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Who Are The Reindeer Whisperers?


It’s common knowledge that the big man in the North Pole has a team of reindeers waiting to deliver presents, but not many people know that the majority of our planet’s reindeer are in the care of the Sámi people, an indigenous community in Norway. Or that the Norwegian government is trying to take that away.

This is an excerpt from The Reindeer Chronicles by Judith D. Schwartz. It has been adapted for the web.


The Reindeer Whisperers of Norway

Through most of 2017 the court rulings tilted in the young man’s favor. Jovsset Ánte Sara, a 23-year-old Sámi reindeer herder, had challenged the Norway government’s order to reduce his animal numbers. Jovsset Ánte said culling would preclude his ability to continue herding, but his refusal wasn’t simply a response to his own plight. He told the New York Times, “I sued because I could not accept to see my culture die.”

However, the government continued to appeal and ultimately Norway’s Supreme Court said Sara must adhere to reindeer quotas. Sara is bringing the case to the UN Human Rights Committee, claiming that the Norwegian state’s actions infringe on the rights of indigenous citizens. The government was not willing to await the UN’s conclusion before imposing the slaughter, Máret Ánne Sara, Jovsset Ánte’s older sister, wrote me. To protect the animals, Sara gave them to a relative. “The temporary emergency solution offers protection . . . until April 2020,” she wrote. “What happens after is still uncertain.”

The case makes for good drama. Jovsset Ánte is attractive and youthful. In news clips he stands resolute in traditional Sámi attire, the gákti: dark blue wool with striped trimming. Plus, it involves reindeer, that beloved hoofed mammal, with its grand, felted antlers and cozy holiday associations.

The case also caught public attention because of his sister, an internationally known artist. Máret Ánne Sara’s Pile o’ Sápmi project began with the 2016 installation of 200 reindeer heads heaped before the district court where Jovsset Ánte was to be tried. The work alludes to “Pile of Bones,” a name the Cree nation gave to land that became Regina, Saskatchewan, as a means of retaining their connection to the buffalo.

Máret Ánne’s work calls attention to the impact of severing indigenous communities from their traditions. She says the imposed limits make it impossible for young Sámi to keep reindeer. An established herder could better withstand a cull than someone starting out and working within narrow margins.

Máret Ánne has fine, blond hair and looks equally stylish in art-world chic and Sámi dress. She says it gives her strength to wear traditional clothes, often handmade by family members, and wears a silver amulet, said to offer protection. She expresses concern that the pressure on herders comes from a government considered relatively progressive. She calls this new colonialism, whereby the infringement on indigenous people’s lives is subtle yet still destructive.

December, 2017 Máret Ánne installed 400 reindeer skulls shot through with bullet holes and strung up with wire in front of the Norwegian parliament, as Jovsset Ánte was appearing before Norway’s Supreme Court. In this third trial he lost his case.

Only 5 percent of the approximately 60,000 Sámi people in Norway herd reindeer. Still, the vocation is pivotal to their cultural heritage. “Sámi reindeer herding is, for me, the Sámi bank: for language, handicraft, knowledge of the environment, ecology,” Máret Ánne says in a film.

The government claims reindeer numbers must be curtailed to minimize damage to the tundra ecosystem.

She says this belief, shared by most Norwegians, is “so simplified and polarized that it cannot by any means justify such drastic punishments on people, animals, and society.”

I learned about Jovsset Ánte’s case in May 2017 while in Trondheim, Norway to speak at a symposium titled “Indigenous Knowledge: The Practice of Sustainable Existence.” The event commemorated the 100th anniversary of the first national assembly of Sámi people, which took place there in 1917.

My topic was the ecology of grazing. One enduring question is how many grazing animals a landscape can sustain. It would seem that the more animals, the harsher the impact. But nature doesn’t work this way. Building on the insights of French farmer André Voisin, wildlife biologist Allan Savory has shown that the number of animals doesn’t cause overgrazing, but rather the time of exposure to grazing pressure.

For example, if cattle hang around the same spot—say, by a riverbank—they may damage it, whereas two or three times the number of cattle kept moving might benefit the land. Under wild conditions, ruminants never linger; predators would be at their hooves. Nor is animal impact necessarily negative. Grassland ecosystems co-evolved with ruminants, whose actions stimulate important ecological processes.

I spent a week with Savory at the Africa Centre for Holistic Management in Zimbabwe and saw how holistic grazing helped this seasonably arid landscape rebound. The Dimbangombe River runs a kilometer (two-thirds of a mile) farther into the catchment, and has been flowing throughout the year. Rather than bare soil, abundant grasses grow. Biodiversity has flourished, with larger herds of sable antelope and the return of wetland birds. The Centre’s biggest challenge is acquiring enough ruminants to keep up with forage production.

What about reindeer? Do the Norwegian government’s actions make ecological sense?

Reindeer keep their landscapes good and cold, significant because northern climates are warming rapidly and melting permafrost releases methane and CO2. A research team led by Mariska te Beest of Umeå University in Sweden found reindeer browsing on shrubs in summer controls plant growth: important since shrubs and small trees have a lower albedo, or reflectivity, than grassy heath. The darker-hued bushy plants absorb solar energy, accelerating thaw, while the heath reflects radiation and so does not take in extra heat. According to te Beest, the effect likely depends on high reindeer density. Culling them could undermine this effect.

The Nordic Centre of Excellence (NCoE) Tundra calls grazing a bulwark against “shrubification”, which proceeds as warmer temperatures favor woody plants. “By preventing the invasion of trees, tall shrubs and forbs, reindeer maintain the openness of the tundra,” a NCoE Tundra report concludes.

Reindeer also help maintain permafrost by crushing the snowpack with their hooves, according to father-son Russian researchers Sergey and Nikita Zimov. In the late 1980s, the Zimovs brought arctic-dwelling herbivores—reindeer, moose, Yakutian horse, bison, musk ox, yak—to North Siberia. The goal of their “Pleistocene Park” is to re-create the Mammoth Steppe ecosystem that predated human expansion into far northern latitudes. The tundra’s blanket of snow acts as an insulator, and this protects the soil surface from cold, Nikita Zimov explains in an interview. “When animals trample down the snow, they actually thin that layer of snow, making it dense, and this allows much deeper freezing during the winter.” This chill extends snow cover to the spring months. It also keeps the permafrost frosty, so that microbial life in frozen soil doesn’t activate and consume organic matter, a process that releases greenhouse gases. In an experiment comparing areas with and without herbivores, the Zimovs found soil temperature in places where animals grazed was lower by at least 15°C (27°F).

The Norwegian government’s policies to “protect the environment” may have it all wrong.

In her symposium presentation, anthropologist Marie Roué discussed Sámi ecology and the science of snow. She described the complexity of winter herding, which requires continually monitoring snow and the state of pastures, and understanding how it is experienced by the animals.

Roué called reindeer herding an “existential art”: a herder’s knowledge is based on the essence of snow, which is impermanence. Herders make decisions according to evolving conditions. “The reindeer has to eat. For many months—about nine months, depending on the year—he has to eat lichen and other things which are under the snow,” she said. The reindeer “has to dig, he has to smell. If there is a crust of ice on top of the snow, he might not smell his food. And if the crust of ice is very, very thick, he cannot dig.”

Roué says scientific calculations miss nuances about how reindeer respond to ecological variations. In addition, reindeer are now in areas exploited by industrial forestry. “When you exploit the forest, the composition is not the same. If you exploit the forest and you cut it so you can have pines, all the same, everywhere, [the snow] will not fall in the same way as when the snow is on the crown of the tree.”

I kept thinking Roué’s presentation would benefit government scientists seeking to understand the ecological impact of reindeer herding, given that this was their stated concern.

The pressure on Sámi herders like Jovsset Ánte Sara is only partly due to misconceptions about reindeer ecology. It is also about power. Ánde Somby, a Sámi law professor, took this on in his talk “When a Predator Culture Meets a Prey Culture”. Somby specializes in indigenous rights law at the University of Tromsø, the northernmost university in the world. He also performs joik: a Sámi music tradition in which the vocals may invoke another person, an animal, or a feature of the natural environment.

He invoked Aesop’s fable of the wolf and the lamb: the wolf seeks an excuse to devour the lamb, to show that the lamb had it coming. The wolf claims the lamb mucked up the water and insulted him—neither is true. The wolf could have devoured the lamb without excuses, so Somby asks: Why did the wolf bother to establish that the lamb had wronged him? His answer: tyrants try to rationalize harm done to others.

When predator and prey cultures meet, he says, the predator’s goal is access to resources that the prey controls.

How? One approach is convincing prey to give up their bounty. This is straight from the wolf’s playbook. Somby describes the ‘family metaphor’: “In our National State we are all a family.” The threat: Don’t stand in the way of what’s best for our cozy household. To coastal Sámi, the message is: “It’s so inefficient, the way you fish. The big trawler—that’s much more cost-effective. Why not hand the right to fish to them? That’s very good for our happy family.”

Another tactic is legalese: “In a legal sense, the indigenous people had no concept of ownership so it’s very good that the civilized people came in and structured the situation.” Or propaganda. “You call the mining . . . the new thing, the new, beautiful thing that is coming,” compared with reindeer herding or subsistence fishing, which is “old, a little bit dirty, [a] traditional thing [that] belongs to the past.”

Case in point: The Norwegian government is urging people to welcome mineral extraction as the route to a prosperous future. In early 2019 Norway approved the construction of a copper mine called “one of the most environmentally damaging projects in [the] country’s history.” The site is in Sápmi territory, on land where Jovsset Ánte’s reindeer migrate and mate during the fall.

A further tactic is rendering the prey culture invisible: between the lines of the national story. Between 1850 and 1980, under the governmental policy of “Norwegianization”, many Sámi children were sent to boarding schools where they would not hear their own language. Such actions, says Somby, alienate prey cultures from their own heritage.

Anthropologist Hugo Reinert says “too many reindeer” is a perennial refrain among Norwegian experts, and that controlling reindeer is a stand-in for reining in the Sámi people that have thus far defied control. To urban Norwegians, Sápmi territory is lawless and chaotic. Since the Sámi are deemed incapable of regulating their herds, the government must intervene.

“Expediently, the escalation of this failure narrative has coincided neatly with the escalating interest of national and international actors in ‘developing’ the tundra,” Reinert writes. Policy makers assert there are too many reindeer, based on research that, he suggests, may be designed to reach this conclusion. People come to assume “saving” reindeer requires drastically culling their numbers. When Sámi disagree, it becomes evidence of their primitive and unruly nature.

For Reinert, the herders’ predicament is exemplified in Máret Ánne’s Pile o Sápmi Supreme: that shroud of metal and bone placed at a respectable remove from Norway’s high court. “I had never seen anything like it; it tore open the asphyxiating mildness of national debates, manifesting in a torrent what the quiet, softspoken colonialism of the north—patient as it is, understated, polite, and bureaucratic—kept under wraps . . . The skulls manifest, physically, a siege that has gone on for centuries.”


Recommended Reads

Rewilding: Restoration by Letting Go

Bringing Back Balance: The Power of Traditional Herding & Grazing

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