland] are all in a period of transition into becoming traditional. Simply put, the Western culture is not working, and many people are expressing a need to find a better way. All people are in transition to find a better way. We are offering a way that all people can accept or reject depending on their personal nature.

Traditions are rooted in the future, not the past. It is true that a tree is rooted to the ground, but the ground from which it came exists in the past. The crown of the tree is moving into the future and traditions will exist because we will have created our own traditions and heritage. You can choose whatever parts you wish to take. Survival of a nation is through its expression.

Victor Turner and Clifford Geertz hit me square in the face with Ogaan, all the symbolism, identity and personality, animism, and pagan counterculture I discussed with Dr Cooper was standing there right in front of me, talking.

Just after Ogaan stopped talking, a man ran up to me, and with Ogaan translating he said:

Research is wrong. We must observe the earth and exist with it. We must study the earth and discover what its problems are and solve them. We must look for primeval conditions and use traditional knowledge.

There must be a function for human beings that is beyond book learning at school. I feel it exists in our roots. A feeling takes time to understand and since we are all searching for a new vision of life, it will take some time to formulate how it is to be. Somebody must take the first step in the quest to find a new program of the mind, I am trying to find the subconscious level of the new program.

A living being is a collection of cells. These cells function for the good of the world. In thinking of the world, we are seeing a world dying; its body it is dying. We all have an old program that must be brought back so that we can find ourselves.

We are living with the seasons. Only by living with the seasons can we find our lost harmony.

Referring to my hypotheses, I was looking at option three. These Micmac of Finland were trying to combine sustainability with a romanticised history, language, beliefs and rituals of whatever indigenous First Nations peoples existed in the ethnographies — from Canada and the USA. It didn’t matter which ones; they just had to look and sound “Indian” sufficiently enough, stereotypically.

They weren’t claiming to be indigenous First Nations Mi’kmaq, they were claiming the identity of all the indigenous First Nations peoples and calling themselves “Micmac.”[6] In effect, they were claiming the identity of “The Noble Savage” (John Dyden, Conquest of Granada, 1672), and with this identity, to affirm they had indigenous knowledge to restore and sustain the Earth.

Shortly after this discussion with Ogaan, I witnessed the Micmac build houses, sing in a language they called “Proto-Micmac,” dance, perform light-hearted rituals for the Finnish children to make them laugh. There were about one hundred of us involved in these discussions, rituals, and activities.

Ritual: “Jumping Over the Fire”

Every new visitor to, and returning resident of, the Micmac camp must jump over this ritual fire that is built at their camp’s perimeter. The camp’s perimeter was not demarcated with any tangible barriers, and from my observation it seemed to extend roughly fifty meters from their tents. It reminded me of the pomerium. For the ceremony to be performed properly, the Micmac said, the fire must have its smoke and flame wafting straight upwards. One at a time, as everyone jumped over the fire to get inside the pomerium, the Micmac played their instruments loudly and cheerfully.

The ones that had already jumped over the fire and were inside the camp perimeter, laughed and joked with the ones still outside. I recognised many different languages spoken — English, Finnish, French, Russian, and Swedish — and some I didn’t. We were all having such great laughs, the Micmac made the whole experience fun! As it was explained by one of the Micmac standing next to me “You must feel your body’s aura being lifted into the branches and trees that surround the camp. By the smoke and flame, you’re now part of them.”

As soon as everyone jumped over the fire, I thought it was my turn. Without waiting for the Micmac to play their instruments and with no one asking me to jump over the fire, I jumped. And as I jumped, I felt the fire’s heat and smoke, and exactly like the Micmac told me, I felt my aura drifting up into the branches and trees that surrounded the camp. When I landed, I felt wonderful, that I had done something fun, that I was a part of one of their rituals.

The dream of the anthropologist, to be accepted by the group you’re with, to be seen as one of them. Then I looked around and saw everyone glaring at me, no one was laughing, no instruments were playing, and I felt completely embarrassed. The Micmac looked at me, smiled and said, “You jumped at the wrong moment, when no one was prepared, you should have waited for at least the instruments to play.” Well, I said to myself, I’m not the first anthropologist to have done something embarrassing while performing someone else’s ritual, and I won’t be the last.

This jumping over the fire ritual wasn’t performed when someone went outside the pomerium to collect firewood, forage in the forest, or accept donated food and other supplies from the Finnish village nearby. Once you performed this ritual, it carried you throughout your time with the Micmac.

As it was their ritual, the Micmac decided when you had to jump over the fire again to be a part of their camp.

Even though I didn’t perform the ritual correctly, I never felt I wasn’t accepted by the Micmac. They were always friendly and understanding, they always answered all my questions. The Finns with the Micmac, on the other hand, never trusted or accepted me. Whenever I tried to talk to them, they would turn their back and walk away. I never blamed them as the press was relentless in their condemnation and vilification of the Micmac of Finland, and I heard rumor they all thought I was a journalist looking for dirt to publish. The jumping over the fire ritual only got you through the camp’s pomerium, not the heart’s, the latter required another ritual I never discovered.

Epilogue: Academia

When I got back to the university and showed everyone the pictures, well, everyone had such a great laugh.

Dr Marshall, called them weirdos and said, “Forget symbolism and continue your work on cultural materialism.” And so I did, and completed my thesis using Marvin Harris’ cultural materialism and Marxist anthropology. Her style of anthropology was clearly ethnocentric. The Micmac of Finland were not “weirdos,” they were environmentalists trying to create spiritual harmony between a sustainable Earth and homo sapiens.   

Dr Cooper, took me aside and asked “Did this Omaa speak to you in a low hypnotic voice? Some people can do that, you know, speak in a way that’ll make you believe anything.” She said they were a cult, and by calling them a ‘cult’ her style of anthropology, too, was clearly ethnocentric.

I objected to her mischaracterisation. “They weren’t a ‘cult,’ as you taught me the difference between a cult and pagan counterculture using symbolism, identity, personality, and animism. A cult has a specific definition and observable characteristics, none of which were present with the Micmac of Finland. They were a pagan counterculture, a pre-Christian social reimagining, they were creating animistic spirituality for all of us to achieve a sustainable Earth.”

The Spirit is in Harmony with Nature

The spirit is like a bird. The Earth is this huge cosmic ship somewhere in space and all the people on it are sad. We are trying to see the Earth for what it is, a huge life-giving orb. We are on a crusade to overcome the darkness. The spirit of the world is dying. We must fight for it to win. Only the primeval people can show us the way to change

Ope paused a moment to look off into the distance at the birch trees, swaying in a hard breeze that was growing gradually harder. It was going to rain soon.

Everyone has a part to learn and a part to teach us all. We are all like cells of a body working together for the greater good of the whole. All of us who lived in the Western world lived apart from the body. We tried to think that we could live without the help of others — we are doomed to die if we continue to act alone. We are trying to learn to live together

Sitting side-by-side on a large granite erratic, overlooking a schoolyard filled with Finns and the Micmac of Finland, listening to music provided by two Micmac musicians playing a drum and flute, Ope asked that I draw as he talked about how to provide for the Earth. When Ope stopped talking, he said what I drew was right, and after studying it for a moment these words stared up at me: “The Spirit is in Harmony with Nature.” These words were profound.

I believed his message. I had a moment of clarity, a physical sensation, a tingling inside my head and intellect that I had just glimpsed the animism I had always known.

And I didn’t tell him.

I just stared at the drawing and remained silent. We sat together for a few more minutes, exchanged a few more words, and departed before it began to rain. I never spoke to him again.

Ope’s dead.

He’s been dead many years. And his Spirit is in Harmony with Nature exists no more, except within me. Why didn’t I tell Ope I believed him? If I told him I believed him, I felt my anthropological impartiality would have been compromised. I wanted to be a social scientist, I wanted to be anally empirical, and this determination to empiricism made me arrogant to who the Micmac of Finland were, their message, and Ope as intelligent, discerning, and capable of perceptive insight. He was “the other,” something to be studied impartially while I wore an anthropological white lab coat and horn-rimmed glasses and carried a clipboard and pipe.

I was an ethnocentric anthropologist.

I am ethnocentric no more. I am sensitive enough to hear and feel them finally, and that’s what I learned from the Micmac of Finland.


[1] Turner, V. (1974). Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors. Cornell University Press.  

[2] Longrich, N. (2020 September 9). “When did we become fully human? What fossils and DNA tell us about the evolution of modern intelligence.” The Conversation.

[3] To make it clear: “Mi’kmaq” [miːɡmaɣ] refers to the indigenous First Nations people of Canada, and “Micmac” will refer to these “Micmac of Finland.”

[4] The word “Indian” is no longer used to describe any indigenous First Nations peoples of Canada, though you will still find its use in the USA.

[5] If the Micmac of Finland were still around today, they would have undoubtedly used “Sustainability” instead of this awkward “Sylvilization.”

[6] Please research the Conne River Mi’kmaq of Newfoundland for the reason.

Photography by Philipp Clifford © All rights reserved
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