The University of Iowa

Reindeer husbandry in the land of Sámi

July 14th, 2014

By Kelsey Frisk*

Although my research topic is analyzing the perceived overall health of Sami herders over the age of fifty, I’ve learned much, much more than I expected regarding the Sámi’s culture, lifestyle, and political discourses they face.

“I wonder if U.S. customs will let me bring one back?” This was the question that kept running through my mind as I stared with awe and googly eyes at the reindeer and their calves all morning. It was finally the moment I had been waiting for, to conduct research in Northern Sweden in a Sámi, reindeer herding community. When I received my first call to attend the tagging of the reindeer calves, I was both nervous and excited. My thoughts were racing. Would they accept me? Would I be able to speak to them, even so, would we be able to understand each other? In reality, I was a nervous wreck, but I was also ready to take on the unknown, and delve into what I came to discover in the first place.

The Sámi people are the only recognized indigenous population in northern Sweden, Norway, Finland and the Kola Peninsula of Russia. They are often split up even further into mountain, forest, and coastal Sámi where their geographic location more or less dictates their professional and economic options. Historically, their professions range from reindeer herding, fishing, handicraft, and other miscellaneous professions. They were a nomadic people, who followed the migration of their reindeer herd or where fishing was best. In current times, reindeer herding Sámi are only Semi-nomadic and no longer follow their herd year round. They live in towns or cities, and lead lives fairly similar to the general Swedish population.

Below is a photo of me in Lappstan (Lapp city). Using the term lapp to refer to a Såmi was once common but is now considered derogatory. One reason is due to the meaning of lapp in Swedish (which translates to patch.) This often gave an impression to others that Sámi people dressed in patches and were poor. Another reason is due to their self-determination and geography. Most Sámi live in the Lappland area (with a few exceptions) but Swedish citizens with non-Sámi heritage also live there, and using the term lapps lumped the two groups of people together. Today they generally go by Sámi, although this depends from each country within Scandinavia.

Selfie in front of a Swedish hut

Taking a ‘selfie’ in front of a traditional Sámi hut in Lappstan

The first night I attended the tagging, as I sat next to the fire for warmth and some coffee, I was asked (by many people) what I was doing there. Once they realized I was foreign, the dialogue would normally go a little like this (although in broken Swedish, of course):

Herder: Hallå (hello) where are you from?

Me: Hallå, I’m from the US, Iowa specifically.

Herder: Oh, okay…. What are you doing here… ?

Me: I’m conducting a research project through my University and the Stanley Grant for International Research over health in relation to reindeer husbandry.

Herder: Oh, okay… Interesting…

Me: Oh thanks, it’s nice to meet you.

I was quite prepared for people to feel uncomfortable with my initial presence, but it didn’t mean I was numb to the feelings of confusion and slight tension that arose. The duration of that first night these feelings occurred frequently, but the second, third and following nights I was starting to feel like one of them, only with a funny accent.  

After the tension had subsided, it was time to watch and take part in the tagging, which is the most exciting part of the night. With the help of four wheelers, cars, dirt bikes, and some old fashioned walking, the herders guide their reindeer into the corral. Each Sámi Sameby, or community, consists of several herders and their reindeer.

herd of reindeer

The herders work at night from roughly from 5PM to 6AM. Luckily, being only 50km from the Arctic Circle, you can experience the midnight sun, which allows the herders to work easily throughout the night.

Collectively, they have around two thousand reindeer, which often mix into smaller herds throughout their land. In order to distinguish one herder’s reindeer from another they have to tag their individual reindeer with their own personal tag, in which they cut a specific design into the ears of the young calves. The Malå Sameby, in which I am conducting research within, has over one hundred tags for each individual person from the elder herders to their five-year-old grandchildren.

tagging reindeer in Lappland

In this photo there are cutting the tag into the calf’s ears. Each person has their own specific design with their tag, this one happened to be the girl’s above although she is too young to cut it herself.

The process of tagging is a long and tiresome endeavor that starts just after the midsummer solstice and lasts from two to four weeks, depending on weather and other circumstances. The Malå Sameby’s summer location spans ten by forty kilometers in which they must locate, direct towards one of the many corrals, and finally tag the calves. They use knives that are completely made from reindeer bone (except the blade). It's traditional to give knives, wood cups made from birch trees, and other hand-crafted gifts to children on their birthdays. They will keep and use those gifts for the rest of their lives, so they take very good care of them.

Every day the herders start looking for their small herds of reindeer starting at five in the afternoon. If they are successful in locating enough reindeer, they guide them towards the nearest corral (which can take anywhere from one hour to five, depending on how finicky the reindeer are). Then the tagging commences and lasts throughout the night until six in the morning.

Even with my lack of sleep and copious amounts of mosquito bites, I’m grateful to have this opportunity. All that I’ve learned from speaking to the elders, young herders, wives who were cooking around the fire, and the many young children who would smile and giggle with joy when I would speak to them in Swedish, will forever be ingrained in me.

I’m very fortunate to have received the Stanley Grant, as it has allowed me to witness and be a part of what very few people have knowledge of, or get a chance to take part in. The Sámi’s connection to their reindeer, land, and family is inspirational, and only reiterates to me that even though we come from different backgrounds we still have the same worries, issues, and desires, though we may lead slightly different lifestyles.

reindeer calf
Here I’m sitting on top of a reindeer calf waiting for its herder to come and cut the tag into his ears.
reindeer calf

A reindeer calf just after its tagging

*Kelsey Frisk, of Magnolia, Iowa, is a University of Iowa junior majoring in interdepartmental studies with an emphasis in global health science. She is currently conducting research in Sweden courtesy of a Stanley Undergraduate Award. Kelsey also recently completed a semester of study in spring 2014 though the CIEE program at Uppsala University in Sweden