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Meet the Sami – Norway’s Indigenous Reindeer Herders

Meet the Sami - Norway's Indigenous Reindeer Herders

A fire burned bright in the hearth as the melodious singing of a joik filled the wide, common room of the gåetie. Eva Nordfjell slowly beat the reindeer-hide drum painted with traditional figures and symbols. Flickering, dancing flames illuminated faces as we sat pressed shoulder to shoulder around the central hearth listening to this traditional Sami song. Outside, on a cold, snowy evening in Roros, the handful of reindeer at Rorosrein were bedded down for the night. And somewhere in the neighboring countryside, Eva’s reindeer herd, thousands strong, roamed thickly forested hills under the watchful eye herdsman Magne Haugom. Wrapping up her melancholy tune that sounded like it could be equally about love and loss, piping hot mugs of tea were passed around as the stories of the old gods, legends and the importance of reindeer began.

The Sami are the indigenous reindeer herders of Sapmi, an area stretching across the northern regions of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and part of Russia. Traditionally Sami have pursued livelihoods in coastal fishing, fur trapping, and sheep herding. They are best known for their semi-nomadic reindeer herding. Today only 10% of Sami are involved in reindeer herding. To understand the Sami culture and how they are navigating the challenges of the reindeer herding lifestyle, I spent time with a southern Sami family in Roros and a northern Sami families near Tromso.

Exploring the snowy fields around Roros with the reindeer of Rorosrein. Photo by Genevieve Hathaway.
Eva Nordfjell, of the southern Sami people, founded Rorosrein to help visitors experience Sami culture. Photo by Genevieve Hathaway.

With their colorful traditional Kofte clothing, curved-tipped reindeer boots, strong connection to the land, and indominable spirit – the Sami have kept their Arctic reindeer herding traditions alive for millennia. In Norway, the Sami are the only group legally permitted to herd reindeer – an effort to help keep the economic value of their livelihood and expertise in reindeer husbandry. The Sami have inhabited the northern arctic and sub-arctic regions of Fennoscandia for over 3,500 years. They are a tough, hearty peoples – weathering very cold, bleak winters, following their herds over vast distances of Arctic barren terrain, and navigating dangerous ice crossing to help their herds migrate during the changing seasons.

Eva Nordfjell and her husband Magne Haugom are one of dozens of Sami families leveraging the growing interest in cultural and sustainable tourism to diversify their income and help care for their reindeer herds. Due to a number of factors, including climate change and increased cost of expenses such as gas and reindeer care, many Sami families are building cultural tourism experiences to generate additional resources to continue caring for their reindeer herds and feeding their families. It’s a way for them to diversify their income and for travelers to learn about the Sami culture and reindeer herding. These family-run Sami experiences help the families continue their way of life, while also allowing them to have agency in how their Sami culture is presented to travelers. And for travelers it’s a unique chance to have an intimate and personal view into Sami culture, traditions and reindeer herding. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime travel experience that helps breakdown barriers and connect across cultures – people to people

Traditional Sami snow boots called Skallers. They are built from reindeer hides and are warm and waterproof. Photo by Genevieve Hathaway.
Experience a sleigh ride with the reindeer at Rorosrein. Photo by Genevieve Hathaway.

My time with Eva and her reindeer began in a snow-filled pastures meeting each of her reindeer residing at Rorosrein. A handful of reindeer who possess the correct temperament for interacting with guests winter at Rorosrein. Reindeer are hard to domestic. They have wild spirits and most don’t take to domestication. Only a few reindeer have the proper temperament and calm attitude to be able to greet guests and pull the sleds. Come summer these reindeer who work with visitors rejoin the main herd in the mountains near Roros and make journey north to the summer Arctic grazing grounds. Eva and her team gave us a crash course in reindeer husbandry and behavior, sharing the unique nature of herding and care for reindeer.

After learning about reindeer husbandry and cool reindeer facts, such as that reindeer shape their horns by kicking and pawing at the growing horns with their back hooves, we warmed up inside the gåetie. A gåetie is circular dwelling built around a central hearth that southern Sami construct in forested areas. A traditional meal of cured reindeer meat was passed around while we listened to Eva share her experience growing up as a young south Sami woman and her life working with reindeer.

Eva Nordfjell wearing her traditional Kofte southern Sami dress. Photo by Genevieve Hathaway.

Based in Roros, Eva Nordfjell and her husband Magne Haugom care for their herd of reindeer. Twice a year, Magne travels to and from the Arctic with their reindeer herd, allowing the reindeer to graze on the Arctic tundra in the summer months and the forests near Roros in the winter months. Reindeer need cold climates; their bodies unable to tolerate the warm summer weather. Due to the changing, unpredictable weather and climate, the reindeer migration to and from the Arctic is becoming increasingly dangerous. Warmer summer weather is arriving sooner than in the past and the frozen lakes and ice bridges the herds rely to reach the frozen north are becoming increasingly unstable and fragile with the warmer climates leading to dangers for both the reindeer and human companions alike. Each year more and more reindeer die from breaking through the ice  and the herdersman are having a difficulties predicting when the best time to begin moving their reindeer will be.  

As reindeer herding has become increasingly costly to maintain, Eva and Magne founded Rorosrein for visitors to meet their reindeer, learn about Sami culture, and experience a few Sami traditions. It’s one of the creative ways Sami families are finding to continue supporting the growing cost of caring for their reindeer herds.  

Heading north above the Arctic circle, I soon realized that the climate and land that shaped these reindeer herders was much different than central Norway and Roros. Flying into Tromso above the Arctic circle jagged, snow-covered mountains jutted straight out of the sea like the sharp, toothy jaws of a Great White Shark rising up out of the ocean. Deep fjords cut through the land and as far as I could see a blanket of snow and ice cast the vast landscape what seemed like an endless expanse of white.

Nestled into the northern archipeligo and peninsulas, Trine Larsen, Inga Eira, and their families run SamiCamp; founded to help travelers learn about Sami culture and reindeer husbandry. Trine’s family is coastal Sami, while Inga and her husband Ole’s family are northern Sami reindeer herders. This distinction spoke to the fractioning over the centuries of the Sami by geography and livelihood – north and south as well as coastal fishing Sami and mountain reindeer-herding Sami. While much of their traditions overlapped; language, diet and dress diverged with variations between the different groups. I knew that while this experience with Inga, Trine and their families would also focus on a life revolving around reindeer there was still so much I had to learn about the different nuances of Sami community and culture.

The approach to Tromso in the Arctic navigates through snow-covered mountains that jut straight out of the sea. Photo by Genevieve Hathaway.
Inga Eira, a northern Sami woman living near Tromso above the Arctic circle, feeds her reindeer. Photo by Genevieve Hathaway.

The snow crunched under reindeer hide boots as Ole Eira approached a reindeer tethered near bundles of hay. He silently brought the reindeer over to a row of sleds and harnessed it to the lead sled. The reindeer huffed and pawed the ground, a thick plume of steam leaving its mouth in the cold morning air.

Trine Larsen dressed in her traditional blue and red southern Sami dress and warm reindeer-hide cap greeted me with a large smile. She introduced me to Inga Eira who welcomed my arrival at SamiCamp. Inga and her husband Ole owned the reindeer being gathered and hitched to the waiting sleighs. They are like family Inga explained pointing to the waiting reindeer. It was winter in Norway’s Arctic Circle and The Larsen, Eira, and Lodje families were busy getting ready for a small group of guests who were arriving to learn about Sami culture and traditions. Trine Larsen and her husband Jan-Erik run SamiCamp along with Inga Eira and her husband Ole, Nils Logje and their families. They are three Sami families who came together to run a sustainable cultural tourism experience a 20 minutes drive outside of Tromso. Like Rorosrein, the main bulk of the reindeer herd live near Tromso, as well as with the larger reindeer herds in central Finnmark.

Trine Larsen playing a traditional Sami drum in the lavvu at SamiCamp. Photo by Genevieve Hathaway.
Nils Logje bringing the reindeer to hay after a visitor sleigh ride. White reindeer are a very rare recessive trait in the reindeer of Norway. Photo by Genevieve Hathaway.

Inga’s reindeer gently padded the snow looking for sprig of tundra and berries just under the snowy surface. Reindeer are shorter and stockier than their cousins in the deer and elk families. They have sturdy builds made for migrating over the rough Arctic landscape. They have special large hooves with four distinct “toes” on each hoof. These large hooves act like snowshoes, distributing the reindeer’s weight so they can effortlessly walk on the soft snow without sinking. The 4 sharp “toes” let the animals easily clear the snow to reach the fresh tundra and berries which lies just below the surface, preserved by the sub-zero temperatures.

After meeting each reindeer it was time to gather inside the lavvu to hear about Trine, Inga and their families’ lives, learn more about their reindeer, listen to some of their favorite traditions and of course enjoy some northern Sami food. Northern coastal and mountain Sami have traditionally lived in a large tented structures called lavvus, which were easy to breakdown and transport as they followed the reindeer herds. We again sat around a billowing hearth, as we did in Roros, warming out bones from the frigid temperatures outside. Steam hot mugs of blackcurrant tea were passed around, the rhythmic beating of the traditional Sami drum began and it was again time for the stories of growing up Sami here above the Arctic circle.

Ole Eira working with a young buck that can be a little unruly at times. Photo by Genevieve Hathaway.
Trine is from a coastal Sami family and Inga is from a mountain Sami family that herds reindeer. Coastal and mountain Sami were different styles of Kofte dress. Photo by Genevieve Hathaway.

Add A Sami Visit To Your Trip To Norway

Spending time with the Sami people and their reindeer is a deeply meaningful experience that can elevate your travels from checking off famous sites to a profoundly transformative experience. There are a number of ways you can spend time with the Sami while in Norway.

Add a Sami visit to your trip to Norway:

  • Visit a small family-run Sami experience: Choose a smaller family-run Sami experience in Roros, Tromso, or Kautokeino. The small, family-run experiences are a great way to meet a family or two and directly learn from them about their Sami traditions, customs and reindeer. It’s a very personal experience and feels more like visiting a friend’s family than a “tourist” experience. And your tourism dollars go directly to helping that family and their reindeer. You’ll leave with new Sami friends and a suitcase filled with memories.
  • Tour the Sami Parliament: Located in Kárášjohka, take a Sami Parliament tour to learn about the history and modern day issues that matter to the Sami people.
  • Visit a Sami Festival: This is a fun way to dive into Sami culture and traditions. The Sami Easter Festivals in Kautokeino an Karasjok celebrates the beginning of Spring and coming out of the long dark winter. Traditionally, this spring festival celebrated the last gathering of Sami people before they moved their reindeer herds to southern pastures. It’s a 4 day festival reawakening after what may have felt like a long sleep through the Arctic winter’s months of darkness. Reindeer racing, joik singing contests, musical performances, snowmobile races, handicrafts and a bar carved out of ice (a little new mixed with old traditions). A Sami festival for the Sami people this is a great way to authentically experience Sami culture.
  • Join Sami herders migrating with the reindeer in the Arctic: This is by far the most immersive way to experience the Sami culture, but also the most challenging, timely, and expensive. It can take days by snowmobile to reach the herds that are located in the vast Arctic tundra. Traveling with the herds you will live minimally, usually involving very basic camping with limited facilities. But this is also one of the most rewarding travel experiences. Northern lights dancing overhead at night. Traveling across the beautiful Arctic landscape far from cities and towns. Experiencing the nomadic life of the Sami herdsman and the connection they have to the land and their reindeer. It’s truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Interested in visiting Eva’s Rorosrein or Trine and Olga’s SamiCamp:

You can learn about visiting Rorosrein, located in Roros, here.

You can learn about visiting SamiCamp, located outside of Tromso, here.

Best time to visit Norway and the Sami:

Winter/early spring is a great time to visit the Sami and reindeer herds. The weather is cold and snowy – perfect for the reindeer. Mid-January, February and the first week of March are the best times visit the Sami as the reindeer moved back to the far Arctic for the summer months. This time of yea, the days are longer than in December, the North Lights are usually very active at night and the reindeer are at the camps. Many Sami experiences close after the first week of March and the reindeer move to the far northern polar regions.

Photographing the Sami:

If you are a portrait or travel photographer and want to capture images of the Sami, attending a Sami experience can be a great, accessible way to photograph Sami families and their reindeer. If you have more time and a larger budget spending a week with a Sami herder in the northern Arctic following the reindeer herds is an experience like no other than can produce opportunities for incredible images. For most of us travel and portrait photographers who don’t have that large of a time and budget, the Sami experiences can still be a great photography opportunity. Below are a few tips for coming away with stunning images:

  • Research in advance to learn which Sami experience is the best fit for your project and goals.
  • Research and storyboard/sketch the kinds of photographs you want to make so that you can be quick and efficient the day you are photographing.
  • Have all your gear ready to go before you arrive at the Sami experience so you can be quick and efficient. It will help you feel more confident photographing and help your subject feel more comfortable.
  • See if you can arrive at sunrise or stay until sunset when the light is the best.
  • Visit in the winter. The light in Norway is softer in the winter and this can give you a longer window each day of nice light for photography.
  • If you need to shoot during the middle of the day see if you can visit the Sami experience on a cloudy day – it turns the sky into a giant softbox.
  • For portraits a reflector can be a good idea as some reindeer may be spooked by a flash.
  • Be open and honest in regards to how you will use the images. If you plan to use the images for editorial or commercial purposes be very open and upfront about it before you arrive and properly compensate everyone involved. Even if the images will only appear on your social media feed or website, I still recommend asking permission first and offering to send them images that they can use on their website and social channels as well. If you would like to make portraits contact the Sami experience in advance to make arrangements.
  • If you promise to send photos be sure to send them photos.
  • Ask each person if it’s ok for you to take their photograph.
  • Lead with a smile and plenty of empathy. Putting yourself both in the people’s shoes and the reindeers’ situation will help you come away with stronger images.

3 Cultural Tips:

  • Ask your Sami hosts about their lives growing up with the reindeer herd. Many of the older Sami lived semi-nomadic lives in the central Arctic with the reindeer herds. Take this unique opportunity to hear of your hosts experiences growing up Sami in Norway, their family traditions and what they love about reindeer husbandry.
  • Don’t ask how many reindeer are in a Sami herd, they get quite shy and nervous. Sami measure their wealth by the size of their herd. It’s like asking someone how much is in their bank account.
  • Ask before approaching and petting reindeer. Some reindeer love to get little scratches on their side, while other reindeer are shy and don’t like to be petted. Each reindeer is an individual and each has his/her own preference for how they interact with us. Your Sami host can introduce you to each reindeer and let you know if that animals preferences for interacting with guests.

Genevieve Hathaway is a travel and documentary photographer and filmmaker. She is passionate about telling stories that empower women, local communities and conservation. Genevieve is the founder and storyteller-at-large for ArchaeoAdventures.

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