The Magnetic North: Notes From the Arctic Circle

Herding Reindeer With a Swedish Sámi
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Feb. 24 2011 10:18 AM

The Magnetic North: Notes From the Arctic Circle

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In November 2002 I was standing on the tundra trying to lasso a reindeer. "No good!" cried the man holding the walkie-talkie. "Reindeer laughs!" Three thousand deer were on the loose, and in an hour I hadn't caught one, not even a calf. I picked up the rope at my feet and walked off, towing little Reg, my youngest son, in his sledge. My guide in Sápmi was thirty-one-year-old Lennart Pittja, whose family have herded reindeer on their Unna Cerus community land for many generations. Pittja grew up in Sörkaitum, near Gällivare in the heart of Norrbotten, Sweden's most remote province. His mother was not Sámi, which explained his height (five feet eleven) and his sandy hair; he looked like an archetypal Viking. "Officially," he explained as we sat in a stockade slurping reindeer broth, "I am half Sámi, but I believe you are either Sámi or not." He had bridled when I asked how many reindeer his family owned. "Some," he replied, explaining later that the question is like asking how much a person earns. (He had a good ear for a snappy phrase. "Our bank," he added to this last exchange, "is on four legs and has antlers.")

Pittja had a profound sense of connection with his community land and a missionary zeal to preserve the traditions of his people. His great-grandparents were among the last flyt (nomad) Sámi; they had settled in Sörkaitum in the forties. His father and brother were still herding. After bringing the deer down from the mountain pastures at the onset of winter, they must check every animal for frost-related injury each day, no joke at −36°F. As for the animals, the mortality rate among calves is above 50 percent in an average winter. In a bad one, they can all die. At that time, twelve autumns in a row had been unseasonably warm, a disaster for reindeer, for if snow melts in autumn and freezes in winter, an ice bark prevents them from sniffing out lichen. Elsewhere the new and previously unknown phenomenon of winter rain had dangerously thinned ice on migration pathways. The rapidity of climate change had already led to a decline in the reindeer population. "You wonder," said Pittja, "if we can hold on."

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Pittja talked of modest tax breaks for indigenous businesses, but they failed to add up to much, while health and safety laws stymied the small-scale herder. A Sámi man no longer castrated his deer by biting off the balls, as his grandfather did, but he can still do the job himself with a pair of special pincers. The government, on the other hand, insists on the engagement of an expensive specialist veterinary surgeon. Industry, meanwhile, has taken up the slack. The economy around Gällivare, my point of entry into Lapland, is based on the Malmberget iron-ore and open-cast copper mines. One of the largest iron-ore deposits in the world lies in Kiruna, fifty miles to the north. Swedish Lapland is also a significant source of hydroelectric power. The Suorva Dam on the Lule an hour upriver from Gällivare has created the biggest water reservoir in Europe. When the dam was built, Pittja's grandfather had to move house four times as the water level rose (it went up ninety-six feet in total). Each time, his house had to be burned down. Grandpa watched the land on which he had grown up disappear underwater as the five lakes between Suorva and Ritsem turned into one. Valleys where reindeer calved were flooded, forcing cows to give birth at a colder elevation. As my own Arctic journey unfolded, what appeared to be a series of individual histories had merged into a universal saga. Before my 2002 visit, the Soviet compulsion to extract minerals struck me as an example of that nation's generally brutish behavior, like Chernobyl. When I went to the Arctic, I saw that we were all at it.

Slide Show: Scenes From the Arctic Circle. Click image to expand.

Unlike its Norwegian counterpart, Stockholm will not recognize Sámi as indigenous people by ratifying UN International Labour Organization Convention 169. Operations that compete with reindeer herding for land are legally obliged to give consideration to the interests of reindeer husbandry, but provisions work poorly in practice. Pittja reeled off case after case in which a herder had effectively been forced to move. "Look," he explained, the enthusiastic voice for once exposing a weary undertow. "We don't consider that we own the land. We just look after it for future generations. But we have to claim ownership now in order to participate in the system. The trouble is—one of the many troubles—other people show papers to prove ownership, but we don't have documents. Ours is an oral culture—our books are flesh and blood." Nobody minds too much what Sámi do in the mountains, because Swedes don't use that land. The pressure is on winter grazing in developed areas. When Sámi in Härjedalen lost a court case in which they were claiming rights to their traditional winter grazing, other landowners took the opportunity to get Sámi reindeer off their land "once and for all." A Sámi parliament of sorts does exist in Sweden, based in Kiruna, the most northerly town, but it has no constitutional status and, according to Pittja, is little more than an advisory service. Down in far-off Stockholm, the government has always shrunk from anything approaching a concession to indigenous land rights. Norway, with a larger Sámi population, has a better record; its own all-wood parliament building is in Karasjok on the Finnmarksvidda. Meanwhile, efforts to establish pan-Sámi cultural institutions have found expression in a flag and a football team. When it came to native peoples, even the most humane and advanced welfare states couldn't get it right. All around the Arctic I had seen every dominant culture grappling with a legacy of miscarried cultural assimilation and racial marginalization.

Behind his home, the industrious Pittja had made a sturdy tent-house from skins and peat. If you overlooked the aluminum poles, it was a perfect model of the traditional lávvu. When Reggie and I arrived for the evening, a pair of draft reindeer were scooping snow outside with their front hooves, burying their noses into the mushy ground beneath, and whistling softly as they exhaled. Constellations of white-faced stars hung low, the abutting spruce grove a cavern of moonlight and shadows. Inside, we lounged on pelts as Pittja's herding assistant, Anders, rolled out flatbread, and the fire hissed to life, catching first on resin in the birch bark, then crackling over pine and juniper. A small hole in the apex of the lavvy drew off aromatic smoke. We lay snug in our poled fortress. Pittja had cooked up a máles, the Sámi meal prepared at slaughter time, and it bubbled with ominously pungent eructations in a cauldron lashed to a lateral rod between tent poles. A máles consists of almost every part of a reindeer boiled in the same pot: liver, tongue, bone, and steak, with its hump of canary yellow fat. "Even the hooves are boiled!" Pittja announced, handing me a green birch skewer with which to poke marrow from bone. I could see the flickering ion stream of the northern lights through the roof opening. Anders offered a chunk of cooked reindeer fat on a plate. "For the baby," he said. "He's not weaned yet," I said. "I know," he said. "That's what we wean them with."

We ate the dish with lingonberry relish, black pudding, and a patty made with blood and oatmeal. Breast-feeding makes one hungry enough for anything, except perhaps boiled hoof, though fortunately, one was not called upon to put that to the test. Reggie didn't care much for the smoke, however, and I didn't either, as I couldn't see what I was eating, though this had its advantages. Pittja, ladling vigorously, dealt with the problem by sporting a Davy lamp on his forehead. After the meal we drank coffee brewed on the fire in a tin pot. I watched an approaching milk jug with trepidation—reindeer milk is so high in fat that it practically curdles into cheese in your mouth—but it was cow's milk, bought from a shop. It was hard not to feel relieved. But then the other two lobbed cubes of cheese into their coffee.

The day after the herding, we started up Route 45, "the Route 66 of Sweden," in Pittja's four-wheel-drive Nissan. Through a break in the rim of a mountain bowl, the Lule River heads west into the heartlands of Laponia, 5,841 square miles of wilderness north of the Arctic Circle from Jokkmokk to the Norwegian border and beyond. The road was built for the hydroelectric plant; before that, Sámi traveled on the Lule. The sky was full of lenticular stratocumulus, and the sun cast the shadows of slender birch trees over the lakes.

Two hours in, I hoisted Reggie into his sling and with Pittja in the lead we hiked eastward, following lynx tracks across wetlands where whooper swans nested in the grass of the eskers. When Pittja stopped to examine snow with foot and hand, like the herder he was, I heard again the crisp Arctic silence—the heaped-up orchestra of high latitudes. In the forest a flock of bramblings rustled up from the cotton grass. Fat as the reindeer, they were preparing to migrate. It was 5°F and the tips of our noses had turned cerise. Reg slumbered deep within the folds of my multitudinous layers. (I only wished I hadn't been up half the night feeding him, but what a wickedly ungrateful thought that was.) Suddenly we heard the click-click of walking reindeer. A special bone on the hind feet clicks so they can hear one another in darkness and mist. Today, fifty thousand reindeer live in Laponia, and twenty of them were looking for angelica not far from where we stood. Pittja got out his binoculars to see if he could identify animals from his own herd. Each deer is labeled with notches cut into the ears. The markings on the left ear record the family, those on the right ear the individual within the family (babies receive a quota of reindeer at their baptism). A directory records the marks, like a telephone book. But a herder like Pittja knows hundreds of different markings on sight.

Emerging from the conifers, we entered a belt of mountain birch, the last cover before the alpine slopes. "Look," said Pittja, poking the forest floor with a stick. "See these blackened stones? They were the hearth of a goahte, a herders' camp. People returned to the same sites year after year. Somewhere around here there will be a hunting pit where they snared moose." Seasonal migration routes have crossed Laponia since the land rose up from the ice, and traces of human habitation date back eight thousand years. We stopped to picnic on the western shore of Lake Satis, among pink bulbils of netted willow that peeped cautiously from the lime-rich soil. Along the shore, ice manacled the lower spruce branches. Pittja produced a hunk of smoked reindeer and began stripping off pieces with a pocketknife. As he and I drank coffee from our wooden bowls, I felt ice crystals softening in my nostrils. Baby breath pearled my undershirt. It was a good place to rest. When we finally brushed ourselves off, the sun had already vanished and the slopes of the blue mountain glittered with patches of snow. Pittja carried a GPS unit, but I never saw him use it. "We know our land," he said as we hiked back to the Nissan. He lived and worked with a beguiling combination of technology and tradition. As we walked, he fished out a mobile phone and began punching out a number. "I am ringing the car," he said. A diesel-burning heater with controls on the dash could be operated remotely by telephone. Pittja had been yakking all day. "No need for talking here," he said quietly as we reached the Nissan and looked over at the ice on the birch branches, the spangled glint of the lake, and the miles of rounded mountains beyond. "It speaks for itself."

And it did.

Click here to read a slide show on arctic life.

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Sara Wheeler is the author of Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica, The Magnetic North: Notes From the Arctic Circle, and four other books. She lives in London.

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