The Deer that Reigns

A creation story related by Risten Lango, a Sami reindeer herder, tells of a white reindeer creating the world. The reindeer’s veins became rivers, its fur became forest, its stomach became the ocean, and its horns became mountains. For the Sami people of Scandinavia and Russia, reindeer is a staple. Some Sami herd reindeer; they rely on the animal extensively for food, tools, and clothing. Reindeer are also important to coastal Sami, who traditionally supplemented their diets of sheep, cattle, salmon, and trout with small numbers of domesticated reindeer and traded goods and labor with herding Sami for reindeer meat and clothing.

Traditional ways of preparing reindeer follow the seasons. In the springtime, after calves are born, reindeer are slaughtered, and enough meat is dried to last through the summer. Mature animals are not butchered during summertime, because the grass that makes up the animals’ summer diet makes the meat taste unpleasant. Nursing calves, however, are butchered each August, both for their tough, warm skin—the best material for winter clothing—and for their tender meat, a luxury food.

Starting in September, reindeer are butchered again. This time the meat is smoked and eaten during the reindeer’s migration inland. (Reindeer go to the coast in the summer to escape mosquitoes; in the winter, they go inland to avoid the coast’s harsh weather.) Fresh meat is eaten throughout the winter. And whenever dinner needs to be cooked for a large group of people—in the case of weddings, sometimes up to 1,400—the Sami cook bidus, a simple dish of sliced meat boiled with potatoes, carrots, and sometimes onions. Sami cuisine uses all parts of the reindeer: Bone marrow fortifies soups. Iron-rich pancakes made from reindeer blood are traditionally fed to pregnant women.

The animals’ bones, sinews, skin, and fur are vital ingredients in the traditional Sami craft called duodji. Men traditionally use antlers, bones, and wood to make dishes and sleds. Leg bones are used as stoppers in Sami reindeer lassos. Women use reindeer fur and skin to make outdoor clothing—shoes, hats, gloves, and jackets. White shoes, made from the legs of a white reindeer, are a status symbol. “It’s not often in a herd that you have bright white, only white,” Lango explained. “If you have a lot of white shoes, that means you have a lot of reindeer.” Today, homemade bone and antler souvenirs are becoming an important source of income for many Sami people.

However, a number of issues threaten the reindeer’s role in herding Sami culture. In 1978, the Norwegian government instituted a licensing system, under which each siida (a one- or two-family herding group) must have a license-holder registered with the government. While historically women have administered Sami affairs, the license holders nowadays tend to be men. The government doesn’t officially restrict the licenses to men, but very few women have them.

“We also get the cultural trends that are not so positive from modern society,” said Pal Hivand, a communication advisor for the Sami parliament. “In this case most men do have the licenses and women don’t. My personal theory is that these political bodies that were established to give these licenses were dominated by men and men tended to give licenses to other men.”

Because each siida has a limited number of reindeer, men tend to do most of the herding work. Lango worries that the gap between women and men—as well as women’s tendency to pursue college and careers instead of herding—will mean that children are no longer exposed to the herding life. If children don’t get involved at a young age, it could spell trouble for traditional knowledge of handicrafts, food preparation, and the Sami language.

Global warming and land encroachment also pose threats. Even in winter, reindeer roam over natural grazing areas, rooting out lichen that they can smell through deep snow. But last winter, unusual weather forced herders to buy feed instead of relying on the land. Snow melted and then re-froze, forming a thick layer of ice over the lichen and making it difficult for reindeer to eat.

“Absolutely all kinds of building of infrastructure, military activity, all of that is a bad thing for reindeer herders, because that takes land,” Lango said. Vacation cabins and the roads they require are a particular point of contention. “It is very hard in a way to get those who want to build these villages or these cabins to understand that they’re actually disturbing the animals. They don’t see the value of this land in the same way that reindeer herders do.” For good health, reindeer need a variety of landscapes—rivers, valleys in the springtime, and mountains in the summer—available for grazing.

“When you lose land, you need to reduce the activity of the herd, you need to slaughter more,” Lango said. “And then the question is, is it then possible to survive with that amount of animals?”

About a decade ago, an Australian company found gold on Sami land, but left at the Sami parliament’s request. “But this time it’s a Norwegian company [Store Norske Gold],” Lango said, “and this time I think it’s harder to stop them.” She points out that reindeer grazing uses about 60 percent of Norway’s land. “And it’s not a lot of money, it doesn’t generate a lot of taxes for the Norwegian government,” she said, especially compared to other things the land could be used for: gold mining, oil and gas drilling, hydroelectric power plants.

With mining, the Sami may get a break: the laws concerning mining in Norway are currently being re-written to include broader surveying requirements and more protections for herders. But under current Norwegian law, Hivand says, the land that reindeer use for grazing is not permanently protected. Politically, it is up for debate. Even within the Sami people, “it’s a constant conflict of interest,” he said. “Only about 5 or 6 percent of the Sami population in Norway are reindeer herders. That means 94 percent of us do other things to make a living, so it’s a constant dilemma. How important is it to protect the reindeer industry, as opposed to other industries that are Sami? We are road-builders and lawyers and teachers. Only a small percentage of us are reindeer herders.”

Nonetheless, Lango says reindeer have been key to helping the Sami people survive Scandinavian and Russian governments’ forced-assimilation policies. Although many Sami people were never reindeer herders, the herding lifestyle is so unique that “for reindeer herders at that time it was impossible to hide that you were Sami, and they didn’t try.”

“I think that without reindeer herding, the revitalizing of the Sami language would not be possible,” Lango said. “Without reindeer culture, Sami culture would have been history.”

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