The snow carpeted the floor of the mature pine forest, sparkling in the crisp, still, freezing morning air. A solitary raven croaked in the distance, it’s familiar sound carrying across an otherwise silent, arctic wilderness as I strained my ears, searching for the first faint noise of the approaching herd.
The dogs’ barking, barely audible, reached me through the trees followed very shortly by the distant, melodic clanging of the reindeer’s bell. They were coming.
In a bid to be in the best position for filming 5000 reindeer spilling onto the surface of the frozen River Skellefte in North Sweden, Tomme Svensson had taken us the previous evening along the route from the reindeer corral, down to the river and now, this morning, we had set out shortly after 6am to re trace the route and get into position.
Reindeer herding is a unique and traditional way of life for a small, privileged number of Sami folk in the northern part of Scandinavia. Prehistoric artefacts indicate that the Sami have occupied the region and have been engaged in reindeer herding since as early as 800AD; long before the Scandinavian states emerged and the lands were subsequently colonised; and this traditional past still has a strong bearing in how the Sami live today. Even though, out of a current population of 17,000, only 3000 Sami are directly involved in reindeer herding, it’s a rare Sami person indeed who isn’t related to, or at the very least doesn’t know, somebody from one of the herding communities. Modernisation has influenced every aspect of the Sami’s life, and assimilation into their host nation’s culture is near total, but reindeer herding is still founded on a traditional way of life, requiring a closeness to the herd and nature in general because of the animals’ instinctive migratory behaviour. Even with the farming in its modernised form, with skidoos, cars and mobile communications, the reindeer are at the very heart of the Sami culture, and are the basis for existence of the Sámeby communities.
In April 2004, I travelled to the small village of Jörn in Sweden, where I spent several days with the Mausjaur Forest Sami group, as they worked tirelessly, preparing the herd of 5000 animals for the 120km Spring migration, across frozen lakes, rivers and marshes and through snow-clad forests between Jörn in the east and Arvidsjaur in the west.
The unofficial country of Sápmi that spans the northern borders of Norway, Sweden and Finland, and the Kola Peninsula in Russia is where the Sami call their home, and within this region, territories, called Sámeby (lit: Sami Village), are mapped out to assist in the controlled herding of reindeer groups. The Mausjaur territory extends from Skellefteå on the Bothnian coast, inland along the Skellefte River as far west as Arvidsjaur, and encompasses 3600 square kilometres north of the river. It’s a region of mature pine wilderness, wide rivers, narrow streams, vast lakes, hills and marshes. Commonly encountered wildlife includes, brown bears, wolves, wolverines, martens, elk, ravens, crossbills, whooper swans, woodpeckers and, of course, the all important reindeer.
Territories are further divided into summer and winter areas that support the reindeers’ specific feeding behaviour; the winter ground being nearer to the coast where the climate is marginally warmer and the ground more heavily forested, resulting in less snow cover, making it easier for the reindeer to reach the forest floor for feeding. Also, some of the more mature forests provide tree-hanging lichens, which offer the reindeer a valuable feeding alternative in the harsh winters, when the ground’s snow cover might be compacted and impenetrable.
The summer area is found inland to the west and extends to include higher, mountainous ground above the pine forests. Two distinct types of Sami group have emerged over the centuries: Those that migrate out of the forests in the summer and onto the open mountains; and those that remain in the forest all year round. Lotta Svensson explains, “Because the Mountain Sami spend so much of their time in remote parts of the country, their culture is more traditional than the Forest Sami who are merging more and more with outsiders and their influences.” “It’s easy for them to look at us [Forest Sami] with contempt and distrust,” she continues, “but we want to preserve our traditional ways and heritage just the same as they do.”
The story of the Mausjaur group can be traced back to 1886 when the Sámeby territories were originally formed. Members have continually changed through the years, sometimes increasing in numbers, sometimes falling. Today the group is a tight knit community, comprising six Reindeer Keepers and their respective families: The six men are Mikael, Göran and Johan Jonsson; Tomme Svensson, and Lennart and Martin Persson. The ages range from Johan at 19 to Göran at 56. There’s no hierarchy within the group and no one person holds any higher authority than any other, although Mikael is the nominated spokesman for the Mausjaur at meetings with other Sámeby.
The Swedish state has delineated a specific border that separates all-year-round grazing land to the mountainous west of the region, from the lower, forested east part of the region. Within the highland summer area, the Sami enjoy full customary rights to the grazing with the freedom to come and go as they please. However, the stipulation is that all herding communities cannot cross the boundary and enter the winter area with the herd before the 1st September, and they must complete the return migration and fully exit the winter area by the 1st May. Grazing rights within the winter area are not covered in detail by Swedish law and so disputes are inevitable.
Although Sami Reindeer Herders are entitled to customary grazing rights on the land they occupy, most of that land is owned, either by the state, by large forestry companies or by small private land owners (SPLOs). Because of conflicts of interests between the relevant parties, legislations have been created that are intended to serve the Forestry companies and the Reindeer Herders and allow them to work alongside each other without disharmony. In practice the large forestry companies are utilising the system fairly and flexibly, as per Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) guidelines, that take into consideration the Sami’s reindeer husbandry needs, whereas many of the SPLOs, not bound by the FSC, are finding the regulations not to their suiting and are slowly but steadily pushing the Sami out of their land holdings by expensive court actions that the Sami are ill-financed to defend against. Unfortunately for the Sami, to call on their customary grazing rights, they have to prove a long tradition of herding on the land in question, proof that is required in documented form. The Sami language has only taken written form in the last century; so admissible evidence by those criteria is simply unavailable, leaving the future of those particular herding communities in considerable doubt.
The precise timing of the spring migration is derived from a fine balancing act between the prevailing weather conditions, the state of the ground under foot (or hoof), which determines if the reindeer can feed unassisted or not, and the legislative requirement that all reindeer are herded across the winter/summer boundary by the 1st May.Normally, the weather would be improving towards the end of March allowing the preparations for the move to commence with plenty of time to spare before the deadline. However, this year (2004) 40cm of snow fell on the Mausjaur territory over the weekend of 20/21 March, causing much concern among the Sámeby, as this was exactly the kind of weather that would scupper their best laid plans. As a further burden, the added snow cover means that ground mosses and lichens are inaccessible and supplementary feeding is necessary to allow the reindeer to build up their strength for the imminent migration; feeding that comes in the form of pellets and hay bales, both quite costly. Fortunately, the snowfall that weekend was not indicative of more bad weather on the way and only represented a very short setback in the Mausjaur’s plans.
By the last week of March the big thaw is very much underway. Huge wet snowdrifts can be seen hanging off the house roofs about town, slowly sagging under their own weight until, with a heavy “crummphh” they fall to the ground below. All about is the sound of dripping water and as the grey skies give way to blue, the daylight hours increase by 8 or 9 minutes every day. Rivers and lakes are still frozen but patches of open water are beginning to appear.