Reindeer and the Sami Calendar
Rediscovering the Cycles of Nature
WORDS ERIKA DRIEDGER
Reindeer are written into folklore as elusive and magical creatures. Far from major population centres, this quiet and determined species drifts across snowy boreal forest, vast tundra, and alpine meadows. They are found throughout the entire circumpolar north: Alaska, Canada, Finland, Norway, Russia, and Sweden.
Reindeer possess a number of sturdy traits that make them ideal for Santa’s sleigh drivers: speed and agility for escaping predators, endurance for long migrations, resistance to cold winters, and ability to seek out limited food sources. Despite these hardy characteristics, human development of northern regions is placing reindeer at serious risk of becoming a mere fairytale: a species almost driven to extinction by our relentless pursuit of minerals, wood fibre, and energy.
In North America, boreal woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou) populations are declining in most of their range and receding northward due to suspected habitat loss. Domesticated reindeer (Rangifer tarandus tarandus) in northern Europe face similar spatial constraints, with almost one third of reindeer herding ranges severely affected or made partially inaccessible by industrial development, infrastructure, and other human activities.
The same characteristics that make reindeer sensitive to disturbance are the ones that offer scientists critical insight into the looming global phenomenon of climate change and its cumulative effects. Reindeer’s sensitivity to disturbance stems from their need to move freely across the landscape at varying scales of space and time in order to avoid predators and to seek adequate food sources and grounds for calving and rearing.
At the largest spatial scale, reindeer migrate between seasonal ranges according to the time of year and climatic conditions: from lowland winter grazing areas up to summer calving areas in the mountains. The next scale is at the feeding level, where reindeer can remain feeding for days, weeks or months; for example, in a lowland bog with abundant green foliage. The patch level is the smallest spatial and temporal scale, where reindeer make small movements to access food patches for a period of hours or minutes before moving to the next patch.
Human disturbances can cause reindeer to change movement patterns across scales in an effort to avoid sound and light. Studies suggest that reindeer avoid power lines up to a distance of four kilometres, population centres up to twelve kilometres, and mines up to fourteen kilometres. The changes in reindeer movement provide vital information on the effects of human development in northern ecosystems, and can help inform decisions to reduce negative effects.
Understanding how reindeer move across space and time is difficult, as many wild reindeer populations in North America are remote and inaccessible to scientists. However, an opportunity to gain knowledge arises from the semi-domesticated herds of northern Europe. Here, the indigenous Sami people have herded reindeer for more than 1,000 years, and hold detailed indigenous ecological knowledge on reindeer’s seasonal movements and reactions to disturbances. Scientists are working with Sami herders to understand how semi-domesticated reindeer are reacting to disturbances, and look to apply this information to reindeer populations all across the north.
The Sami’s Indigenous Ecological Knowledge of reindeer movements is a result of connections between Sami culture, reindeer, and the environment. The Sami understanding of this balance is expressed in an eight-season calendar, which describes the delicate balance of their nomadic herding cycle with the harsh northern conditions. Understanding and respecting the northern seasons allows the Sami to follow the flow of nature, and to avoid altering it so it can continue to support their livelihood. This connection has largely been lost in modern lifestyles around the world.
The Sami calendar brings meaning and honour to the changing seasons, demonstrating the intricate connection between people and the life-sustaining cycles of nature. Visiting the eight Sami seasons reminds us of the importance of spending time on the land, and of experiencing and embracing the ebb and flow of nature.
It is spring-winter. The world has been asleep, nestled in darkness and wrapped in a blanket of snow. The winter grazing has been good. Deep snow sheltered the ground lichen, the reindeer’s only winter food source, from the harsh freezing winds. The reindeer could dig through the soft snow to the lichen below, allowing them to maintain enough reserves to survive the cold and to face the journey ahead.
Now the days grow longer, and the forest is alive with the warm rays of the sun. This is the season of awakening. The reindeer sense the shift and begin to liven. Perhaps they feel the same excitement as the humans: that the dark and dangerous time is nearly past, and new life is coming. The pregnant females muster the herd and they slowly begin to move inland and northward towards their calving grounds in the mountains.
Temperatures rise, and spring-winter melts into spring. The migration to the mountains must be quick, as the soft, melting earth makes the journey more arduous. The females are heavy with calf, and they trudge northward towards the foothills of the mountains. The landscape is shrinking and rising. The trees shrink from tall spruce and pine to Arctic and alpine species such as dwarf birch (Betula nana) and alpine pussytoes (Antennaria alpina), which are miniature in size to survive the frigid cold and rocky soils.
The once flat and boggy ground begins to rise into humps and gullies splashed with colourful patches of tiny vegetation. Here, in the foothills, the females will calf. This is the most sensitive and vulnerable part of the lifecycle. Stress from predators or human disturbance could cause the females to miscarry.
During pre-summer, the calves have arrived. They begin to walk on shaky legs immediately after birth. Danger lurks above, as golden eagles fly ready to snatch a newborn. The earth is exploding with life, and plants become green and leafy to feed hungry calves. This is the season of growing. The mosquitoes also hatch, and begin to drive the reindeer up the mountains to cooler temperatures. The Sami herders rest after their long journey, and prepare for the earmarking of calves.
The darkness of winter is a distant memory, and the sun-soaked days and nights bathe the fast-growing reindeer. Their bodies grow big, their antlers form, and their coats begin to thicken in preparation for the autumn. The reindeer herders work day and night to round up and earmark their calves. They must be sure to mark their reindeer and not those of the neighbouring Sameby (Sami villages). Reindeer are corralled, and calves separated based on their mother’s marking. Each group carves a distinct marking into the ear of the calves. Sleep is short with the presence of the midnight sun, and the light across the mountaintops radiates in one million golden hues. This is the season of contemplation.
The light begins to wane in pre-autumn, and the reindeer are fat from their summer feasts. They have been eating a lot of vegetation: grasses, sedges, woody plants, and herbaceous species such as fireweed (Epilobum angustifolium) and wild celery (Angelica archangelica). Herders choose some of the fattened bull reindeer, sarvss, for slaughter. This is the season of harvest, and families are busy collecting the many berries, herbs, and mushrooms that grow in the mountains. Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus) and lingonberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea) are sweet from the midnight sun and dye fingers dark purple and red. Cloudberries ripen and disappear as quickly as they came. There is urgency in the air; both reindeer and Sami must maximize the summer’s gifts, as soon the weather will turn and the herds will be on the move again.
Autumn. The twinkling days of summer have retreated for another year, and green vegetation fades to yellow and brown. Frost greets the herders in the mornings and now descends the time of darkness, skábma. The herds have moved to the lower mountain regions and vegetation is scarce: the reindeer eat mostly roots and ground lichen. The herders leave the reindeer alone for the rut, and pass the time fishing in the small, deep rivers and lakes. They tell stories of mystery and life to help them through the darkness. The rut lasts two to three weeks, and in this time the reindeer bulls use most of their fat stores for this critical function. This is the season of desire.
Snow falls and blankets the land during pre-winter. After the rut, herds make for the lowland bogs where the last of the vegetation persists. Soon, the snow will be too deep and the reindeer will rely on ground and tree lichens for their winter sustenance. Another round of slaughter takes place before herds are separated into their winter grazing groups, sijdor. This is the season of the journey. The remaining reindeer, mostly female, continue their silent march into the dark forest illuminated by deep blue sky on white snow.
The world enters a restorative sleep during deep winter. A thick blanket of snow shelters the earth from the piercing cold. If the snow conditions are right, reindeer can dig out ground lichen from under a layer of snow almost a metre thick. The herders move the sijdor frequently to access scarce ground and tree lichen. They may need to provide supplementary food sources if there is not enough lichen, as it is found only in old growth forests. This is the season of caring. The Sami’s main task is to protect the herd from predators such as wolverine and wolf.
The world sleeps under snow and darkness until Gijrradálvvie, when the cycle begins again.
The reindeer and the Sami way of life are facing considerable threats due to modern development.
- As old growth forest is cut, the amount of life-sustaining lichen is reduced, placing a heavy financial burden on the herders to provide supplementary food sources during the winter season.
- Linear features such as roads, seismic lines and power lines allow predators to move swiftly across the land and into formerly inaccessible areas.
- Humans also use these features for motorized sport, causing reindeer to lose energy while fleeing and lose access to critical nearby food sources.
- Hydroelectric dams prevent lakes from freezing, forcing herds to take energy-intensive detours into the mountains and increasing herders’ costs.
- Mines emit light and sound pollution that can shift reindeer migrations substantially.
The negative impacts of these developments are causing sharp declines in wild reindeer populations as well as threatening the traditional Sami way of life. A collaboration of scientific research and traditional ecological knowledge will bring us closer to understanding and maintaining reindeer populations around the world.