The People Who Walk with Reindeer
Ella-Li Spik of Jokkmokk, Sweden, is one of only a small percentage of Sami who grow up herding reindeer. She is part of a new generation with plans to attend college. "I want to explore the world," she says, "but I always want reindeer to be part of my life."
Sami herders follow the migrations of the reindeer as they move across northern Scandinavia and Russia from their winter grazing grounds to cooler areas during the summer months.
Reindeer can spook suddenly, so Nils Peder kneels calmly in the midst of the herd on which his livelihood depends. He holds a lasso color-coded to indicate the temperature and season in which it works best. As he watches the animals, Nils Peder is yoiking, chanting a throaty, traditional Sami song evoking his wife, Ingrid. The Lutheran pastors who converted the Sami forbade yoiking, calling it devil's music. Nils Peder learned it from his grandparents and has taught it to his children.
The herd's 80-mile trek toward the sea proved too hard for this calf. The herder tied the struggling young reindeer to a sled and hitched the sled to his snowmobile.
The reindeer trudge through deep snow to find food in their winter grazing grounds outside Harr?, Sweden. Lichen is the staple of their winter diet, and they must push aside the snow to reach it. The wetter snow associated with warmer temperatures in recent years causes a frozen crust to form over the plants, which the reindeer can't break through.
Cone-shaped tents called lávut provide temporary shelter for Sami herders while following the reindeer. Nils Peder Gaup, resting here on the tundra, feels most at home in the mountains. "The Sami spirit follows you," he says.
Sven Skaltje makes a meal from some staples of the Sami diet—dried reindeer meat, homemade bread, coffee—in the kitchen of the apartment he shares with five of his siblings in G?llivare, Sweden. They split their time between the town and their village of Harr?, unreachable by roads. Skaltje spends much of the winter on the tundra with his herd. "I feel empty when I am away from the reindeer," he says.
Sven Skaltje was saddened to find the carcasses of two female reindeer whose antlers had become entangled during a dominance struggle in northern Sweden. He estimates it took three days for them to die of starvation. After separating the bodies, he saw from the ear markings that one belonged to him and the other to his cousin. Skaltje is much admired by the younger Sami in his herding group, but he is unsure whether the skills he teaches them will endure.
After finding the carcasses of two female reindeer that starved to death with their antlers locked together, Sven Skaltje removed their antlers. He boiled them clean to save as a keepsake.
Frames of lávut are a common sight in Sami yards, where they are used for smoking meat. Sami have long used the tents as portable shelters—their wide bases and forked poles enable them to withstand winds of up to 50 miles an hour on the Arctic tundra. Easy to transport and erect, the frames were originally covered with reindeer skins, but waxed canvas or lightweight woven materials are more common today.
On a moonlit night, herders bring the reindeer into temporary tarp-enclosed corrals called gárdi to separate the pregnant females from the rest.
Mathis Gaup wades into the herd of pounding reindeer to separate the pregnant cows—the ones that still have antlers—from the rest, briefly grasping one reindeer by her leg to guide her outside the stockade. In 2011 only 50 percent of the females bore calves in the Gaup family's herds in Norway, down from the usual 80 percent. But herders take bad years in stride. "Nature controls the size of the herd," says Mathis's brother, Nils Peder.