5 Myths and 5 Facts about Sami Reindeer Herding

While spending my summer with my boyfriend Simon's family in Fauske, I got to experience the annual gathering of the reindeer to mark the newborn calves. For those of you who are new here, Simon comes from a family of reindeer herders in Northern Norway and his older brother is taking care of the family business full-time. 

The reindeer are gathered up in the mountains of Sjunkhatten National Park each year at the end of July, and the hike up there was certainly no walk in the park, as you can see in this video.

When we finally reached the gathering site, I was wondering whether everyone would be okay with me taking pictures, to which Simon replied that it's fine, as long as I provide context.

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Apparently, many people with little to no knowledge about reindeer herding often mistake some of the practices as torture or mistreatment and thus, I thought it would make an interesting topic to write about for those of you who are interested in learning more about the culture of the Sami.

In this post, you can, therefore, find 5 common myths about Sami reindeer herding, and 5 lesser known facts about it!



5 Myths about Sami Reindeer Herding

1. "The marking of the ears is torture"

Marking the reindeer means providing them with a plastic mark that contains information about the reindeer's gender, birth year and owner. These marks are pierced into the calf's ear, much like farmers do with cattle or sheep.

In addition, however, the Sami cut their individual herder's symbol (of which each reindeer herder has its own) into the calf's ear with a knife. 

myths and facts about sami reindeer herding

This looks bloody brutal, of course, but unlike many people claim, herders don't do this to unnecessarily harm their animals. This practice has been a vital part of Sami reindeer herding for ages and herders know best how to make the cut as fast and with as little pain for the reindeer, as possible.

It's also worth noting that the marking is usually done in the midst of summer and only if the weather allows, as cold temperatures can lead to complications and severe pain of the reindeer's ear after marking.

Also, let's not forget that being a reindeer herder is no walk in the park. It's a job that requires the herder to be outside for the majority of the day and in whatever weather - and whatever temperature - doing hard physical labour with very little pay resulting from it.

myths and facts about sami reindeer herding

The majority of reindeer herders who still choose this job over anything else these days though, do it because they love it and the last thing they have in mind, is torturing their own animals (and thus, losing their bread and butter). 

And finally, reindeer herders are controlled by the authorities in the same way as farmers are. Thus, they have certain rules and regulations to follow, and if they would be caught actually torturing their animals, this would lead them to be punished the same way as everyone else would be.


2. "They lose their fur - they're sick"

Apparently, some people believe that a reindeer who is losing its fur must be sick. However, reindeer shed their fur much like other mammals in the different seasons. 

If a reindeer looks like a plucked chicken, it's doesn't have to be because it's sick

If a reindeer looks like a plucked chicken, it's doesn't have to be because it's sick

Reindeer shed their winter fur in the spring and summer, and the new winter fur grows back right after, and fully develops by the end of autumn. This is why reindeer in the summer often have weird patches of fur on them - it's the old winter fur that hasn't fallen off yet.


3. "Look at how tiny that fence is"

Sami reindeer are tamed animals, this is to say that they're used to people, but they're still living in the wild - i.e. in the mountains and tundra of Northern Norway, Swedish/Finnish Lapland and the Kola peninsula of Russia.

They are not usually kept in a fence, but there are three exceptions: the marking of the newborn calves, the taming of lead reindeer, and when the male flock is kept in a fence during winter for a small period. 

myths and facts about sami reindeer herding

During the marking of the newborn calves, it might look like the reindeer are kept in a tiny fence. However, they are not kept in there for long, just for a maximum of one day. It has to be relatively small so that the reindeer herders actually have a shot at selecting and separating the calves from the herd in order to mark them.

During the taming of a lead reindeer (so the reindeer that naturally leads the herd on its own), it’s kept in a fence in close contact with humans so it gets used to them. Sometimes, herders even take them for a walk with a rope so that they get used to being led.

myths and facts about sami reindeer herding

Finally, during winter, most herders keep the male reindeer in a fence, so that the (pregnant) females don’t have to compete with them for food out in the wild. Those kinds of fences are obviously much bigger, as the reindeer are being kept there for a longer period of time.


4. "The reindeer are destroying the land"

There has been some controversy about whether or not the land in Norway's most northern region, Finnmark, is overgrazed by a reindeer population that is too large.

While there is some evidence of that, looking at the paths the reindeer travel on and calculating how much the reindeer weigh, some researchers also believe that nature will take care of itself eventually, as reindeer have always been around.

myths and facts about sami reindeer herding

However, just because Finmark gets a lot of attention on this particular topic, doesn’t mean it’s like this in other places. Many other places don’t have high enough numbers of reindeer to actually make an impact on the surrounding nature.


5. "All Sami own reindeer"

This has got to be the most common misconception about the Sami in Scandinavia. Contrary to common belief, however, not all Sami own reindeer - or even come from herding families.

There are Sea Sami as well who, traditionally, have mainly lived off fishing. And of course, nowadays, most young Sami choose to live in the cities and pursue other careers than their parents or grandparents. 

It is estimated that ca. 100.000 Sami live in Northern Europe, but only about 10% of them are actually connected to reindeer husbandry.

myths and facts about sami reindeer herding

That means they might have reindeer, or some of their family members have reindeer, or they are connected to reindeer husbandry through their spouses without actually owning any reindeer themselves.

 

5 Facts about Sami Reindeer Herding

1. Sami have actually started the trend about Santa Claus owning reindeer

In 1898, a group of Sami reindeer herders arrived in the U.S. to teach the Inuit of Alaska how to pursue reindeer herding, as the area was heavily populated by these animals.

It became a large success and in the 1920s, the U.S. businessman Carl Lomen started annual Christmas parades in cities like Chicago and Seattle, together with Macy's, where Sami and Inuit reindeer herders would drive reindeer sledges.

myths and facts about sami reindeer herding

It was only a matter of time before Coca-Cola and Walt Disney picked up the trend, which then quickly spread across the world and led to reindeer being a huge part of Christmas decorations around the globe.

 


2. In certain areas, also non-Sami people have the right to herd reindeer

Reindeer herding in Norway can be pursued by Samis and Norwegians. However, it depends on where you live. In most parts of Northern Norway, only Sami have the right to herd reindeer, while in Southern Norway, everyone has the right to own their own herd.

This is because, in most areas of the North, you need to own a licence (the reinmerke) in order to own reindeer yourself, which is only given to people of Sami heritage who in addition, have ancestors who pursued reindeer herding, and who are members of a reindeer herding association. 

myths and facts about sami reindeer herding

You see, reindeer herding isn't exactly spending time in the mountains and cuddling with baby reindeer all day - there is lots of paperwork and bureaucracy involved too!

 


3. The ancient traditions are passed on from generation to generation

Tame reindeer husbandry as we know it started somewhere in the 1500s and has adapted to contemporary times throughout history.

In fact, knowledge has been passed down from generation to generation, and when Simon started helping out in the family business, he learned all of this from his parents and grandparents.

There was only one problem, though: Simon and his older brother are left-handed while the rest of the entire family is right-handed, meaning that they had to teach themselves the best way to catch and mark a reindeer back-to-front.

myths and facts about sami reindeer herding

There also is an old practice that during the marking of the calves, children are given calves by their parents, uncles and aunts, so that they can start building up their own reindeer herd. This summer thus, Simon gave a beautiful white calf to his baby nephew. 

 


4. Asking how many reindeer someone has is considered rude

It's a rookie mistake many tourists make, so if you want to come across as polite, don't ever ask a Sami how many reindeer s/he owns. It's considered as rude as asking someone how much money they currently have in their bank account.

However, there's a joke in the Sami community that goes:

If the tax office asks how many reindeer you have, say none. If friends and acquaintances ask how many you have, you say enough. And if a tourist asks how many reindeer you own, say ‘all of them’ 😉



5. Only lead reindeer actually have personalised names

As mentioned earlier, every reindeer has a personalised mark in the ear to show who owns them, along with a plastic piece that shows the year they were born in through a letter and a certain colour, and a number to distinguish between males and females. 

Each herder has its own individual symbol that is cut into the reindeer's ear for later recognition

Each herder has its own individual symbol that is cut into the reindeer's ear for later recognition

Every lead reindeer, however, gets a personalized name, like for example Beelzebub (the devil) to make things easier. This means that lead reindeer have a much closer relationship with the herder and are thus, named after their personality traits.

The reindeer Beelzebub for instance is an old reindeer in Simon's family that is jokingly called the devil because he is quite stubborn.

 

Are you hooked?

Watch the video below to see my whole adventure with the reindeer herd in the mountains of Northern Norway and subscribe to my Youtube channel for more videos!


For more info on Sami reindeer herding, check out these articles and websites:

 


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