Living With a Family of Sami Reindeer Herders

by Abby and Weston Tanner
living with sami reindeer herders

Northern Scandinavia is a remarkable place for natural beauty and picturesque villages. It is just about as far from a city as you can imagine. There’s a full horizon of unspoiled nature among the midnight sun in summer, and northern lights dancing over the tundra in winter. It is plain and simple, magic. This fall, my husband, Weston, and I had the rare opportunity of living with a family of Sami reindeer herders for two months.

Ever since I first learned of the indigenous Sami people several years ago I have been absolutely fascinated. We found this family through the online social platform, Workaway. Instead of traveling quickly from place to place, we are able to take up residence in a family’s home for a week or several months (almost always the latter). We live and work with families in exchange for food and housing, enabling us to redefine traditional travel and dive into a culture.

Enchanting as it seems, it’s still an unforgivable place to live. Temperatures can reach -40 degrees in wintertime, so reliance on modern technology in the form of snowmobiles and a good food supply (especially chocolate!) is imperative this far north.

Workaway: An Enlightening Experience

Our experience with our host family in northern Norway was life changing, to say the least. We learned about herding and handling techniques, earmarking, skinning, and butchering. We were part of the entire process from locating the herds to cooking reindeer soup. They became part of our family, and we’ll be traveling back to the north to help with the reindeer again in just a few weeks.

Our stay was nothing short of a thrilling adventure, but there was a lot we didn’t understand before our arrival. Now, we have a clearer picture of Sami history and the current threats they’re facing today, including the possible extinction of their language and heritage.

A Culture of Several Thousand Years

Here, above the Arctic Circle, is a culture dating back thousands of years; the Sami. They are the indigenous people of Sápmi, a cultural region that encompasses most of northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Kola Peninsula of northwest Russia. According to the Samer website, no one knows for sure how many Sami people there are, because a census of the Sami hasn’t been taken since World War II. However, it is estimated that there are between 65,000 to 100,000 Sami at present, with a vast majority living in Norway. They have traditionally been fisherman, fur trappers, and reindeer herders. They have been able to live off the Arctic Tundra for the past couple millennia.

Can you imagine what it took to be Sami living on the Arctic Tundra just 100 years ago? The Sami are arguably the most rugged survival experts known to man (and woman!). Traditionally, they lived nomadically in Lavvus, visually similar to the Native American tipi, and moved on skis to follow the migration of the reindeer herds.

Land Threats: A Growing Concern

The history of Sami culture is extensive and they’ve battled severe discrimination and loss of land for the past several centuries. Even in present times they struggle to protect their land and reindeer migration routes from Scandinavian governments and big industry in search of metals, oil, natural gas, and most currently, renewable energy. The governments of Norway, Sweden, and Finland are under constant criticism by the international community, including the United Nations Racial Discrimination Committee and the Human Rights Committee for continuously taking land and disrupting important reindeer migratory routes.

As Scandinavia constantly grows their renewable energy industry there is increased pressure to find appropriate areas to initiate the projects. Not only is the north sparsely populated and inherently untouched, but the coastline is a great source of wind power for building wind turbines. While there is growing concern for climate change and having renewable resources, many communities in the north oppose such development, especially the Sami.

living wiwth sami reindeer herders

Climate Change

It’s not that the Sami people are against green energy, but quite the contrary. Many Sami people throughout the north have already seen notable signs of climate change and how it affects their reindeer herds.

For example, in the winter months the reindeer often nudge their way through snow to graze. However, in recent years there has been more rain causing ice to freeze on top of the snow. This prevents the reindeer from getting vital nutrients to survive, leaving them vulnerable to starvation. We heard innumerous conversations amongst the Sami complaining of climate change, and how much of an impact the changing temperatures are complicating their work and confusing the reindeer.

How Sami Reindeer Herders Care For Their Animals

If you think that you could just pop some hay out for the reindeer, think again. These reindeer are wild, and there are several thousand in any given community district (over 10,000 where we were living). Since the animals usually don’t travel all together, but stay in relatively small herds scattered throughout the mountains and tundra, it becomes gradually more difficult for the Sami to help the animals endure the winter.

One thing we learned above all else during our stay was how much the Sami care for their animals. They are constantly in the mountains following the herds. In the community we were living in, the herders worked very hard, long hours seven days per week to ensure the safety and well being of the reindeer.

Before we left, they were attempting to keep the animals in the “summer place” for as long as possible. If the reindeer head to the “winter place” too soon and before the first snowfall, they have the possibility to fall through the frozen lakes and break their legs or drown if the ice isn’t entirely solid. As the climate has changed over the past several decades, it is becoming trickier to delay the migration to the “winter place” and keep the reindeer safe.

Government Policies Affect the Reindeer Population

So you see, the Sami care about climate change and often support renewable energy, but not when it causes harm to reindeer herds and migratory routes. If there is heavy construction and the erection of several wind turbines near reindeer lands, it can cause the animals to run into the high mountains in the opposite direction. Even the appearance of wind turbines can disturb migratory patterns, which can lead to shorter food supply, less breeding, and safety concerns for the herds.

Logging practices in northern Finland can have the same affect. If there’s a lot of ice where the animals can’t dig through the snow, they will often resort to eating the lichen off trees. When trees are being logged on reindeer grazing lands, this takes away vital food sources, which can again, lead to starvation.

Understanding Needs

It is evident that the Scandinavian governments don’t recognize the needs of their indigenous communities. Even worse, the government currently regulates traditional reindeer herding practices; from how many reindeer a district can have to how they are slaughtered for private use. A Sami individual in Norway can’t even start reindeer herding if their parents didn’t pursue it. For a culture that has been using these traditional practices for a couple millennia, it is astounding that a government would seek to control over seeking to understand and work with these important communities.

Governments and large corporations frequently leave the Sami people out of the planning process, so instead of working with them to find a solution, they are often fighting their local indigenous communities because they don’t properly understand their needs or how reindeer herding works. If politicians spent some time in the north, dare I say, living with a family, they may be able to make better decisions and help the Sami preserve their culture instead of hindering its opportunity for survival.

A Hard Life

When Weston and I visited Sápmi, we helped collect the reindeer herds and earmark the calves. According to the community of Sami we were working with, this was one of the worst years they had seen in decades. The previous winter was so long and hard, even through calving season in the spring, that many of the calves didn’t survive the rough conditions. They only had a small percentage survive, which means smaller herds and less money for Sami families.

Even one bad year can have a massive financial impact on this community. The family we lived with only gets paid two times per year when they sell some of their reindeer to the local slaughterhouse. Reindeer meat rates and the amount of calves an individual herder will have in a given year are two variables that are constantly changing. With all these moving parts, the Sami have to be very good at money management and prepare for bad years with little pay. Because the amount of money they receive fluctuates every year, the banks make it more difficult and in some cases, impossible to get approved for loans.

A Hefty Price Tag

Herding comes with a hefty price tag. Not only do you have to have snowmobiles and ATV’s for each herder (which translates to several vehicles for some families), but you have to pay for gas, proper winter attire (and wool’s not cheap!), a trailer, a car or truck to haul your vehicles, and a Lavvu or several small cabins in the mountains. The list goes on an on.

Plus, the vehicles you own need to be the newest models. If you go several days into the mountains where there are no roads and only a horizon of Arctic Tundra, you want to be sure your vehicles won’t break down. It’s a big safety issue, especially in -40 degrees, complete darkness, and several feet of snow.

With all these investments and a very small probability of getting approved for a loan, it’s no wonder why so many Sami people are unable to continue their reindeer-herding heritage and why the culture is slowly becoming non-existent. This can be very frustrating for the Sami people, and is often a grim reminder of all the ways colonialism has taken from indigenous communities not only in Scandinavia, but all over the world.

A Long History of Discrimination

The Sami people have faced discrimination for several centuries. When Weston and I lived with our host family, there was no shortage of history lessons. Our host family and the other Sami people we met were all very knowledgeable about their past, and still feel the ripple affect of crimes committed against their people. Below, I have outlined a few significant ways their culture has been previously threatened.

  • According to author Eeva Minn in her book The Lapps (actually a derogatory term to most Sami), when Scandinavian countries were fighting for dominance over the north in the 13th century, the Sami were exposed to taxation by as many as three countries at once. And, if one country found out that they had paid taxes to another, they would also receive a fine. This heavy taxation lasted until the Treaty of Strömstad in 1751.
  • Christian missionary work began in the 13th century. It wasn’t until the early 1700’s that aggressive efforts began, which is when the Sami were forced to give up their drums and other religious artifacts and convert to Christianity. Many Sami shamans were burned alive at the stake when they refused. According to the Samer website, only 70 drums are still preserved today.

  • According to Vladimir Bogoraz’s The Red Book, in 1930’s Russia, the Sami were asked to give up their nomadic lifestyle and culture and instead take up farming. Those that refused were sent to Solovets concentration camp.
  • In the late 1800’s, “Norwegianization” was an official policy of the government, which targeted the Sami. Its purpose was to streamline non-Norwegian-speaking groups into one uniform Norwegian population, and discourage native populations from partaking in their own culture. Laws were passed prohibiting schooling in the Sami language and restricting the Sami from purchasing land. Norwegianization wasn’t discontinued until the 1980’s, but the lasting impact of this policy is still felt today through racism and perceived stereotypes of the Sami population.
  • According to Bente Persen’s research at the University of Oslo, in the 1950’s the Sami people were classified in the same category as the “mentally disabled” and “insane.”
  • In the 1930’s, repressive boarding schools were established in Sweden for Sami children. Not only were adolescents stripped of their clothes for “race biology examinations,” but even outstanding pupils were told that their brains weren’t properly equipped to handle “regular” Swedish schools. They weren’t allowed to speak Sami or practice their religion. Boarding schools were a major part of educating Sami students until the 1960’s. On a side note, Sami Blood, a movie dramatization recently released, examines what life was like for young Sami in boarding schools during the 1930’s. It was a fantastic film, one I highly recommend for those interested in Sami history.

The Sami Reindeer Herders Persevere

Even amongst sophisticated assimilation tactics, the Sami are still around today. They have persevered through some brutal discrimination, but their work is far from over. According to the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, there are several Sami dialects in danger of extinction. In fact, UNESCO is classifying all Sami languages from “definitely endangered” to “extinct.” Oftentimes a disappearance of a language means the loss of an entire culture. Earlier I mentioned several ways the Sami are currently being marginalized by banks, industry, and their own governments. All these items combined could very well be the straw that breaks the reindeer’s back, causing an entire culture to slowly decline.

Hope for the Future

Scandinavian governments are stuck in old habits and slow to change, but there are small steps being taken every day to help preserve Sami heritage. Nothing will ever truly make up for the significant losses in culture and history that the Sami people have faced, or for the land that has been taken from their families. We have the power to prevent history from repeating itself by taking steps to ensure the preservation and promotion of indigenous populations all over the world.

Before heading to the far reaches of northern Norway, Weston and I romanticized the idea of living with an indigenous family and learning more about reindeer herding. We were oblivious to their prior challenges and current struggles. The Sami’s love of animals, their connection to nature, fighting for the preservation of their land, and their tight family bonds repeatedly surprised and impressed us.

What we’ve shared with you in this article isn’t simply to educate you on the status of the Sami people. We firmly believe that if more people lived with host families there would be less ethnocentrism and “xenophobia”, or a dislike of people from other countries. You come to appreciate other ways of life and understand why people have different opinions when you can live and work the way they do. Their struggles become your struggles. Their successes become your successes. Part of your soul starts to identify with that community. They become a part of you, as do their values.

It’s a bond of two different cultures coming together through genuine human connection, creating a more accepting, peaceful, and open-minded world. If you have an opportunity to live with a host family, all I can say is this: do it.

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-All photos by Abby and Weston Tanner.

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Abby Tanner December 26, 2017 - 8:19 am

We’re so happy and proud to share this article on Confetti Travel Cafe! Thank you Nancy, for all your help and support with this one!

Nancy Zaffaro December 28, 2017 - 6:39 pm

Abby, quite the opposite! Thanks so much for sharing your work with all of us. We love what you’re doing!

Dear Readers: don’t miss the links at the end of Abby and Weston’s article that link to their videos. The videos share wonderful glimpses into this couple’s adventures!

Leila Wilson January 5, 2018 - 11:13 pm

I am so very Proud of what Abby & Weston are doing with their lives and Sharing with the World! Only wish I had the foresight at their age. What an awesome Venture! Of course I love these kids because they are my Granddaughter and Grandson in Law! Happy Trails for the rest of their Lives! More Love! Grandma & Grandpa

Karen November 15, 2019 - 11:58 am

My cousin recently had his ancestry DNA done and a small percentage of possible Sami ancestry appeared. We knew our ancestors came from Sweden, but we didn’t know we might have a connection to the indigenous people. So glad to read that, despite many challenges, they’ve managed to keep their cultural traditions alive. Thanks for the inspiration… we might be making an ancestry trip here someday.

Nancy Zaffaro November 15, 2019 - 12:12 pm

Thanks for writing, Karen, and I’m glad you like Abby and Weston’s article. Their trip was really special because they were able to live there for months. But of course, genealogy trips are very special int their own way. I hope you get to make that trip!


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