Reindeer herding is more than just an occupation, it is a way of life and an integral part of the Sami culture and identity. Sami reindeer herders are privileged to live an extraordinary life, one that is peculiar to the modern world but cherished amongst the people who are born to the life. There are many herding families, but this is the story of one that is famous in Finnmark.
Reindeer herding happens in Spring, usually from mid April. The Sami family live in Kautokeino and prepare for their long journey. Grandma teaches the children what to bring for the trip. She has been herding reindeer for over 50 years and knows every inch of the migration trail. They pack tents, and clothes made out of reindeer fur and hide, perfect for the cold Spring. The Sami use every bit of a reindeer – nothing is wasted. They make traditional food from the flesh and the marrow of the reindeer bones is considered a delicacy. (However, beginners shouldn’t eat too much of this, even though it is really tasty it takes a little while for the stomach to get used to – prepare for frequent walks in the forest if you over-indulge.)
The Sami are also very good at making clothes from reindeer fur. Each hair of the reindeer fur is hollow inside which retains heat – much better than any super-deluxe snowsuit you could ever buy in a camping store. The fur on the reindeer’s snout is especially good for shoes as it is very strong. The Sami put dried grass in their reindeer boots for extra warmth. Traditionally, Sami used skis to herd their reindeer across the mountains. Nowadays they use snowmobiles to help herd the reindeer. But this doesn’t mean that the journey is any easier. Spending weeks on the snowy mountains and frozen lakes certainly has its challenges.
The family’s reindeer have spent the winter in the Finnmark highlands to breed and forage for food. Reindeer eat lichen, a mossy grass that lays under the snow. With their cup-shaped hoofs, the reindeer shovel the snow to get to the lichen. On the winter ranges the food runs out before the Spring comes and that is one of the first signs for the reindeer to migrate to the low grounds. It is a natural instinct for the herd to start their journey down the mountains for greener pastures.
On the low plateau the Sami family meet their reindeer on the migration trail. The family herd their reindeer into a makeshift pen for control checks after the long winter. The health of the reindeer’s teeth is the decider. If their teeth are good then the reindeer are ready for the long migration journey. If their teeth are poor then the reindeer are taken away to be slaughtered and sold as meat and fur products.
The Sami must get their reindeer to the Spring pastures before the snow melts and before the mothers start calving. The timing must be perfect. They must wait long enough for good weather and light to make the crossing of the mountains but if they wait too long the rivers can become alive again trapping the calving mothers on the ranges.
Sami and reindeer have a co-dependent relationship – the Sami need the reindeer just as much as the reindeer need the Sami. During bad weather it is very difficult to see in the mountains. The Sami have to rely on the reindeer’s instinct to find their way through the mountains, leading the Sami to safety. And likewise, when it is a warm year and the snow has melted, the reindeer stop because they want to eat the lichen peeking through. However, the Sami drive the reindeer on so they can reach the greener pastures in time before the calves are born.
During the journey the Sami sleep in lavvos – traditionally a cone shaped tent made of reindeer hide and supported by large tree branches. Nowadays a canvas and light aluminium rods are used for a five-minute pitch – really handy for when the wind picks up quickly. The fireplace is inside the lavvo and the snowy floor is laid with reindeer fur for sleeping. The family doesn’t bring much food with them as they go ice fishing and have reindeer cuisine. The children love to hear stories about Grandpa’s adventures. One of their favourite tales is about a mischievous wolf who one night snuck into the lavvo while the family was sleeping – however, this story doesn’t have a happy ending for the wolf.
There used to be many wolves that would follow the herding trail, which made it very dangerous for the family. But in the 50s the government allowed a culling of the wolves and gave NOK2500 for each carcass. Unfortunately a killing frenzy swept the north and now there are hardly any wolves left. However, now the family can have a safe passage to the Spring grazing grounds.
To pass the time the family sings ‘joik’ which more like a chant than a song. These chants are about the joy of Sami life and the wonderful gift of nature. Joik can be chanted to the reindeer, to the mountains and the snow in thanks for the life they give to the Sami and for their beauty. Joik are especially important in teaching the children about the joys of being Sami and the relationship the Sami have with nature.
Even the best-planned trips can have unexpected turns. Sometimes nature moves to fast and melts some of the rivers before they have been crossed. This makes the journey longer as the family has to navigate their herd around the banks of the rivers. It is frustrating as the family has a schedule to keep – they need to get to the dock on time. Every year the family hires a converted cattle barge to take their reindeer from the mainland across to the grazing island. It usually takes several trips to get all the reindeer across.
Once on the island the reindeer are free to wander and graze. The calves are soon born and stay with their mothers for protection. Reindeer ‘simle’ (or cows) are one of the only types of deer that grow antlers nearly as big as the bucks. This is so they can protect their young. Even though there are no wolves or wolverines to contend with on the island, the reindeer still have to protect their calves from the sea eagles and hawks. The Norwegian sea eagle is one of the largest eagles in the world and have no qualms about picking off one of the newly-borns for a meal and a half. And so, because of ‘mother nature’, the cows keep their antlers until their calves are big enough not to be attacked by the birds. Soon after the antlers drop off.
During Spring reindeer look rather scraggly as their winter coat sheds in patches. Their furry antlers get itchy as they start to peel for the Summer. The reindeer scratch their antler fur off on rocks and trees, which normally results in leathery strips dangling from their antlers until they dry out and fall off.
When the reindeer are settled it’s time for the Sami to return to their home in Kautokeino. Even though the nation is on Summer holidays, Sami children go to Sami school to learn about their culture and reindeer husbandry. From an early age Sami children are presented with a special branding design for when they become reindeer herders in the future. This branding design must be memorised along with other special family marks so their reindeer can be identified.
In the Autumn the family returns to the grazing island. It is very important to gather the reindeer from the mountains before breeding season starts. When a buck is ready to mate he will chase his group of females up into the mountains and will not allow them to come down before he has mated with them. By this time winter will have set in. This is a time when the Sami must work against the reindeer’s instinct for their own good. They must get their reindeer back over to the mainland before the mating season starts otherwise the crossing of the water will be too cold for the reindeer.
It can take a couple of days to bring the entire herd together on the low land. This is when the family brands the new calves. The family catch each calf with a lasso and give them to the father. He checks over them and gives them a good dose of vaccination via a squirt bottle into the mouth. He then carves a branding mark in the reindeer’s ear to distinguish which cow the calf belongs to. (This is how well the Sami know their own reindeer herd!) The father announces each ear slice ‘another one’… ‘and another one!’ before he puts it into his pocket. At the end of the controls he secretly counts the pieces. He then throws the pieces into the water so no one else will know how many reindeer the family has. It is rude to ask a Sami how many reindeer he has. It is like asking a Westerner how much money he has in his bank account. The Sami say their money ‘roams around’.
The reindeer are herded to the shore but this time there is no barge waiting for them. The family herd the reindeer into the water. At first the lead reindeer is nervous, prancing as not to get his hoofs wet but his instinct to get back to the winter grounds is too strong and he plunges into the fjord. Once he is in and swimming for the mainland the rest of the herd instinctively follows. The family follows closely behind in their small boats watching their money bob up and down on the waves. Sometimes the crossing can be treacherous but the Sami can’t wait for finer days, as they just might not come so close to winter.
The reindeer make it safely to the other side and they are happy to head home to their winter ranges. The migration back completes the unique life of Sami and reindeer.