Researching Family Heritage in Kuusamo PART1

Lauri Linna

Arriving in Kuusamo after 12 hours on train and bus from Helsinki. I take my bags to my grandmother’s place and get in Pia’s car. We drive to an area of Kuusamo that I can’t remember ever going to. I know that this is from where my grandfather’s line of fathers is, but not much else. We are trying to find remnants of the Sámi past in Kuusamo. I have heard, Sámi people used to live here before the settlers arrived from Kainuu in the South and Ostrobothnia in the West by the order of the Swedish King to farm and build houses. Since early childhood, I have wondered is this heritage in me. I’ve carried a strange feeling in me about it, but for whatever reason it has never been discussed in my family. Except for a joke my grandfather used to tell us: “Hey kids, we are lohilappalaisia (Salmon Sámi)! Hehehehehee! LOL. Just kidding.” He also used a lot of words that I didn’t understand. I have not given much thought to my granddad’s weird ancient jokes and language or to the possibility of my family having a Sámi past.

A traditional kota in the Kitka siida. Now used for leisure.

We arrive at a place where archeologists have found the remains of old Sámi burial site. There are several log cabins used for vacation homes around the area. We find an island where a Sámi shaman is buried.  The surroundings look typical:  lakes, ponds, forests and marshes of Kuusamo where I have spent most of my vacations. Heady smell of Marsh Labrador tea (suopursu) in bloom. I am quite surprised to find these places. For me, Kuusamo has been a place that has no visible traces of history. The Lapland War (part of the 2nd World War) destroyed most of material history in Kuusamo after either Germans or Russians burned the whole area. Who actually burnt and what is still unclear. But here we are looking at an island where there are remains of a Sámi shaman or noaidi. For me, it is the first time looking at anything this old in Kuusamo.

While walking in the forests Pia asks if my family has any Sámi heritage. I’m quite surprised and immediately reply no. The question seems funny, of course not, the Sámi in this region disappeared several centuries ago.

The official history of Kuusamo tells that all remains of the indigenous Sámi people and their culture has disappeared after the first Finnish men arrived to Kuusamo to establish their own farms towards the end of 1600’s. The story continues that the Sámi would become Finnish, leaving behind their siidas, their yearly cycle of traveling between winter and summer camps, forgetting about their past, religion, language, changing their diet to farming based foods, songs… Basically giving up on all of their culture. Nothing is left. A whole culture that might be many generations old disappears in couple of decades. Replaced by the culture of the Finnish settlers. The Sámi are now officially marked as Finnish farmers in the church and tax records.

I spend most of the time in Kuusamo researching the Sámi past of Kuusamo, looking at the history of my family and doing some preliminary genealogy. I found that the Sámi that lived in Kuusamo belonged to a larger, now extinct group of Sámi called keminsaamelaiset or metsäsaamelaiset (Forest Sámi). Some people even say they might have been kuusisaamelaiset (Spruce Sámi) and this is where the name Kuusamo comes, the word Kuusamo sounds a bit like the Finnish word kuusi meaning spruce. The metsäsaamelaiset used to inhabit the Eastern part of Lapland from Kuusamo to up north to areas close to Inari. Their lifestyle was bit different from many of the Sámi that have survived to this day: The metsäsaamelaiset where more like hunter-gatherers and did only a little reindeer herding.

In Kuusamo there were two siidas. Siida is an area that was used by a single “tribe”. “Tribe” is a bad translation for the word siida, but since I do not know a better, I’m going to use it here. The two siidas were Kitka in the Northern part of Kuusamo, around the Lake Kitkajärvi and Maanselkä siida in the South of Kuusamo, close to areas near the present center of the city of Kuusamo. Siida comprises a winter camp and summer camps. All the people of a siida would gather for the winter at the winter camp to survive the cold and dark winter together. In spring each family would travel to their summer camps where they would stay until the next fall to gather again in the winter camp.

The place we visited on the first day with Chill Survive was on the Maanselkä siida and this is the place where my grandfather’s paternal lineage originates. The oldest record of an ancestor from there is Sipi Törmänen born there in 1664. His parents could have been the first ones to arrive, or who knows, maybe they were there already before the settlers. It’s all a speculation, since there are no records about the father or mother of Sipi. There are no records of him being either a Sámi or Finnish. He might have been also Karelian or who knows. Based on my genealogy research, at first it seemed like there was no Sámi ancestry. Only Finnish settlers.

Hunting pits at the site of what used to be the winter campsite of Kitka Siida. Decomposing skull of a baby reindeer found at the pits.

We visit my greatgreat aunt’s grave. I heard she was a cupping lady before the wars. On the same gravestone, I see a maiden name of an ancestral grandmother: Korva. I remember hearing this name before, it has always intrigued me. I start to search for the name online. The name leads to many directions. First to a mythical Korvatunturi fell on the Finnish-Russian border zone in Savukoski. Finnish children are told Santa lives there. The name leads also to another Metsäsaami siida, Sompio (between Sodankylä and Savukoski) and to a village there named Korvanen. The village is now at the bottom of the Lokka reservoir. The rumor has it; the Korva family in Sompio has connections to the legendary Sámi shaman, Akmeeli. I can’t write more about Akmeeli here since that would take a lot of space and is a whole another story. But what I can say about Akmeeli is that when you see small fish jumping in the lake it might be Akmeeli visiting.

Related Material


Tiina Laine

The old Finnish beliefs and practices were passed on through oral tradition of songs. This culture varied between the East and West. In the North, it was influenced by the Sami and the Scandinavians, an example being the belief in trolls.

Lauri Linna

Korva and many versions of the last name are quite common in Lapland and many have the name because of their house/farm was called Korva (English: “Ear”, secondary meaning: “next to”, “alongside”, “approximate”)
Blue West NATO base, Marraq, Greenland. Photo credit: Matti Tanskanen

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