The reindeer remains a strong symbol of the Sami culture.
Photo: Staffan Widsttrand/imagebank.sweden.se
Preserving indigenous culture in the Arctic
Sami country – known as Sápmi – stretches across the northern part of Scandinavia and Russia’s Kola Peninsula. The Sami have been recognised by the United Nations as an indigenous people, giving them the right to preserve and develop their crafts, language, education, reindeer husbandry, traditions and identity. There is no census for the Sami, but the population is estimated at around 80,000 people, spread over four countries with approximately 20,000 in Sweden, 50,000 in Norway, 8,000 in Finland and 2,000 in Russia.
A semi-nomadic people
The Sami were originally nomads, living in tents during the summer and more sturdy peat huts during the colder seasons. Today, The Sami live in modern housing and only use tents as very temporary accommodations during reindeer migrations if they don’t already own cottages in the mountains and forests. Most Sami live in the north but there are Sami all over Sweden. Today, only ten per cent of Swedish Sami earn a living from the reindeer industry, and many combine their family businesses with tourism, fishing, crafts and other trades.
The Sami reindeer industry has specific seasons for calving, marking, counting, castrating and slaughtering.
Changes in grazing rights and logging territories have historically been a dispute between reindeer herders and landowners in Sweden. In 2011, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the Sami, giving them common law rights to a specific area of land – possibly the most important modern verdict regarding Sami issues of law.
Much of today’s reindeer industry is meat production. In the past, during the migration of entire reindeer herds, the herders and their families would move by foot or on skis. Nowadays, reindeer herders use snow scooters and all-terrain vehicles to drive the herds. In rare cases trucks are needed to transport the reindeer to new grazing grounds.
Business and politics
A sameby – ‘Sami village’ – is not a traditional village but a complex economical and administrative union created with the intention of keeping reindeer. It is regulated by a Swedish law called the Reindeer Husbandry Act. Members of a sameby are entitled to engage in reindeer husbandry in this particular area, including building and setting up whatever facilities they need for their reindeer, in addition to fishing and hunting rights.
Towards the end of the 19th century, many Sami permanently kept both farms and reindeer (mixed husbandry). The previous nomadic lifestyles of some, however, led the authorities to make some contentious decisions, the repercussions of which extended well into the 20th century. The reindeer pasture law of 1928 limited reindeer ownership and membership in any Sami village to herders and their families. The new restrictions forced mixed husbandry farmers to choose between reindeer herding only or other forms of agriculture.
Today, younger generations are finding other professions, and the Sami are trying to ease the regulations so people can belong to a Sami village without having to own reindeer.