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The Sami between tundra and coast

The Sami between tundra and coast

Away from an archaic and touristic vision, today the Sami are fully involved in the society of their country and in all the economic activities perfectly integrated in the Norwegian society.

Culture and tradition live together with a modern lifestyle, but keeping some fix points and always taking a good care of the environment.

Reindeer herding is still an important activity in the Sami economy. But it’s not just that: there the Sea Sami. At the beginning they used to deal with agriculture, sheep herding and some fishing, and traded these goods with the reindeer Sami. Due to their herding activity the Reindeer Sami adopt a nomadic lifestyle, while the Sea Sami are sedentary and they settle in fjords and valleys. 

The barter was commonly used until not so many years ago as it was a place that had no road infrastructure. Sledge was a common way of transportation and in order to trade some primary goods like wool, knives and other handcrafts, the Reindeer Sami met the Sea Sami along the reindeer transhumance.  

Along the coast

The “Sea Sami” name represents that part of the population more sedentary and not involved in the reindeer herding. 

In the old ages the main activities were sheep herding and wool weaving. Fishing wasn’t the main activity, but still part of their economy. The connection between Sea and Reindeer Sami were and are still very strong. The first roads connecting the area to the other part of Norway arrived during the 1970s and so until that their economy had to be focused on the exchange between these two Sami population.

If the former could give wool, textiles and other handcrafts made out of wood and bones (the typical handcraft goods and tools called “duodji” including knives, wooden socks, blankets etc), the latter could give to the Sea Sami reindeer skins (excellent isolation for the cold weather in these areas beyond the Arctic Circle), antlers and meat.

The tundra nomads

Traditionally the Reindeer Sami are reindeer herders: this is why they are nomads. In facts it’s them following the reindeer and not the reindeer following them.

The reindeers are wild, free moving and wandering from the coast to the tundra looking for food, that changes from season to season and they follow the same paths from hundreds of years. Those Sami, who were initiated to this exhausting work in their young age, follow them in their transhumance. The only difference today is that instead of using reindeer-sledge, they use snowmobiles during the winter, ATVs and Helicopters in the summer.

Innovation and technology arrived even in the tundra and in fact today the reindeer have a GPS tracking collar in order to monitor their wandering and it’s not rare to see drone flying over the herd. 

These technologies simplify their lives if compared to their grandparent herders and so they can afford to place some “cabins” (small wooden houses equipped with the minimum and often without electricity) here and there along the reindeer path so they can move from “cabin to cabin” while following them.

An app connected to the GPS reindeer collars allows to track precisely their movements and allow the herders to reach them without constantly follow them. In the past in fact, the nomadic herders camped in a tent called “lovvo” that was set up where the reindeer stopped to rest and that were dismantled as soon as they began to move. The last transhumance recorded in Norway with reindeer sledges has been done in 1976. 

So someone could think that today being a reindeer herder is today way more comfortable. This is just partly true. The temperature in the tundra can be as low as -30°C and the arctic storms arrive without any notice, giving no chance to orientate without a GPS. Furthermore, in the tundra the only available connection with the towns can be achieved through sat-phones: ending up caught by an arctic storm and losing the track can be deadly.

Many are the accidents even because a new factor came in creating a lethal mix: the climate change. 

The seasons are more unpredictable and the ice get thinner: it can happen that when travelling on the iced surface of the tundra lakes and rivers, it breaks taking the unfortunate into freezing waters, and if he is not able to quickly react and get out is doomed to death.

The marking

During the summer, when the calves begin to appear in the herd, it comes the moment of the counting and marking: every Sami family prepare to follow the herd and direct it through huge fences where every young reindeer will be marked by the symbol of the Sami that will be able to catch it. Every family has a mark and that’s defining the ownership of that single reindeer. Today these family marks are registered on a specific app.

It’s a tiring job, lasting for days: gathering the reindeer within the fences is everything but a simple task. 

As these animals live free, they are not used to the human and tend to escape as soon as someone gets close. 

So the Sami splits into two groups: Snowmobiles/ATVs surround the reindeer and, keeping even a long distance (up to 200m), try to push them towards the fences. The reindeer move in queues that can reach hundreds of meters, if not kilometres. 

Gathering the animals isn’t an easy task as if just one changes the direction, all the other reindeer follow it. 

After the marking has been handmade with the traditional Sami knife made of wood, bone and iron, the reindeer are immediately freed.

It’s during the winter, between December and February, that they get back to the Tundra to choose which animals will be used to give meat, skin and everything needed for the living of the families.

This lifestyle, so deeply connected and dependent on the nature, is today questioned. Mine excavations, wind parks (areas with many wind turbines), high voltage trellis are menacing the future of this nomadic people.  

The reindeer are annoyed and disturbed by these new “obstacles” on their trails: the new landscape and the noises emitted, disturbs the animals during their transhumance forcing them to change their centuries old path and making them using way more energies that in the past. These struggles put the herd under a strong physical stress and many animals can’t face it.