8 Facts About Sámi Reindeer Herders

Sámi herders tending to their reindeer in the Norwegian Arctic, 2016. | Scott Wallace/GettyImages
Sámi herders tending to their reindeer in the Norwegian Arctic, 2016. | Scott Wallace/GettyImages / Scott Wallace/GettyImages

The Sámi people are indigenous to Sápmi, a cultural region of Europe and Russia that covers the northern parts of Norway, Finland, Sweden, and Russia. For centuries, the Sámi people relied on reindeer herding for food, warmth, and income. 

Although the Sámi—along with many Indigenous cultures—have been suppressed over the years, they have found ways to preserve their history and livelihood. Reindeer herding is still common in some areas. Here are a few facts about Sámi reindeer herders you might not know. 

1. Sámi reindeer herders used to be nomadic. 

Many Sámi people were once completely nomadic. Groups of several families would migrate with their reindeer herds to follow the animals’ natural patterns. The Sámi people are also skilled in fishing and hunting, which they would do to feed themselves as they moved around. 

Today, nomadism within the Sámi community has all but disappeared. It has become more difficult for the Sámi to continue as nomads due to the lack of grazing land. By using new technology like GPS tracking and snowmobiles, the Sámi have found new ways to monitor and manage their herds. As a result, a few herders will travel with their reindeer alone during the summer and winter while their families and other community members live in permanent housing; the most recent surveys suggest about 40,000 Sámi live in Norway, 20,000 live in Sweden, 6000 live in Finland, and 2000 live in Russia.

2. It’s rude to ask someone how many reindeer they own. 

While this may seem like an innocent question born out of curiosity, it’s considered impolite to ask a Sámi herder how many reindeer they own. Because herders make their living from their reindeer, this is essentially the same as asking someone how much money they have in their bank account. 

It is fine, however, to ask someone about the herding patterns of their reindeer, how the animals are used, or any other questions you may have about their lifestyle. In fact, many Sámi families now make money via the tourism industry by offering tours of their homes, cooking classes, and the opportunity to interact with their reindeer. 

3. Reindeer are used in many ways.

A reindeer herder and his son, 1955.
A reindeer herder and his son, 1955. / John Firth/GettyImages

Sámi people use reindeer for transportation, food, and clothing. Like other cultures that rely on animals, the Sámi use every part of the reindeer after butchering it. Reindeer hides are dried and sewn into mittens and nutukas, which are short boots that are incredibly warm and provide excellent traction in the snow; reindeer leather is used to make the gákti, a traditional pullover top. The reindeer’s fur lines leggings and other pieces of clothing to keep the wearer warm even in the most frigid temperatures.

Reindeer meat is a staple in Sámi diets and is eaten throughout Scandinavia. You’ll often find this meat in stews and pies or turned into sausages or dried meats. Bidos is a tasty stew made with reindeer meat, carrots, onions, and potatoes that’s often served at weddings and other special occasions. The Sámi also use the bones, hooves, fat, and brains in their cooking.

4. Only ethnic Sámi are allowed to own and herd reindeer in Norway.

As a result of Sámi activism, the Reindeer Husbandry Act was passed in 2007 in an effort to protect Sámi culture and customs. The act declared that only people who are Sámi and have a parent or grandparent who practices reindeer husbandry as their primary occupation are allowed to own and herd the ungulates. 

Reindeer are organized by earmarks, which are small cuts in a deer’s ear that signal which person or family the animal belongs to. There are about 20 to 30 different earmarks that are approved by the committee responsible for determining if someone is able to own and herd reindeer in Norway. The 2007 act also specifies that reindeer husbandry in Norway must be “economically, ecologically, and culturally viable” [PDF]. 

5. Reindeer herders (and all Sámi people) have faced cultural erasure over the years …

Like many Indigenous people, the Sámi have had to fight to keep their traditions and culture alive. Since the 18th century, the governments of Norway, Finland, and Sweden have created limits on reindeer husbandry (the practice of herding reindeer in a limited area). This has included reducing the number of reindeer that one person is allowed to own, as well as banning licenses for those who don’t make enough profit from their herds.

The Sámi were also forced to assimilate after being colonized by Christian missionaries in the 17th century. Sámi languages were banned in many schools and children were sent to boarding schools to be separated from their culture, where some were used for dehumanizing scientific experiments. At one point, reindeer herders were considered an “inferior race” and were sent to schools to ostracize them from society. Shamanism, a religious practice used by Sámi people for centuries, was demonized to encourage the Indigenous people to convert to Christianity. Some churches have since apologized for their actions toward the Sámi people.

6. … But they are fighting back to keep their culture alive.

Reindeer herding with Sweden's Sámi people via helicopter
Reindeer herding looks different than it used to. / Timothy Fadek/GettyImages

Although Scandinavian governments continue to fight against the Sámi people, they’re pushing back to keep their culture from disappearing. Many Sámi women are seeking higher education to support their families while being able to pass on their heritage. Victories from activists in the mid-20th century allowed Sámi families to teach their children about their culture once again, including the practice of reindeer husbandry.

Sámi in Norway, Sweden, and Finland all have their own parliaments, as well as an international organization called the Saami Council, to help advocate for the rights of their people. These organizations are currently trying to prevent actions that could cause even more harm to their communities, like building wind turbines in Norway that would encroach on land used during reindeer migrations. They’re also fighting to get back the land that was stolen from them, which could help reindeer herders revitalize the industry.

7. The films Frozen and Frozen 2 were inspired by Sámi culture. 

The popular Disney animated movies Frozen (2013) and Frozen 2 (2019) are set in Norway and took inspiration from the Sámi people for various parts of their stories. Although the original film’s writers traveled to Norway and spoke with locals for inspiration, there was some controversy about how the Sámi people were represented in the film—specifically regarding concerns over whitewashing and misrepresenting Norwegian reindeer herders. 

To address this problem, Disney worked with the Saami Council and Saami Parliaments, Sámi film institutions, and legal advisors to ensure that Frozen 2 represented the Sámi people more accurately. The film’s Northuldra people are meant to represent Sámi reindeer herders, while other characters wear traditional clothing from Sámi culture. 

8. There are nine languages spoken among the Sámi.

While all Sámi languages are closely related, they are different enough that people from separate regions would not be able to communicate with each other. Three of the languages are actively used in northern Norway, while others are used across Finland, Sweden, and northern Russia. (Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish, and Russian are not related to the Sámi languages.)

Languages are generally grouped by region and distance. A reindeer herder in Norway may be able to speak effortlessly with a neighbor across the border of Sweden, but be unable to communicate with someone in a different part of their same country. According to UNESCO, all Sámi languages are currently endangered; however, various councils are working to keep them around through linguistic programs, courses, and even apps.