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The Sámi live in harmony with nature. Their effective methods may prove invaluable in our struggles ...
2023-09-19 10:09:00

The Reindeer Were Here First

Photo by Adam Smotkin/Unsplash
The Reindeer Were Here First
The Reindeer Were Here First

The Sámi live in harmony with nature. Their tried and true methods may prove invaluable in our struggles with the changing climate.

Read in 10 minutes

“We have always been here, long before anyone else,” the first Sámi author, Johan Turi, wrote at the beginning of the twentieth century.* “Here,” meaning in Sápmi—in lands that stretch across the north of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. The Sámi, indigenous residents of the Arctic, have traversed this land since the dawn of time, fishing, hunting, and gathering herbs and berries. The rhythms of their lives were dictated by the migration of the reindeer; they followed their herds, not the other way around. “They’re free, they’re not my property,” I heard many times from the Sámi who continue their tradition raising the reindeer they consider sacred animals. Because the reindeer were in Sápmi first, everything began with them. According to one legend, Earth was created by a white reindeer: from his veins came the rivers, his fur became the forests, his stomach the ocean, and his antlers the mountains.

Today the reindeer is a medium; it connects the Sámi with nature. Mikael Kuhmunen, a representative of a Swedish reindeer herders’ group, can’t imagine life without his herd. He believes the worst day outdoors in the company of reindeer is miles better than any day without them. He can’t do anything else. This is how he grew up, in the fresh air, in close contact with nature. It is this sensitive observation of their surroundings, and detailed knowledge of the environment, passed down from generation to generation, that has allowed the Sámi to survive in the ruthless climate of the far north of Europe, and to adapt to natural changes in that climate. To this day, the Sámi perceive much more than scientists do, according to the authors of the article “Sámi traditional ecological knowledge as a guide to science.”** While researchers don’t recognize the meaning of certain new phenomena, the Sámi connect the dots and can predict the long-term consequences of climate change. They also inspire scientists to interpret data creatively.

“We spend so much time outside that nothing escapes us,” Kuhmunen says to me. On a February day he guides part of the herd near the huts on the edge of the pasture; there they will wait several weeks until the March migration. He’s helped by his seventy-six-year-old father, who, despite the temperature of negative 22 degrees Celsius, roams the vast area on a snowmobile while Mikael tracks the animals using a drone.

The effects of the climate crisis, including unexpected warming periods followed by frost—which shackle the earth and bar the reindeer from food—and the mass clearing of forests, contribute to the fragmentation of pastureland. The reindeer travel ever greater distances to reach mosses and lichens. “There’s no way to keep them in one place,” says Kuhmunen. “Some people don’t like it. They suggest that we’re not able to care for the reindeer because they cross roads or get close to people’s summer houses. That’s when I get mad. Because where are they supposed to go among all these buildings? Anyway, the reindeer were here first!”

Moderation above all

And it won’t get any better because the Arctic is warming three times faster than the rest of the world. The Sámi are raising the alarm. “Today’s global debate focuses primarily on the symptoms of ‘climate change’. . . by finding technical solutions,” reads a 2009 report from Sweden’s Sami Parliament.*** “From a Sami perspective this is not enough. Not at all.” According to the peoples of the Arctic, we should pay more attention to the causes of climate change: “Industrialisation and globalisation, our lifestyles, our consumption habits, and the continuing large-scale exploitation of natural resources.” Self-restraint is the only solution. The Sámi have been doing this forever—a sustainable lifestyle is the obvious one.

“After all, this is normal: we take only what we need. The rest must be left for future generations. We hunt and fish in a way that allows the population to regenerate,” Per Olaf Persen explains to me in his home in the small Norwegian town of Tana Bru. The Sámi don’t kill animals for sport, but to increase their food security. It’s part of their culture, not a pastime. That’s why they start to hunt grouse only at the beginning of October, not from September 10, as the regulations allow. They believe the young grouse need more time to learn to fly. Fishing is also more deliberate: the Norwegian Sámi use nets that make it impossible to catch the largest cod, which have the greatest reproductive potential. They also avoid certain spawning grounds, so as not to interfere with the reproductive process. Meanwhile, the Danes who fish in the same fjords have overfished. “It happens that the cod population avoids the areas where they fished,” writes Einar Eythorsson of the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research in an article on traditional knowledge and resource management in northern Norway.****

Persen still uses things he gathered and hunted to build up reserves; the freezer at the back of his modern home is filled to the brim with salmon, grouse meat and cloudberries, a tart cousin of the blueberry. “Tourists from the south complain they can’t find them anywhere. That’s because you have to know where to look!” he chuckles, as he pours cream over the yellow berries. You also have to know when to stop. The Sámi allow nature to rest so it can regenerate.

Traditional knowledge about nature and managing natural resources is handed down from generation to generation. Kuhmunen learned the secrets of raising reindeer and dealing with difficult weather conditions during the days he spent on cross-country skis with his grandfather, during the times when the Sámi could still get to their pastures on foot. “These stories bored me,” he says. “I was too young to appreciate this treasure-trove of knowledge. Now I regret it. But some things stuck with me; I often realize that I know intuitively what to do, even though I have no idea why.” Today Kuhmunen encourages his children to listen to their grandfather. “Fortunately they’re not as indifferent as I was at their age. They soak up this knowledge, with sincere interest. My daughter in particular is really talented. I’ve never seen anybody earmark reindeer so fast and so skillfully. And she started late, at age thirteen.”

Fikret Berkes, a professor emeritus at the University of Manitoba, stresses that future generations will need traditional ecological knowledge in order to survive. “This part of humanity’s heritage allows us to monitor and manage ecosystems, with particular care for nature’s ability to regenerate.” Scientists around the world believe the traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples is an important element of sustainable management of land and resources. It turns out that eighty percent of all biologically diverse lands are in regions inhabited by indigenous people; they take up barely twenty-two percent of the earth’s surface. A UN report from 2019 also indicates that nature disappears more slowly in these areas.*****

In defense of nature

The Sámi have long fought to defend Sápmi. In 2010 they saved eighty thousand square kilometers of primeval pine forest with great biodiversity, from logging. The campaign against the clearcutting lasted eight years: The Sámi negotiated with the state-owned company Metsähallitus, which manages protected areas and simultaneously supplies wood for Finland’s forest industry.

Though the Sámi have lived in Sápmi from time immemorial, politicians believe they know better how to protect nature in these lands. When Laponia in northern Sweden received UNESCO world heritage status in 1996 because of the presence of indigenous peoples, the Sámi asked for the right to completely manage the area—it includes pastures and places that are sacred to them, such as Lake Lájtávrre. But the Swedish government didn’t consent. “The politicians have long ignored, and sometimes even excluded, the Sámi community during negotiations,” anthropologist Carina Green writes in her doctoral dissertation.****** Some have even perceived indigenous peoples as an uncivilized “other,” incapable of understanding the Swedish administrative system. They rejected the Sámi’s comprehensive plan, Mijá Ednam (Our Land), which contained a holistic vision for managing Laponia.

The conviction that the Sámi are too primitive to care for their land properly is nothing new. It flows from scientific racism, Sámi researcher May-Britt Öhman, who lectures at Uppsala University’s Centre for Multidisciplinary Studies on Racism, explained in an interview.

Sweden was the first country in the world to set up a State Institute for Racial Biology, a center that carried out pseudo-scientific research on the “Nordic” racial traits in the country. Its employees traversed Sápmi to identify the supposed differences between Swedes and Sámi: they photographed the Sámi naked and measured their skulls.

These racist views justified the brutal colonization of the north of the country, which began already in the ninth century. As Turi writes: “They came by way of the sea to the northwest outcropping and frightened the Sámi away from the coastal areas. And the Sámi fled to the forest uplands and there they lived in peace for many years and looked after their herds in the forests and mountains which were deserted or unsettled. . . . And when the Norwegian settlers could no longer frighten them further away, then they started to steal everything they found: cheese, milk, hides, and cattle. And they even killed some Sámi.”*******

In 1673 Swedish authorities issued a decree encouraging farmers to colonize the “wild” north. This image of deserted Sápmi is still alive today. “The politicians and the tourism industry call our cultural territory vildmark—‘wild place,’” Öhman tells me. “The Sámi are treated as part of this “wildness.”

The colonization continues today, under the cover of “green change,” as the Sámi describe it—as do activists including Greta Thunberg. Swedish and foreign companies, encouraged by EU subsidies, invest more and more in “green” projects in the “far north.” The area has become an Arctic El Dorado because of its rich resources of critical commodities that are essential for energy transformation. It’s about rare earths, lithium, cobalt, nickel and graphite, which are used to make batteries, e.g. for electric vehicles or wind turbines. The Swedish Sámi parliament stressed in its 2017 Tråante Declaration “That these Saami areas in a large extent [are] to be exploited by what the Nordic peoples define as ‘green energy’ is a paradox. . . . The Saami have always used and are still using their traditional areas in an ecologically responsible, sustainable manner. The result of the lasting Saami use of Sápmi has left behind very few traces that visible today.”********

Tilting at windmills

The Sámi attempt to block investments that could destroy what they’ve been protecting for thousands of years. Persen, a member of the board of the People Against the Davvi Wind Farm Association, is fighting against Grenselandet, the company that’s planning the facility near Tana Bru. “We’ve had enough of investors who say they know better what’s good for us. Grenselandet is trying to pull the wool over our eyes with new jobs. But we don’t need temporary cash; we need our land. The energy network interferes with contact with nature. But this isn’t the biggest problem. The concrete foundations of the windmills harm the ground. Later, the landscape needs a lot of time to regenerate. And nature is all of our life, we are part of it. The beauty of these lands gives energy, provides us with peace."

In Sweden, near the town of Luleå, eight hundred kilometers south of Tana, the Sámi lost. Europe’s largest wind farm, Markbygden 1101, was set up there over the protests of the reindeer herders. Officials rejected the complaints the Sámi filed from 2010 to 2013. They ruled that the issue of the power plant “doesn’t affect” them, even though their summer pastures were located there, the researcher Ellen Ahlness says. Today, eighty percent of wind farms in Sweden are being created in the north of the country, “where the wind blows and not many people live,” as a spokesperson for the company Svevind says. The politicians ignore numerous studies showing that wind farms disrupt the reindeer’s migratory routes and negatively affect their well-being because of the noise the turbines make.

In 2010, a former leader of Sweden’s Sámi parliament warned that reindeer farmers could lose as much as a quarter of their pasturelands to wind farms. It’s this loss of land that’s the greatest challenge and simultaneously, the greatest threat to Sámi culture. In Sweden they’ve already lost part of their pastures, fishing grounds and culturally important sites due to mass logging, as well as extensive investments in hydro power at the beginning of the twentieth century; that power supplies forty-five percent of Sweden’s energy. In 2022, after ten years of negotiations, the Swedish government awarded a British company a concession to extract iron ore 40 kilometers from Jokkmokku. Kuhmunen is concerned. “We’ll lose the next pastures because the animals will give the mining areas a wide berth. Their migratory paths will change. And that in turn can lead to conflicts between the Siida [communities that bring together reindeer herders and their families in Sápmi]. That’s because the reindeer enter other Siidas’ lands in search of food.”

The loss of land has serious consequences: it means being cut off from nature, and thus, the disappearance of the traditional Sámi lifestyle, their knowledge of the environment and their language, which is passed down from generation to generation. Already in 2018 the UN warned that the extinction of indigenous languages brings with it a risk of losing “invaluable knowledge that could have provided answers to some of the world’s greatest problems.”********* It turns out that in the future, even the residents of Sweden, Norway, and Finland may have problems with reliable access to a sufficient amount of safe, high-quality food. That’s why, in 2017, all of Sweden’s political parties agreed on a national food strategy. It didn’t happen without numerous debates and deep comparative analyses. But in the ferment of discussion, according to Lena Maria Nilsson, research coordinator at the Arctic Research Centre and co-director of the Várdduo-Centre for Sámi Research at Umeå University, people “forgot” about a significant aspect: the perspective of the indigenous people, and even the protection of wild herbs and berries, local resources that are available at arm’s reach.

Illustration by Mieczysław Wasilewski
Illustration by Mieczysław Wasilewski

Translated from the Polish by Nate Espino

* Chetin Chabuk, “Norway: Reindeer Men,” PBS, December 20, 2005.
**Jan Åge Riseth et. al, “Sami Traditional Ecological Knowledge as a Guide to Science” Polar Record (Cambridge University Press: December 23, 2010)
***Sami Parliament Report, January, 2009
****Eythorsson, Einar, “Sami Fjord Fishermen and the State: Traditional Knowledge and Resource Management in Northern Norway,” Traditional Ecological Knowledge: Concepts and Cases, 1993
*****“State of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.” United Nations, 2019
******Carina Green “Managing Laponia” (PhD. diss., Upsala Universitet, 2009)
*******Johan Turi, An Account of the Sámi, trans. Thomas DuBois, 2011
********Tråante Declaration, Sami Council, 2017
********* “Traditional Knowledge—An Answer to the World’s Most Pressing Global Problems?” United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, April 22, 2019