Tending herds of reindeer is a way of life for the Sami, as well as a source of income
Reindeer husbandry today in Norway is a small industry on a national scale, but both in a Sami and local context, it has great importance. Reindeer husbandry is not only important economically and for employment, it is also one of the most important parts of the Sami culture. Once, a self-employed Sami reindeer herder in Norway could subsist on 250 reindeer. These were owned individually but cared for collectively by means of flexible entrepreneurial networks. Rather than manage their reindeer, herders read their cues and followed the herd. Flexibility was the key to success.
Today, snowmobiles, GPS technology, helicopters, and increased regulation have transformed the sector. The Sami have modernized smoothly. They use cell phones and snow scooters and four-wheel drive, and there is some new technology on the way—a little chip that they can transplant into the reindeer and then herd them just sitting with the computer. Yet they are concerned that herding might be reduced to an element of the food industry and their community-based entrepreneurship undermined.
According to the Norwegian Reindeer Husbandry Administration, about 3,000 Sami in Norway own more than 150,000 reindeers. The reindeer are allowed to roam freely, the herds migrating according to the season. Summer grass is better along the coast than inland. From June until August, the reindeer pasture unattended. As winter approaches, they migrate inland for food. On cold days, the heard can be located by means of the steam that it gives off. When the land is covered with snow, the reindeer use their hooves to dig for food.
Meat production is the most important income for the owner of a herd. The quantity and quality of the meat are important indications of how the business is going and how the economy will be. Reindeer meat is popular in Norway. It is a healthy and clean arctic food. And herders have additional earnings through raw materials such as skins, bones, horns, and through handicraft and fishing and hunting. Myself, I enjoyed the warm reindeer skin under the sleeping bag when serving in the Army up north. In my cabin in the mountains I still have skins in the beds.
Some are concerned that the entrepreneurs may eventually be phased out by agricultural reindeer business. In Russia large-scale reindeer ranching is already a reality. But this kind of ranching is not compatible with Sami tradition and not ideal for reindeer. They prefer fresh, natural food (not pellets), and they have traditionally traveled looking for new fresh food supplies.
Whatever the future of reindeer in Norway, a steaming herd is certainly something to behold. Look out for reindeer!
This article originally appeared in the Oct. 17, 2014 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.