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Sapien Stories: The Norwegian Raindeer Herders

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Deepa is a freelance researcher and journalist. She writes and makes documentaries and videos.

The Renideers and the Norwegian Tribe, The Samis

A passel of rain deers speeding through the snow-garbed valley is a common sight of the Komsa mountain in Finmark. To an outsider, these swift and zaftig animals bring alive the memories of Christmas nights and age-old fairy tales- a flash flood of nostalgia drenched in childhood innocence and joy. To watch these animals against the Nordic expanse of snow indeed is a moment of perpetuity, relishable only in silent awe. The rain deer herders of Norway have no such romanticism attached to these fascinating creatures or their vocation connected to them. They herd reindeers, live off them, and possess them as the material markers of wealth. However, they too have a unique spiritual bond with these animals for embedded they both are in an eternal web of mutual dependence.

History of Reindeer Herding

The encyclopedia defines herding as the practice of caring for roaming groups of livestock over a large area. Of all the herders of the world, the reindeer herders of Norway evoke the most numinous charm. Finnmark, a part of Northern Norway, is home to these nomadic herders belonging to the Sami tribe. These Norwegian rain deer herders have been at it since the 17th century. The life of the Sami can be divided into the times before the colonial turf wars and after them. Before the colonizers came, the Samis co-existed with nature and depended on reindeers for their food, milk, travel, goods movement, and clothing needs.

The 3500-year old metier of reindeer herding has a recent history riven by development and nation-building. When Finland, Sweden, and Norway became independent nations in the 17th century, their governments began to put taxes on reindeer herding. The tax burden brought drastic changes in the Sami approach to herding. This vocation for them was all about livelihood until then. A new perspective based on wealth-creation emerged slowly as the taxes were to be paid in money, unlike in the self-reliant food-housing-and-clothing-based economic system they had. Reindeer herding essentially was about coexisting with nature but now it is a commercial activity. Thus also began the era of organized reindeer herding using modern vehicles, equipment, and more of a husbandry approach.

Reindeer Migration

The Samis used to own land collectively and they used to have little sense of ownership over the abundant landscape they are surrounded with. There were pasture lands assigned to each family just for the purpose of grazing reindeer. There still is an unwritten code in force by which one herder will not encroach on the land assigned to another. Each of the herds travels the same migration routes year after year, accompanied by their owners and their families. The Samis do not discriminate by gender in their herding practices. Neither women nor children stay at home when the migratory season sets in. Come another season, single families and families together hit the trail of this drawn-out expedition. Sleds drawn by reindeers, and skis pulled by them help the herders keep pace with their animals and prevent them from straying. Members of each herd have distinct earmarks, made when they are calves, to identify the herd to which they belong.

Spring and summer seasons witness the herders move to coastal destinations and during autumn and winter, they go back to the inland regions. The Norwegian Norsk rikskringkasting AS or the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK) telecasts these migrations live 24 x 7. For the broadcasting company, this project was a great challenge and this could have been why they named it “The Impossible Project”. The live video recording faced many obstacles. There was only limited satellite coverage in many of the remote locations of the migration path. The company placed huge mirrors on mountaintops and bounced off the satellite signals to boost them. Helicopters, drones, and snowmobiles were used to cover the entire herd that is usually of the size of 1000 to 2000. The live show was endearing to the entire herd of viewers as they stared wonder-struck and up close into the huge black eyes of the reindeers and the stunning backdrop of white snow till the horizon.

The migration in the Spring season is somewhat initiated by a female reindeer of the herd- the one who has the most magnificent set of antlers. She makes the magnificent first move and until then all others stay rooted to the spot. During the entire migratory journey, the reindeer herds would stop for a 1-3 hours power nap after each 6-hour stretch of the walk. A summer tourist, to great awe and surprise, could witness the reindeer herds swimming to coastal islands through the sea. Yeah, they are good swimmers too. The calving of reindeer also takes place in summer.

Herding Dogs

Modern life has not left the Samis untouched. Nowadays, the herders use snowmobiles, snow scooters, and helicopters to round up and watch their reindeer. One age-old practice that remains is the herders still use dogs. These herding dogs belong to three different breeds. The Swedish Lapphund is an indigenous dog breed and a close family to the world-popular Spitz breed. Lapphund dogs are usually black and easily spotted on snow. They have a loud bark as they communicate with the herders by responding to the “dog language” spoken uniquely by the Samis. It is basically a single-toned shout that is made to oscillate as the Samis move their hand across their mouth while making it. The Laponian Herder and the Finnish Lapphund are the other two breeds of dogs employed in Reindeer herding. These are dog breeds that love hard work.

Reindeer Lichen

In winter, when grass and other food become scarce, the herds are divided into smaller packs and made to graze in different parts of the mountains. Lichen is the staple food of reindeers in winter and it is a group of species known as reindeer lichen that they eat most. The name, reindeer lichen, stands for a lichen that is eaten by the reindeer, and incidentally, the same lichen looks like a reindeer horn, greyish white and branching out intricately. A lichen is a symbiotic combination of a fungus and an alga. The alga carries out photosynthesis for the fungus and the fungus supplies the alga with moisture and minerals. In the snow-covered winters, the reindeers create craters in ice by kicking with their feet and feast on the lichens underneath, a technique of food gathering unknown to other deer species. The reindeer also eats leaves, grass, a small-sized rodent species called lemmings, and even bird eggs and mushrooms. The lichens they eat have complex-structured carbohydrates in them and only the enzymes in the stomach of the reindeer can break them down and digest. Humans cannot digest these lichens. However, the Samis sometimes used to eat the partially digested lichens harvested from the stomach of a freshly killed reindeer. The native tribes used to cook these lichens along with reindeer blood and meat.

Snow, Snow, Snow

Snow is the essence of the Sami life. Snow governs all aspects of their nomadic existence. They call ice and snow by many names, a vocabulary of about 200 words. Speaking of which, the languages Arabic, Sanskrit, and the Sami language have one thing in common- they have the dual form of the noun and the verb. For example, if one is talking about apples, these languages have a form of the noun and a corresponding verb form, to represent ‘two apples’. The Sami chants resemble Sanskrit chants in intonation and sound. There are more than 10 Sami dialects.

The word ‘Seanas’ in the Sami language means the dry kind of snow that has large grains with water locked in it. This snow is seen during the spring season and in late winter too. ‘Muohtti’ means snowfall, askka means a frozen river of snow, borga is snowdrift, bulzi is a crust of snow on a tree branch or on a tool, cuohki is the crust of ice on a pasture, earbmi is the snow falling with light snow flakes, bearta is the weather after snowing when the snow becomes compact, vahca is new powdery snow, and slavzi is the utterly drenching wet snow. The Sami understanding of snow is ingrained with a deep ecological awareness that might not even be comprehended by outsiders easily. Though not a nation themselves, the Samis have a flag of their own. Red, green, yellow, and blue, the colors of this flag, are also prominent colors in the Sami traditional attire.

The Sami Flag

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The Sami Life

The expert reindeer herder knows how to keep the herd in good shape and to the best use. For this, some males are castrated, some animals are periodically set aside for culling and the production of meat, some are turned into draft animals, and the total number of reindeers in a herd is kept proportionate to the size of the pasture land. The life span of a reindeer is 10 to 15 years. The male sheds its antlers after the rut while the females keep them through winter, and the pregnant ones drop it only after calving.

The Samis believe that the reindeer antlers have a direct connection with heaven and hence are sacred. They hang antlers above their places of worship. A Sami shaman would wear antlers on his or her head. Some Sami tribes even believe that they descended from the reindeer. Killing a reindeer for meat was a ritualistic and rarely chosen deed for the earlier Sami but now the meat industry has taken over resulting in mindless slaughter. The parts of the body of a reindeer that the Sami would have preserved for other uses- such as making boots and knitting- nowadays are discarded and thrown away in slaughterhouses. The fur was used to make clothes, and the antlers were modified into tools and handicrafts by the Samis. For the modern reindeer herder, there is too much competition, government control, industry demands, shrinking of pastoral lands, taxes, and a change of speed brought about by automated herding to cope with. What ensues is an age-old tradition with all its ecological nuances disappearing into a labyrinth of sheer commerce and market rules.

Threats: Climate to Mining

Climate change is another threat that looms over the lives of the Samis and their reindeers. Arctic temperatures are rising caused by global warming. Colonizing trees such as Dwarf Birch and Willow have taken advantage of the early spring and a late winter induced by global warming. Nowadays these invasive species flourish in the Norwegian forests as well as the Tundra. These trees have become a threat to the natural vegetation. The texture of the snow on the ground is also changing thereby making it difficult for the herders to find their herds by following their foot tracks on the snow. A warmer climate produces thicker layers of snow making it difficult for reindeers to dig out lichens in winter. Large-scale mining and tourism operations are also encroaching upon and shrinking the pastoral lands of the reindeer.

The World of the Reindeer

Other than in Norway, there are reindeer herders in Finland, Sweden, Russia, Greenland, Alaska, Mongolia, China, and Canada. The Siberian reindeer herders are similar to the Norwegian reindeer herders in the extreme weather they both have to cope with. The Arctic, Eurasia, Mongolia, and North China are the natural habitats in which reindeer and herders thrive. There are seven different species of reindeer- Eurasian Tundra Reindeer, Svalbard Reindeer, Eurasian Forest Reindeer, Alaskan Caribou, Woodland Caribou, Barren-ground Caribou, and Peary Caribou. Smoked reindeer heart is a gourmet delight in Sweden. Grilled reindeer, reindeer tartare, and reindeer salami are also there to tempt the taste buds of newcomers to the Scandinavian world of snow.

Time and change cannot be stopped but they could be adapted to the best for the life of earth-for both humans and other life forms. To leave an ecological breathing ambit for the Samis and the reindeer is the least the world could do to help them survive.


Reindeer Herding in Norway, Sanna (Jennifer Foster),

NRK TV, Live Telecast of Reindeer Migration

Reindeer Herding Dogs of Lappland,

Reindeer Lichen, Hiker’s Notebook

Sami Word for Snow (Sort Of), Tideman,

Reindeer in the Sami Mythology,

Norway, The Twilight of the Reindeer, Documentary by Emmanuel Roblin

What Santa Won’t Tell You: Reindeer Meat is Delicious, by Nick Marino,

© 2021 Deepa

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