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.
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.
Despite state subsidies of 3 million kruna ($434,000) last year to offset bad winters, the district has yet to recover from recent losses. It has started a fund to ensure that the reindeer have food year round and has asked for additional state funding of 20 million kruna (almost $3 million) over four years.
But a tough winter is not the only factor causing incomes to drop. The district has also lost considerable money because of new hunting laws. Sami supplement their funds by selling licenses to hunt and fish on their land. But a law passed in 1993 allows unrestricted grouse hunting.
A flood of hunters has scared many reindeer, causing them to flee across the border into Norway. Catching them and bringing them back, even with the help of border collies and Australian kelpies (huskies are used only by the Swedes) is an expensive proposition.
The price of reindeer has declined over the past few years. But there is still a strong demand for the horns, which are used to make knives and ornaments, and for the somewhat gamy meat.
500 words for snow
To Sami, however, reindeer horns are just one way of identifying reindeer - along with a complex series of ear markings that are used the same way ranchers use cattle brands.
In fact, the Sami language, which was first written down only in 1948, has thousands of words for reindeer. But the majority of terms to describe contemporary objects have been borrowed from Scandinavian languages.
"We have maybe 500 words to explain what snow is like, but we have no word for computer," says Nils-Henrick Sikku, program director for Sami Radio in Kiruna, which also has a Sami theater and TV station. For example, one word describes snow "where reindeer have been digging and eating in one place and then left, so it's no use to go there," he says.
Sami Radio receives 5.7 million kruna ($838,000) in subsidies from the state-run Swedish Radio to produce 400 hours of programming per year, including news, children's programs, and religious broadcasts.
One of Sami Radio's recent projects was to put together two CDs containing modern-day versions of the traditional yoik music. Yoiking differs from traditional singing in that the singer virtually becomes the subject of his yoik.
"So when you yoik the bear, you become the bear, you explain the character of the bear with his voice and his way of singing," Mr. Sikku says from his large office in central Kiruna.
Nature is still considered to be the omnipotent voice in Sami culture, although most Sami are now members of the Protestant Lestarianist religion. Goblins, witches, earth and sun gods, and other mystical beings figure prominently in traditional Sami storytelling and ancient legends.
To keep that culture alive for future generations, Sami have petitioned the European Union for financial help. But they are also taking on the task among themselves.
Catching the plane for class
At Kiruna's only Sami-language school, 23 students between the ages of 6 and 12 study full-time in their native language. The school, two rented classrooms in a large Swedish elementary school, is one of six such state-subsidized institutions in the country. After age 12, the children enter a regular school.
Many of the children come from outside Kiruna, but the government pays for them to travel by taxi - sometimes by plane - to class. Usually they live with their mothers full-time and travel on weekends to see their fathers, who roam with the herd.
Herder Nils Henrik Allas, whose children study at the Sami school, lived with a Swedish family every November to April as a boy. "They were like a second family to us," he says. "We paid them with reindeer." When his parents left with the herd during the rest of the school year, he was sent to boarding school.
The school also emphasizes developing a cultural identity. "If they go to regular school, they are much more silently suppressed. They learn to lie low. Here they are all equal," says teacher Bengt Forseth. "When they leave here after six years their self-esteem is good enough to ... shrug their shoulders when they hear silly things about the Sami people."