Threat to life on Arctic frontline

Sami family A changing climate and developing industry threaten traditional lifestyles

As the days lengthen with the approach of spring, the northernmost reaches of Scandinavia are about to witness the annual migration of huge herds of reindeer.

After spending the winter inland in Finnmark, Europe's last great wilderness, the animals are moved to pastures near the coast for the summer.

The reindeer play a central role in the livelihoods and culture of the indigenous people of the region, the Sami, but this way of life is under pressure, as I saw on a journey in northern Norway earlier this month.

Look at a map of the region and you'll see very few roads and only a handful of towns. Our expedition of nine people, each towed by a team of huskies, hardly encountered another soul.

Led by our guide, Tom Frode Johansen, we passed through valleys and over hills, along the border between Norway and Finland, and then across frozen lakes and uplands of unblemished white.

When it was cloudy - or when there were flurries of snow - the landscape appeared almost lunar and barren, and it was impossible to imagine any kind of animals enduring here.

But when the sun came out, a golden light would transform the scene, revealing the details of cliffs, streams, clumps of woodland and - most significantly - herds of reindeer.

Brown and sturdy, their antlers silhouetted against the white, the reindeer clear away the snow to reach the food they rely on in winter: lichen. It does not seem to amount to much but it does mean that life is possible here.

And one night we saw how central the reindeer are to the lives of the Sami people.

Empty landscape

We had been on the move for 12 hours and shelter from the cold couldn't come soon enough.

It was well below freezing and the snow was so deep that we sank into it past our knees.

A tiny glimmer of light shone from the window of a hut ahead of us. This was to be our sanctuary.

Our torches picked out the wooden walls of the small building; otherwise we were in a landscape so empty it was hard to remember that Finnmark is part of the overcrowded continent of Europe. My mobile phone hadn't had a signal all day.

As soon as we walked in, our host, Ellen-Anna Siri, welcomed us with an enormous dish of stew - of reindeer meat, of course - and exactly what we needed.

For breakfast the next day she and her mother Kristine offered a plate of dried reindeer heart which was also delicious.

And the two of them couldn't resist dressing my daughter Kitty in the full traditional Sami woman's costume of reindeer leather and embroidered hat.

Deep connection

The connection between the Sami people and their reindeer has been about survival in a hostile land and it runs very deep: there is a legacy lasting millennia of living together in the polar North.

Sami with reindeer Reindeer play a central role in the Sami life

The most immediate threat, we were told, is from wolves, bears and wolverines.

Attracted by the reindeer herds, these predators are highly aggressive so Ellen-Anna warned us about going outside at night.

If you need to go to the toilet, she said, which involved walking quite a distance through the snow, make sure you're accompanied so someone can keep a lookout.

Suddenly, the wilderness seemed very wild indeed.

But for the Sami this is nothing compared to the fundamental challenges they have faced.

Historically, as semi-nomads, they have been irritating to the various governments here.

For years Norway tried to make the Sami people more Norwegian. And along with Finland, Sweden and Russia, Norway closed its borders at various times, blocking the annual migrations.

In the Second World War, when the Nazis were driven back by the Soviet Army, the Sami suffered terribly.

Then the nuclear accident at Chernobyl in 1986 released a radioactive cloud which contaminated thousands of reindeer.

More recently, with rising temperatures in the Arctic, the Sami say the shorter winters are forcing them to change the patterns of their herding.

Grazing lands threatened

On top of that, the grazing lands are under constant pressure from developers and prospectors who are lured by deposits of gold, copper and iron ore.

Reindeer herding is no longer the only possible activity in these snowy lands.

Dog sleigh The environment is harsh and unforgiving

Inevitably, there has been a drift to the cities, to an easier life; traditional cultures experience that loss the world over. But the Sami are showing a powerful streak of resistance.

At our destination, Kautokeino, a town regarded as a Sami capital (with a parliament and university), we watched a kind of Sami Olympics.

People had travelled from across the region to be there and the games attracted a lively mix of accents and languages.

The highlight was the reindeer racing, the animals tugging youngsters on skis at incredible speed.

Later there was a full house for a competition for 'yoiking': yoiks are songs of praise, highly personal and often haunting. I found one sung to a daughter particularly moving.

But then a band struck up. Yoiks have had an electronic makeover that's given them the sound of something from the Eurovision song contest.

My first thought was that Sami culture could easily drown in a sea of light pop; but then I wondered if this was actually a clever way of keeping alive an age-old practice.

I stepped outside into the bitter cold. Above me a vast green stripe arced across the sky: it was the mesmerising sight of the Northern Lights, strangely shaped clouds glowing and twisting from horizon to horizon.

It occurred to me that the Sami people are among the very few to live under this spectacular show; and their ancestors must have enjoyed it too.

Somehow the Sami have adapted and coped and survived over thousands of years, each generation gazing up at the swirling luminous skies while warming their hands on a bowl of reindeer stew.

Learn more about the Sami people by listening to David Shukman's report from Scandinavia on From Our Own Correspondent.

David Shukman Article written by David Shukman David Shukman Science editor

Healthy dose of hope for one-use syringes

Could a disposable syringe help stem outbreaks of HIV and other transmissible diseases?

Read full article

More on This Story


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    Semi-nomadic Sami people feel modern world pressures-
    This is a very interesting article David, just for my own interest I was wondering if their ambulance services are suffering from back door privatisation. You don't touch on it in the article.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    Can a parallel be drawn between the Sami and UK nurses?

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    I 100% agree! But, when homesteading rights are granted to native people fully, they prosper. We don't extend it a lot, so they suffer a lot.

    Property rights and ideologies existed in pre-history. For example; Tribes would fight over the best hunting grounds – asserting their right to that territory, and draw ideological religious cave paintings to explain their world.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    "An observation for poro
    Try camping there and when you see"
    It is very hard to get to see either in the nature. They notice us far before we see them. Lots of people have never seen any. (I have though.)
    Since bears are not stupid animals, they sleep the winter and I would guess the northern ones might still be sleeping. So unless you find one sleeping, would be hard to see.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    21. Sally
    We should recognise the Sami's "homesteading rights", title to property. It's how much of USA was settled, and when this concept was granted the natives
    What the US have done to native americans is one of the big disgraces of modern history. It's greed that erodes culture, not immigration or multiculturalism. I

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    Finnish people post several sensible and intersting posts and then representing the UK we get no.11 Doug! What have we become? Anyway, good article, but slightly misleading as it gives the impression that the Sami live like some sort of arctic Amish tribe, when in reality they are quite rich and very modern.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    @ 20. Sally: I thought about leaving capitalism out. Obviously the Sami have adjusted to some aspects of modern life. However, I referred to "a time when people were free to live where they wanted", which goes back way before the Sami existed. Hunter/gatherer times basically, before there was an infrastructure that would enable ideologies.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    We should recognise the Sami's "homesteading rights", title to property. It's how much of USA was settled, and when this concept was granted the natives, they are the better for it. It's a pity we don't recognise the homesteading rights of native peoples as readily as we do our own "civilised" societies.

    Will you be as welcoming when you way of life is "destroyed", against your will?

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    14.Gyles Mitchell-Rose
    I disagree, and feel that actually, they are the ultimate capitalists!

    Free movement of people and money. They are free to travel, they respect property rights, and exchange money (furs, pelts etc and whatever they trade with) free from a government taxing them to death. They choose their own destinies, rather than strangers dictating it to them.
    They have liberty.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Folks like the Sami are a real treasure amongst populations of human beings; and, like other groups have managed to learn how to use their environment properly. Long may they do so without the horrendous greed, and, corruption of modern 'civilisation' ever destroying their living with nature and appreciating its true wonder in such a harsh area of the world. Enough Oil, Au, Ag, Cu - just recycle.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    An observation for...15.poro .
    Try camping there and when you see a bear or wolf..Tell them to read Wiki!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    The Sami are a great story, but I also understand that humans must adapt to their environment, or go extinct! So, I hope the Sami do as such, while keeping as much of their historical roots as they can. If I were a farmer, upon whose lands the Sami traverse, I would happily volunteer them safe passage and wish them well.

    Any man, who's a friend of Donna and Blitzen et al, is a friend of mine.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    mill " mill
    8 Minutes ago

    I hope the Sami find a way to continue their life-style
    They are modern people, probably ahead of the average European people in their adaptation of technology and such. But kind, friendly, considerate people as they do not live in some "overcrowded" place. Small town people one might say.
    They sell the raindeer for a good price - houses are cheap up north.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    They may have been joking about the bears and wolves and going out at night.
    Both are clever animals, do not often attack humans. They remember having been shot at and tell about it to their offspring. As long as there's reindeer who have no guns, they will eat them first.
    Also might like to use wikipedia or something to see where the wolves and bears like to live. North is cold. Not many there.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    11. doug
    Outside influences are effecting these people's lifestyle's called immigration/multiculturalism.
    Hogwash. Their lifestyle stems from a time when people were free to live where they wanted, where no countries existed, no nationalism, no capitalism and no sheeple who fell for propagandistic claptrap.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    I hope the Sami find a way to continue their life-style with as little interruption from the greed of consumerism as possible. Pipe dreams probably, but I still hope.

  • Comment number 12.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Outside influences are effecting these people's lifestyle and culture, to a point where their way of life may no longer exist. I keep being told that this is a good thing, we have it in Britain; it's called immigration/multiculturalism. I for one welcome destruction of Sami peoples culture. Long live globalization, immigration and multicultralism.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    From 8. Bill Walker:
    "Even something like a pipeline across the migration route may be catastrophic. There will unfortunately be many who shrug their shoulders and say 'That's progress'."

    As nomads, they might be the best people to protect that pipeline, so a wise owner might pay more than the cost of fuel raided from it, so that they want to protect it. Not ideal for them, but it might work.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    I don't know how they'll adapt, but two things seem likely. One is that they'll make themselves indispensible, selling knowledge of the area to firms who want to operate efficiently there. Then they might do as nomads further south have done, buy vehicles that can travel further and faster than they could before. What might follow that is anyone's guess, but their identity will remain strong.


Page 10 of 11



Copyright © 2015 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.