Lapland’s Culture: Reindeer & Sami
There is no other sound except crunching of snow under their feet and tinkling of sleigh bells tied around their neck. I am cozily snuggled in a wooden sled with a rug casually thrown over me. It is half past midnight with temperature dipping to around minus 20 degrees. There is a chill in the air as expected. We are passing through a snow covered forest and the reindeer are gently pulling my sleigh moving in line.
Reindeer, sleigh and snow … that’s what one expects in a Nordic region during peak winter.
Relaxed, I am gazing at the stars, ruminating about these harmless animals and the life in Lapland in general. Lapland brings a picture of its best known creature aka reindeer and Sami people in front of me.
They are much more than just innocent cute looking animals. As they live in forests, these harmless animals are almost wild but docile and indifferent as well. The reindeer outnumber people in Lapland. There are approximately two reindeer per person in Lapland.
The Lapland reindeer can endure a very cold climate with much snow. Reindeer hooves adapt to the seasons well. During summer, the foot-pads become spongy and provide extra traction possibilities. In winter the pads shrink and tighten. The sharp rim of the hoof can cut into ice to keep the animal from slipping. This also makes it possible for them to dig down through thick layers of snow.
For the indigenous Sámi people of Lapland, reindeer are the lifeline and an integral part of their life and culture. For centuries reindeer have been providing transportation, food, warmth and, of course, company to Sámi people in demanding weather conditions of Lapland. It would not be wrong to say that reindeer and Sámi people are inseparable.
If we look into the past, it tells us that the Sámi people were nomads and with the change of weather, moved with their herds in search of grazing lands. In the challenging long winters the life is hard, but Sami people have tried to keep the culture alive. Hence, for this reason, reindeer herding is legally reserved only for Sámi people in Finland and in some parts of the Nordic countries.
There are approximately 80,000 Sámi people across the northern parts of Sweden, Norway, Finland and parts of Russia. Inari region of Finland, has one of the biggest Sámi communities of Finland, with about 2000 Sámi living in the area. Total Sámi population in Finland, is approximately 9000 strong.
The Sami people are also called as just Sami or Lapps or Laplanders. They are an indigenous Finno-Ugric people inhabiting the Arctic area of Sápmi. They are the only indigenous people of the European Union. Sámi people do not speak Finnish but their own language. And the native Sámi dialects have hundreds of precise terms for snow, ice, water, fire and other natural phenomena. The Finnish govt. is making all efforts to retain their culture and celebrate their uniqueness.
In Finnish folklore, an element of mystery is associated with Lapland. Many a myth stem from the ancient beliefs of the Sami and survive to this day through word of mouth. In Sami mythology, everything has a soul. Thus, every living and non-living being has a story. They all carry knowledge and wisdom within.
While you are in Lapland, if you are interested to learn more about Sámi people and their culture, make sure you visit the Sami museum, Siida.
According to my local guide Timo, with all the modern technologies in hand, it is not a matter of survival anymore for Sami community. But it is still a major livelihood for many (approximately 10% of the Sámi people) in the region and is considered an important tradition to keep alive.
In Lapland, the knowledge of reindeer husbandry has been passed down from generation to generation and the terminology related to breeding and raising reindeer is very specific to this region. During touristy season, they bring reindeer from the wild and use them for tourism purpose. And that’s how Timo and his beautiful wife Armi live with a mix of traditional and modern culture.
Timo took me to a little hamlet with a couple of log huts and a reindeer farm named Joikun Kota. On a visit to a Sámi farm, you get to learn about their culture and lifestyle.
Lavvu, the Sámi traditional house, is something like a tent or tepee. It is made of reindeer pelts or hides by stitching them together. Inside surface is of reindeer fur as it is soft and warm. With slow fire at the center burning 24 hours, it keeps the residents warm & cozy. The fire acts as a fireplace as well as a cooking area. Of course there is an outlet (like chimney) at the top to ensure the circulation of fresh air.
A reindeer skin rug is used on hardwood or tile floors to keep the surface warm.
Activities involving a reindeer
Reindeer were the primary means of transportation in Lapland till snowmobile dominated the scene.
In modern days, reindeer are used for safaris and other activities. On a safari tour, if you wish so, you are able to drive your own reindeer sled for a stretch of a 2-3 KMs in the forest. It’s not too fast and trust me, it’s a fun ride!
Since number of reindeer is more than the people in Lapland, it is obvious that low fat reindeer meat is a strength in the region’s cuisine. Similarly, dried reindeer meat is a Lap delicacy. It is as popular as it was in olden days.
So if you eat non-veg, Reindeer is the local delicacy you must try in Lapland. Souvas, the signature dish of Sámi, is a lightly-smoked reindeer meat which is cooked over slow fire. The thinly sliced hot smoked reindeer meat is served on flat bread with lingonberry jam and is a winner hands down.
The people of Lapland have always made the best of whatever is seasonably available in nature. Besides reindeer, they have berries, potatoes, freshwater fish and wild herbs in their traditional cuisine.
After my delicious meal, I had a strong cup of coffee, also prepared in the traditional manner. A coffee pouch made of reindeer leather was put into a copper kettle over the fire. There is a certain etiquette for drinking your coffee. Ask your hosts to teach you. 🙂
The reindeer skin is lush, elegant, and soft to the touch. Reindeer skin is also used as mats as they keep the surface warm. The hide is also used to make bags, pouches, throw, rugs, wall hangings, mittens, hats and shoes.
I also visited a Reindeer Park and had the opportunity to feed the reindeer. Imagine, reindeer eating from your hand! I have done it! They eat mainly lichen, moss, hay, grass and other plants.
Facts about reindeer:
1. The reindeer antlers can grow as much as 2 cm in a single day! And every year the antlers fall off. In the old days, the antlers were used to make tools or handcrafts.
2. Don’t touch them while feeding or any other time. Also, don’t click pictures with flash on. Reindeer feel intimidated.
3. Reindeer are well adapted to the Arctic climate. Their hooves and food pads change between seasons as per the conditions on the tundra.
4. Nordic region is extremely cold and how do reindeer keep themselves warm? They have two layers of fur with a tremendous insulating capacity. While the inner layer is woollier and dense, the outer one is long-haired with hollow, air-filled hairs.
5. They are ‘earmarked’ by their owners. Small carvings or cuts are made in the reindeer’s ears. These marks are ancient marks of their family. It allows the herders to recognize their herd when they cross over to other territories.
6. Do not ever ask a Sámi how many reindeer he has. He won’t tell you. It’s considered a bad omen to count the number of reindeer one has.
7. There are allocated reindeer parking areas and parking a reindeer is much easier than parking a car. 😀
There are several reindeer safari with or without a meal. Depending on your budget and time you can choose one. You can do a day safari or night (which I highly recommend). During night safari, rejuvenate yourself with a bonfire, coffee or soup and an interesting session about life in Lapland before you start your return journey.
Have you been to Lapland? Would you want to go there?
Getting to Lapland is fairly easy once you are in Finland. There are regular Finnair flights from Delhi to Helsinki. From Helsinki you may drive down or catch a flight to Ivalo. I would recommend you catch the flight to save on time.
Best place to stay in Lapland:
I stayed in Holiday Club Saariselka. In my opinion, it is the best place to stay in Lapland. You can do your booking here. Very family friendly place, they have all in-house facilities for you to experience. They also arrange for all your outdoor activities.
Below are some other articles on Finland which you’ll enjoy.
- Interesting & fun facts about Finland.
- Things to do in Saariselkä Lapland.
- Finnair Review: Economy class
- Holiday Club Resorts in Finland
- Pictures of Finland in winter
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