Secret handshakes, arcane rituals, and covert political favors—mysterious secret societies operating in the shadows have intrigued people for centuries. Even today, there’s no shortage of conspiracy theories involving high-profile organizations such as the Freemasons and the Illuminati. But in the earlier days of the United States, secret societies were a practical way for groups of people, often immigrants, to form bonds with others and take measures to protect their livelihoods in a time before social security.
Uniting a fragmented Finnish community
Naturally, Finnish immigrants in America wanted to get in on the action. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Finnish immigrants were very proactive in creating temperance, political, and religious organizations. Unfortunately, there was often tension among the newspapers, churches, and various societies, resulting in a lack of cohesion within the newly-forming Finnish-American communities.
That is, until John Stone came along. Stone, born Johan Oxelstén in Oulu, Finland, traveled to the US in 1887, and he and his wife Sofia eventually moved west to Belt, Montana to meet up with his brother. After the move, he anglicized his name in hopes of gaining better business opportunities.
As Stone settled into Belt, a rough copper mining town, he soon became concerned with the struggles of the Finnish community. The Finns faced racism, exploitation at the hands of the mining companies, and, in Stone’s eyes, spent far too much time participating in morally reprehensible activities such as drinking at saloons. Stone wanted to create an organization that would help bring Finnish immigrants together, rather than divide them as political and religious groups had a tendency of doing. He also wanted to help them manage their tough economic and social situation, connect with one another through their shared Finnishness, and raise the overall reputation of Finns in America.
A secret society is born
And thus, a new secret society was born: the Knights of Kaleva, or Kalevan Ritarit. Based on the principles of fostering “tieto ja taito” (knowledge and know-how), the Kaleva Knighthood was founded in 1898 and was the first Finnish organization in the US that didn’t have a parent group in Finland. Stone wanted to create an organization that not only celebrated Finnishness, but also paid homage to the immigrants’ new dual Finnish-American identity. He found a happy medium by structuring the organization based on secret societies that were popular in America at the time, particularly the Freemasons, and one of Finland’s most treasured works of literature: the Kalevala.
The Kalevala, Finland’s national epic poem, is a collection of Finnish ballads and tales passed down in the oral tradition. It contains everything needed to make for an epic poem: a creation myth, heroes, adventures, romance, and impossible tasks set against the backdrop of Finnish forests and involving wise, hard-working people. First published in 1835, its contents were collected and compiled by Elias Lönnrot. Lönnrot collected an estimated 65,000 lines from throughout Finland and Karelia, a task he accomplished by often traveling on foot in remote regions.
Finnish identity in America
For Stone, hoping to unite Finnish-Americans and foster a sense of community, the Kalevala was the obvious choice: aside from perhaps the Bible, no other literary work had the level of importance that the Kalevala did. In fact, the Kalevala is credited as being a major factor behind a growing sense of Finnishness in the country. The area of Finland had long been part of other countries: from 1249-1809, it was part of the Swedish realm, and from 1809-1917, it was a Grand Duchy in the Russian Empire. The Kalevala, already a major national symbol in the mid-to-late 19th century, gave the people something to claim as their own, and helped to promote a distinct sense of national Finnish identity. This growing Finnish identity ultimately resulted in independence in 1917.
The Knights of Kaleva were heavily influenced by the romantic nationalism occurring in Finland. However, while the use of the Kalevala as a marker of national identity in Finland was mainly an expression against Russification, the use of the Kalevala in Stone’s secret society was mainly an expression of reverence for the Finnish immigrants’ heritage. The organization helped Finnish Americans stay in touch with their culture and taught younger generations about the stories of their ancestors, while also helping members in a variety of ways. Members benefited from a mutual life insurance fund and received assistance from the organization for things such as gaining employment. To be initiated into the society, potential members were expected to maintain a good reputation within their community, have either Finnish ancestry or be married to a Finn, and of course, be well-acquainted with the Kalevala.
Blasphemy and distrust
As a society, the Knights of Kaleva were said to be politically neutral, but appeared to be nationalistic and conservative when compared with other contemporary Finnish organizations in the United States, which were often left-leaning. The society laid its foundation using both the Kalevala and the Bible, and meetings often involved prayer — in fact, members were usually expected to be church-goers. However, a few members took their admiration for the Kalevala a bit further than the churches were comfortable with, even going as far as expressing a desire to replace the Bible with the Kalevala. The National Church, popular with Lutheran Finnish-Americans, condemned the Knights of Kaleva along with all other secret societies, stating blasphemy as the reason. Other Finnish-American churches such as Suomi Synod, while not officially condemning, spoke out against the order as well. The churches’ distaste for secret societies caused some Finns to distrust the Knights of Kaleva. The organization fought this by claiming to not be a true secret society, but more of a closed group (in all fairness, everyone in the Finnish communities were well aware of its existence).
Secret meetings and rituals
Like other secret societies, the Knights of Kaleva had different degrees of membership, divided into two groups: 1st, 2nd, 3rd degrees and 4th, 5th, and 6th degrees. Rumors indicate there may have been an even higher-up third group with 7th, 8th, and 9th degrees. New members faced ceremonial rituals of initiation that tested their loyalty and morality, and that reflected their Finnish heritage by way of the Kalevala. Members would sometimes dress up for meetings in Kaleva-themed Finnish costume, sporting special jackets, belts, plumed hats, and swords. Meetings would often include prayer, readings from the Kalevala, intellectual lectures and discussions focused on Finnish history and cultural topics, and rituals based on the tales in the epic poem.
Knights and Ladies of Kaleva: Preserving Finnish culture
In 1904, Stone organized an equal order for women called the Ladies of Kaleva, or Kalevan Naiset. While both the Knights and Ladies were part of the same Kalevan Knighthood, the Ladies of Kaleva governed themselves and developed their own rituals and activities. The Ladies’ lodges were called a tupa and the Knights’ were maja (both Finnish words for small, rustic huts), and both organizations preferred to name their lodges after Finnish mythology, nature or heroes — for example, Ukko, Väinämöinen, Valotar (valo).
At the height of their popularity, there were 61 lodges in sixteen states and 2 Canadian provinces. However, by the 1950s, Finnish-speaking immigrants were ageing and memberships began to dwindle. Younger generations had little interest in the order, and perhaps did not feel the need to preserve the culture of their parents and grand-parents to such a degree.
Happily, both the Knights and Ladies of Kaleva are still around. These days, the groups are more focused on community welfare, participating in fund raising and community events. However, they also strive to bridge the ever-widening gap between Americans with Finnish ancestry and the history and culture of their ancestors.