Last Dance of the Reindeer: Sami Reindeer Herding in Sweden

Sami reindeer herding in Sweden is central to Sami culture, but life is not always easy for those who live on the frontier with nature, nor is life for the reindeer themselves, as I found out.

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Reindeer as a Window into Sami Culture

“Reindeer are my life” quipped Lars, in his lilting and warm voice. 

A reindeer herder for his whole adult life, as well as showing some of his reindeer to us, Lars was giving us a little insight into the realities of reindeer herding.

Reindeer herding is a cornerstone of the traditional Sami culture in Lapland, which stretches across the arctic region in Europe.

The Sami are the indigenous culture of the Sapmi – or Lapland – the region that today crosses arctic Norway, Sweden, and Finland. I’d come to Swedish Lapland to learn more about this culture and the beautiful land that the Sami have been taking care of here.

It doesn’t take long in Sapmi to realize the centrality of reindeer to the Sami culture. In the bitter winter, reindeer skins have long kept them warm and provided a product to trade with, as much as a superfood (their meat is said to be rich with omega 3 and healthy fats – essential for surving any arctic winter).  The Sami followed their reindeer during summer and winter in a nomadic tradition; those not directly involved in herding often indirectly connected to them & this lifestyle too.

Today, in Swedish Lapland, there are no wild reindeer – although they roam as freely as they like. All reindeer are domesticated and have an “owner”, just like cattle and sheep do in other countries.

The seasons and cycles of the reindeer still for the most part dictate the Sami rhythm of life, but Rudolf and co are coming on hard times.

Sami Culture in Sweden – A History of Struggle & Endurance

Like other indigenous cultures around the world, the Sami existence has always been deeply bonded with nature: Their way of life echoes natures’ rhythms as much as shows respect for her force.

And like other indigenous cultures around the world, the Sami existence and survival has been far from easy. The Sami were forbidden from speaking their own language and forced to send their children to Swedish – speaking schools. It was not until April 2000 that Sami was officially recognised as a minority language in Sweden.

There were other hardships too, aside from the freedom of expression such as forced christianisation (the Sami people are Shamanic traditionally) and refusal to grant land rights. The persecution of the Sami started in the 1600’s, and has only recently come to an end. There’s now a separate Sami Parliament that was formed in 1993 and the first Sami Secondary School is now open in Jokkmokk.

To Sami, Reindeer are central to life. The reindeer is respected and loved, and the life of reindeer herders (and even those who are not directly herders) revolves around the reindeer. In summer, the Sami community gathers for calf-marking ceremonies done during the long summer nights, as the reindeer are rounded up and given a unique mark on their ears according to their owner, so that they can be identified again.

In autumn, the reindeer are again rounded up for the annual cull where reindeer are killed for their meat and their skins. It might sound brutal, but to Sami reindeer are a simple means to survival: They are & were the resource that was locally available and made living in such harsh terrain and conditions bearable.

Sami people in Sweden
Our Sami guide for the day greeting us at the Arctic Circle

Reindeer, the Sami Culture & Climate Change in Swedish Lapland

The Sami have long been protectors of the land and lived in close harmony with it. But now that land is changing.

What was once uninterrupted tundra and grazing land has been carved up, by roads, rails, wind turbines and farmland.

The soft snow that would yield to the hungry mouths of reindeer in winter to reveal the lychen below has been replaced by hard ice which reindeer mouths cannot break through to reach the food below: Caused by the erratic snowfall and freezing/melting cycle of recent winters due to irregular temperatures.

As our weather changes, the reindeer are going hungry.

Fortunately for the reindeer in Sweden, their status has been recognised and support is now being given to Sami herders by the Swedish government to help feed them when the going gets hard. It’s not enough, but arguably the reindeer in Sweden are more fortunate than the caribou of say Alaska, who are currently at risk of losing their breeding ground in the Arctic Refuge for the sake of more oil.

The Future of Sami Reindeer Herding

I asked Lars about the future of his craft. I asked if his children want to herd reindeer. His answer surprised me. Around the world I’ve been used to the trend that younger generations of indigenous cultures are more interested in their smart phones than taking on the way of life of their parents. But this was a little different.

Lars explained that it’s not that his children aren’t interested in taking over from him, it’s that he won’t let them.

As the climate changes, herding reindeer becomes harder, and most importantly for the herders: It becomes a lot more expensive.

Herders can’t move their reindeer around according to the season by foot anymore.  Roads, railways and fences block the way. Instead the herds are moved by lorries and trucks – which is significantly more expensive. In the summer grazing areas of the mountains, herders have turned to more high tech measures to draw their herds together for the summer Ear Marking – by using quad bikes, helicopters and even drones.

When the reindeer can’t reach the food in winter, it has to be supplemented by feed.  While the government helps support the Sami people, there’s still additional expense for the herders themselves.

Travelling to Sweden? DOn't miss out on visiting Swedish Lapland and learning more about the Sami People and reindeer herders in the arctic circle! #sweden #responsibletravel #traveltips #reindeer

The Role of Tourism in Preserving Sami Reindeer Herding in Sweden

As we travelled around Swedish Lapland, it became clear that a challenging situation is being propped up – in Sweden at least – through tourism.

Lars, the reindeer herder who we met, receives valuable income from hosting groups such as ours – income that can then be put towards the ever increasing cost of feeding and transporting his reindeer.

The Sami traditions are – at least in part – all the more enthusiastically preserved at the prospect of travellers who are interested in learning about the culture through immersive experiences at camps and sledding treks in winter.

Tourism is now providing a vital backbone to the Sami reindeer herders for a tradition that is rapidly becoming non-viable commercially in the face of the changing climate and land development. And if done in the right way – fighting the urge to stereotype and characterise and with the greatest of respect for the Sami culture – tourism can encourage protection of the Sami way of life, too.

Tundra ready for the reindeer to munch

Final Thoughts

Travelling Swedish Lapland and learning about the Sami herding traditions and way of life, I couldn’t help but draw parallels with indigenous cultures in other parts of the world such as here in Canada.

The Sami are not the first – or possibly last – culture to have been beaten into submission over generations.

What struck me through the similarities is how we (as collective humanity) have wronged and tried to put down those who have the best understanding, respect and love for our planet. Love and respect that we need more than ever.

Here in North America, a Gwich’in (Native American) story of creation says that man and caribou (reindeer) were created with a piece of the other’s heart in his own. And so, the fate of the reindeer and the people are intertwined.

The Sami are learning to adapt, and the reindeer are too – snowmobiles, helicopters and even drones are now being used to help herders. Technology is helping the reindeer and the herding traditions to survive – but it comes at a great cost.

Our world needs more communities that are connected to and deeply dependent on nature. We can learn a lot from the indigenous communities around the world, and yet they continue to be marginalised.

Surely, it’s time for that to change?

Have you travelled to Swedish Lapland? Would you like to learn more about the Sami culture? Let us know in the comments below.

Editorial: I was hosted by the Adventure Travel Trade Association and the Swedish Tourism boards for my trip to Swedish Lapland. As usual that hasn’t influenced my thoughts that are shared here!

Travelling to Sweden? DOn't miss out on visiting Swedish Lapland and learning more about the Sami People and reindeer herders in the arctic circle! #sweden #responsibletravel #traveltips #reindeer

11 thoughts on “Last Dance of the Reindeer: Sami Reindeer Herding in Sweden”

  1. We are heading to Sweden in about five weeks and will be spending some time with a Sami family. Thank you for this post. I have have so many things I want to talk to them about now.

  2. Very informative article. I have learned something new today. I would love to travel there and learn more about them. Unfortunately, minorities have hard time everywhere in the world.

  3. Ellie this is such a great post thank you. We had six weeks in Sweden in our camper this summer and fell in love with the whole country, especially north of the Artic. I was desperately looking for a connection with someone like Lars, so next visit I need to work harder. I loved the museum at Jokkmok, Sjöfallets National Park and Jukkasjärvi. Exploring Swedish Lapland was a great experience and I would definitely go back. Thanks for an insightful blog.

    • Thank you Karen! I think to really meet and learn more about the Sami it’s helpful to hire a guide or stay at one of the Sami lodges around the region (there are several). It would not have been possible for me to meet Lars without Women Adventure Travel (the company I went with). I loved the region like you and hope to go back someday :). I see you’ve travelled a lot in Norway too which must be stunning!

  4. I greatly enjoyed reading your post. I have been to Lapland and encountered the Sami so it was interesting to hear how things are changing.

  5. Hi Ellie, I just read your post and thought it was very interesting. I was in this area almost 1.5 years ago already and learned a lot about the region and Sami culture. I did not know so much about the relationship between tourism and preserving Sami culture so this was interesting for me to learn more about. Just to let you know, I’ve added a link to your article in my latest post about how tourism can contribute to regional development in Swedish Lapland. As my story did not really go in-depth about Sami culture, I thought it might be nice for readers to learn more about this from your piece. Hope this is ok for you! Shirley


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