The journey in the Arctic has now reached Norrbotten, a region the indigenous Sámi people call Sápmi which extends beyond the borders of Norway, Sweden, Russia and Finland.
The connection between the Sámi and the land they inhabit extends beyond pure human geography. As Professor Harald Gaski explains, the legend goes that their future depends on it. “When the Great Creator created the ancestors of the Sámi people, he laid down in the middle of the earth the living and beating heart of a two-year-old reindeer cow, so that when the Sámi people are in trouble, they can put an ear to the ground and listen to the heartbeats from below. If the heart is still beating, this means there is still a future for the Sámi people, and whatever problems they have can be solved one way or another”. That reindeer heartbeat has never stopped reaching the beating of the Sámi drum and the songs and performances that keep telling their story.
Reindeers are a fundamental part of Sámi culture and occupy such an important role that ultimately defines each other’s livelihood and future. It’s fair to say that few civilisations still honour their direct link to nature this way and in fact, have severed or forgotten those ties. The knowledge of the territory the Sámi have preserved is now more valuable than ever as their ecological expertise is what many industrialized societies lack.
What they have is a connection and relationship with the land that most people who live in cities and rent their apartments don’t. It transcends the usual conceptualizations of land and property and it’s in total dissonance with the transactional lens too often used to look at the spaces we live in. It’s an interesting exercise to try and remove oneself from a narrative we’ve grown accustomed to. It could be easy to over romanticise this and indulge in bucolic escapism. In reality, it’s simply a matter of looking at distant ways of life without branding them as archaic to find lessons and practices that could change ours. It’s about making space for the ancestral wisdom we might not even know we needed.
In a blindingly white landscape, the reindeer look even more beautiful and majestic. They’re peacefully roaming, eating or simply relaxing. For now, the trees and the wooden corral – the space where the reindeer gather before being released into the wild until spring – are the only points of contrast in an otherwise clear scenery where only snow and reindeer exist. Watching them is incredibly soothing and there’s a harmonious feeling in the air. Some of the reindeer perfectly match the surroundings – they’re already wearing their winter clothes.
In this moment of calm, it’s easy to carve out some time for reflection and wonder if their instinct and relationship with their natural habitat are telling them that something is shifting, that it’s not how it used to be. Environmental disruption has also reached Norbotten and there are serious effects to be expected as the Arctic is the fastest-warming region in the world.
The Sámi arrive on their snowmobiles and start calling the reindeer to get them ready for herding. The call breaks through the silence of the reindeer resting and roaming in the corral. Their grunting and the sound of their bells become the new soundtrack in an otherwise dead silent forest.
It’s now dark and the marking begins. The Sámi pierce tags to the reindeer’s ears. They are the only ones who can rightfully own reindeer in the Sámi reindeer herding area and must follow the customary practices that have been transferred across generations for millennia. Some of the reindeer are calm and seemingly unphased as if they’re used to this routine. Others try their hardest to get away from the Sámi’s hands. Their wild nature is very much alive.
As the reindeer start trotting around the corral, they might not realise they have an audience.
The marking takes place in Jokkmokk, a small town in Swedish Lapland famous for its Winter Market where each year thousands of people gather to discover handicrafts from the Sámi people. This is also an occasion for Sámi people across the entire Sápmi to meet. They have been doing so for generations, but are now having to deal with the displacement of their community due to the increasing mining industrialization and climate change in the region they’re so deeply bound to. As the weather becomes more variable and unpredictable beyond the spectrum of indigenous knowledge, it’s painful to imagine what the consequences will be for pastures and Sámi culture where reindeer husbandry is key to their economy and identity.