The Last Reindeer of Norway

In the most remote corner of the country, the Sámi people draw their life and their identity from husbanding reindeer. That lifestyle and identity are now disappearing.
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sami reindeer in the village

A Sámi villager demonstrates his lasso on a reindeer on Sámi National Day, 2006. (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)

The interior of Finnmark, Norway's easternmost and northernmost county, is an unforgiving land. Situated well above the Arctic circle, with an annual average temperature of 27.7 degrees Fahrenheit and just 14.4 inches of precipitation each year, it is a massive, frigid desert. Winters last nearly half a year, and the sun stays below the horizon for months at a time. Yet the Sámi people—Fennoscandia's only indigenous group—have flourished in Finnmark and other areas of Norway's Arctic for millennia. To survive, they developed a close relationship with an abundant source of food, energy, and raw materials: the reindeer.

When the glaciers covering northern Fennoscandia receded, at the end of the last Ice Age, wild reindeer moved into the newly opened lands. The ancestors of today's Sámi followed. Extensive rock art near Alta, the largest city in Finnmark, dates back 7,000 years and includes numerous depictions of reindeer and the humans who both hunted and tended to them. By the late middle ages, reindeer husbandry had developed into a critical component of Sámi culture. "It is the keystone in Sámi culture," says Mariann Wollmann Magga, a Sámi reindeer herder in eastern Finnmark. "All the language and the cultural indicators are mostly based on the reindeer and the nomadic lifestyle."

Despite reindeer herding's long history, its future in Norway is bleak. Over 40 percent of mainland Norway is reindeer grazing lands, but energy development, human fragmentation, and climate change threaten to cripple Sámi reindeer herders' ability to use that land. A 2009 report by the International Centre for Reindeer Husbandry, about the upcoming challenges to reindeer herding in the Barents region, offers a grim prediction: "Unless a no-net loss of reindeer grazing ranges is implemented, continued piecemeal development, mainly as a result of associated non-petroleum activity, will seriously threaten the entire platform upon which reindeer herding is based." The Sámi’s rights to traditional lands, natural resources, and cultural heritage are protected under Norwegian law, but they ultimately have little control over their own future as a people.

If reindeer herding disappears, the Sámi will go with it.

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Sápmi, the traditional and cultural homeland of the Sámi, covers about 150,000 square miles and extends from the Kola Peninsula in Russia to deep into Southern Norway and Sweden. Roughly half of all Sámi today live in Norway, and half of Norwegian Sámi live in Finnmark. Finnmark is also home to over 180,000 reindeer, all semi-domesticated. Though only 10 percent of Sámi identify reindeer husbandry as their primary occupation, reindeer herding occupies a central place in Sámi life. Words in the Sámi language for landscapes, the weather, and the seasons all stem from the practice. In many Sámi areas, reindeer are tied to status, and for even more Sámi, owning even just a couple of reindeer is a matter of pride and identity.

Thomas Åhrén, a technical supervisor in the small town of Namdalseid and member of the Norwegian Sámi Parliament, was a reindeer herder for 10 years. By 1998, it had become too unprofitable for him to continue, but the few reindeer he owns now—cared for by a member of his extended family—are a symbolic tie to his culture and identity. "For me, it's important to have some reindeer. In one way, it is the reindeer that have the rights, and when you own reindeer, you can hold onto those rights," Åhrén says.

If the Maggas can no longer herd reindeer, their entire family history will be exterminated.

Reindeer naturally migrate when the seasons change, between the coast in the summer and the interior in the winter. Initially, the Sámi waited for the reindeer to return to the winter grazing lands with their calves, hunting the animals for meat, furs, and bones. That all changed by the middle ages. "People from Southern Scandinavia were very eager to buy reindeer fur, so the wild reindeer were decimated," says Bård A. Berg, a professor in the University of Tromsø's philosophy department. "At one point, the reindeer were so decimated that some Sámi began to tame them, to earmark them so that they became private property. They began to guard them, and they began to follow them." At first, entire families moved with the reindeer herds; by the late 19th and early 20th centuries, only the men migrated.

The Maggas' siida, a traditional Sámi community subdivision and reindeer pastoral district, is allowed to have up to 2,000 reindeer before the females calve. The herd spends from the end of April to October on Skagøya, a 50-square-mile island just northwest of Kirkenes, before returning to the Norwegian/Finnish border with up to 1,500 calves each winter. The Maggas—Ulf, his uncle, a cousin, two second cousins, and all their families—rely on about eight to 12 different types of grazing area, Mariann says. "We are completely depending on that we have those resources there. If you take out the place where the calves are born, then you can't have reindeer herding as your income. You have to have all the types of grazing land that the reindeer need. It's like a house of cards; if you take one out, there's nothing left." And even a modest loss in the number of reindeer herders could have devastating consequences. "Because we are so few, it is really important that we have a lot of people in the business," Mariann says. "If 25 percent are gone, then what? Who will help us?" She says that the Maggas have been herding reindeer as long as there have been written records of it, since at least 750 C.E. If they can no longer herd reindeer, their entire family history will be exterminated.

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Norway is bound by ILO Convention No. 169 to recognize indigenous land rights, though the extent of those rights is still ambiguous. In Norway, the Sámi have been granted access to traditional grazing lands, no matter if the land is public or private. The principle, law professor Øyvind Ravna says, is that the Sámi have used the grazing land long before the land became private property. The reindeer herders pay no rent to use the land, and though there are some legal protections, much of the uncertainty about the future of reindeer herding will come down to who actually has the right to use the land in the face of development.

"This has been the way Norway solved such questions: They accept the right of the reindeer herders to some extent, but it doesn't mean that the reindeer herders have such kind of rights that they can stop construction," Ravna says. "But they can receive economic compensation for their losses."

The Finnmark Act, adopted in 2005, transferred ownership of 95 percent of Finnmark from the Norwegian state to a regional governing body managed by a board of six members, half of which are appointed by the Sámi Parliament. Many of the legal implications of the Finnmark Act have yet to be decided. The Norwegian parliament approved a hydroelectric power plant in 1978 that would dam one of the main rivers in the Sámi areas, despite a hunger strike in front of the Parliament and protests.

Future development projects in the North may have similar outcomes, as long as the Sámi have no true legal power to affect their own futures. "The only power the Sámi have is to participate in negotiations, but if they don't come to a consensus, it is the state who decides," Ravna says. And though the Norwegian government is legally obligated to listen to Sámi concerns, it is under no obligation to actually remedy those concerns. "When it comes to alternate land uses, like mining or energy production, then they are more reluctant to actually listen to us. So far development has been slow, so it has been possible for the Sámi community to at least discuss and take the necessary steps to deal with the coming problems," says Åhrén, also a member of the Norwegian Sámi parliament.

No matter how much time they have to prepare, the Maggas will need to be flexible to overcome the effects of climate change on the industry. One climate model predicts that the mean temperature and precipitation in inner Finnmark may increase 10 percent each decade for the next 30 to 50 years. When the winters are shorter, warmer, and wetter, the winter grazing lands freeze over with a thick layer of ice; all but the biggest male reindeer can have trouble breaking through the ice to graze on the vegetation underneath. "We are not able to read the [natural] signs anymore. We have to look at other things when we try to predict the weather and how the grazing season will be," Mariann says. "I think we're capable of managing up North because it's quite cold anyway. The season should be longer, but the problem of the icing of the grazing land is really serious." She says that the winter grazing conditions two years ago were the worst she had ever seen. The Maggas had been getting their herd used to eating hay, but feeding the reindeer hay in the winter—as they had to do for four months during those terrible conditions—is expensive and a lot of work.

But ultimately, climate change may be the least of the Sámi reindeer herders' worries. A 2007 paper in Global Environmental Change predicted that, while climate variation and change will have an impact on the reindeer, those effects are dwarfed by non-climate anthropogenic influences. "We developed this idea 10 years ago and nothing that has happened or been published since has changed our view—rather the reverse," Nicholas Tyler, a lead author on that paper, writes in an email.

Traditional Sámi reindeer herders have always had to adapt to changing conditions. They rely on the changes in the seasons, not on a calendar, to schedule their work. But all these changes are tough to handle all at the same time. "They are used to dealing with dynamics and flexibility and changing their strategies and adapting to new conditions. But what is happening now is happening so fast and it's so massive that they are struggling," says Aili Keskitalo, the 47-year-old president of the Norwegian Sámi parliament. "Even if you are used to adapting, it's a lot to adapt to. Everything at once."

I met Keskitalo the very same day the Norwegian government announced its proposed budget for 2016. The proposal allocates NOK 3 billion for Arctic measures, including business and infrastructure development. Norway is at a crossroads; though the country derives 98 percent of its own energy from hydroelectric power, its economy is based on the exportation of oil and gas. Gas prices are dwindling, and Norway is in a dire search for more oil, natural gas, and mineral deposits. Norway's Arctic has all of that.

"The government will seek to further develop North Norway so that it becomes one of the country's foremost regions in terms of value creation and sustainability," Norway's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a 2014 press release. A number of mining projects deep in the heart of Sámi territory have been proposed, and residents of Kautokeino, a major cultural hub for Norwegian Sámi, are considering re-opening a mine 60 kilometers from the city center. "To do that they need roads, they need power lines, and so on," Keskitalo says. "It's not just the projects but all the infrastructure that goes into building the project and keeping it running." At the same time, the Norwegian government is providing immense subsidies to promote renewable energy in rural areas. Windmill farms have been proposed in the middle of Sámi reindeer grazing lands. "You're punished because you have a nature-based livelihood, and then you are punished because the Norwegian state would like to look good when it comes to climate policies, even if everybody knows that we base our economy on CO2 production," Keskitalo says. "You might call it ironic, but it's really quite sad and upsetting as well."

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The Norwegian government recognizes three Sámi languages as official languages: Northern Sámi, Lule Sámi, and Southern Sámi. UNESCO considers all three endangered. This is a direct product of the Norwegian government's century-long efforts to eradicate Sámi language and culture between 1850 and 1950. "The goal was that the people on the coast, to begin with, should speak exclusively Norwegian. And after 50 to 100 years, most of them did. The language disappeared," Berg says. Under a policy called "fornorsking av samer," or "Norwegianization," Sámi children were taken to boarding schools to learn Norwegian and taught their native culture was worthless. Identifying as Sámi was stigmatized up until the 1980s, when a cultural renaissance occurred. Sámi children now can learn again in Sámi, and are no longer ashamed of their heritage.

"When my children went to pre-school, they learned from day one to draw the Sami flag," says Keskitalo, who lives in Kautokeino with her three daughters. "It's a part of them. They grew up with it. It's an actual thing for them to identify with, a flag, that I didn't know about—it didn't exist when I was a child." Keskitalo was the first president of the Norwegian Sámi parliament to not have a Sámi language as her mother tongue. Though she went to school in Alta and Tromsø, she moved back to Kautokeino, where 90 percent of the population speaks Sámi, so that her daughters would grow up hearing and learning Sámi. "That my daughters would choose to be Sámi makes me very proud as a mother," she says.

Sámi culture could have died out long ago if not for the reindeer herders. "In some areas, like in parts of the Southern Sámi area, it is only because they have had this specific Sámi livelihood that they are not assimilated into the Norwegian population entirely," Keskitalo says. "They would have been extinct." Some Sámi were forcibly moved to rural, inaccessible parts of Norway. These rural areas, which also happened to have strong ties to the reindeer herding industry, were the last bastions of Sámi culture and language. But now, with the looming threat of development, climate change, and fragmentation, reindeer herding—and by extension, Sámi culture—once again faces an uncertain future.

"I realize that to many indigenous peoples that are struggling for their lives, this might seem like not a big problem. But it is about the survival of my people as a people," Keskitalo says. "I might live and all my children and grandchildren might live, but will they be Sámi if we lose our language. If we lose our culture?"

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