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Among the reindeer

What happened when a DNA test made a New Yorker move to the Arctic Circle

Laura Galloway | January/February 2015

The Sami People of the Arctic have eight seasons. On my first visit, three years ago, I arrived in dalvi, their word for winter. A giant LCD screen at Kiruna airport displayed the temperature: -15˚C. As I stepped off the plane, there was silence, a sense that every­thing was padded by snow. Even the sound of an idling jet engine was muffled. My cheeks bloomed red from the snap of the cold, and the air felt brittle and glassy.

My whole life had been leading up to this moment. The journey began nearly four decades earlier, on an icy Indiana day in January 1975. I was three years old and in bed with my mother, watching television and having our usual treat of a cut lime twisted in sugar from a silver canister. But on this day, as I nudged her arm to twist the lime, she did not move. My mother had died of heart failure, silently and unexpectedly, at the age of 36. I did not yet understand death, and as a child I would look for her everywhere; in the air-conditioning vents of the car, on the roof, in the expanse of the woods behind our house. As I grew up, I never stopped looking for her.

Shortly after her death, my father remarried and I was folded into a new family in which the past was not often discussed. My much older siblings had many memories of my mother, but saw me as belonging more to the new family my father had created. I grew up with an aching feeling that I did not really belong anywhere. Asking about my mother, herself an only child, would elicit either sobs, or an admonition not to mention her. All I knew was that her immediate family had come to America from the Tyrolean Alps, Wales and the West Midlands of England. I have blonde hair and blue eyes, but the shape of my eyes is faintly Asian, which always led me to wonder what surprises might be lurking in my background.

Three years ago, I took a tangible step towards finding out. I contacted 23andme, which does DNA tests to determine ancestry on the maternal side. To my bewilderment, on that side I had a near-100% DNA match with the Sami people of the northern tip of Europe, but since my mother was an only child, I had no one to ask about it. On Google Images, I was stunned to see people who looked much like me, with the same almond-shaped eyes. I called friends in Stockholm, who were amazed: on my first visit to the Arctic Circle two years before, I had fallen in love with the land. But over there, finding out that you are a Sami is akin to being American and discovering you are Cherokee, or Australian and aboriginal. It is something foreign, exotic, not entirely understood.

Northern exposure: Sami reindeer herders spend much of the winter following their charges across the icy tundra

I spent much of my time in New York, where I have a media-consulting company, learning about the Sami culture. They are the indigenous people of Arctic Europe, dating back some 4,000 years, inhabiting, and preceding, today’s Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Kola Peninsula of Russia—an area known to the Sami as Sapmi. Sami people have their own national flag, their own language and, in Sweden, Norway and Finland, their own parliaments.

They have no original word for war—it was only needed when war came to them—and most will never say no. They have survived the second world war, the persistent threat of mining and, in Norway, the brutal policy of Norwegianisation, which aimed to create a unified culture and forbade use of the Sami language (the policy was abandoned in the 1980s, and the King apologised in 1997). The Sami have survived by adapting.

This otherness becomes apparent on that first trip. In Kiruna, in Swedish Sapmi, I visit Jokkmokk, a 407-year-old farmers’ market with stalls selling reindeer and sealskins, reindeer meat, kitchenware and tube socks from China. It is thronged with tourists like me. I wander the lanes, blinded by the sun glinting off the snow, the air so cold that it is like breathing frozen rocks. At Ajtte, the Sami museum, I glean what I can from lectures conducted in Swedish or Sami, languages I do not speak. Mesmerised by the displays and pictures of the Sami, I feel strangely and euphorically at home.

Two trips later, I am invited to a wedding in Kautokeino, Norway. A man walks up to me in the crowded wedding hall, fixes me with his rheumy blue eyes and, in what I later learn to be a highly unusual act for a Sami man, introduces himself. His name is Peder, he is a reindeer herder, and he barely speaks English—or is afraid to use it. I make a bad joke about the possibility that we might be cousins. We see each other often on the remainder of the trip; he is quiet and reserved, a mystery to me, but I sense something deep behind his silence. We make friends on Facebook before I leave.

Back in New York, we start instant-messaging every day, helped by Google Translate. I think about spending an extended time in some part of Sapmi to learn more about the Sami. I pay a few more flying visits to the Swedish north, drawn by curiosity and a primal need to connect that I still find hard to explain. Because Peder’s schedule is dictated by his reindeer, it is impossible to plan a vacation or a trip to see him. Instead he makes the six-hour drive to Swedish Sapmi when I visit. Once, he comes for an hour, before turning around again when the weather changes and he has to get food to his herds. On my birthday, I receive a gift: a picture of Peder, standing high on the tundra, with a tiny reindeer doe. She wears a blue collar, marked in capital letters with my name.

Almost a year later, the pull of the Arctic becomes overwhelming. I give up my New York apartment, put my things in storage, inoculate my cats, and board a plane for the top of the Earth. I will live with Peder. The night train takes me and the cats from Stockholm to Kiruna, where he is waiting in his big blue Volks­wagen van. Looking out of the window at the vast expanse of tundra, I realise that I have no idea what the future holds, or how I will manage—and that I am euphoric at the idea of the unknown. After a five-hour drive and a glimpse of Finland, I reach my new home, Kautokeino—Guovdageaidnu in Sami.

It is geassi, midsummer, and the land has come out from under the snow, revealing itself as loamy and verdant. The rivers remember how to flow, the clear shallow lakes are filled with fat pink Arctic char and perch, and reedy stalks of purple fireweed grow in great patches, so the sloping hills are dotted with explosions of colour.

The reindeer, on their annual migratory path, are at the coast 350km away when I arrive, and so too are their herders. Peder would normally be with them, but has split his duties with other herders to help get me settled. He is still absent for long stretches. I learn the first rule of understanding a herder: never ask when they will return, because they often don’t know.

Kautokeino is strangely empty of people—but full of mosquitoes, so I am soon covered with red welts. Giant Euro­pean magpies glide through the air en masse, the occasional red fox trots by, and the stubby, hearty trees of the boreal forest are flush with green leaves. My cats, who have only ever known the outside world as a concrete view from a high-rise, are in a constant state of primal nirvana.

My new home is a town of nearly 3,000 people, splayed over the Arctic tundra. Its centre flanks Norwegian National Road 93, a lonely, two-lane highway leading to Alta, the nearest major airport, to the north, and Finland to the south. While there are reindeer owners and herders throughout Sapmi, Kautokeino is the centre of Sami reindeer-herding culture. As one local tells me, “It is a culture within a culture”—because there are also forest Sami, river Sami and sea Sami. Here, nearly everyone owns or works with reindeer, including Peder, who left school at 13 to work full-time as a boazovazzi, or reindeer herder. It is a rough, solitary life, spent following the changes of nature, with months on the tundra, no vacations, and cyclical poverty or wealth depending on the harshness of the winter and the condition of the herd. “Every­where I go I am thinking of reindeer,” Peder would tell me. “Do they have enough food to eat? Are they OK? It is my life.”

Peder has rented an apartment for us, north of the village centre, next to a gurgling spring—three rooms on the ground floor of a creaking blue wooden building, with an old cast-iron stove, giant picture windows and, thankfully, high-speed internet. Over my first few days, there are nonstop visitors, Haettas, Eiras and Gaups—there are not many surnames in Sapmi and, it seems, everyone is related. Jet-lagged and overwhelmed, I make a chart, discreetly taped to the back of the bedroom door, to get the names straight. First names are also from a limited pool: Berit, Risten and Sarah, Mikkel, Ole and Per. There are no knocks on the door: visitors just appear out of nowhere. My lack of Norwegian or Sami and their lack of English is no barrier. At first I believe that it is just curiosity driving the visitors to us—the crazy woman who has come halfway around the world, with two cats, to live in this Arctic village. All my cultural notions of the art of receiving guests are irrelevant; you just offer coffee, simple biscuits and you sit.

Peder’s sisters, Anna, Berit and Sarah, take me under their wings and become my first friends here. Like most Sami, they live in conventional, comfortable houses, and do the things that people in modern countries do: shop on the internet, cook pizza, work as school administrators, nurses or teachers. Although the houses are modern, the majority of people have a lavvu in their garden; this is the Sami version of a teepee, used for shelter on the tundra, but also as a third place, where families can spend time together.

The sky at night: Kautokeino (Guovdageaidnu) under the Northern Lights

When Peder is away, we go into the lavvu with the children at weekends. The floor is a thick layer of springy twigs and reindeer skins, there’s a roaring fire and an iron bucket hanging in the middle for cooking. Above us, reindeer meat smokes, permeating our pores with the scent of ash, fat and raw earth. We boil endless pots of coffee, tipping our drained cups to read the grounds. The others teach me simple words in Davvin Sami, the local dialect, such as parts of the lavvu, in which, despite its simple construction, everything has a meaning—from the kitchen area (which nobody should ever cross), to where the family members sleep, to how precisely the wood should be arranged. Thankfully, they are patient.

For me, language is the critical challenge. Speaking not a word of Norwegian, I enrol at the local university, Sami Allaskuvla, on an intensive Sami language course. All the books are in Norwegian, Swedish or Finnish, apart from one rather imprecise dictionary, and the language is bewildering, a flurry of verb cases and changing nouns. When visitors come round, we say bures bures (hello) and then there are often vast swathes of silence. Unaccustomed to this, I spend one awkward afternoon with an older herder who had come to see Peder, watching the “E! True Hollywood Story” on Princess Diana.

Most of my days are spent exploring the village. To a passer-by, it appears utilitarian and unremarkable, which means many pass through without discovering its secrets: Maritex and Cinjat, the suppliers of fabric and ribbons for the gakti, the colourful traditional dress worn daily by older Sami. There is the local lavvu-maker, the knifemaker, and three shops that specialise in exquisite silver jewellery. Some of the greatest goldsmiths on Earth live and work in Kautokeino; silver is the critical adornment of Sami dress, and master craftsmen, I’m told, are attracted to the solitary Arctic life, the intricacy of the work, and the ready market for their wares.

A Sami teepee: The laavu, where families spend time together

I learn more about what it is to be Sami and the challenges they face, not only from the elements. The younger people are incensed by threats to their land from mining and development, which are intensifying in the mineral-rich Arctic. Almost every week there are protests against test blasts or other bids to tap the millions of tonnes of iron, nickel and gold that lie beneath Sami land. The Sami have been here for thousands of years, living in tune with nature, acting as stewards, but they have little power when it comes to these decisions.

In the summer, we see retirees passing through in their RVs, a stream of grouse-hunters and their dogs, and clusters of long-distance motorcyclists who stop just long enough to fill up at the petrol station. Our days are filled with work outside. Peder takes me to his family’s summer cabin, used for springtime marking of the reindeer. He teaches me to fish with a giant net in the vast shallow lake, and to find gold cloudberries on the floor of the boreal forest in the near-24-hour sun. There’s an old drum washing machine but no dryer, so every day I hang clothes and sheets out in the sun to dry. But winter is never far away. When Peder is not off repairing fences or working long hours in the slaughterhouse, we are constantly chopping and moving firewood.

Only about 10% of reindeer-herding Sami still herd full-time, but it is still an important part of life here, even for people with day jobs. At no time is this more apparent than when the reindeer go in the fence, as it’s called, to be inoculated, castrated, separated for marking or slaughter, and generally accounted for. It is a community event, with different siida (collectives) coming together for days at a time to work before the winter sets in. Autumn has started and Peder is away for long stretches, following the reindeer. We have little or no contact. On a break from school, I go to join him in the fence an hour outside our village.

Crowd control: Reindeer in Swedish Sapmi are herded into the fence to be counted and sorted

The reindeer live free apart from now, when they are wrangled from the tundra into a huge enclosure. The herders and other owners stand watching them for hours, occasionally pulling one out with a lasso. Reindeer are marked by patterns of notches cut into their ears, unique to every owner: herders have an uncanny ability to see a mark from a distance on a fast-moving creature. I stand in the fence, mesmerised by the thousands of beasts circling the muddy enclosure, a blur of antlers, mud and hooves.

Inside this larger fence, the herders have to identify their reindeer before they are split into more manageable groups and herded into a smaller fence. Fifteen of us unfurl a giant tarpaulin and run in the direction of the gate, ushering the reindeer towards it. They may be divided into these subsets as many as 50 times in one day.

Inside the smaller fence, entire families stand around the burlap-lined walls. Peder’s mother is here, a tiny woman, as are many other matriarchs who have grown up herding. The bulls are castrated and their antlers shorn down; if they weren’t, they would mate to the point of exhaustion, leaving themselves ill-equipped to handle the brutal winters. Others are inoculated, which requires one person to hold the reindeer by its antlers while another sticks in the needle. Being tall and big-boned, I take easily to the task of grabbing the antlers of the reindeer in the smaller enclosure, holding it so that Peder can give it an inoculation or make a mark on its fur.

Identifying features: Each reindeer can be traced back to its owner by the pattern of notches in its ear

Some reindeer are selected for slaughter and sent into separate enclosures. Every part of the animal is used, from skins and fur for warmth and clothing, to bones for Sami handicraft. Antlers and skins are often sent to Finland to be processed, and then on to Asia, where the antlers are thought to have a Viagra-like power. It is not done to ask how many reindeer someone owns; it would be like asking how much they have in their savings account.

The reindeer are an object of respect, so death comes quickly to the animals selected for slaughter. Just outside the fence, those that are not taken to the abattoir are killed with a cut to the neck followed by one to the heart. It takes a minute at most. I understand the Sami respect for reindeer, having grown up among the cattle farmers of the Midwest, but witnessing my first killing brings up a flood of emotion, and I have to hide behind a truck to cry. I don’t want to appear weak or sentimental, yet I also feel ashamed. I’ve always been a meat-eater, yet the reality of how a living thing becomes meat has never been brought home in such a primal way.

After work in the fence, the remainder of the reindeer are set free onto the tundra where the herders will move with them through the winter, making sure they are safe and able to get through the snow to feed on lichen. Although it is late, the reindeer must be butchered, and we spend the night in the brumal cold, gutting them under lights run from a generator, the insides steaming in the icy air. I wait with Peder in his family’s lavvu, eating reindeer meat boiled in water, and drinking the broth, earthy and gamey. Outside, the first hints of the aurora borealis appear as pale green wisps in the sky.

In winter, darkness falls like a heavy blind, and despite the best-laid plans—internet searches telling me to eat no carbs, drink fish oil, take vitamin C, and walk briskly every day—I’m powerless to resist it. My body loses all sense of time and order: I fall asleep at 4pm, wake at 10, sleep some more, then get up at 3, clean the house and answer e-mails from America, and bake. Polar nights inspire baking. I bake chockladbollar, tarts and Sami bread for no one in particular. Peder is away with his reindeer for most of the winter, unable to tell me when he will come or go. Occasionally, he returns, his face burnt by the wind, his clothes covered with ice rime. My reindeer, who bore a calf in autumn, is somewhere out there, fighting to survive with the others; I think of her often. When Peder returns, he sometimes brings a small reindeer or two that are having trouble finding food. They must go inside an enclosure at his parents’ pasture, to be fed back to strength. Because he is away and the van is with him, I trudge to school each day, a mile and back in the deep snow, and practise my Sami by begging for occasional rides to the store to buy necessities, including heavy cat litter, the bane of my Arctic existence.

One day, after a winter spent working on the mountains, Peder returns home and quietly, without fanfare, tells me he’s leaving. His life is on the mountain. And that is it.

I am on my own now. I am learning to chop and haul firewood, to wrestle with the darkness of polar night and the bleak loneliness it can bring. I never wonder if I should stay or go. Going is not an option. Small victories strengthen my resolve: a job writing for the local newspaper, another teaching English to young herders, a place on a Master’s programme for indigenous studies. I pass the first leg of my Sami language exams, and find a herder who will teach me herding next winter.

The Sami people do not complain; they adapt. One morning, walking to the village in the grainy snow, I realise that I am Sami, and this really is my home. And at that moment, out comes the Arctic sun.

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