Pastures New: Herding Reindeer with Norway’s Sami People

Pastures New: Herding Reindeer with Norway’s Sami People

This article appears in Volume
25: The Pioneer Issue

flights, one snowstorm and an airport that consists of four
chairs and not much else later from stepping out of my front door,
I arrive in the snow-capped region of Hasvik on the Norwegian
island of Sørøya. Undoubtedly you’ve never heard of it, unless
you’re an overly keen fisherman who’s kept an eye on the exact
locations of recent deep-sea fishing world records.

The next two days are spent preparing for the arrival of the
reindeer, with the whole family falling into their individual
roles. Everything must be ready to go as the timing of the
migration and route taken is up to the deer themselves – “We are
just there as guides,” Nils laughs. We set about organising rations
and stretching out the lassos that have been stored for the summer.
Hendrick suddenly tells me to run and before I know it, he has me
tightly tangled up in his ropes. Before he releases me, he can’t
resist smugly pointing out that the deer have four legs and antlers
to contend with, making me twice as difficult to catch – and yet I
still miserably failed to get away.

Each member of the family wears the same colourful, hand-made
clothes as their ancestors did, to which they will add reindeer
furs when the temperature drops. No Gore-Tex jacket could compete
in the depths of winter, they tell me. It’s a necessary precaution
– once the deer arrive to the corral, the families can be working
for more than 24 hours at a time, sleeping on the mountain in long,
gruelling days and nights that merge into a blur. It might seem
like a tough life – but these are the Sami, and the desire to work
alongside nature this way is in their blood.

However, I’m not here for the fish. I’m here because this remote
island, deep in the Arctic Circle and at the northernmost tip of
Norway, is the traditional summer home of the Sami people. For
thousands of years these indigenous people have co-existed with
reindeer herders (also known as boazovázzi) and each year they make
the pilgrimage to follow thousands of deer from their lush summer
pastures on the island to the wintering grounds on the mainland’s
tundra. With the creatures outnumbering humans by a ratio of six to
one, this is no easy task – particularly as during the summer
grazing season the deer will have spread across the island’s
unforgiving mountainous terrain. Around 40 Sami must club together
to corral them using modern luxuries such as boats, motorbikes,
ATVs and even a helicopter to locate the stragglers. The whole
process can take up to a month.

I join the tribe at the end of September just as the winter
migration preparations are beginning and am greeted by Nils Sara,
the father of the Sami family with whom I’ll be staying. We’ve been
introduced by Visit Natives, a travel agency dedicated to
supporting the herders’ lifestyle through small-scale tourism and
homestays with local families. Founder Anniina Sandberg was
inspired to protect the indigenous culture of her homeland after
spending nine months living with a Maasai tribe in Tanzania. The
majority of the money raised goes directly to Sami families in
order that they may better be able to resist the financial pressure
to move to the cities in search of alternative work, thus
preserving the culture of herding for the next generation.

The importance of this mission is brought home to me when I meet
Nils’ ten-year-old son (and total badass) Hendrick, who having
inherited calves from the age of two is now a seasoned veteran with
his own lasso, knife and small herd. Unfortunately for me the
herding process, due to begin on the day I arrive, has had to be
postponed thanks to unseasonably bad weather – the warmer summers
and unpredictable winters brought about by climate change are known
to affect the herding patterns, although it’s impossible to say for
sure if this is the case here. Instead, I head out to the
still-grassy and golden hills under Hendrick and Nils’ guidance to
watch them constructing the goahti, the traditional tepee-like
structure that will be their home for the two months that the
migration lasts.

As the evening draws in Nils shows me how to smoke reindeer meat
over a low fire, which his family will enjoy with foraged berries,
sweet flatbread and mountain-herb tea in a meal that almost has me
questioning my vegetarianism. Sitting on a deerskin rug alongside
them, it’s a timeless scene and an opportunity to slow down before
the real work begins. Before we sleep Nils takes me outside and
explains how lucky he feels to live with the same great sense of
purpose as his forefathers. It’s only as we move further into the
darkness that I realise the sky is dancing with green light. I’ve
been so exhausted and focused on the prospect of reindeer that I’d
completely forgotten I’m in the land of the Northern Lights.

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