Reindeer Sledding & Sami Culture

During our travels in the Swedish arctic in search of the Aurora Borealis, we spent another day out in the gorgeous landscape, this time with reindeer and their Sami (Lapland indigenous people) owners.

First we fed and harnessed the reindeer. They were smaller than we expected; their backs were about as high as a table top. Our Sami guide said that, while the reindeer are slightly domesticated, they remain mostly wild. We accepted the invitation to have a young male reindeer for our sled, one that was new to going out with visitors. It wasn’t that hard to harness him, but he pushed me against a fence, and stood there with my rubbing his back. He wasn’t aggressive; he just stood there against me, waiting.

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We headed out on a long sled ride through the beautiful snowy arctic countryside. We took turns with one of us “driving” and the other enjoying the ride. There were about four other sleds on this tour, and we were in the middle. Our reindeer took off at a good clip. Once he spotted the sleds in front of us, he put the pedal to the medal. All his adolescent competitiveness and hormones surged. We overtook two other sleds. All the humans were laughing. After this sprint, he stopped suddenly, tongue out panting wildly, eating snow, and ignoring our commands to keep going. He evidently hadn’t yet learned to pace himself. As soon as the sled that he had passed passed us, he was off again, in full competitive mode. Rinse; repeat.

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A glimpse of the frozen beauty
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Our speed demon rehydrating after the run

Upon return to the reindeer home base, we learned how to throw a lasso Sami-style.

We enjoyed lunch (of reindeer meat) and coffee around a fire in a lavvu, which is the traditional teepee-like Sami all-purpose structure. Our host and his sister presented us with a flat bread filled with reindeer stew, followed by hot lingonberry juice and coffee. He explained that, traditionally, when one is invited into another family’s lavvu, one must wait quietly just inside the tent opening until the host makes and offers coffee. Only then, can the visitor enter fully and start conversing.

Our host taught us with charm about the fascinating and difficult history and current life of the Sami people. His ancestors have lived for millennia in what is currently northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. Originally, they followed the reindeer to hunt them. About 400 years ago, they started to domesticate the reindeer. Since that time, they keep the reindeer in the valleys in the winter, and move them up to the mountains for grazing through the summer.

Our host had also driven the van from our lodge to his place, and I had had the opportunity to sit in the front passenger seat. Some of the stories he told me had similarities to the proud and difficult history of the Hawaiian people, as well as the Maori. Once I mentioned that we had lived for a long time in Hawaii, he told me of his travels to New Zealand to meet with Maori there. He was deeply aware of the Maori’s challenges with European invaders, and the crucial 19th century treaty between the English and the Maori that underpins contemporary Maori rights. He lamented the fact that the Sami don’t have the equivalent in the Nordic countries. The history of the Sami people includes the later-arriving Swedes’ taking traditional lands, suppressing the language, forcing duplicate taxation, and more. The clash of indigenous people with arriving peoples has been fraught throughout the world.

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