Michael Loukinen Film Maker

Michael Loukinen: 30 Years of Filmmaking

Michael Loukinen 1980 camera
The Artist as a Young Man

In 1980, a young professor of sociology at Northern Michigan University began a journey that he had no idea would last for 30 years.  As part of his work studying the Finnish culture of the Upper Peninsula, Michael Loukinen came to know a multi-generational family in north Ironwood who exemplified the changes occurring in such immigrant families in the region.  Inspired by his love of documentary filmmaking, he raised funds to make his own film about this family.  Finnish American Lives was released in 1982 to great regional and national acclaim and brought attention to the history and culture of the Upper Peninsula’s people.

Thirty years and 13 films later, Loukinen is still pondering his next projects.  His past work, however, is being celebrated on the campus of Northern Michigan University this winter with a retrospective of some of his best films, many of which have not been shown publicly in several years.  This retrospective, Michael Loukinen: 30 Years of Filmmaking, is being sponsored by the office of the provost, Beaumier U.P. Heritage Center, department of sociology and social work, the anthropology club at NMU and the Upper Peninsula Environmental Coalition.  From February through April, six of his films will be shown as part of the retrospective.  Five of the films will be showing on select Fridays at Jamrich 102 at 7p.m on NMU’s campus.  The Saturday, March 20 showing of Manoomin (Wild Rice): Ojibwe Spirit Food will be at 1:30 p.m. at the Peter White Public Library as part of the Upper Peninsula Environmental Coalition conference.  DVDs will be sold at each showing at a substantial discount.

Loukinen grew up in downtown Detroit and later in its northwestern suburbs.  In both places, he heard his parents speaking Finnish with relatives and friends. They were descendents of Upper Peninsula Finns who had emigrated from the Sami region of Finland.  Summers were spent on a small dairy farm in Jacobsville owned by his aunt and uncle.  “I lived the life of a Finnish American farm boy during the summers and thus became half Yooper.” 

Loukinen joined the NMU faculty in 1976 after receiving his doctorate from Michigan State University and doing post-doctoral study at the University of Michigan.  He has published original research on Finnish Americans and on social networks in rural communities.  Over the years he has found time to make films about the ethnic and cultural groups in the U.P., including Finnish Americans, Ojibwe, Menominee, Ottawa, French-Canadians and Serbs. He has also recorded the traditional occupational cultures of trappers, loggers and commercial fishers.  His films have also helped define how the public views what we now think of as Yoopers. 

In fact, his film Good Man in the Woods was originally supposed to be about the emerging Yooper culture.  However, as Loukinen began working on the film he scrapped the idea.  “At that time, the identity of the Yooper was not embraced by people in the U.P. the way it is today,” Loukinen said. “People really thought of it more as a stereotype created by outsiders, especially people in the Lower Peninsula, and some didn’t think I should make a film about it.  So I decided to take a different angle.”  It turned out for the best.  The phrase, “good man in the woods,” was the highest compliment given to a man in the U.P.

Since 1997, he has been working on a project to produce a digital video archive of oral history and culture on the Lac Vieux Desert Band of Lake Superior Chippewa (Ojibwe), and to make a few documentaries based on this archive.  Most of this work was done in the vicinity of Watersmeet, Mich., near the Wisconsin border.   This work has produced four important films that document the traditions of the local Anishinaabeg peoples.  Two of these films, Manoomin (Wild Rice): Ojibwe Spirit Food and Ojibwe Drum Songs,will be shown during this retrospective.

Loukinen’s films have also been very important to scholars, folklorists and students who are interested in the Upper Peninsula’s people.  The idea of doing this retrospective came from people at NMU who had been touched by his work. 

“I was talking to Northern’s Provost Susan Koch about Michael’s films, which she feels are truly underappreciated not only in the U.P. but throughout the United States,” said Dan Truckey, director of the Beaumier U.P. Heritage Center. “We decided that it would be the perfect time to celebrate Michael’s films at Northern and we are also working to help create greater awareness for his work on a national level.”

However, for Truckey, helping sponsor this retrospective is also of personal importance.  “I was a sophomore in high school when I saw Finnish American Lives for the first time.  That film had a profound effect on me, not only because it encouraged my interest in my family’s own Finnish roots, but also because it started me on the path of working as a historian, curator and folklorist.”

February 5, 7:00p.m. at Jamrich 102

Medicine Fiddle (1992), 81 min. A vibrant and perceptive documentary that celebrates the fiddling a dancing traditions of Native and Metis families on both sides of the U.S. and Canadian border. The fiddle was introduced to Native peoples by French fur traders in the late 1600s and by Irish and Scottish trappers, lumberjacks, and homesteaders a century later. Although European in origin, the fiddling and step-dancing traditions of both Indian and mixed-blood descendants now reflect a strong Native influence and are sustained largely by Native spiritual ideals.  The film features Michigan and Ontario Ojibwa, Wisconsin Menominee, Manitoba Metis, North Dakota Metis, and Ontario Ottawa fiddlers and dancers. Awards: National Educational Film Festival Gold Apple Award Special Merit Award, American Indian Film Festival Society for Visual Anthropology honoree American Anthropological Association selection CINE Golden Eagle Award American Folklore Society honoree American Film and Video Festival honoree.

". . .proof that the Great Spirit made us all."
[Dave Brubeck]

"A beautiful study of assimilation."
[Robert Black, Editor, Native American Quarterly]

 February 19, 7:00 p.m. at Jamrich 102

Ojibwe Drum Songs (2008), 58 min. Profiles one Ojibwe elder, his interpretations of stories and the songs that come to life around the drum.  Blending story, song and dances, Loukinen portrays individual songs, sharing with viewers their lessons.  The digital video also follows the men, women and children who have become family while singing together over the past several years.

“We all begin life with the steady thumping of the drum of the heart; Loukinen’s film reminds us of that common bond and encourages us to understand and respect the Ojibwe expression of it.”

Dr. Leonard Heldreth, English Professor (retired), Northern Michigan University.

March 20, 1:30p.m. at the Peter White Public Library, Community Room

Manoomin (Wild Rice): Ojibwe Spirit Food (2004), 90 min. Digital video documentary about wild rice in the Ojibwe’s history and spiritual culture and the traditional procedures for harvesting, processing, and cooking wild rice.  Many Ojibwe youth are losing the wild “ricing” traditions of their ancestors due to the deaths of knowledgeable elders and the harmful environmental pressures impacting their rice beds.  A cultural dispute arose between the Ojibwe and some lake property owners disdainful of “ugly lake weeds,” who were also impervious to the harm caused by antiquated and leaking septic systems.  Other threats are hydroelectric power companies who want lake levels controlled to generate maximum power.   Manoomin… reveals the traditional practices of planting, rice-boat building, harvesting, parching, dancing, winnowing, cooking, and finally eating wild rice at a feast. We show the wild ricing traditions and the teaching of these traditions to Ojibwe children.

April 2, 7:00 p.m. at Jamrich 102 

Finnish American Lives (1982), 47 min. (1984), 13 min. epilogue.  A moving portrait of traditional Finnish American family culture in Michigan’s U. P. that highlights our fragile community of memory connecting ourselves with parents and grandparents.  A 92 year old immigrant grandfather asked his son and Finnish immigrant daughter-in-law to live on the farm and care for him. The barn will fall any day; his three grandchildren are growing restless. This three-generation farm family works, celebrates, reflects, and grieves together.   Awards: American Film Festival, Cine Golden Eagle

“Michael Loukinen caught a magical moment in our history where all three generations are at a critical turning point, after which nothing will ever be quite the same.”  Dave Halkola, Professor Emertius, Michigan Technological University.

Tradition Bearers (1983), 47 min. A documentary about Finnish American history and folk art expressed through the lives and repertoires of four folk artists living in the western Great Lakes Region. Blending live oral history interviews with historical photos, the film tells a story of Finnish emigration, the life of the miner, lumberjack, and homesteader.  It features an American-born lumberjack-accordionist (Art Moilanen) and story teller (Jingo Vachon) both from Michigan’s western Upper Peninsula.  Katri Saari, an immigrant weaver and John Toivonen, a wood sculptor, both in their 90s from the Minnesota Iron Range are sown.   The folk culture presented in this film is the cement holding together the first three generations of Finnish Americans in the Upper Midwest.  Awards: Sinking Creek Film Festival, Distinguished Contribution to the Humanities

" ...rich in sound and imagery, it is an intricate work of art."    [Milwaukee Journal]

April 23, 7:00p.m. at Jamrich 102 

Good Man in the Woods (1988) documentary, 88 min. The film features the lives of the survivors of the ancient callings of the wilderness – loggers, trappers, and commercial fishermen – showing how character is shaped by daily exposure to the hazards and splendor of the forests and Lake Superior. These wilderness workers of many ethnic background backgrounds tell their story.  Awards: Michigan Foundation, Chicago International Film Festival, Sinking Creek Film Festival, National Educational Film Festival.

“If you want to know the REAL U.P., watch this film,” Detroit Free Press

Note:  The Michigan Council for the Arts and Cultural Affairs have substantially supported all of Michael Loukinen’s documentaries through grants.