July 7, 2000

Sami reindeer herders losing their traditional land

Military activities and industrial development are playing havoc with Sami reindeer herds in Norway.

Nunatsiaq News

MAUKEN, NORWAY — As Sami reindeer herder Issat Tore looks over his traditional grazing lands, he worries about what the future holds.

For the moment, his reindeer are peacefully feeding on fresh lichen with their new calves.

But Tore is concerned about the signs of the military’s recent use of this pasture area. There are deep muddy tracks left in the boggy land by army vehicles, as well as a couple of leftover telephone lines, a forgotten pair of snowshoes, and a tent.

"In the past I’ve come on an undetonated explosive, too," Tore said.

That’s because Tore’s traditional herding lands lie between two of Norway’s largest shooting ranges on the Mauken and Blaatind mountains, around 70 km. west of Tromsø.

Tore says his reindeer are often startled from their winter foraging by military activity.

"If they’re too close to the shooting areas, the military chases them out, although in the winter they should be as peaceful as possible, using their energy to survive," Tore said.

NATO exercises

Now, Norway’s military wants to expand these two shooting ranges, linking them with a 78 kilometre road, one full kilometre wide. The two ranges could be used for even larger military maneuvers during the winter, involving heavy equipment and thousands of soldiers from Norway and the NATO countries.

Tore, his brother, Ante, and nephews, Johan and Aslat are also worried about how they will survive if the military goes ahead with its plans.

"This military activity makes it very uncertain for the reindeer herders," Ante said. "The worst thing is that you don’t know if your children are going to be able to live as reindeer herders. That’s because being a reindeer herder is not a regular occupation, it’s a way of life."

Two Sami families have used the lands around this region for reindeer grazing since the 1950s, although Sami have traditionally occupied this land for at least 500 years.

In 1985, Sami rights to the land were confirmed by Norway’s highest court, and herders received compensation for the military use of the two mountains.

But, unlike Inuit in Nunavut and Nunavik, Sami don’t own any of this land nor do they have exclusive use of it. They only have vague and undefined traditional use rights over the land.

In 1997, the Norwegian parliament gave the national defense department the go-ahead to extend and connect the two shooting ranges.

Attached to this proposal was a plan, drawn up by Norway’s defense department, and approved by its agricultural department, which oversees reindeer herding. It outlined the future coexistence of the military and the reindeer herders, but the herders say the plan was made without their consultation.

But the military plans aren’t the only obstacles facing the herders — the continuing civilian development of northern Norway puts even more barriers.

Reindeer migration routes are often blocked by schools, farms, fences, and roads, obliging Sami herders to use military barges to move reindeer across populated shoreline areas, a service for which they pay the equivalent of $2 a reindeer.

"It disturbs them," Johan said. "The reindeer are scared. It affects them, and destroys their natural sense of direction."

No hunting of predators

As well, more rules and regulations are foisted yearly on reindeer herders. Herders, for instance, must now slaughter 30 per cent of their animals every year or risk losing government subsidies, and all animals must be slaughtered in government slaughterhouses.

"The state has the last word," Tore said.

And reindeer herders can no longer kill the wolverines and lynx that decimate their herds, sometimes killing up to 40 per cent of the animals.

"In former times, you’d be respected if you went hunting," Tore said.

"Now, you can hunt, but you can’t tell," Johan said.

Herders fear what the Norwegian government really wants is to transform them into reindeer farmers, at the same time reducing the size of the herds and making them more productive.

There are only 2,000 Sami reindeer herders in Norway. The size of their holdings recently dropped from 210,000 reindeer to 170,000. Tore’s family, the Oskals, once owned 3,000 reindeer. They now have 1500.

But Sami don’t measure the success or the loss of traditional reindeer herding in terms of animals, but in terms of culture, because their whole way of life is so closely bound with the reindeer’s natural cycle.

"Reindeer herding is a free way of life, living with nature. You co-operate with the reindeer. You have to know what the reindeer like, and how they move," Tore said. "You’re a bit like a reindeer because you’re so close to them, and, like a reindeer, you also want to move from the mountains to the sea."

Reindeer herders now live in modern houses, but they still spend much of their year following the herds up to the mountains, down to the sea, and then back again. "Better to be nomadic, than to live in one place," goes an old Sami saying.

Language and culture

Reindeer also help keep the Sami language and culture alive. The Sami language, for instance, has a word to describe every colour variation of an animal, and there’s also a complex code of ear notching that indicates to whom each and every reindeer belongs.

"Reindeer herding is what lies at the bottom of the culture," Johan said, "It’s what makes people feel connected."

Traditional Sami singing or "joik"-ing is also closely linked to reindeer herding. Every Sami used to have his or her personal song or "joik" (yoik) that described his life or personality, and animals, as well as events, could also be described in a joik.

Herders still sing these songs to scare away predators, or simply to entertain themselves while herding.

This ancient herding lifestyle still appeals to 25-year old Aslat, although he welcomes the new technology used by today’s reindeer herders, such as all-terrain vehicles, snowmobiles, mobile phones, and radios.

"It’s a very nice life," Aslat said. "You’ve learned about it since you were young, and it’s very intense."

But Mauken’s reindeer herders are becoming increasingly worried. They say they’re fed up with officials’ patronizing attitude — and even arrogance  over their concerns.

Yet it’s also been hard for them to show any disagreement because, in Sami culture, resistance is often expressed through silence. Norwegians have often taken this Sami silence as a sign of agreement.

Political activity

Still, things are changing. In April, Sami reindeer herders from Mauken, dressed in their traditional winter clothing, marched with their reindeer down the streets of Tromsø to drop off a letter at the local United Nations office.

In May, they marched again in Tromsø in a Labour Day parade.

In early June, a group of women and children traveled to Oslo, more than 1000 kilometres to the South. They set up a traditional tent or "lavvu" in front of the Norwegian parliament building to protest the military’s plans to expand the ranges and construct the road.

The government has now said it is rethinking the plan, although there is still talk about going ahead with the construction of a 6-km section of the road during the summer.

The Sami now want to rally international support for their plight.

"We recognize that out government doesn’t help us," Tore said. "So, we hope that the international community will respond to our problems."

"It’s the survival of the fattest."

But it won’t be easy to take on the Norwegian government. One observer of international indigenous politics said in the past Sami too often capitulated to the Norwegian government, accepting a Sami Parliament that can only voice disapproval, and is powerless to prevent this kind of development on traditional lands.

Powerful global forces are also at work, says a researcher with the University of Tromsø.

"There is the land encroachment. It’s been going on for 200 years, but now it’s going faster. And there’s the big issue facing pastoral life, of political and economic integration into the state system," said Ivar Bjørklund.

This may change the future of all indigenous herders and hunters, particularly the remaining nomads of Sápmi and Russia’s North.

"If you’re worried about culture, you should be worried," Bjørklund said. "But if you like money, you’ll be happy, because the few who survive will be richer. It’s the survival of the fattest."