My first glimpse of life above the Arctic circle came after a strenuous 12-hour hike along the Kungsleden trail, trekking 15 miles across mountainous tundra from the village of Abisko to a summer reindeer herding camp. I had come with my collaborator, Kerstin Schröder, a cultural scientist at the University of Vienna, to photograph the indigenous Laevas Sami community in northern Sweden. Minutes after we were greeted by Hans Göran Partapuoli on the porch of his red mountain cabin, a helicopter landed nearby and whisked two young Sami boys up and over the mountain ridge to find the herd that had roamed off toward the Norwegian border. Perhaps in a few days Kerstin and I would be able to see and photograph the Laevas reindeer corral.
The Sami organize their lives around the movement of their reindeer herds, which gives them a unique notion of time that can be hard to grasp, especially for an outsider like me, accustomed to the rapid pace of life in Paris. For a few months every summer the Sami accompany their reindeer to high mountain pastures, where the daily schedule involves fishing, cooking, and going to the sauna. One of my clearest memories is watching Hans Göran prepare a small fire to cook the fish we had caught that day on the lake next to camp; four fish were meticulously arranged on sharp branches around the flames. He rolled over on his back, stared up towards the sky and softly murmured, “Now we will let the fish cook.”
After three days of waiting, the Sami villagers heard by radio from the two boys who had taken the helicopter to find the herd. They were slowly moving back east and would arrive at the Laevas corral in a day “or so.” Gathering 2,000 reindeer in a fenced area is probably the only task that raises stress levels in the Sami community. I had the opportunity to see two such events, one that summer on the mountain plateau and another at -20 degrees Celsius in the lowlands. Both times the villagers awoke from what had seemed a kind of hibernation and set about the furious activity of corralling the reindeer. I was in awe when I first saw the silhouettes of thousands of those nimble, antlered creatures traversing a ridge, and then suddenly I was in the middle of the herd, the reindeer streaming by on all sides, grunting. The other time, in winter, under a barely illuminated dark blue sky, Kerstin and I watched the villagers as they lassoed the young animals one by one and cut their ears to mark which family they belonged to.
Sami life is a hybrid of the traditional and the modern. For nine months of the year, when they are not in the mountain camp, the Laevas people live not far from the city of Kiruna, in a valley that has been partially allocated to them by the Swedish government. The children go to school in Kiruna, and many continue their studies elsewhere in Sweden. But Sami youth are not leaving the region in overwhelming numbers, as has happened in other indigenous communities. Throughout the year, celebrations in Sweden, Norway and Finland bring the cross-border Sami communities together. The young people I met all spoke the Sami language, and several were keen on attending Sami places of higher learning in Jokkmokk, Sweden, or Kautokeino, Norway. Hans Göran’s daughter Elena plans to someday take over her father’s reindeer herd.
The Sami semi-nomadic lifestyle is inherently tied to natural cycles, and the well-being of the reindeer is integral to the survival of the community. Icy snow weather can prevent the reindeer from finding lichen to eat, and the reduced number of reindeer lowers the meat yield for the Sami’s consumption and for re-sale at the market. One elder told us she feels ill if she does not eat reindeer meat at least once every day.
Kerstin and I would like our project to serve as a symbol of the importance of human respect for nature and the necessity of preserving the environment for future generations. We also hope that Sami culture will continue to thrive. The Sami people have been inhabiting northern Scandinavia since prehistoric times and have now carved out a unique lifestyle that holds on tightly to the past, even as it moves in and out of the modern Scandinavian world.