While visiting Swedish Lapland I had the chance to spend some time with the Sami people: Sweden’s largest indigenous group and the masters of reindeer herding
The temperature outside was -15°C and I was in the heart of Swedish Lapland. Ann-Christin Blind, a Sami living in the area, was guiding me through the snow-covered forest on a snowmobile. We were going to an area where Sami families practice reindeer herding: one of the most common activities for the Sami indigenous groups and their best-known means of livelihood.
Once we arrived at the open field, several hundred of reindeers were wandering around freely. At the same time, small herds were being fed by one or two people who arrived before us. “The reindeer is our way of life”, said Ann-Christin, as she looked my face of amazement and excitement. “Here, all Sami families of the area come to feed the reindeer”, she concluded.
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A culture of reindeer herding
The Sami people are very proud of their cultural heritage and reindeer herding has been always part of it. Currently around 10% of the Sami are somehow connected to the reindeer business and in several parts of Scandinavia, only the Sami have the rights to own the animal. Sami see the reindeer as a sacred species and for many of them, it is considered the most important species in the area.
Nobody knows how many Sami there are, but the population is estimated at around 80.000 people located in the most-northern areas of four different countries: Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Kola Peninsula of Russia. Here in Swedish Lapland there are only 20.000 Sami. Still, they are nowadays recognized all over the country and their traditions are big part of Swedish Lapland cultural heritage.
Back at the open field, Ann-Christin taught me how to bring the herd together, feed the reindeer with dry lichen and make the animals feel more comfortable around me. “Reindeer get spooked very easily, so the key to make them feel comfortable around you by simply staying quiet”, she said.
Some of the Sami in the area live out of the reindeer as well. They sell reindeer meat at the local markets and use almost each part of the animal to create clothing and artefacts to sell at shops or to visitors in the region.
Once I went back to the nearby town of Arjeplog, I could see how the Sami sold shoes and socks made out of reindeer fur, as well different kinds of gifts made with the horns or reindeer skin.
The uncertain future of indigenous communities
As many other indigenous communities all over the world, the Sami feel oppressed and endangered by their federal government and the influence of the outside world into their culture.
On one side, most younger generations of Sami prefer to leave their family traditions on a side and establish themselves on larger cities to focus on better jobs. On the other side, there has been a constant battle between the government and the Sami in order to find a common ground in what belongs to the Sami and what belongs to the state.
Although archaeological finds suggest that the Sami people have lived in the Arctic region for thousands of years, since mid-17th Century the Swedish government have been gradually forced the Sami to give up land to farming, forestry and mining.
Yet, latest recognition in protecting indigenous communities have been helping the Sami to recover what they have lost. At the beginning of the year the Sami people won a 30-year battle to take back exclusive rights to hunting and fishing across a part of Swedish Lapland and in 2019 the Sami Parliament submitted a formal request to the government for a truth and reconciliation commission to be established. These are small, but important steps to get back the control of the Sami’s ancestral land.
“Hopefully we will get more international recognition and get what belongs to us”, said to me Ann-Christin while zipping a cup of coffee before going back to the city.
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