February 22: Reindeer Sledding and Sami Culture

Nord-Norge Adventure Part 3: Reindeer Sledding and Sami Culture
(remember, you can click on a picture for a full size version)

We arrived at Sorrisniva, the ice hotel, and immediately got suited up for our Reindeer Sledding and Sami Culture tour. Our guides were clear that they were not tour guides, they are Sami men who spend a week or two in the mountains tending their reindeer herds, and when they rotate out and come back home they take people on this reindeer tour, so we were encouraged to ask questions because they did not have a script prepared. They could speak from their own experience and culture.

They put 2 people in each sleigh, with 1 reindeer in between each. That made for an interesting ride, because if the lead reindeer slowed down, the others didn’t immediately get the hint and came up alongside your sleigh. Nora and I were in the front sleigh, so our guide, Nils, jogged along with his reindeer at the front then hopped in our sleigh when we got going fast enough. The reindeer behind us was the beauty with the big antlers. These are wild animals and don’t want much of anything to do with us, but have been given enough experience with the sleighs to be comfortable. The one behind us sometimes walked beside us, but didn’t give us trouble with the antlers.


However, the reindeer behind Ted and Anders was new to this activity and kept wanting to run faster, so he was constantly beside them and banging into them. At one point he got mixed up in the ropes and Nils had to stop the train to set it right. Ted figured out how to put up an arm to keep him from running into the sleigh.

We sledded along a wooded path for 20-30 minutes and stopped at a Sami lavvo to warm up and have a cup of tea and learn more about Sami culture.

The Sami are indigenous people of the far north, extending from Norway through Sweden, Finland, and Russia. They maintain their own language but have different dialects, so from east to west they can generally understand each other, but not dialects that are north or south of their own. The seat of the Sami Parliment is in Karasjok, where our guides are from. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sami_people#Sami_culture

A lavvo is a tipi-like building that the Samis use as shelter when they are herding reindeer and is the traditional family living space. Now, Sami families live in towns where the kids go to school and parents who are not herding reindeer work. They can set up this traditional type of lavvo with wood frames in about 30 minutes, but now they have aluminum-rod versions that can go up and down in about 10 minutes. In the winter, the reindeer stay in the mountains because it is easier to dig down into the snow and find moss to eat, so the Sami that stay near them do not have to move much. In the spring, the reindeer move down toward the coast, so they have to move daily or multiple times per day to stay with them. Men are traditionally the herders, but now there are some women who have learned the skills and also participate. A few will go into the mountains for 2 weeks at a time, then come back home while another 2 go out. Today, they use snowmobiles and a few reindeer have GPS trackers in case the herd goes afield. People can go across the border into Finland or Russia, but the reindeer cannot, so there is extensive fencing at the border and the Sami keep the herd within their country’s borders.

The reindeer are wild, but the Sami families that have herds (some 3,000 if I remember correctly) keep track of them with cuts to their ears that they make when a calf is born, and a good herder knows the cut pattern for all of the other family herds to keep them apart. They do not intentionally breed the herd, but they do castrate some of the males (we didn’t get into the reasons, but likely managing herd size and quality). Every year they sell some to the slaughter facilities to become reindeer meat, which you can only get in Norway because there isn’t enough to satisfy the domestic market. The Sami also slaughter some for their own use, for meat and hides.

They also told us about the traditional Sami clothing, which they do not wear on a regular day of course, but they wear for the tour and special occasions. The color and patterns on the jackets show where you are from and the buttons on the belt show whether you are single or married. They said that they tease a people from a neighboring town whose jackets are “half done” because they are almost all blue, with very little extra color patterns.

We also were grateful to hear Johann joik for his father and brother-in-law. Nils was clearly more comfortable speaking English, but he said that just like some people can sing and some can’t, some people can joik and some can’t. He can’t joik, but Johann can. Each person has their own joik that they get from their family, which reflects their personality, and no two joiks are the same. You joik to remember or honor a family member when you are away or after they have died.

When we were done, we hopped back into the sleighs for a ride back to the hotel, where the kids found a “spark” (kick sled) and we had a warm meal of fish soup and wild meat and veggie stew.

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About Christy Anderson Brekken

In no particular order... Instructor and Researcher, Department of Applied Economics, Oregon State University. Educational background: University of MN Law School, 2005. MS in Ag and Resource Economics, Oregon State University, 2011. Teaches: Agricultural Law, Environmental Law. Mother: brilliant 9 year old boy; brilliant 6 year old girl with benign myoclonic epilepsy on a modified ketogenic diet therapy. Married to: Ted Brekken, OSU Department of Electrical Engineering. Ride: Xtra-cycle Edgerunner with kid seat; 400-pound cargo capacity. Grew up: Devils Lake, ND. Lived in: Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN, Pohang, South Korea, Trondheim, Norway, Corvallis, OR. Interests: Cooking, knitting, eating, yoga, laughing, hiking, traveling, staying sane.
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