Lapps' Ski-Doos Put Rudolph in Back Seat
Arctic Lapps still follow the reindeer herds. But now they do it with snowmobiles and helicopters.
FOR more than two decades, Erik-Anders Niia has been practicing the same ancient vocation of reindeer-herding that his Lapp ancestors have done for thousands of years - but with some modern improvements.Skip to next paragraph
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While Mr. Niia still wears reindeer skins underneath his waterproof snowsuit and stuffs his boots with dried grass to keep warm during the virtually sunless Arctic winters, he drives a Mazda truck instead of an antiquated Lapp akkia, or canoe-type sleigh.
He rarely skis to remote forested areas, but travels by snowmobile. Home is no longer a crude tent fashioned from reindeer skins, but a modern house. And when he rounds up his reindeer for the seasonal slaughter, he rents a couple of helicopters.
"Fifty years ago, all herders had to hire winter help because the generations before me had no cars and Ski-Doos," he says as he drives through the flat Gabna Reindeer District outside the town of Kiruna, about 600 miles north of the Swedish capital, Stockholm.
"When you follow reindeer, you can't choose your own way," he says. "You have to go with them, over ice, rocks, and frozen lakes."
Progress doubtlessly has made life easier for the Lapp people, or Sami, as they call themselves. But as is the case with indigenous peoples the world over, the advent of modern society has also done irreparable harm to the traditional Sami lifestyle - and put their livelihoods under severe threat.
About 50,000 to 70,000 Sami exist today, primarily in Lapland, called Sapmi, which extends throughout the northern parts of Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Russia's Kola Peninsula. Of the roughly 20,000 Sami in Sweden, about 2,000 today work full-time with reindeer year-round, from mosquito-plagued summers through grim, silent winters.
A parliament of their own
Once treated as pariahs because of their nomadic lifestyle and non-Christian beliefs, Sweden's Sami have been treated as full citizens only in recent decades following centuries of state-sanctioned discrimination.
In the past, Swedish Sami children were taken from their parents and forced to attend Swedish-language boarding schools. Though such practices no longer exist, an independent Sami Parliament, or Sameting, was founded two years ago to lobby for Sami rights and promote cultural identity. Its 31 members, elected by the country's 5,000 registered Sami voters, cannot enact laws but are rapidly gaining an influential voice in Swedish politics. (Sami make up about 4 percent of Sweden's population.)
"The older generation doesn't have a vision for our future and preserving our culture. I feel they are saying, 'Oh, poor us,'" says parliament member Katarina Pirak Sikku. "We have lost a lot, but we have the responsibility to develop our culture ourselves and not wait for the Swedes to do anything for us."
Like native Americans, the ultimate aim of the Sami is to have full control of land they say historically belongs to them, about one-third of Sweden.
Follow the reindeer
Much of that land is used for reindeer herding, which many Sami still practice. The Gabna Reindeer District, about 150 miles long and 11 wide, runs from Kiruna as far as the Norwegian border. It supports a loose confederation of herders, most of whom are related and work in clans. It is one of 43 such districts in Swedish Sapmi.
While each family owns its own private herd, clans often herd together depending on the season. The district, which gets a portion of herders' incomes, provides physical and financial help in return.
In the last five years, unusually heavy snowfalls have hit the district hard. As Sapmi is too barren for enclosed pastures, reindeer must forage freely to find food, depending on their keen sense of smell. Too much compacted snow makes it almost impossible for them to find the turquoise lichen and sagebrush that are their winter staples.
Herder Niia, for instance, had about 1,000 reindeer in the late 1980s. But two-thirds of his herd have since starved to death.
"It's very hard for us now, and will be for at least another three years. I've lost 60 to 70 percent of my income in the last five years," he says, stopping on the side of the road to point out a reindeer cow with her furry calf, nuzzling the ground for food.