How does a culture exist for thousands of years while simultaneously conserving the environment? Lola Akinmade Åkerström heads to northern Sweden to find out.
“You need warmer clothes,” Nils tells me at our very first meeting.
I’ve just landed roughly 150 kilometers inside the Arctic Circle during the darkest time of winter. My destination is the small village of Jukkasjärvi, roughly 20 kilometers east of Kiruna, Sweden’s northernmost town.
Nils Torbjörn Nutti is one of over 100,000 indigenous Sámi (over a quarter of which live in Sweden) who live in northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Kola peninsula of Russia in a region collectively known as Sápmi.
He’s a reindeer herder in Saarivuoma sameby. Sameby means ‘Sámi village’ and denotes a reindeer-herding community. Nils also runs Nutti Sámi Siida, a company which organizes experiences that bring travelers closer to his reindeer and culture on their own terms.
I head towards his storage facility to pick up thick overalls, boots, caps and gloves. Compared to this new get-up, my own winter gear seemed more like beachwear. I press on towards the reindeer lodge, which is walking distance from the banks of frozen River Torne.
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Before veering towards the lodge, three teams of huskies pulling one-man sleds race by in front of me. The low sun is toying with the landscape, splashing crisp, densely-packed snow with golden light. Snow-covered pine trees shimmer and bask in the sun’s warm glow. But it remains bitingly cold.
This is Swedish Lapland at its most beautiful.
The curious animals are inching closer to me. Each has its own personality, and sports uniquely shaped antlers. Every part of the animal is used—meat for food, fur for clothes, antlers for tools and craft. But when it comes to herding, the reindeer actually herd the Nutti family, not the other way around.
Over an Arctic dinner of chanterelle mushroom soup, reindeer steak marinated in wild blueberries, and root vegetables roasted in reindeer fat, I learn that herders follow the natural migration paths of the reindeer because the herd has a much closer instinctual relationship with nature than man.
The next day, I meet up with Nils and his brother Per Anders Nutti, and we head over to the reindeer corral where Jakob is lassoing and catching a few bulls—male reindeer—to work our sleds that morning. We each pick a wrangled bull, which are typically stronger than their female counterparts, making them perfect sled partners.
Henrik Nutti, Nils and Pers’ father, had used reindeer sleds for transportation long before snowmobiles were introduced to the region. So the brothers had repaired his old harnesses, learned the skills themselves, and trained their reindeer to pull sleds.
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Per Anders briefs me on how to respect and work with the reindeer. “Don’t linger too much taking photos of their antlers, otherwise they can charge,” he warns me. “Don’t stand behind them because they can kick, and especially avoid their right back legs.”
Once briefed, the Nuttis show me how to harness them up, attach the sleds, and drive one. To man the sled, one hand should hold the wooden structure for support while your other hand holds the rope attached to the reindeer’s harness for navigation. To start the sled, you give it a manual kick-start with your leg, and you pull the rope slightly to kick-start your reindeer.
“While we don’t believe reindeer are gods, the white reindeer is considered holy because they’re very rare,” Nils explains. “About one in every 1,000 reindeer—maybe more—is white, and we usually save them, and don’t use them for meat or materials.”
The Sámi respect for nature runs deep. Over centuries, because of their nomadic lifestyles, they looked for different signs in nature to help them forecast the weather and help them navigate migration paths.
While today, it’s easy to check the weather forecast on their phones, sometimes they head into deep regions with little to no cell coverage and have to depend on their knowledge of reading signs in nature. “Just by looking at how auroras are dancing, we know what type of weather is coming so we don’t take the risk and head into the tundra or mountains because it is dangerous,” Nils adds. “For example, we can see in the northern lights if strong winds are coming tomorrow based on if they are dancing a lot across the sky with lots of shifting patterns. Sometimes you read weather signs in our reindeer as well.”
If it’s roughly minus 5-10 degrees below with cloudy overcast skies, the reindeer may not be in the mood to run or pull as hard on their sleighs—they can detect colder weather coming over the following days and want to prepare for it by conserving their energy.
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“They depend on nature, so they don’t expend energy unnecessarily,” Nils notes. “It takes a lot of energy to dig up and find lichen to eat under snow in the forest.” He proceeds to explain the ecosystem of sustainability. The more male reindeer you have in a herd, the easier it is for the group. Male reindeer do most of the digging for food, so calves and their mothers can come and eat.
When we arrive back to the property, it’s to a traditional tentipi (lávvu) where Per-Anders starts roasting reindeer meat in a fat called souvas. Smoke from the fire turns blue as it rises through the tent, hitting freezing temperatures on its way out.