The Story of Kirkkokuusikko

Critical Text: A monument to the Kittilä Forest Sámi village church intertwines architecture, heritage and community memory.

Nän / Nün ch’i cha jų̃ kwa’ch’e Dän däw Kwenjè
A group of people in an outdoor forest setting gather around a monument made of wood that resembles a small church, house or altar, elevated from the ground on beams and sledge runners.

In this article, I present the premises, processes, and execution of a public art work named The Story of Kirkkokuusikko. The work of art was meant to be a memorial to the first church of the region that is said to have existed, in the early 1600s, on a forest high in the hinterland of Kittilä in the province of Lapland in Finland. The church was built in the centre of the fishing and hunting area of the Kittilä Forest Sámi village. The process sheds light on the interaction between the design of community-based art and methods of visual ethnography to investigate the configurations of place, environment, material and social situations.

A group of people in an outdoor forest setting gather around a monument made of wood that resembles a small church, house or altar, elevated from the ground on beams and sledge runners.
Timo Jokela, The Story of Kirkkokuusikko (2009).

The memorial was connected to stories of the past, but the process itself was very present with the local villagers from a Forest Sámi cultural background, which is often forgotten and overlooked. Professor of Cultural History Marja Tuominen, emphasizes northern people’s right and obligation to “constantly squeeze from the past those whose dreams were not realized, who fell over the edge of history, whose story was left untold.” [1] Local Elder Pekka Niva challenged the village society to build a memorial and himself remembered its story:

I remember at the end of the 30s, or maybe it was the summer of 1940, when I was with my grandfather (my mother’s father, that is) and my aunts Mallu and Eevi, picking cloudberries. I remember the duckboards, and my old grandfather saying that this was Kirkkokuusikko (name of the place). Kirkkokuusikko was the core of the story for that generation; they told it as though it was all true, and they believed it completely. They didn’t mention the exact place of the church, though, just that it had been there…

On the one hand, the monument can be considered an attempt to strengthen the community’s identity and on the other hand, it creates a local symbol of belonging to a place, a time and a community. Having received the commission to help to build the memorial, I had to decide: would I follow the story of Lutheran Christianity among Forest Sami people?  I could not be sure whether the story was true; the story lacked the time in which the church was supposed to have been built. Many people doubted the whole story. The only thing certain was that local people were happy to tell tales about the existence of the church. The significance of storytelling and traditional knowledge is emphasized in the discussion on Indigenous art. A story that has taken on the nature of a myth can be seen as simultaneously preserving and creating regional culture.

Tuominen continues:

….each story told of the past is a reconstruction, which can never be identical to its target, or fully recapture its authentic meanings … Every historical study is an interpretation, which is restricted by and imbued with the conditions imposed by our current understanding. But finally a historical study is just one of the many forums in which history is interpreted and images of the past conveyed. The arts, many sciences, and journalism all participate in this.

I started the design work for the memorial by searching the literary and archival sources for evidence of the veracity of the Kirkkokuusikko story, and by discussing it with local Elders. I wanted to understand the core of the story and to find its meaning for our own era and local villagers. I tried to consider what or who is remembered by this monument and what kind of visual expression that remembrance should receive in order to resonate with the past, but at the same time to create new current and future meanings. I used the method of ethnography to collect data and evidence for the work of art. I understood cultural heritage as a performative process which is valued, built, and constantly renewed, in this case by means of art. Although the Kirkkokuusikko monument was to be located in a relatively inaccessible spot in the middle of a forest, I realized that I was creating public art for a Northern location where the participation of locals was central. 

Historical documents showed that a church was truly built in Kittilä. It was erected, on the orders of the Swedish King’s “policy for Lapland and the Arctic Ocean,” sometime between 1607 and 1611. The church remained standing at least until 1620, after which it was evidently destroyed. The sources, therefore, indicated that the local story of a church was based on a historical event and they clarified its date. However, I did not want to design a monument only to the “Northern policy” of the Swedish King. I wanted to know about the users of this church, established on the lands of Kittilä Forest Sámi village, and I tried to find their story in the documents as subject matter for the monument. I found it very important as many of the villagers pointed out their ancestors were part of the overlooked forest Sámi community. 

The Sámi village (siida) differs from a typical modern colonial concept of a village. It is more of a management system for natural resources and social relations, and a network of families and households, which had their own usufruct areas. The Sámi village, with its almost completely self-sufficient economy, needed a large land area. The village required a sufficient area for deer hunting, beaver streams, fishing grounds, and goose swamps to make possible a life based on a varied economy and yearly migrations. Households lived on the usufruct of the Sámi village, in accordance with the yearly hunting cycle, having perhaps two or three dwelling-places on their land, though everyone got together in the winter village. 

At that time, in the beginning of the sixteenth century, the first Finnish settlers had already joined the Forest Sámi in the Kittilä area. The presumed purpose of the church was also to strengthen settlement in the area, even though it was not yet authorized within the borders of the province of Lapland. Together with the tax collectors and the authorities, the church created a foothold for the gradual alteration of the Forest Sámi way of life. It is noteworthy, however, that both the Forest Sámi and the settlers adopted elements of each others’ ways of life. The lifestyle and culture of the Kemi-Lapland Forest Sámi did not die away, even though their language was lost, to live on only in place names and in terms related to fishing, hunting, and reindeer herding. The eco-social environmental culture of villages’ is still partly based on this history and differs in many ways from common Finnish culture because of its mixed Forest Sámi and Finnish roots. I wanted to bring the voices of Kittilä’s Forest Sámi into my work. 

Workers in outdoor gear assemble the beams and sledge runners that make up the bottom portion of the monument.
Construction documentation of Timo Jokela’s The Story of Kirkkokuusikko (2009).

Two worlds meet

Life in the Forest Sámi winter village was about being together and strengthening the community. The shamanistic worldview gave birth to a narrative tradition that was typical of the Native peoples of the Northern Hemisphere, but also contained local ingredients. These stories recorded the local memories of the world of the Forest Sámi, their social system and the arrival of Finnish settlers and Christianity in the region. At the centre of the stories are the shamans (noidje) who defended their communities against other Sámi villages or intruders. It is likely that the shamans functioned as village Elders and leaders of their communities. The roots of the story tradition lie in the mythical past, but one story element linked to the Kittilä area appeared at the turn of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The construction of the church coincides with the presumed lifetime of Päiviö, the leading figure of the Kittilä Forest Sámi village. Päiviö converted to Christianity, perhaps against his will, and at the same time lost his abilities as a shaman. The stories about Päiviö crystallize the encounter between two eras and two perceptions of the world. The Sámi people were perhaps opposed to the construction of churches, but Päiviö appears to have adopted the new culture and to have considered it a better defense for his village community. Päiviö became a distributor of the new culture, even though he mourned his lost powers. 

The core of the story of Kirkkokuusikko lies in this meeting of two eras, two different world views, and two different social systems (a centralized state and the self-governing community of the Forest Sámi). The subject matter of the memorial, therefore, is not just the church as a building, but the background of larger ideas, meanings, values, and consequences— the end of one era and the beginning of another in the region. I simplified the content of the work so that it would tell simultaneously of the coming of the King’s church, and the beginning of the gradual disappearance of Päiviö’s Sámi village.

Workers in outdoor gear assemble sledge runners that form the platform for the monument.
Construction documentation of Timo Jokela’s The Story of Kirkkokuusikko (2009).

Finding the visual references

Although I emphasized the importance of subject matter in the monument, it also needed a a materialization and form that resonated with the content. I wanted to get a visual idea of ​​what the church may have been like. Of course, examples are available of the size and style of churches of the period. When only a few families lived in the Kittilä Sámi village at the time, the church was really just a modest sermon room. In terms of style and construction, it would hardly have differed greatly from other buildings in the area, although to the inhabitants of the Sámi village it no doubt seemed big and representative of power. 

Several sources provide references to Forest Sámi village buildings which differ from well-known nomadic tents. Since the seasonal cycle brought life repeatedly close to the same suitable bodies of water, dwellings developed into timber-founded structures. Historical sources from 1740 provide a description of Forest Sámi living in rectangular houses with four to six layers of logs.[2] Illustrations of log buildings, such as fire shelters, nili (raised food storage hut) platforms, storehouses, ground shelters, etc. have been preserved from parts of Sápmi in Russia and Sweden, where the lifestyle of the Forest Sámi survived longer and could be documented and examined. I assume that the technical solutions and shapes of buildings may well be inferred from these sources.

In addition to buildings, I also looked for other objects that could serve as visual starting points for the monument. Few objects have survived from that period, but especially the later objects in the Ájtte Museum supply hints about visual and architectural strategies. Images of the material are also available. In the 1660s, Schefferus recorded illustrations of objects and shaman drums of the area. The drum skins preserved not only an understanding of the cosmology of the world typical of the period, but also its sources of livelihood. A drum sent to Stockholm by Tuderus, a fiercely evangelical Christian priest, contains references to the arrival of Christianity and its churches, and possibly even a picture of Kirkkokuusikko church. Some visual material on the meeting of the shamanistic world and Christianity in the province of Lapland can be found in the Tanhua “shaman tomb” dated to 1595–1635: wrought iron crosses, bears’ teeth and other charms are in perfect harmony, telling of the meeting of two cultures and eras.

A survey of the visual material provided a wealth of detail for the design of the work, but the form remained open. I was determined that the material for the work would be massive wood, the original material of the church. I would treat the surface of the work with agents resistant to fire and mold, and I would give it a dark patina, to refer to the past. I would include details that would refer to the Christian faith, but also to the conditions for life in the area, such as deer, fish, and the grain brought by settlers. All these choices were based on the collected visual data and discussion with locals. 

The completed monument, with doors closed, sits in the forest.
Timo Jokela, The Story of Kirkkokuusikko (2009).

Creating the form of the monument

I decided on the structure and form of the monument when I saw, in Saltdal Folk Museum in Norway, a guard’s house on sledge runners, designed to protect cattle from wild animals. I also investigated traditional Sámi storehouses on runners, as well as wooden construction of Siberian shaman graves. Since the location of the church is uncertain, I decided to build the monument on sledge runners. The monument therefore continues to search for its place and perhaps also its meaning. It can be moved should new studies be conducted. The formal language and building method for a monument on columns, mounted on sledge runners, refers concretely to the construction of a Sámi storehouse (nili), to a dwelling and even to the first buildings of the settlers, but also to the church. I wished, however, that the monument would not point anywhere, but would rather be closed and quiet, though at the same time suggestive. Its nature must be at one with the silent secrecy in the stories told of the area, but it must also provide enough information for people to discover what it refers to. It is therefore closed, but it can be opened. 

The shape of a relic cabinet, inherited from the Middle Ages, with its opening picture doors, offered an iconostasic solution that would present the double meaning of the monument at once to the viewer. I decided to build the work in such a way that the opening of the double doors would lead, on one side, to the church and the story of the King, and on the other side to Päiviö and the Sámi village of Kittilä. 


[1] Tuominen, M., “Me kutsumme menneisyyttä nykyisyytemme tueksi.” Näkökulmia aikoihin ja niiden kokemiseen. [“We call the past to a supporter of our present.” Perspectives on times and experiencing them], inaugural presentation at the University of Lapland on February 28, 2005. 

[2] Joona, J., “Suomen metsäsaamelaisten historiasta [History of the Finnish Forest Sámi]” in Sarivaara, E., Määttä, K. & Uusiautti, S. (eds.) Kuka on saamelainen ja mitä on saamelaisuus – identiteetin juurilla [Who is a Sámi and what is at the root of Sámi identity], (Rovaniemi: Lapland University Press, 2013), pp. 9–31.


Credit: This article was originally published in “Culture sensitive participatory art as visual ethnography in the North,” Visual Ethnography 6 (2) and “Stories transmitted through art for the revitalization and decolonization of the Arctic” in R. Sørly, T. Ghaye & B. Kårtveit (Eds.), Stories of change and sustainability in the Arctic regions: The interdependence of local and global. COURTESY TIMO JOKELA.  


This story is part of the Finland Spotlight. View more content from the Spotlight here.