A Visit to the Sámi People

White everywhere – as far as the eye can see. Everything is covered in snow. The world seems to be frozen. Anyone who knows me should also be well aware that I very quickly accept invitations offered in passing. I had only recently met my host in Darmstadt, where he was giving a lecture. Carl-Johan spoke about his land, located in the center of Europe, but rarely seen on any map. It is divided by borders that don’t exist for him. He says that his land remains a colony.

sami landscape the polar region

We are in Sápmi, the land of the Sámi people, which stretches from Norway to Russia. The last indigenous people of the European continent live here. Yet, you wouldn’t recognize them when they are not wearing their traditional dress. They live in a vast territory that is being exploited under their feet. But some Sámi resist, Carl-Johan and his wife Jenni are among them. He is Swedish, and she is Finnish, at least according to their passports.

I came to report on the effects of climate change on their lives and culture. I had hardly arrived and was already being made fun of. “Didn’t you bring any warm clothing?” And I had thought I was well equipped. A short time later, I was provided with what I needed – shoes lined with lambskin and a pair of overshoes for my feet and a cap made of wolf fur for my head. I usually don’t wear fur. But usually, I just walk around Berlin, not the Arctic. Here, one lives in harmony with nature, not against it. You simply don’t stand a chance against nature in this climate.

traveling through the snow sapmi

It’s the end of November, and the sun only shines for a few hours a day in Jokkmokk, located on the Arctic Circle. We are hurling through intense darkness on snowmobiles in minus 20 degrees Celsius (minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit) to round up the reindeer in the mountains. With the help of dogs and Sámi from surrounding villages, we encircle the widely-scattered reindeer and herd them into a fenced area. Now comes the hard part. Until late into the night, the Sámi separate the animals into groups according to their owner. They recognize their animals by traditional notches cut into their ears, and each family has its different pattern. I can’t discern the differences. The reindeer follow their herd instinct, incessantly and briskly trotting in circles within the round enclosure. In their midst are the Sámi with their colorful down jackets and lassos. It’s like being in an American western, except that instead of dust, there’s snow everywhere.

traditional sami working with reindeers

I stare into the viewfinder of my camera as if hypnotized by the circling movements of the reindeer. Carl-Johan scolds me and says, “Put down your camera and lend a hand already!” Polite phrases and sentimentality are out of place here. Sámi customs may seem harsh. But for them, it has always been a matter of survival. Recently, one of Carl-Johan’s relatives froze to death in the snow on the way to his reindeers. His snowmobile overturned, breaking his legs and pinning him down. There was no way to find him in the darkness. In response to my condolences, Carl-Johan simply replied, “He had a smile on his face when we found him.” That is life here. And death is a part of it. That is something we tend to forget in our city dwellings. Or, to be more honest, we suppress that fact.

working with reindeers sapmi

In addition to the usual dangers, new threats have been steadily appearing since the climate began getting warmer. The migration routes of their animals often pass over frozen rivers and lakes. It has always been like that – up until recently. Today, no one knows if the ice will hold. Carl-Johan’s family has already lost an entire herd this way. The reindeers simply broke through the ice and drowned in the freezing water.

potrait of man in the sami polar region

Furthermore, the animals’ natural fodder has suddenly become out of reach due to fluctuating temperatures. As it becomes warm, the snow melts. But when the temperature abruptly drops again, an impenetrable layer of ice forms over the moss and lichen. This winter is not the first in which Carl-Johan has had to ration out expensive feed to his herd to prevent starvation. He is convinced that his children will be the last generation that will be able to continue the ancient tradition of reindeer husbandry unless things don’t change soon. But he and Jenni are fighters. They recently stood up to a mining company that planned to set up an iron ore mine on their land. The Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg has been here several times to show support. Awareness shapes public opinion, which can serve as a weapon against international corporations. It’s David against Goliath. In contrast to the Bible, it is not preordained who will win.

snowy and icey view of sami region

It is night again. Nothing has changed, as you can hardly say that we truly experienced daylight. At least the bright snow makes the darkness more bearable. Floodlights illuminate the herding pens.

After many hours outside, the cold has penetrated the last layer of merino wool. So Carl-Johan gathers together a few branches and makes us a small campfire. He fries some reindeer meat and flatbread in a pan. A simple meal, but it tastes delicious. We enjoy a cup of warm tea. Slowly, life returns to our limbs. And that was sorely needed, as we are far from finished with our work here.