• The Indigenous Saami people have long relied on reindeer for their livelihood. (Wikimedia Commons)Source: Wikimedia Commons
The Saami people are believed to be the first in the world to have begun herding animals.
Bianca Soldani

13 Dec 2016 - 11:35 AM  UPDATED 14 Dec 2016 - 10:29 AM

When people think reindeer, images of Santa coaxing Prancer, Dasher and Rudolf through the skies often come to mind.

But the real life tradition of the Indigenous people whose lives and livelihoods have long been tied to the reindeer of the Arctic Circle is much more ancient, and one that is now sadly at risk of being lost.

Who are the Saami people?

The Saami (or Sámi) people are the only recognised Indigenous people of the European Union. Their culture and history dates back tens of thousands of years and has been shaped by the harsh conditions of their traditional home in and around the Arctic Circle.

Sápmi – as the northern region was known - stretches across parts of what is now Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia’s Kola Peninsula. The Saami people were once the dominant culture in this area however they are now the minority in all but a handful of communities.

It is estimated that only around 80,000 Saami now live across these four countries, making up approximately two per cent of the Swedish population, 10 per cent of Norway, 1.5 per cent of Finland and less than 0.5 per cent of the population of Russia.

While often referred to as one people, Saami are actually divided into different ethnic groups with different languages and as an Indigenous people, they are subject to different rights depending on the country they live in.

Saami Culture

A close affinity to the natural environment is central to Saami culture. Historically, fishing, hunting and later breeding reindeer, were primary means of supporting Saami communities.

Some families, particularly ones dependent on local waterways, largely remained in permanent settlements, while others were known to adopt a more nomadic existence at the times of the year when they needed to follow their reindeer herd to more abundant seasonal pastures.

The Saami people's relationship with the land is traditionally a harmonious one where respect is shown for the environment's natural cycle of recovery so as not to over deplete any one resource.

In fact, their respect and understanding of the surrounding environment is such that a number of Saami languages have an extensive vocabulary to describe icy landscapes and the native animals that inhabit them. One language, for example, gives separate names to ordinary snow, wet snow, untouched snow, hard snow and thin, icy snow.

Reindeer and Saami life

Reindeer herding has long held an integral place in Saami culture, heritage and identity.

The Saami people are believed to be the first in the world to begin herding and taming animals. They used tamed reindeer to pull sleds as a means of transporting goods across long distances and to lure wild reindeer into their herds.

This traditional livelihood is one that they have carried through the centuries into the present day economy, where reindeer herding is now largely focused on meat production.

As a party to a number of international human rights conventions, the Swedish government has an obligation to protect Saami culture and livelihoods of which reindeer herding is one.

Under the 1971 Reindeer Herding Act, only Saami people are able to pursue it as a livelihood.

Meanwhile in Norway, Dr Nicholas Tyler from the Centre for Saami Studies at the University of Tromsø, tells SBS that "probably as few as 10 per cent of Norwegian Saami are directly involved - to a greater or lesser degree - with reindeer herding".

"It is, nevertheless, of huge cultural importance. Visit any museum of northern ethnic art and culture and you will see Saami culture represented chiefly through art and artefacts from reindeer herding."

"And, of course, the whole Santa Claus business with reindeer, sledge and presents is based on Saami reindeer herding," Dr Tyler adds.

Saami livelihood under threat

Sadly, the number of Saami reindeer herders are dwindling. The success of the trade relies on extensive tracts of land for the reindeer to graze upon and the ability of the herd to move to new and different types of pastures as the seasons change.

As such, the legacy of mining in the Arctic Circle, increasingly limited access to fresh pastures and the cost of modernising production, are putting this ancient livelihood at risk.

The Arctic Circle is rich in minerals, with mining digs pulling copper, lead, gold, silver, zinc, platinum and diamond from the area. It is also home to the world’s largest iron ore mine which is situated near the sinking Swedish town of Kiruna.

The people of this sinking Arctic town are orchestrating a staggering move
Kiruna will need to move three kilometres to the east to avoid total destruction.

Mining has played a huge part in limiting the land on which traditional herders can raise their livestock, not simply because of the space the mines themselves occupy – and the devastating effects they leave on the surrounding environment – but also because of its accompanying infrastructure.

Railways built at the turn of the 20th century to ferry material from the mines to larger urban centres effectively created new pasture borders, with many herders reluctant to risk the safety of their stock by crossing them over multiple lines.

Since then, exploratory mining digs and have further restricted the areas herders can graze their livestock as has the expansion of neighboring communities.

As Dr Tyler explains, "the key issue is pasture. Reindeer herding is progressively losing pasture to infrastructure development. This is evident right across Eurasia, from the Atlantic coast in Norway to the Pacific coast in the Russian Far East".

"At the same time, the nomadic lifestyle is fast being lost: people want hot showers, comfortable beds, Internet access and to be able to send their children to regular schools.

"The fact that people are no longer living with their animals increases the demand for mechanised transport such as snowmobiles and four-wheelers, which hugely increase costs."

Helicopters are also being used to monitor stock, a much more expensive piece of equipment than the traditional skis used by herders in the past, and one which is muscling many of the smaller players out of the industry.

Dr Tyler notes that modern regulations on the meat industry further limits grazing grounds.

"Traditional slaughter is no longer acceptable," he says, "markets demand modern processing and packaging of products, which means herds must maintain close proximity to slaughterhouses".

"So the future of reindeer herding will be on a smaller scale, more technological and with much more sophisticated marketing of products."

What else does the future hold?

Unfortunately, reindeer herding isn't the only aspect of Saami culture under threat. 

A history of assimilation policies and Christian missionaries has meant that much of their language and religion has been lost, but efforts are now being made in some countries to preserve Saami traditions, skills, knowledge and languages.

In Norway, the Sámi University College works with the local Saami community to preserve and promote these aspects of their culture as well as to "support Sámi society’s progress towards equality within the majority society".

Saami people in Norway also have their own parliament, which functions as a means of managing laws handed down by the national parliament and promoting their own political initiatives.

In Finland, the Saami were recognised as an Indigenous people in the Constitution in 1995. They therefore have the right to preserve and develop their language and culture, as well as the right to use their own language when dealing with government bodies and services.

Set in the Swedish town of Kiruna, Scandi noir drama Midnight Sun heavily features the Saami people. 

Swedish-Saami singer Sofia Jannok who stars in the series tells Nordisk Film and TV Fond, "the co-directors did good research on the Saami people and give a good picture of life within our community.

"Saami people are not mentioned in Swedish history books and rarely mentioned in the media. It was important to be featured in a TV show and to feel included."

Midnight Sun is currently streaming on SBS On Demand.

Watch the first episode in the series below:

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