Herding Cultures From Around the World: The Sami

This is the first piece in a series titled “Herding Cultures From Around the World.” Herding, classified as the movement of livestock based upon weather patterns, types of forage, and availability of land, dates back to nearly 10,000 years ago. Today, many herders continue to graze and manage their animals over varying terrain, on both public and private land, following the natural migration patterns of their herds. In an effort to underscore the importance of this vanishing way of life in the context of globalization and development, we wanted to share the stories of these indigenous groups that continue to graze their animals using traditional methods. For many herders (also referred to as “nomadic pastoralists”), essential animal habitat is threatened by corporations and governments seeking development opportunities. Often, their food, dress, and materials come directly from the animals they work with each day. It is our hope that these communities inspire you as much as they inspire us to continue to live with the land and fight to protect it.

THE SAMI

The Sami, an indigenous population in Scandinavia, began herding reindeer as early as 98 AD. Today, only about ten percent of the roughly 100,000 Sami people spread throughout Finland, Norway, Sweden, and parts of Russia are reindeer herders, traveling thousands of miles in the warmer months to graze their animals. As the Arctic emerges as the new energy frontier, with wind turbines and an extensive railroad project in the works, the Sami and their reindeer are being displaced, bereft of reparations or new work opportunities. The Sami are fighting for their land rights in court, as well as seeking government protection through new legislation. To maintain a sense of cultural pride and connection to their livelihood, Sami rely on their native languages, traditional dress, and reindeer for morale, meat, and materials. 

HISTORY

The first written account of domesticated reindeer was in 800 AD, when a Norwegian officer gave a report to King Alfred of England describing the Sami people and their livelihood, at which time they were following their reindeer on skis. Up until the 1500s the Sami practiced transhumance, moving to different pastures in the summer and winter to let their animals graze. They also fished and trapped animals to sustain themselves throughout the year. By the 1600s, reindeer husbandry was gaining in popularity and the Sami were harvesting a fraction of their herds. For the next several hundred years, Sweden, Finland, and Norway sought to gain control over Sami areas. There are only several thousand reindeer herders left today, and some have started incorporating modern technologies into their practice, using GPS tracking devices and snowmobiles to help locate and move their herds. A tradition that persists and one that is similar throughout animal husbandry is the “round up.” Each summer the Sami will round up their herd to mark the new calves. They will also doctor any reindeer that need attention and cull their herd if need be. The process is similar to gathering cattle on a ranch and ear tagging them.

FOOD

Reindeer meat is similar to elk in many ways: dark in color with a gamey taste. In Scandinavia, reindeer is considered a top shelf protein and you can find it in Oslo restaurants as commonly as you would in a Sami kitchen. Most people eat reindeer in pot pies, turn it into sausage or salami, or eat it raw as reindeer tartare. But meat is only a fraction of the Sami diet; they also eat the brains, fat, bones and hooves of reindeers. Bidos is a reindeer stew typically served at weddings and other special occasions. This recipe is quite similar to other meat stews throughout Europe and uses carrots and potatoes and little seasoning.

LANGUAGE

The Sami have about ten different native languages that are part of the Uralic family, linguistically similar to Finnish, Estonian, and Hungarian. Nearly 1,000 words are related to reindeer, their behavior, appearance, and habits. In the north, reindeer are called “boazu” and a reindeer herder is a “boazovazzi” which means “reindeer walker.”

A Finnish-Inari alphabet book, 1859.

Schools prohibited the use of the Sami language from 1773 to 1958 in an attempt to integrate the Sami into the majority society. This was part of the larger paradigm enforced by the Norwegian and Swedish governments to “civilize” the Sami. As the Sami population dwindled over time through forced assimilation and entered different professions, their native dialects faded away. The film “Sami Blood” (2011) follows the story of a young Sami girl, Elle-Marja, who’s enrolled in a Swedish boarding school in the 1930s. She’s discriminated against by her teachers and fellow students because she is Sami. The constant barrage of bullying becomes unbearable, to the point that Elle-Marja leaves her Sami family and culture behind in pursuit of a new life. The film was nominated for the Short Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2011.

DRESS

The traditional Gakti worn by the Sami people is a colorful pullover top. It varies in length - for men, the gakti can reach mid thigh, for women, the gakti can be a long dress with either a low or high collar. Depending on the region, Gakti can be adorned with applique, patchwork, plaits, tin art, or beading. These garments were historically made from reindeer leather, fur, and sinews, but today’s gakti use wool, cotton, and silk, too. Most Gakti are belted with a woven sash or leather strap. 

Gakti’s vary in style and function and the addition of colored applique and artwork is for ceremonies. But if the Gakti is worn while herding, the design is simpler and warmer, usually paired with reindeer fur leggings. 

Typical footwear is called “nutukas.” These are low boots made from the softest parts of the hide; either the forehead skin or the leg. The fur, instead of being on the inside of the shoe like today’s slippers, is on the outside of the boot. The sole of the shoe is patched in different pieces of fur. The idea is to have hair going in multiple directions to improve traction in the snow. “Nutukas” need to be made from soft leather because of the harsh weather. When herders put on their shoes in the morning in sub zero temperatures, they can’t be frozen solid. (The nutukas below have a toe hook used for skis).

MOVING FORWARD

The Sami people are entrenched in various legal battles to protect their way of life. The Sami that live in Lapland, an area in northern Finland, are facing threats from a variety of construction projects. In the eyes of European developers, the Sami homeland is a perfect mining opportunity. An annual survey by the Fraser Institute, which polled major mining and exploration companies, concluded that Lapland has copious mineral deposits and is the best place to invest in the world, pushing Saskatchewan, Canada, into second place. An extensive railway system, used to transport goods like oil, gas, and other mining and lumber products would cut straight through reindeer migration routes and important habitat. The railway’s service roads and quarries would be incredibly destructive to an ecosystem that, up until now, has been conservation land. In Norway, the construction of a large wind farm (72 wind turbines) by the company Oyfjellet Wind threatens vital reindeer grazing land. Reindeer refuse to graze near wind turbines, so lush pasture which surrounds the turbines is considered lost. Not only does limiting the amount of usable land pit herders against one another, it also strips herds of land that is necessary for a healthy grazing and calving season to sustain them through the winter.

These developments, some of which are “green,” fail to incorporate the rights of the Sami people and their reindeer. The hope is that migration routes can be protected under law and avoid destruction in Europe’s race to develop the Arctic. 


Want to learn more about the Sami?

Watch Sami Blood, streaming on Amazon.

Shop traditional Sami bracelets

Watch a short documentary film on the annual reindeer roundup