The Reindeer People

Photos by Kang-Chun Cheng

In January, I found myself preparing for a reindeer round-up with a Finnish family in Jääskö, one of the 54 herding districts in Lapland, Finland. We were fortunate that the weather was a balmy one degree below zero. I was in the fieldwork stage of my H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship funded by Dartmouth College, photographing and writing about reindeer herding culture in Finland, Norway, and Sweden. I accompanied my host Anna-Leena and her husband, Petri, to some corrals deep within the woods; she told me how, years ago, they had first met on a roundup. Our drive into those palatial winter forests, the spirals and cones of snow-topped firs and pines, evoked fairytales involving elves and other magical beings. Our first order of business upon arrival, however, was decidedly less whimsical: we built a fire – essential for warmth during long waits, and excellent for roasting reindeer sausages and tongues later on.

Reindeer herding in Finland is practiced in a designated area that accounts for about a third of the country. Anyone who lives in this area, and is an approved member of a herding district, has the right to own reindeer, which can be purchased at local auctions. Most herders inherit their animals, though.

Success in this line of work requires a willingness to work with others toward a common objective. Since the animals mingle freely in the forests and tundra, herders care for all reindeer regardless of ownership. There is a beautiful earmark identification system – a unique pattern cut into the ears of their reindeer – that identifies who owns which animals. More than half of the reindeer we rounded up that day belonged to other herders, who gratefully came to take them back to their rightful patch of woods.

Finns have been husbanding reindeer for centuries – the indigenous Sámi people even longer than that – and while technological advancements, including snowmobiles and GPS collars, have revolutionized the industry, a deep well of traditional knowledge still informs the craft. My hosts knew where certain individuals tended to wander off to; they understood the animals’ intrinsic wildness. I was surprised by how unperturbed they were regarding the whereabouts of specific reindeer. They can go for years without seeing certain reindeer, not knowing for certain whether they have fallen victim to lynxes or wolves. “It’s nature,” was Anna-Leena’s explanation. “This is life, and we must get used to it. There are highs, and there are lows. It balances out in the end.” This idea of not trying to control the uncontrollable seems crucial to the process.

A recent boom in tourism is reshaping the future of herding. While there are some who oppose such capitalization – Finnish people are loyal and gracious once you get to know them but lean on the quiet side – most people I talked to responded positively to the financial opportunities that stem from training reindeer to pull sleds and entertain visitors.

The two biggest competing industries in rural areas are logging and mining, both of which are land-hungry and can damage reindeer habitat. Over the past two decades, the herders I visited have had the additional financial burden of supplementing their reindeer with oat pellets in the winter, since dwindling habitats no longer provide sufficient forage. They cited battles with the government over zoning laws, electricity pole placement, and the migration of reindeer from winter to summer pastures as additional challenges. Then, of course, there’s the specter of climate change – worrisome snow conditions like those in recent years did not exist a couple of generations ago.

It was heartening to see the herders thriving alongside their animals despite mounting difficulties.

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