By Betty Gordon
© 2017 text and photos. All rights reserved.
The long months of pawing at the frozen tundra, hunting for diet-dependent lichen, are over for the reindeer of far northern Finland. Many herds, tended to by the Sámi, the indigenous people of Lapland, are moving to their summer pastures, and delivering their quick-to-walk calves.
In late May 2013, I visited a reindeer farm in Inari, a small village (population about 600) nearly 200 miles above the Arctic Circle. The farm was run by Tuula Airamo and her husband, who looked after a private herd of only about 12 animals, solely for their own use. To be a successful larger economic endeavor, the herd would have to number in the hundreds — or more.
For centuries, the Sámi have largely relied on reindeer, hunting and fishing and small-scale farming for their livelihood. Theirs was a nomadic existence dictated by the seasons, driving their herds from summer to winter pastures and back. Nowadays, the migration is easier, especially with the addition of snowmobiles, which came into use in the 1950s and 1960s, and later all-terrain vehicles. Some herders even have GPS collars on their reindeer.
These tools have allowed many Sámi to settle in towns and villages, and fewer than 40 percent make their living as their ancestors did herding reindeer. (Today, not all reindeer herders are Sámi.) Tourism and small business ventures have become increasingly important. Nonetheless, in Finland’s Inari-Saariselkä tourism region, reindeer outnumber people about 70,000 to a bit over 8,000.
The Sámi inhabit parts of four European countries: Finland, Norway, Sweden and the Kola Peninsula in northwest Russia. Sápmi is their name for this mostly northern geographical region that covers about 150,000 square miles and grouped together forms a shape resembling an angled boomerang with its center bend pointing northwest.
An official census has never been taken, but estimates put the Sámi population between 70,000 and 100,000, with (using the lower figure) about 40,000 living in Norway, 17,000 to 20,000 in Sweden, about 8,000 to 10,000 in Finland and fewer than 2,000 in Russia.
Archaeological evidence, such as pitfalls used to trap wild reindeer, suggests ancestors of today’s Sámi were in the region, then known as Fennoscandinavia, at least 10,000 years ago. They possibly resettled from Denmark and coastal Norway. The first written reference is credited to Roman historian Tacitus in A.D. 98 when in “Germania,” he mentioned “Fenni” as a people who hunted in the far north.
Mingling with some domesticated reindeer at a farm set against a background of towering pine, spruce and birch trees, about 15 minutes from the center of Inari, was a good way for our small group to learn about reindeer husbandry. Airamo was a gracious hostess, answering dozens of questions with utmost patience.
Except for going away to school, Airamo had lived her whole life in Inari.
Airamo’s ancestors came to the Inari area around 1745, she said. In 1945, her parents arrived with two small children, and the first thing they did was build a log house. At that time, they tended cows and sheep.
“There was no road,” Airamo said. “Everything came by boat, ski or walking. There wasn’t any electricity.”
Things have certainly improved and Airamo’s wooden home had all the modern conveniences, plus two saunas: one in the house and an original separate building that is 67 years old (as of 2017).
In addition to the reindeer, the farm also produced carrots, turnips and potatoes in the brief growing season.
Airamo was a storehouse of knowledge about reindeer, and like all Sámi, utilized every bit of the animal. For centuries, the hide supplied warm clothing, shoes and leather goods, the meat and milk provided nourishment and the antlers became jewelry, decorative art and practical utensils, such as needles and thimbles.
Some antlers, which the animals shed annually, vary in bone density. She showed us the stem end of one rack, noting that the small holes we could see indicated that the animal had been castrated. Antlers from an intact male were completely solid.
We were lucky to see three calves, about two to three weeks old. They weighed about 9 to 13 pounds at birth. Reindeer are unusual in that the females also grow antlers, and we could even see the beginning of stubs on the heads of the adorable calves, who never strayed far from their mothers.
Later in the summer, the calves were to be “earmarked” with a pattern of notches cut in their ears, an identifying feature like a cattle brand. In subsequent generations of a herder’s family, a variation of that pattern will build on the original. Airamo said she knew by sight that some reindeer from other herds were “visiting” her corral.
With such a small herd, these animals were almost like pets. Two who were eager to munch on a pail of lichen and food pellets while we petted them were named Valokki, which means “light” and is also another name for cloudberries, and Vauhti, which means “speed” or “quick boy.”
Valokki was 13 (in 2013), and gray-white. Fuzzy velvet protected his blood-vessel-rich antlers as they grew and like all reindeer, the fur on his body was hollow. Airamo said he likely would be slaughtered for meat next year.
When they walk, reindeer make a gentle but noticeable clicking noise, the result of tendons sliding over bone on the rear legs. In the dark or fog, reindeer use this noise to group together and it may help the herders pinpoint the animals’ location, Airamo said.
After showing us how to bridle and hitch Valokki to a small sleigh, we accompanied Airamo inside her house. She explained the process of tanning the hide and showed us the various steps that go into making the distinctive curled-toe Sámi shoes. For added warmth, dried hay is stuffed inside, and an Australian woman in our group who tried one on indicated her foot was indeed cozy.
Airamo also showed us the wool she dyes using natural plant materials, and how the wool is woven into laces and belts.
The pride Airamo took in her heritage and her gentle care of the animals was a testament to the enduring bond between the Sámi people and the all-important reindeer.
Quick reference: I booked my outing, called “Explore Reindeer and Handicrafts,” online through Visit Inari, which can facilitate accommodations and a wide range of year-round safaris, such as hunting, fishing, horseback riding and visiting a husky farm. The reindeer farm excursion I did is now referred to as “Reindeer & Sámi Handicraft,” and Tuula Airamo is still listed. The price has risen to 110 euros, which includes round-trip transfers. See: visitinari.fi
A version of this post appeared in the Fall 2013 edition of Scandinavian Press magazine. For more on Finland, see my Nov. 30, 2016 post about Rovaniemi, and my Feb. 20, 2017 post about a home visit in a Helsinki suburb.