Of Sami and reindeer, and their way of life

The curtain of dark clouds has just lifted from the Grövelsjöns mountain, revealing a grand beauty contest between two archrivals.

Of Sami and reindeer, and their way of life

Reindeer is central to the lives of the Sami tribe. Alive or dead, the animal is of multiple use. Photo by the writer

Archana Singh

The curtain of dark clouds has just lifted from the Grövelsjöns mountain, revealing a grand beauty contest between two archrivals. On one side, the setting sun is trying to embrace the valley in its golden glow. On the other hand, the full moon is shining ethereally in an eerie bright, blue-white light on the black silhouettes of the Swedish mountains and the dark valleys beneath. Suddenly, the pin-drop silence of the valley is broken by a hauntingly melodious voice. Hypnotised, I make my way to the distant bonfire from where the sound is coming.

The singing that I heard is called yoiking and the singer was Peter Andersson, a Sami from Sweden. Samis are Europe's only indigenous people who have lived for over 10,000 years in the Sapmi region, spanning across four countries — Arctic Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia. Their language, culture and customs are quite different from the societies around them. Mesmerised by Peter's voice, I am intrigued to know what he is singing. “Yoiking is our traditional way of storytelling," says Peter. “Through yoiks, we can interpret, express and remember people, stories, animals and even nature.” While it is an ancient form of melodising a feeling or mood, there are no collections of yoiks because they are so personal. Usually, they are only shared within a group of close friends and family. 

Except that they are reindeer herders, I didn't know much about the Swedish Sami culture. The quest to understand it brought me to Idre Sameby, the southernmost part of Sami settlements in Scandinavia. Here, the Andersson family — Peter and his wife, Hellena — run Renbiten, which offers a wide range of Sami experiences and guided tours with their tame reindeer. During the tours, you can join the reindeer herders at work and listen to stories around the bonfire in the gaetie, the traditional tipi or tent of the nomadic Sami people. I was experiencing the same tonight. Earlier during the day hike, I learnt how to read nature and find tracks from historical activities like hunting pit systems, old Sami settlements, and reindeer grazing. 

Hiking with Lovis

Although Scandinavian hiking wasn't new to me, it was my first-time hiking with Lovis, the reindeer who behaves, and probably believes, she's more like a dog. The credit for that goes to Peter, who rescued her when she was barely two months old and was lost in the forest. Peter brought her home, named her Lovis and has since become the spoiled one in the family. 

To dig deeper into Sami culture, I drive to Renbiten shop and café in Idre. Upon entering the typical Falun red-painted Swedish timber shop, I see the whole area stocked with traditional and exquisite Sami handicrafts made from natural materials — from local wood to reindeer meat, antlers, fur and leather. As I pick up a wooden cup, Peter explains its significance to their culture, “This is Guksi, traditional Birchwood-made Sami wooden cup, which comes very handy when we are out in the open, herding our reindeer. We use it for drinking water straight from the region's thousands of streams and coffee during our Fika." Fika is a term used by the Swedes for coffee breaks, which are more about socialising than coffee itself.

Anderssons reveal the relevance of Sami symbols in their everyday life. Apparently, items such as guksi and niibi (knives) had originated from a time when the Samis, as nomads, needed light and practical tools that they could use on the go. And, reindeers have always been central to their lives — following the ancient migration routes of the arctic deer herd from one season to another, and when they butcher them, they ensure every part is used. Bone marrow fortifies soups, blood is used for pancakes, and the animals’ bones, sinews, skin, and fur are used in the traditional Sami craft called duodji. Men traditionally use antlers, bones, and wood to make dishes and sleds. Women use reindeer fur and skin to make outdoor clothing such as shoes, hats, gloves, and jackets.

Reindeer husbandry

Nowadays, not every Sami is involved with the reindeers. In fact, out of the 20,000 Samis in Sweden, only 2,500 are engaged in reindeer husbandry. And even for them, the reindeer husbandry alone is not profitable enough to cover their expenses. Their reindeer grazing lands have been limited, and the government has put heavy taxes and a cap on their herd ownership. Therefore, today, more and more Samis are either giving up their main occupation or supplementing it with other businesses such as tourism, fishing, and food production. 

Being a Sami was never easy, and perhaps, will never be. But since 1968, the Sami Parliament of the Sapmi region has been working actively for their political, cultural, social, and economic rights. For them, it's a matter of survival more than pride. If reindeer herding disappears, Sami culture may vanish too.

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