Wildlife

The Sámi and their Reindeer

The indigenous people of Norway have lived in harmony with reindeer and nature for thousands of years.

WORDS EWEN BELL

Winter north of the Arctic Circle is dark. Very dark. There are weeks when the Sámi people here see more Northern Lights than sunlight. But as spring arrives in the snow-blanketed north, there’s an explosion of sunshine and life.

Sámi reindeer herders welcome the return of the sun and start making plans to move their herds to higher ground. The city of Kautokeino is the heart of Sámi education and culture in Norway; it’s also at the geographical centre – as the reindeer run – of the northern lands of the Sámi.

Reindeers are more than economic means for the Sámi; they are a matter of survival.

Reindeer skins are still used to keep warm, as clothing or as hides to lie on.

Sámi culture existed long before modern borders.

It's here that the annual Sámi Easter Festival takes place. After a long winter, Sámi families gather to connect with their friends and community, before beginning their journeys into the mountains where the summer forests will be rich in lichen, grasses and berries. The modern festival is a celebration of Sámi culture and crafts, with reindeer races, fur trading and a music festival where ‘joik’ (the traditional chanting song of the Sámi, currently undergoing something of a renaissance) takes centre stage.

The animals are not merely livestock, they are a matter of survival.

In spring, drivers on coastal or mountain roads need to be careful of reindeer crossing the highway.

Sámi culture existed long before the modern borders that stretch between Norway and Sweden, Finland and Russia. Sámi were in the north long before the ancient kings arrived, living in harmony with the seasons and aided by the reindeer. Not all Sámi are reindeer herders, but all reindeer herders are Sámi. The animals are not merely livestock, they are a matter of survival. For the Sámi, reindeer in these Arctic climates are food, transport and clothing. Herders know their animals intimately, just as they know the forests and lakes that they call home. The animals are a vital part of the landscape that nurtures them.

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Populations of wild reindeer are still found in Norway.

A Sámi man in a Lavvo, a tent with a space for a large (and neccessary) fireplace.

Today, Sámi make use of modern technology to make their traditional existence more comfortable – snowmobiles have proved to be excellent tools for herding – but traditional skills are never far away and the reindeer are as integral as ever. Lavvo (large, round tents with space inside for a generous stone fireplace) are still commonplace for nomadic herding. They used to be covered in reindeer hide, although lighter materials are used nowadays. Birch wood smoke imbues cuts of reindeer meat hung above the hearth with flavour as it rises to escape through the top of the lavvo. Every part of the reindeer is used. The skins are still used to keep warm, as clothing or as hides to lie on, while the antlers form ornate features on bowls and utensils hewn from Arctic timbers.

Every part of the reindeer is always used.

Herders hang a black cloth on ski poles by the side of the road to warn drivers that their animals are nearby.

Not all Sámi are reindeer herders, but all reindeer herders are Sámi.

Just a few kilometres from the harbour in Tromsø, you might see herds of reindeer moving through in early spring, and any time you’re driving on the coastal or mountain roads you have to be careful of reindeer crossing the highway. Herders hang a black cloth on ski poles by the side of the road to warn drivers that their animals are nearby. While it is not uncommon to encounter reindeer in the forests, you’re more likely to find them on the menu. Smoked reindeer meat is sold in just about every supermarket across the Arctic, ready to be fried up and served with onions and polar bread or mixed with mushrooms alongside pasta or potatoes.

A traditional Sámi meal.

You can visit museums in places such as Kautokeino, Snåsa, and Karasjok to learn about the Sámi way of life. But it’s even better to learn from the Sámi people face to face. Aurora chaser and wilderness guide, Gunnar Hildonen, shares his Sámi heritage with guests while sitting beneath the night sky. As he cooks up smoked reindeer in a frying pan, he’ll tell you about the techniques he learned for survival in the winter: birch for starting fires, branches for making snowshoes, and smoked reindeer for sustenance. To taste Sámi cooking, to feel their crafts, to hear their songs and stories for yourself – there’s no better way to start to understand how the Sámi have endured in these northern lands, side by side with their reindeer.

Experience the Sámi people of far-northern Europe and their remarkable native culture.

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