Inari - a Meeting Place for People and Cultures

Since the prehistoric times, Lake Inarijärvi area has been important to people. Remains of 9000 years old settlements have been found. It is known that the oldest Sámi settlements have been in the area already 4000 years ago. The winter villages of the ancient Inari Sámi people were located along Nukkumajoki River in the 1400s andthe 1500s. In the old days, Sámi people lived together in villages in the winter, and each family moved to their own summer fields in the summer.

In Inari area, there are many sacred places from the times before Christianity, such as Ukonsaari Island and Otsamotunturi Fell, and memorials of the Christian times, such as the Graveyard Islands and Lake Pielpajärvi Wilderness Church.

The village of Inari, located in the intersection of routes, has always been a meeting place for people as well as cultures. Fishermen, reindeer herders, people exercising the natural sources of livelihood, gold diggers, artists, craftsmen, people in tourism business, and officials have things to do there, and they all meet each other. In Inari area, most sources of livelihood have something to do with the natural environment. The history is still present in Inari, and you can feel the atmosphere and life style of Lapland wilderness, which has disappeared in the south a long time ago. In Inari, you can find many very skillful craftsmen and artists, whose products are sold in the shops in the village of Inari.


Siida ( is the Sámi Museum and Northern Lapland Nature Centre. With its exhibitions about Sámi culture and the natural features of northern Lapland, it is one of the most impressive exhibition centers in the Nordic countries. In addition to the permanent and temporary exhibitions, visitors can get information on hiking, and buy maps or permits for northern Lapland district.

Ukonsaari Island

In the middle of Ukonselkä open water area on Lake Inarijärvi, about 11 km east-northeast from the village of Inari, there is a strange-looking rocky island, tall and hunchbacked. It is called Ukonsaari or just Ukko, which means "an old man" in Finnish. The island is only 300 metres long, 100 metres wide and 30 metres high. Its eye-catching looks have made it a famous natural sight in Inari. Originally, it is a well-known and worshipped, sacred place for the Sámi people. Read morea about Ukonsaari. 

Pielpajärvi Wilderness Church

Lake Pielpajärvi Wilderness Church is located a bit less than 10 km away from the village of Inari. The 5-km-long trail to the church begins along Sarviniementie road, about 3 km from Siida. Boaters can walk to the church from Pielpavuono Fjord, this trail is 3 km long. The church was built 1752-1760, and it was in use until the end of 1800s, until which time it was the central place of Inari area. A service is held in the church a few of times a year, and couples can get married in there. 

Otsamotunturi Fell

Otsamotunturi Fell (418 m) is located 8 km away from the village of Inari. From the top of the fell, you get a great view over Lake Inarijärvi, Juutuanjoki River, Lake Muddusjärvi, Muotkatunturi Fells and Joenkielinen Fell. The trail to Otsamotunturi Fell begins opposite too Siida. From the grounds of the youth centre Vasatokka begins another, a 10-km-long trail to Otsamotunturi Fell.

A hiker with a backpack walking on top of a fell. Flowering vegetation can be seen in the foreground and summery lake- and forest landscape opens up in the background. There are fells on the horizon.

The Korkia-Maura Ice Cave

The Korkia-Maura island is located in the southern stretches of Lake Inarijärvi. The layer of ice on the bottom of the 15-metre-long, 1‒3.5-metre-wide and 1.5–4-metre-high cave on the island has not melted for hundreds of years. This kind of permafrost found in caves, eskers and mines is called microclimatic permafrost. It is formed when the winter cold is preserved throughout the summer in the middle of an esker or deep within a cave or mine. In recent years, however, the permafrost in the Korkia-Maura cave has begun to thaw more with each summer, as tourists visiting the site bring the heat in with them.

Throughout the ages, Inarijärvi's fishermen have used the ice cave as a fish cellar. In the 17th century, it is said to have been used by the infamous destroyer of the sacred Sámi seidas, Päiviö Vuolab.

Today, the Korkia-Maura ice cave is a popular tourist attraction. The island has a boat quay, campfire site and a dry toilet. In summer, the island can only be reached by boat; in winter, you can reach it on skis or by snowmobile.

Ukonsaari Island

Ukko, or Äijih in the Inari Sámi language, is located in Lake Inarijärvi, some 11 kilometres east-northeast of the parish village of Inari. This island is exceptional: it has steep walls and boulder fields. Furthermore, it is more than 30 metres high, so it can be seen from far away. Ukonsaari is the most famous sacred place of worship amongst Sámi people in Finland. Rituals have been practised there for centuries. 

The first records of the sacrificial cave on Ukonsaari Island were made in the early part of the 19th century by Jacob Fellman, who was a minister and an expert on Lapland. Fellman wrote that on his expeditions onto Ukonsaari in 1825 and 1826, he had found a cave by whose entrance there was a large heap of reindeer antlers. Some of the antlers had been preserved so well that Fellman believed that sacrificial rituals had continued until the 18th century.

Arthur Evans, a British archaeologist who became famous for unearthing the palace of Knossos, visited Ukonsaari on a summer's day in 1873. Evans reported that he had found a cave close to the top of the island and that the floor of the cave was full of bones. He also reported that reindeer antlers had been arranged in the form of a semicircle by the entrance to the cave. Forty years after his visit, Evans reminisced that he had also seen human, bear, wolf and wolverine bones in the cave. However, this information is not necessarily correct, as neither human bones nor the bones of those particular animal species were found in later studies.

An old half-circle shaped jewellery on the sand.

In the cave, Evans also found silver filigree head jewellery belonging to a lady's circlet, which was not worn in Finland or in other Nordic Countries. It is known that similar jewellery was worn in the 13th century in Russia in the area of the Rivers Kama and Vychegda, from where the circlet may have come, in a barter deal, to Inari.  Evans took the circlet to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford but since 1999, it has been displayed at the Siida Sámi Museum (on long-term loan).

Archaeological Research in the 20th and 21st Centuries

Ilmari and Toivo Immanuel Itkonen, who had grown up in Inari, carried out archaeological and ethnological research in Inari from 1910 –1912. On Ukonsaari Island, they found reindeer antlers, charred wood and partly burned pieces of birch bark. In 1953, researchers Erkki ItkonenJouko Hautala and Matti Hako explored the island with the help of a local guide and visited a cave that corresponded to the description given by Fellman but antlers or other proof of religious rituals could no longer be found. The following excavation on Ukonsaari was carried out in 1968 and was headed by Anja Sarvas. They focused on the crack in the rock located on Ukonsaari's southwestern part, where they found animal bones, antlers and teeth.

The latest archaeological research was carried out on Ukonsaari in 2006. At that time, the researchers wanted to locate the previous archaeological excavations and find out whether there were any signs left of the sacrificial rituals. All the cracks in the rocks and caves were explored, and signs of sacrifices were found in some ten cracks in the rocks, where they carried out test excavations. Tests were also carried out on the other parts of the island but nothing was found apart from some 20th century coins.

The finds chiefly consisted of animal bones, teeth and antlers, which were analysed on the spot by the research team's osteologist. The bone finds were identified as the bones of deer/reindeer, goat/sheep, capercaillie / black grouse. In addition, there were bones from unidentified mammals and birds. The bones were re-buried in the same place they had been found and only a few bones were kept for further research. The bones were returned in order to honour the sacred site of the Sámi people. On the basis of radiocarbon dating, it can be concluded that sacrifices were made on Ukonsaari from the 14th century to the 17th century. In addition, they also found a silver kopek minted by Vasili Shuiski at the beginning of the 17th century as well as a fragment from a copper plate.
The archaeological excavations carried out in 2006 indicate that the ritual activities had been focused on the slope that gently slants to the west, i.e. the same area where the previous finds had been made. The large amount of deer/reindeer bones, antlers and teeth reflect the animal's central role in Sámi culture. The deer was an important game animal, and later the semi-domesticated reindeer became significant. On the basis of the bone finds, both male and female reindeer had been sacrificed, including young animals. Apparently, the best meat and the other most valuable parts were not sacrificed. On the antler finds, there were plenty of knife marks, which were not detected on the other bone finds. The second largest part of the bone finds consisted of sheep/goat bones and teeth. There are no records of sheep herding in the Inari area at that time. However, it is known that sheep herding was common in the Varanger area where the Inari Sámi people had close contacts. On the basis of the finds, however, some sheep or goats were also herded in Inari. Though unusual, it is probable that no fish sacrifices were made on Ukonsaari.

Ukonsaari Today

A tall rocky island rising from the water. There are tall cliffs on one side and lower flat rock on the other side. Small trees are growing on the island. The sky is dark and cloudy.

The role of Ukonsaari Island as a sacred place of worship for the Inari Sámi people rapidly changed when the Sámi people were Christianised in the 17th century. The conversion work culminated in the construction of Inari's first church at Pielpajärvi in 1646. The arrival of Christianity amongst the Sámi crucially changed the internal organisation of the siidas (i.e. the Sámi villages) and stopped, to a large extent, the practice of the ancient rituals. Nevertheless, some of the Inari habitants preserved their own belief system, or parts of it, alongside Christianity. Individual people and families made sacrifices on Ukonsaari until the 19th century, and it is known that reindeer antlers were still brought to the sacrificial site in the 1870s. According to a local legend, fishermen used to throw a coin in Lake Inarijärvi close to Ukonsaari Island and wish fair winds. The coins thrown by tourists onto the boulder fields are signs of a new custom related to tourism.

Today, Ukonsaari is important as a sacred place for Sámi people and as an archaeological and tourist destination. Ukonsaari is a significant part of the cultural heritage of the Inari Sámi people, and the island is important to local people from the perspective of their ethnic identity. It has been proposed that Ukonsaari be made into a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its cultural values. Visitors must pay their respects to the island's cultural significance.

Read more about the Sámi World View and Mythology

Harlin, Eeva-Kristiina. 2007. Inari 53 Ukonsaari osteoarkeologinen analyysi.
Itkonen, T. I. 1948. Suomen lappalaiset vuoteen 1945. II osa. WSOY. Porvoo.
Norokorpi, Y. & Ojanlatva, E. 2006. Ukonsaari Island. Lapland, Finland. Protected Areas and Spirituality. Proceedings of the First Workshop of the Delos Initiative. IUCN, Barcelona, Spain. s. 165-173.
Okkonen, J. 2007. Archaeological investigations at the Sámi sacrificial site of Ukonsaari in Lake Inari. Fennoscandia archaeologica XXIV. s. 29–38

The Wilderness Church of Lake Pielpajärvi

Pielpajärvi is the old centre of Inari. In former times, there was a winter village of Inari by the shore of this wilderness lake where people gathered to stay for the winter months. The church, built in the winter village in 1760, is one of the oldest buildings in northern Lapland. The reddish church stands on a stone field lined by a beautiful birch wood. A natural-state meadow now grows on the church grounds.

An old wooden church in a summery lush forest landscape. A wooden fence can be seen in the foreground. The paint is partly peeling off the church wall.

The wooden wilderness church of Pielpajärvi is the second church in this very spot. All the remains of the first church, which was completed in 1646, have disappeared, and only the decaying foundations of a few buildings are left from the winter village. The Pielpajärvi Wilderness Church and the nearby areas form a nationally valuable cultural heritage area. It has also been classified as a regionally valuable landscape area.

The management of the Pielpajärvi Wilderness Church is the responsibility of the Inari parish and the hiking structures in the destination are managed by Metsähallitus.

The Pielpajärvi Wilderness Church can be visited throughout the year and entrance to the church is free. The Pielpajärvi Wilderness Church is a destination for independent hikers.

Pielpajärvi Became the Centre of Inari

The areas around Lake Inarijärvi have been inhabited by the Inari Sámi people for a very long time. The Inari Sámi people's most important sources of livelihood were fishing and hunting. Reindeer husbandry was small-scale, and reindeer were chiefly used as pack and draught animals.

The annual migration cycle was an integral part of the Inari Sámi people's way of life. From spring to autumn, the families moved from one place to another depending on the hunting and fishing destinations. However, for winter the families gathered in one place of dwelling, i.e., the winter village. The winter village was the centre of social life and was also visited by merchants, ministers as well as the tax authorities. In the early 1600s, the winter village of Inari was moved to Pielpajärvi, which functioned as Inari's centre for a long time.

The First Church in Pielpajärvi

Consequently, it was only natural that the first church in Inari was built in Pielpajärvi. However, it was too small for people's needs right after it was completed. It was also difficult to get a minister to Pielpajärvi as there was no proper dwelling for him. The minister therefore only visited Inari once or twice a year.

The church service was a major event at the time. The event took one or one and a half weeks in winter and two or three days in summer. During that time people stayed in church cabins that were built on the church grounds. Besides religious affairs, worldly matters were also attended to: the minister and the parish clerk educated people and taught children, the market was organised, tax was levied and court sessions were also often held.

The New Church

The building of a new church became topical in the mid-1700s, when the old church was in disrepair and almost falling down. The construction work for the current church of Pielpajärvi began in 1752 and was completed in 1760. The new church was probably built on top of the old church, as was the custom of the time.

The shape of the church is a cross with almost equal arms. It is 14 metres long from north to south and 13.6 metres long from east to west. In 1760 - 1766 a belfry was built as an extension to the western transept. The lower part of the belfry functions as the church porch. The church galleries are located in the northern and western transepts. The stony church yard is surrounded by a skilfully-made paling fence. There is no graveyard in the vicinity of the church, as the dead were buried, because of beasts of prey, on the nearby Hautuumaasaaret islands.

The church was regularly maintained for a long time but after the mid-1800s, its maintenance was neglected. Consequently, the church was so badly run down that it was beyond repair. It was decided that a new church be built alongside better connections, i.e., by the mouth of River Juutuanjoki, where the current village of Inari had started to develop. The building of the new church was completed in 1888 and use of the Pielpajärvi Church was discontinued.

A New Upswing

The Pielpajärvi Church was reopened in 1940. The church located in the current village of Inari was destroyed in the Winter War bombings earlier that same year, and the Inari prayerhouse was made into a temporary church. However, the Inari inhabitants decided to have a service at Pielpajärvi during Midsummer. This became a tradition that still continues. Nowadays the Easter service is also organised at the Pielpajärvi Church. It is also a popular wedding church.

The church is a relic protected by law. The 30 - 40 church cabins and the parsonage located on the church grounds have been almost completely destroyed. The National Board of Antiquities renovated the church using traditional work methods in 1975 - 1976. Thereafter, it has been repaired and renovated at regular intervals.

There is plenty of flora on the church grounds. Metsähallitus has drawn up a management plan for the area. The church grounds have been mowed by voluntary workers in late summer from the year 2000 onwards.