Norway’s Iconic Reindeer Face Challenges Beyond Climate Change

How modernity, politics and competition for land undermine the well-being of the animals and their Sami herders

Norway’s Iconic Reindeer Face Challenges Beyond Climate Change
Reindeer grazing on the slopes just outside Tromso, Norway. (Kang-Chun Cheng)

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As I moved across the still-frozen Varanger Peninsula on a snowmobile in Finnmark, northern Norway, in late April 2019, green pastures were the last thing that came to mind. I was tagging alongside local reindeer herder Mikkel Anders Smuk to locate his reindeer and guide them toward the Barents Sea. In anticipation of the changing seasons, it was time for the animals to head toward their coastal pastures. Mikkel assured me that, in a few weeks’ time, winter would melt into spring. Then, this whole place would look different.

Finnmark was a chance for me to extend my postgraduate fellowship and stay out in the field a little longer. I had spent the past year researching how Sami reindeer herders were adapting to climate challenges in northern Norway and Finland, interested in how this ancient pastoral system was responding to technology and bureaucracy. Initially, I couldn’t help but assume that traditional knowledge was at odds with technology. But my experiences living with various Sami families were showing me a hybrid livelihood, where herders used Snapchat to share not only their locations, but also record instances of eagles preying on young reindeer or herding them off cliffs then feeding on the carcasses.

Reindeer moving as part of 2019’s spring migration in Varanger. (Kang-Chun Cheng)

This self-created fellowship threw me into the wild. I had virtually no contacts in the Arctic world and went about the process of building a network rather haphazardly, sending cold emails to relevant journalists and filmmakers for a blind chance to connect with reindeer herders on the ground. Eventually, one thing led to another, which is how I found myself living with the Smuk family in Varanger as a multi-month houseguest. I was eager to join in on whatever task was on hand, whether it was cooking traditional blood pancakes (pancakes cooked with reindeer blood) or tracking their animals in deep snow. They seemed equally amused with my presence and interest in the quotidian.

With the advent of the midnight sun, Mikkel and I had gotten up at 3 a.m., which, according to him, offers the relative dimness that helps bind the slush for optimum snowmobile riding. After hours of driving deep into Varangerhalvoya National Park — land on which Mikkel’s forefathers have been herding for generations — we saw hundreds of reindeer thrashing their way across a thawing river. “This is where you should start taking photos,” Mikkel shouted over the roar of the snowmobile engine as we joined up with several of his cousins and friends, evidently all on the same mission. “The real show begins now.” Working alongside one another, they mobilized their animals into neat packs, all the while heading south toward the coast.

Reindeer moving as part of 2019’s spring migration in Varanger. (Kang-Chun Cheng)

Snow started fluttering down, shrouding our visibility. Mikkel led us to an old cabin in which herders shelter during rough weather for some rest. I immediately fell into a deep, dreamless sleep, but he stayed alert, watching the snow and plotting our next moves. He shook me awake soon afterward, saying we had to get back outside. There were more reindeer to wrangle.

Reindeer tracks from the spring migration in Varanger, 2019. (Kang-Chun Cheng)

We drove past pale, monolithic valleys, gathering up stray reindeer into a burgeoning herd. By late afternoon, despite the adrenaline coursing through our bodies, it was time to go home and eat something other than the dried reindeer heart we’d been gnawing at all day. The sky had turned a creamy citrus, laminated with playful cirrus clouds. I thought about the sauteed reindeer and mashed potatoes we’d likely be eating back at home. But Mikkel spotted one last gathering of reindeer in the distance, and we sped toward them. “I know they aren’t mine, but they looked too organized to be an accident,” he explained. Sure enough, one of his cousins drove over a few minutes later, consolidating this straggling herd with the rest. He thanked Mikkel as we drove away into the late afternoon’s deepening pinks.

Mikkel cutting pieces of dried reindeer heart to snack on during a long day of herding. (Kang-Chun Cheng)

By a quirk of seemingly incomprehensible geography, Varangerhalvoya (Varanger Peninsula) is farther east than Kyiv, Saint Petersburg and Istanbul. Norway’s least-populated county, it’s home to around 10,000 people — many of them Indigenous Sami. Illuminated by a light that shifts with each season from blue to copper, the landscape conjures feelings of latent memories just beyond reach. Locals attest to the quality of light — somehow it’s different here, deep within the Arctic Circle. It’s the most visceral place I’ve ever visited.

To some, the long lines of the tundra may seem monotonous, barren. But lean a little into the desolation and a sort of deep contentment, perhaps even a sense of belonging, emerges. The region boasts a thriving ecosystem, full of surprising moments despite the harsh conditions — juicy cloudberries in summer, puffy cotton grass flowers springing from cracks along the rocky coasts — and is the heartland of one of the most ancient pastoral systems in the world.

The Sami are the Indigenous people of Scandinavia, descendants of nomadic peoples who have lived across Norway, Sweden, Finland and parts of Russia for thousands of years. The life of a modern-day reindeer herder has many idyllic moments: roasting sausages around a fire, guiding herds across thawing rivers by snowmobile, waiting for snowstorms to pass in cozy log cabins. But the livelihood itself has changed dramatically in recent decades.

Beginning in the 1970s, snowmobiles replaced skis. More recently, GPS devices and mobile phones have made reindeer tracking and communications from remote places far more accessible than before. “Switching to snowmobiles in the 1970s changed how we could move,” explained Inger Anita Smuk, an advocate for Sami rights and cultural continuity, chair of the Board of the International Centre for Reindeer Husbandry and my host mother in Varanger. Herders could now readily check in on their reindeer in the mountains and still manage to return to their homes in Varanger by evening. Annual long distance reindeer migrations became a thing of the past.

Inger Anita’s daughters and daughter-in-law dressed in traditional koftes for a birthday party. (Kang-Chun Cheng)

Yet the slowness of skis had brought a meditative feeling to the job, along with closer proximity to the animals. “My father herded on skis; he was one of the last from this community to do so. Even just before he retired, he preferred it over snowmobiles,” she explained.

The identities of the Sami and their animals were once inextricably intertwined. Reindeer provided food, clothing and transportation; there wasn’t much else the Sami needed. “Did you know that the reindeer provides practically all the nutrients that the human body needs?” asked Inger Anita. “Not many people know that anymore, it’s easier to buy cuts of meat at the supermarket. But I remember when my mother handled the entire reindeer carcass, separating the different kinds of fats that she’d use later.”

To those who still practice herding, whether as a full-time profession or as a cultural practice, it’s still far more than simply a job. “It’s our way of life and identity,” she said.

Reindeer moving as part of 2019’s spring migration in Varanger. (Kang-Chun Cheng)

Climate change, which represents practically the only news in the Arctic, is palpable. The mean annual temperature here has increased by 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius) since 1960, twice as fast as the global mean. Warming effects include disruptions to vegetation patterns, on which reindeer depend for food, and disturbances to snow cover. When the snow melts too fast in the spring, reindeer herders are kept from their animals, as their snowmobiles get stuck in slushy ice. Increasingly erratic thawing and refreezing have also resulted in incidents of reindeer starving to death, as otherwise viable forage becomes stuck in solid ice across the tundra.

“There are certainly changes on the ground,” said Jon Moen, a professor of ecology and environmental sciences at Umea University in Sweden. He cites the increase in ice formations that impinge on reindeer foraging, as well as the sparking of earlier shrub growth in summer pastures. “In the long term, I think that climate change is probably the greatest risk because of changes to the vegetation and increased heat stress for the animals,” he said. Yet in the short term, he adds, it’s the effects of forestry, mining, wind power and other land users that reduce or degrade the quality and access to pastures.

Even in the face of such climate challenges — dire in some regions, with others bearing sufficient flexibility to absorb changes — the Sami have been adaptive. Mobility is key to their resiliency. They move when they have to, whether it’s away from horribly icy fields or toward blooming pastures. But tightening governmental regulations restrict such life-giving movement. Herding practices honed over generations become sanitized, forced to work within market economy confines.

The very definition of pastoralism should be reconsidered, said Hugh Beach, a researcher and associate professor of cultural anthropology and ethnology at Uppsala University in Sweden. “Is herding by GPS senders when in the city pastoralism? Is the keeping of reindeer in penned, ranch-like enclosures pastoralism?” Beach continued: “For the Sami and other minorities, the issue is whether they can maintain a sense of identity while confronting and accommodating the changes demanded of them.”

It’s another mild winter day, but instead of checking in on his reindeer in the mountains, Frank Smuk is tasked with going to the office. The expansion of electricity lines, wind farms and mining on ancient herding lands in the far north has long infringed on vast tracts of ancestral pastures. Herders and ecologists alike refer to these developments as “land fragmentation,” a process they say erodes herders’ ability to move and graze animals as needed.

These days, it feels there are just as many administrative tasks as herding ones. Sami herders like Frank have found themselves inundated by office administration, from filling out paperwork for the compensation of reindeer slain by protected eagles or wolves to keeping up with new regulations on snowmobile paths. He misses going out to the mountains for days at a time, left in peace with his reindeer and the snow.

Sami reindeer pastoralism in Finnmark “is in a current state of crisis,” said Nicholas Tyler, a professor of Sami studies and biology at the University of Tromso. Land fragmentation is steadily eroding the very lifeblood of this unique Arctic livelihood, yet, due to its banality, it remains overshadowed by the trendier topic of climate change.

Fjords near Tromso, Norway. (Kang-Chun Cheng)

Inger Anita agrees that policymakers’ decisions are undoubtedly a huge influence on the fate of pastoralism, emphasizing that it’s more than mere frustration over filling in forms. Rules and regulations imposed by the central authority confound the ability of herders to practice husbandry as they know it.

“Nowadays, the way the ground is used is sometimes all wrong,” Inger Anita is quoted as saying in Tyler’s 2021 research paper, “The Shrinking Resource Base of Pastoralism: Sami Reindeer Husbandry in a Climate of Change.” “People stay too long in one place and even use winter areas in summer. There are now no places we can set aside for a year or more to guarantee us good grazing in another year. We know this, but what can we do? Where can we go? Some herders feed concentrates. Others argue. Herds mix and have to be separated. It’s all very difficult.”

Although Arctic governments have a track record of prioritizing land for forestry or tourism over Sami pastoralism, they lost no time strategizing on how to make a profit from reindeer meat production. The 1970s were marked by a shift away from subsistence herding to raising reindeer for profit. The government offered subsidies for infrastructure investments and reaching meat targets to improve herder “efficiency” as part of the Agreement on Reindeer Husbandry. This agreement recognizes that herding areas are the most important resource basis for reindeer husbandry and aims to conserve such areas for Sami communities and cultural continuity.

This transition to the market economy affected the age-old Sami community cooperation and practices. Reindeer theft became ubiquitous and tightening competition over meat prices drove out countless small-scale herders. Indigenous cultures are “intrinsically rooted in their traditional territories,” wrote the political scientist Rebecca Lawrence and the Norwegian jurist Mattias Ahren in their research paper, “Mining as Colonization.” When people are deprived of political sovereignty through the dispossession of their share of the environment, there is an incalculable sense of cultural loss.

According to Moen, strengthening or even just acknowledging Sami self-determination would be the best strategy to ensure the continuity of Sami pastoralism. “But I do not think that this will happen anytime soon; there are too many economic interests in the natural resources in the north,” said Moen.

As it is, Inger Anita feels that handing off power to central authorities has effectively disempowered herders on the ground. She participated in the drafting of the third iteration of The Reindeer Herding Act in 2007, which was more sympathetic to pastoral traditions than previous ones. Despite its lofty goals, tensions between the government and herders have been exacerbated because of attempts to enforce and manage.

“At first I was optimistic about this but my optimism drained away as the work progressed,” she noted in 2020. The government “goes around us and avoids the things that affect us. They do not understand our way of doing things. Sometimes it seems they do not even want to understand them. And there are no regulations on how the law should be applied: not one. This leaves people free to interpret the law however they wish. The result is chaos: It’s a real mess.”

Henda Smuk is Mikkel’s cousin. His grandfather, a lifelong herder who remembers analog times — when herding meant following the reindeer on skis — worries about cultural loss. “Without Sami language, how can one communicate with the reindeers?” he asked one morning as we sat around the kitchen table, drinking black coffee.

Henda Smuk with the carcass of a small reindeer, likely slain by a bird of prey. (Kang-Chun Cheng)

He has a special bond with his grandson, Nicholas, who showed an affinity for reindeer herding since he could walk. He speaks to him in Sami, a language developed around reindeer and herding: There are more than 50 words for snow, including tjarvva (“frozen snow crust”), jadat (“good skiing snow”) and borga (“snow blowing sideways from wind”). Snow is a way of experiencing life, he told me.

Though they are partly domesticated, one of the first things I learned is that reindeer are not livestock. “They aren’t cows,” Mikkel told me. “They do what they like, and we let them.” In Norway, only those who own unique reindeer earmarks (cuts in a reindeer’s ears indicating ownership) can be reindeer herders, a right reserved for ethnic Samis. It’s an identity that looks quite different to how it did mere decades ago.

Out in the plains, it’s clear Mikkel and his cousin Henda know their reindeer like family. Henda pointed out a big bull once, evidently the leader of his pack. “He’s one of my favorites,” he said. “He shows up every so often and just does what he wants.”

I couldn’t wait for the spring migration. As the weeks ticked by, the weather stiffly cold and cabins stolidly entrenched in snow, I couldn’t help but ask Mikkel when the reindeer would finally cross over to the coastal pastures. I wanted to know how it worked. How much do the herders control when their reindeer migrate? “They’ll tell us when it’s time,” Mikkel replied. “Don’t you worry.”

By May, just before I left, the Smuks took me to Mortensnes, an ancient archaeological site along the shores of Varangerbotn fjord. Traces of sacrificial sites and graves date the Sami Iron Age to 2,000-2,500 years ago. Many of the Sami were reindeer herders, fishers or farmers.

I went to the Varanger Sami museum, which delved into the history of the Sami of Varanger. The Sami began domesticating wild reindeer to meet taxation demands from intensifying colonization. The encroachment of foreign concepts of ownership and the formation of national borders — as when the Varanger municipality officially became part of the Kingdom of Norway in 1613 — infringed on their semi-nomadic lifestyle. By the 18th century, most Sami had little choice but to transition to cattle-raising and commercialized fishing, as regulations on land use limited their means to herd reindeer, a livelihood based entirely on movement for available resources. It seemed jarringly similar to what the Smuks and their pastoral communities were doing up here in Varanger — taking stock of their environment, in both nature and society, and pressing onward while trying their best to maintain their identities as herders.

Recently, I wrote to Mikkel, asking how things were faring up in the north. He’s had a good season fishing and fox hunting, he told me, and the weather has been OK — not too good, not too bad. But the administrative nonsense is unrelenting, he said. “There is always some regulation — new snowmobile paths, cabins being built, power lines, roads. … We have to be aware of five different municipalities. But at least the reindeer seem to be in good condition.”

This article was published in the Winter 2023 issue of New Lines‘ print edition.

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