the cultural region traditionally inhabited by the Sámi people. The region includes the northern parts of Fennoscandia and stretches over four countries: Finland, Norway, Russia and Sweden.
February 2008 felt unusually warm for that time of the year in Jokkmokk, a town situated exactly on the Arctic Circle. Perhaps because of this, the local reindeer decided not to remain in the nearby forests, their long-established winter sanctuary. Gathered in small groups they started premature migration, heading towards their summer pastures at Sarek, one of the national parks inside the “Laponian area” in the Lapland province in Northern Sweden that was proclaimed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996. Without reindeer herders to round them up and return them to safety these semi-domesticated animals would have starved to death.
In Sápmi the cultural region traditionally inhabited by indigenous Sami people, humans and reindeer have lived in a kind of symbiotic mutualism for centuries. Sápmi is geographically curled around the northern parts of Fenno-Scandinavia in a shape resembling theearly stages of a human fetus that stretches overfour countries, namely Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. The Sami here provided reindeer with food and shelter in the winter months while in return they acquired their meat, hides, antlers, milk, and used them, to a smaller extent, as harness or pack animals. Today, this kind of traditional lifestyle is becoming more complicated as reindeer husbandry is being transformed by new technologies and government authorities are insisting on this activity becoming more commercialized. Intensified reindeer husbandry leaves a larger ecological footprint on the local environment.On the other hand, respecting the old ways, herdsmen still use vast areas of Sápmi, allowing reindeer their seasonal migrations. Well-tuned to this natural rhythm, the Sami recognize eight seasons of the year, the same as their forefathers did. Their decisions are still based on seasonal changes, and it is unsurprising that the Sami are known by the nickname “the Eight Season People”.
Approximately 20 000 Sami live in Sweden, which is almost 30% of the Sápmi’s total population. Around 2 500 Sami that live under Swedish jurisdiction are still involved in reindeer husbandry and a fraction of these keep their reindeer in the lowland forests near Jokkmokk. They represent one sijdda, an old fashioned name for a winter-grazing group of reindeer herders associated with a village or town. A premature journey to their summer pastures can only mean two things: slow agonizing death by starvation for the reindeer and hardship for the members of the sijddas.
The reindeer (Rangifer tarandus)is a large deer well adapted for arctic conditions. However, deep snow, a sudden drop in temperatures, and a lack of food diminish its chances of survival. Even if reindeer reach the summer pastures they will not find their usual summer food: shrubs, grasses, sedges, and leaves of deciduous trees, which are rich in protein, minerals and energy. In the winter grazing areas they have more chances finding lichens, mosses and evergreen parts of shrubs and sedges. Moreover, the herdsmen provide fodder and food supplements. In recent years, additional food has become even more important since the herdsmen are more often observing an unusual icy crust forming on top of the snow cover. The crust is a result of interchanging relatively warm and extremely cold weather - probably a consequence of climate change. The reindeer use their keen sense of smell to locate lichens under the thick blanket of snow. Unfortunately, they are unable to break the crust of ice to reach their food.
Zoologists classify reindeer as artiodactyls, also known as the even-toed ungulates. In other words, they are hoofed mammals with a characteristic bone structure and powerful legs that allow them to gracefully cover between 15 and 65 kilometres of rugged frozen terrain each day. Their natural capability represents a 24/7 challenge for their owners. Addressing the challenge, Stefan Länta and his relative Jon-Mikko were executing a daily roundup, in the forest just a few kilometres north of Jokkmokk. Riding snowmobiles with utmost seriousness they were braving the cold, while maneuvering on narrow paths and steep slopes covered with deep snow. I was along for the ride sitting behind Stefan in a handmade wooden trailer, holding on to nothing but my camera.
Stephan knowsjust aboutevery inch of the forest, and he was speeding through the trees to make a point. Suddenly, he caught sight of a set of hoofprints ahead of him. He stopped and scrutinized the impressions. Stephan concluded that the group of escaping reindeer had crossed the fresh snowmobile trail that he had left the previous evening. He quickened his movements and leapt into the deep snow, disconnecting the trailer. At the same time, he was communicating his roundup strategy with Jon-Mikko via a two-way radio built into his noise protection headphones. Then he jumped back into the heated seat and engaged in relentless pursuit of the runaway reindeer. I stayed behind.
As Stephan was getting further away the roar of the snowmachine became muffled. Before long, silence crept in. The forest became a quiet and peaceful place. A few reindeer emerged from a thicket. The surroundings looked almost exactly as depicted at the beginning of the 20th century by Johan Turi (1854 - 1936), Nils Nilsson Skum (1872 - 1951) and John Savio (1902 - 1938), pioneers in Sami pictorial art. Back then, reindeer herders depended on nothing but their own legs to do the same work accomplished today by aeroplanes, helicopters, snowmobiles, off-road motorcycles and other machinery. Mechanization made much of the hard work easier for the herdsmen, but there is always a price to be paid. Along came new professional risks. Herdsmen are exposed to noise and vibration from their vehicles, affecting their hearing, wrists and lower back. Additionally, there are doubts raised by environmental scientists as to whether intensified reindeer herding is sustainable or not.
to be continued ...