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Essay: Life Among Lapland’s Traditional Reindeer Herders

  • Reindeer herdsman Kari Ollila helps train reindeer to pull sledges for tourists outside Rovaniemi, Finland. (Kang-Chun Cheng photograph)

  • In Lapland, the far northern corner of Finland, reindeer herders take responsibility not only for their own animals, but the community's. (Kang-Chun Cheng photograph)

  • Elias Jänkälä helps feed his family's reindeer in January on their farm in Narkaus, Finland. Children learn early on that they will be called on to help tend the reindeer. (Kang-Chun Cheng photograph)



For the Valley News
Friday, October 26, 2018

We woke up early, hours before the sun. Light is rare in the Arctic Circle in the dead of winter. Fortunately, we had a streak of good weather — temperatures were above minus-10 degrees, cold enough for good snow but not too cold to function.

I was staying with a Finnish family in Jääskö, one of the 54 reindeer herding districts in Lapland, the northernmost corner of Finland. Anna-Leena Jänkälä and her family were allowing me a special peek into what it is like being a modern-day reindeer herder.

I was in the fieldwork stage of my H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship from Dartmouth College: photographing and writing about reindeer herding culture in the face of changing landscapes in Nordic countries (Finland, Norway, Sweden). I would come to learn all about reindeer husbandry and the many societal and environmental dimensions of the struggles that confront the herders. I accompanied Anna-Leena and her husband, Petri, to generational corrals deep within those magical snow-topped forests.

The first order of business upon arrival is to build a fire — essential for warmth during long waits, and excellent for roasting reindeer sausages and tongues later.

These are fine rituals, a work-turned-social activity replete with shared snacks, berry teas and stories. Much of herding depends on collective action, a willingness to work together toward a common objective. Reindeer herders here care for all animals regardless of ownership, a practice that aligns with how reindeer mingle freely in the forests and tundra. More than half of the reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) we rounded up that day belonged to other herders who gratefully came to translocate them back to their patch of the woods. From the banter and goodwill in the air, it seemed that everyone was enjoying themselves even with the difficult task of tracking down reindeer that had been running loose all winter in deep snow.

Finnish herders see themselves as actors within the natural world. This worldview is evident in their herding techniques and stewardship of the land. Nature is an entity that is duly respected and recognized; nothing is taken for granted. Herders have excellent practical biological knowledge — they value genetic diversity since they understand its role in limiting infectious diseases.

A traditionally beautiful herd is one of all colors, temperaments, and sizes. For example, smaller females are usually the ones that consistently produce calves year after year rather than beefier cows, but legislators prioritizing meat production goals (yet lacking in critical biological knowledge) may force herders to cull down herds. Not only is this frustrating because it infringes on herders’ autonomy, but it also may impel herders to act against their instincts.

Anna-Leena’s young children, Justiina and Elias, have been around tractors and reindeer all their lives. They used to accompany their father on his trips to bring hay to the herd and fall asleep in the tractor, all bundled up in their winter clothing. The warmth of the cab, the stinging cold outside and the roaring white noise of the tractor are a soporific combination.

The last evening I was there, we were all gathered in the living room to watch old home-videos. There were videos of reindeer being released into the forest for the spring season, overflowing with pure energy, of calves calling to their mothers in estival buggy woods. My favourite one is of an even younger Elias at age 8, driving an enormous tractor loaded with hay. He is so small he can barely reach the pedals standing up, his face set with serious concentration. Children here understand their role is on the farm and have been inculcated to contribute without complaint or prodding, be it feeding reindeer or stocking the van for next day’s roundup supplies.

A recent boom in tourism is reshaping the future of herding. While there are those who oppose such capitalization — Finnish people are thoroughly loyal and gracious once you get to know them but lean on the quiet side — most people have responded positively to lucrative opportunities to train reindeer to pull sledges for visitors. This new source of income has made parents confident in encouraging their children to carry on herding as a livelihood, rather than leaving home to work in cities.

It is fascinating how herding plays into the lives of each of the three families I stayed with. Anna-Leena works at Paliskunnat (World Reindeer Herders’ Association), where she advises herders on cost-estimates and other business matters. She wishes she could be more involved in herding and life on the farm, but is glad that her job allows her to contribute to the herding community in a different way. Working with their herds is a welcome break from the grind of the city and office.

Petri is a full-time herder who does everything from growing hay to supplementing reindeer feed and slaughtering herds come the autumnal butchering season.

Kari Ollila, who lives in Aittaniemi (population: 20) works on border fence maintenance in the far north between Norway and Russia; herding is his hobby, joy and treasured link to Finnish culture.

Anne Ollila, the director of Paliskunnat, has multiple degrees in quantitative sociology, education and environmental law. Given the luxury, she would be a full-time herder like her husband and their Lapponian herding dog Maarta, but she believes that she has greater obligations to her community given her education.

The two biggest competing industries to reindeer herding are forestry and mining, both of which are land-hungry industries. Clear-cutting old woodlands irrevocably damages reindeer habitats, shelter and provision of important foods like lichen. Battles with the government over zoning laws, electricity pole placement and even reindeer migration from winter to summer pastures, just to name a few, overshadow incontrovertible shifts in the physical landscape.

The thickening ice, anomalous weather and worrisome snow conditions did not exist like this a couple of generations ago. However, it is important to understand that averages fail to tell contextual stories. There’s a Finnish saying, ‘Jahki ii leat jagi viellja,’ which means that “This year is not next year’s brother.” Averages can be misleading and may not illustrate how nature operates in cycles.

Over the past two decades, herders have had the additional financial burden to supplement their reindeer with oat pellets in the winter, since dwindling habitats no longer provide sufficient forage. Despite these difficulties, the reindeer herders I spent time with appear to retain the will, innovation and immemorial knowledge to continue to thrive alongside their animals. They have faith, too, based on hundreds of years of practice, that the ancient will outlive the modern, even as they bend to accommodate each other.

Kang-Chun “KC” Cheng grew up in Lebanon. She graduated from Dartmouth College in 2017.