Experiencing the Sami Reindeer Spring Migration with a Sami Family in Norway
Text and photos: Gia DeAngelis
I was so fortunate to be able to take part in a spring reindeer migration in the far north Norwegian tundra. It was a peak experience and a unique cultural one, a trip that will always remain dear to me as a wonderful slice of life. Because most Sami had to have their spring reindeer migration weeks earlier than they expected, I was fortunate that Nils Sara, a Sami reindeer herder, and my host, was able to take me on his friend’s still ongoing migration. Nils and I met at the Alta airport and drove south to his town, Kautokeino, in the interior of the heart of Sápmiland. The tundra begins just beyond Alta and all remain snow-covered until late April.
I was fully taken in by his family for the initial days I was there. Typical now of the reindeer herders, he has a permanent house and family to which he returns from his months tending his reindeer. One of his teenage sons is going to follow him as a herder. Nils immediately cooked up a lunch of reindeer meat he cut off from a side of salt-preserved reindeer along with a few tongues, a delicacy here. There was lots more reindeer meat to come while out on the tundra along with whatever fish we caught ice fishing. It was Easter week and the Sami typically wear their colorful native dress (Gákti).
Easter weekend was essentially a continuous festival. There are late-night get-together parties, dance parties, and reindeer rodeos. We went out by snowmobile to see their local reindeer rodeo. Sami jostled reindeer to harness traditional sleighs and raced them around a snow-covered course marked only by sticks. Half the time the reindeer ran off the course contributing to more rowdiness at the festival.
One night the Norwegian Broadcast company came to the conference hall in this town to broadcast live “The Sami Grand Prix” to Norway, Finland, and Sweden (see YouTube). Sami artists sang both popular songs and joiked (traditional Sami singing) and were judged as a grand winner in both categories. My host’s wife, Oddbjørg, and I both ended up on the show during a brief feature piece of some on the audience. Oddi is a teacher and has been a journalist both of which explain why she is such a community organizer and a smooth speaker during the interview. She also seems to be one who holds much of everything
We went off to the tundra with Nil’s snowmobile and our sled with food, gas, reindeer hides and tent. Fortunately, I had most of the desired clothes for a tundra stay but got a snowmobile suit from Nils. The tundra is much windier and colder than the coast but the temperatures were easing this time of the year and the sun was out most of the day. The tundra is this surreal vast white world covered by snow and with occasional scraggly short bare trees. There were many lakes hidden by snow; the ice several was
feet thick. It was amazing to me how Nils and the other reindeer herders can recognize where they are by the subtle differences in relief of the land.
In April, the Sami herders bring their reindeer from the inland to the coast so the reindeer can calve and feed on its lush spring vegetation and the tundra lichen can regrow. Nils already moved his herd to Soroya island, the summer pasture, a few weeks prior because of recent climate change that forced many herders to migrate earlier to stay ahead of the warming snow. Nils and I joined his friend Johnny, another seasoned herder who was still migrating west to the coast. His 3 reindeer dogs always took the same spots on his snowmobile behind him. His wife is a veterinarian and like many, stay in their town raising children and carrying on with their own professional lives.
The life of a herder involves much individual solitude but with communion with nature and the cycle of their herd. The Sami used to live in traditional teepees or lavvu that they pulled on skis along with other supplies. With modernization, they drag a tiny hut on skis on their snowmobiles and spend the months in it getting shelter, a stove, and a bed. With snowmobiles, it is feasible to easily resupply and get visits from friends and family making their existence on the tundra much more palatable.
Over the days we rounded up Johnny’s reindeer with the snowmobile and his dogs. Being herd animals, once the reindeer upfront started walking, the rest would follow. They may move several miles a few times a day or at night if snow conditions allow and in accordance with their energy. This migration is a cultural and natural wonder. The Sami for hundreds of years have been integrally tied to their large reindeer herds and use them herds for hides, food, and commerce. Reindeer graze on the inland plateau in the winter. The cold and dryness results in a deep layer of light snow that they can dig through to feed on lichen.
The migration was easier for the herders this year because of their unfortunate need to feed the herds pellets, another recent disconcerting effect of climate change. Early winter warmth caused a layer of ice to form over the tundra lichen. The reindeer would dig through the snow but could not reach the lichen that was encased by ice. The herders for the first time had to buy food pellets, compressed plant matter, as the main food for their herds. They retrieved these 800-pound bright yellow pellet bags delivered on a sled at specific times on specific roads on their snowmobiles and drove around their herds with the pellets dropping from a hole cut in the side. The reindeer found the pellets irresistible and the herders could jumpstart a migration by dropping pellets just ahead of the leaders. We left a partly filled bag overnight and all the night some of the reindeer jostle each other to knock out a few
We spent a night in Johnny’s hut before setting up our own lavvu for the next days. One night the aurora was visible through a partly clear sky. The 3 of us and the 3 dogs were tightly crowded in his warm hut cooking up the chard and trout we caught ice fishing that day in a frozen lake. We had herded the reindeer a few hours before settling in for the night. There were only about 2 hours of dusk in the middle of the night and still plenty light to see. The huge number of reindeer walking together a few feet from us or amassing around the pellets was a surreal sight. Their eyes showed brightly against the lights of the snowmobiles.
We set up our own lavvu. We cut branches from these ubiquitous scraggly artic trees for our ‘mattresses.’ Then laid out reindeer hides and our sleeping bags. Nils had a rig whereby he has a cooking stove attached to a long hose to a plastic jug of diesel outside. We boiled snow, added a slab of salted reindeer side from our sled and over the hours had stewed meat falling from the bones. Nils would often joik which is a traditional deep throated Sami song usually about something very personal.
We often ice fished. This too required patience and getting into the rhythm of tundra life. We used a long hand drill to drill a 6-inch hole through the thick ice. There is an actual technique for ice fishing using a specific depth and hand movement. Every time we stopped to ice fish or at our shelter, we got visitors from other Sami coming over on their own snowmobiles. Though the tundra is vast, everyone seems to know one another, and stopping to make conversation is part of their fabric.
The trip was culturally amazing and the hospitality was amazing and deeply appreciated. There is a draw to the artic that is irresistible. The surreal blue light, the vastness, the way color stands out against the whiteness. The aurora, the masses of reindeer. I would like to go back. I highly recommend Visit Natives. It is a small company and as I expected, the trip was very personalized and culturally authentic. Annina from Visit Natives did the arranging, was super-responsive, and has been out with the reindeer herders herself so she understands the life and pace.