The University of Iowa

From Rudolf to reindeer herding

January 8th, 2015

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

By Holly Hines, Iowa City Press-Citizen

Kelsey Frisk, a senior at the University of Iowa, lived in Malå from January through July as part of the study abroad program. There, she researched policies and cultural issues affecting the Sámi people. Her research included investigations of herders practicing reindeer husbandry, who she said make up about 10 percent of the Sámi people.

While in Malå, Frisk observed a group of about 12 male herders and talked to them about their lifestyles. She said although reindeer fill a major role in the herders' lives, they don't tend to play a part in their Christmas traditions.

She said while she can't describe how the community as a whole views reindeer, one herder told her he felt alive and "at one with nature" while working with his herd.

Frisk also said Sámi herders tend to view reindeer the way Midwestern farmers may view cattle. She said she would compare the worries and lifestyles of reindeer herders with those of her own grandfather, who is a farmer in Iowa.

"It's just a way of making a living for them," she said.

According to the International Centre for Reindeer Husbandry website, more than 20 ethnic groups in Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Mongolia, China, Alaska, Canada and Greenland practice reindeer husbandry.

Frisk said in January or February, Sámi reindeer herders begin a four-month migration south with their reindeer. In the past, herders would build shelters for themselves along the way during their journeys, but, today they stay in cabins along their routes, she said.

Frisk said herders typically have homes in southern Sweden, where the reindeer stay during the summer. In midsummer, the herders tag their reindeer calves. In fall, they harvest the reindeer meat and products.

"Then it just kind of cycles again," Frisk said.

She said when Sámi herders slaughter reindeer, they use their meat for food as well as their fur and their antlers for arts, crafts and tools such as knives.

Frisk said although many members of the Sámi community are Christian, their Christmas traditions vary from common traditions in the U.S. She said reindeer have no direct connection with Tomte, a Santa-like figure recognized in Sweden.

Families in Iowa City the week of Christmas said their traditions range from ringing bells to signify approaching reindeer to traditions that don't involve reindeer at all.

Amber Reichelt, who lives in Guthrie Center, said that while reindeer weren't a part of her holiday celebrations growing up, her 4-year-old daughter this year is "into the Santa thing." She said her family may leave some carrots out for Santa's reindeer this Christmas.

Jennifer Andersen, who was visiting Iowa City from Joplin, Mo., on Monday, said reindeer play a role in holiday celebrations for her three kids, who range in age from 4 to 8.

Andersen said on Christmas Eve, her family sprinkles "reindeer food," a combination of oats and glitter, on their lawn for Santa's reindeer.

"They pull Santa's sleigh," she said.

You can read more about Kelsey's adventures in Sweden in her blog for International Accents.