13 October 2012

On Dasher...

Never ask a Sámi person how many reindeer they have.  We couldn't help but wonder, though, as we stayed on a reindeer farm in Sevettijärvi, would we get to see any?  How many are there around?  There were droppings on the property, confirming their existence and Merlin could tell that they were fresh enough to signal close reindeer proximity.  Those are true country boy skills right there.  But a reindeer 'farm' is very different than the name implies.  These are wild animals, only partially domesticated.  To keep your reindeer is to follow them, gather them, mark them, not confine them.  So, did we see any reindeer?  We sure did.  This is the land of the reindeer, far above the Arctic Circle and even mating season (which it was while we were in Lapland) couldn't keep the reindeer completely out of sight. 
To ask about the number in someone's herd would be like saying, "hey, how much money have you got in the bank?"  Until very recently, reindeer husbandry was the core of the Sámi economy.  The animals were a currency.  In fact, when we asked one of the older schoolchildren in Sevettijärvi why the language textbook they'd sweetly presented us with had a picture of small reindeer bones on the cover, we were told that those were game pieces.  "It is a Skolt game," the thirteen year old explained.  You throw them on the ground and whichever ones land a certain way are reindeer.  "Whoever has the most reindeer wins."  So, basically, it's a very ancient version of Monopoly.  Until the 1600s, Sámi people lived as nomads, following reindeer as they migrated.  These journeys brought them over borders, being defined at that time as Russia, Sweden and Denmark.  The governments of each (and sometimes all three) began to tax the Sámi people and, with no hard currency, they paid with hides and meat.  The need to generate more income in order to pay taxes led to over-hunting and a sharp decrease in the number of reindeer.  There was a threat of extinction.
Many Sámi chose to settle along fjords and switch mainly to fishing.  Others decided to employ the same methods they'd seen Scandinavian shepherds use with their flocks of sheep.  The men began taming small groups of reindeer and herding them from place to place as needed.  The women made clothing and blankets from the fur, boots from the skins, tools from antlers and even cheese from the reindeer's milk.  These reindeer herders, though a minority, became what is now seen as the 'archetypical' Sámi.  As systematic (and sometimes sadistic - in cases of female sterilization) assimilation measures were taken by Scandinavian and Russian governments, the communities most reliant on reindeer husbandry were the ones who held on most tightly to their culture.  There's a direct correlation between the survival of Sámi dialects and traditions and the importance of herding in those communities.  You can pretty much safely put the reindeer at the center of modern Sámi identity. 
Of course, they also ate the meat.  While you'd probably be hard pressed to find any reindeer milk products around Lapland, reindeer meat is very common.  Most often, it is sauteed, resembling beef stir fry or cheese steak shavings, served with lingonberries and potatoes.  For some reason that we can't figure out, the reindeer in Lapland tastes much more like beefsteak than venison.  There is no gaminess and the flesh is tender enough to not necessitate it being cooked super rare.  Other common preparations are dried and cured sausages, sliced thin and eaten as a breakfast and lunch meat.  Reindeer soup made some appearances as well.  Canned reindeer stew, reindeer chunks and reindeer meatballs showed up all around Finland - not just Lapland.  It has grown from being a local delicacy to a national culinary tradition, as Sámi culture has become more widely accepted and respected in recent decades.
Above, a particularly delicious baked reindeer steak with rye and thyme crumble, forest mushrooms and artichoke puree.  This was at Ravintola Aanaar in Inari.  The town is considered the center of Sami culture in Finland.  Merlin ate this (and I had Lake Inari whitefish) in a small dining room adjacent to the main banquet hall.  A group of around 50 people had been filing in all evening and now sat enjoying a meal and some live, traditional music.  "Is it a wedding?" we asked.  "Oh, no.  Just a gathering of Sámi people."  Many had arrived in traditional costume, some wore name tags.  "It happens all the time."   Inari is also home to Siida, a really wonderful museum dedicated to Sámi culture and the nature of Northern Lapland.  Siida is a North Sámi word for a reindeer village and much of the permanent exhibition, naturally, was dedicated to herding and husbandry. 
This old record book shows a series of earmarks and the families and family members they represent.  Every summer, the calves that are born the spring before are rounded up and small cuts and patterns are made in their ears.  This marks ownership.  Thousands of earmarks exist, children have different ones than their parents, siblings and so on.  The best herders earn the most intricate patterns, Natalia explained to us.  "Mine was one no one wanted."  She owned some reindeer (of course, we didn't ask how many) at one point.  Her earmark pattern was simple enough that it could easily be turned into another.  So, one by one, her reindeer began to disappear.  Finally, she sold them off before she had none left.  "I knew who it was and was mad for a while.  But it is all a part of it."  She told us of the skill involved with knowing exactly where to find every one of your reindeer depending on the wind, the surface of the snow, how old they are.  The Sámi have hundreds of words for 'reindeer,' including one for each year of a reindeer's life.
Only around 10% of today's Sámi count reindeer husbandry as their primary source of income.  That doesn't make the animals any less important, though.  Tourism in Lapland depends a lot on people wanting to come up and see Dasher and Dancer et al.  At our homestay, Natalia told us about Spaniards zipping around on snowmobiles they'd never ridden before, trying to find some reindeer.  "I was running around with a first aid kit."  Other guests think that going right up to one and petting it is a good idea.  "They even think they can ride them!"  Most tourist material for the area involves snowmobile and dog-sled tours to go out and spot some reindeer.  Thankfully, absolutely nowhere is there the opportunity to go out on a hunt.  I was happy to see some of the beautiful animals, even if they were just fleeting glances.  And, at night, I even dreamed of reindeer (though our pillowcases may have had something to do with that).


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