In the Arctic, Indigenous Sámi keep life centered on reindeer herding

  • In Finland’s northern Arctic landscape, the Indigenous Inari Sámi community practice a unique form of reindeer herding and fishing based on traditional knowledge of the region’s climate, winds, ecosystem structure and species behavior.
  • The destruction of some of Europe’s last primary forests, along with mining claims and climate change have impacted herding routes, lakes and the availability of important winter foods.
  • The community’s food system is also threatened by the loss of language and youth out-migration, disintegrating traditional knowledge of the forests and waters.
  • This article is one of an eight-part series showcasing Indigenous food systems covered in the most comprehensive FAO report on the topic to date.

Under a midnight summer sun, the Inari Sámi gather reindeer. New calves, born just months before, are given a distinctive earmark by the Indigenous herders and then released to graze on the mushrooms, berries and greenery that grace the Arctic landscape.

This summer reindeer roundup is part of a greater seasonal cycle and way of life for the Inari Sámi, an Indigenous people who live in Nellim, a village of about 150 people in the northernmost reaches of Finland. Nellim’s wooden houses huddle together alongside Lake Inari, about 260 kilometers (162 miles) outside the Arctic circle and 10 km (6 mi) west of the Russian border.

Reindeer meat is on the menu and is the most important source of protein in Nellim. The Inari Sámi practice a unique form of reindeer herding along with fishing, hunting, and the gathering of wild plants, berries and mushrooms. They eat about 26 wild food items, and one-third of their food comes from the grocery store (the nearest one being 42 km, or 26 mi, away).

The unique Inari Sámi food system is documented in a chapter of a recent U.N. report from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) on resilient Indigenous food systems, co-authored by the Nellim community.

Indigenous reindeer herders
Inari Sámi reindeer herders during the roundup in Nellim. Image courtesy of Elle Maarit Arttijeff.

“Reindeer herding could be seen as a cornerstone of the Inari Sámi culture together with other traditional livelihoods, such as fishing,” Elle Maarit Arttijeff, a member of the Inari Sámi community and co-author of the report, told Mongabay in an email. “It also provides food and income for families. The life of the reindeer herding families are built on herding.”

An interwoven relationship with reindeer and fish

Traditional herding was based around the reindeer migration. Reindeer stomachs are adapted to different winter and summer foods, and the large ruminants follow their guts through the wilderness. In the cold Arctic winter, reindeer sniff out lichens hanging from trees and from under thick mats of dry snow. The summer provides a rich diet of mushrooms and other plants.

Reindeer herding communities here, called siidas, were originally nomadic, but were forced into settlement by the colonial acts of the Swedish, Russian and Finnish nation-states. In the 1600s, the Sámi (the larger Indigenous group to which the Inari Sámi belong) began domesticating and herding reindeer, specifically the boreal forest deer (Rangifer tarandus).

Now, reindeer are herded into different winter and summer pastures, dispersed around the wilderness. The herders’ Indigenous knowledge about food resources, climate, winds, and forest structure influence where the animals feed.

“It is highly important to recognize even the domesticated reindeer to be a carrier of cultural and linguistic diversity as well as, of course, being a food source and ally of the Inari Sámi in many ways,” said Tero Mustonen, an author of the U.N. report. Mustonen is a Finnish scientist and fisherman and president of SnowChange Cooperative, a Finnish NGO that works with local and Indigenous communities in the region around issues such as climate change and food security.

When it’s time for the Inari Sámi to round up the reindeer for harvest (between October and December), they circle the animals with ATVs, dirt bikes and, when necessary, snowmobiles, driving them to a central corralling location. Fences in forests and pastures guide the herds to the corral, and a small helicopter is deployed as a lookout to help coordinate and guide the herders from above. Although these new technologies are used to aid the herding, “the traditional Indigenous knowledge on reindeer, nature and climate still plays a very important part,” the U.N. report says.

Indigenous gathering reindeer
Inari Sámi gathering reindeer in Nellim. Image courtesy of Outi Liisanantti.

Only some of the animals are slaughtered each winter, while the rest return to their winter grazing grounds to search for lichens and then to mate in the spring, beginning the cycle anew.

Community members sell meat through cooperatives and receive a “fair price,” about 10-13 euros per kilogram (or $5-$6.50 per pound) as of November 2019, according to the U.N. report. The prices increase along with changes in fuel and equipment. The European Union also pays subsidies to farmers, including the herders.

Nellim sits alongside the largest lake in northern Finland, Lake Inari. The water quality of Lake Inari is good enough for drinking as well as for fishing, another cornerstone of Inari Sámi existence.

“The Inari Sámi language, endemic lifeways and traditional economies evolved around the lake, thus the lake has been a central component of this socioecological system,” the U.N. report says.

Fishing is a central cultural practice, with nearly every household member in Nellim participating, including women, men, elders and youths. The Inari Sámi have their own endemic concepts and names for different ages and different styles of the same species of whitefish (Coregonus lavaretus), indicating their close, interwoven relationship with the fisheries.

Historically, the preservation of fish stocks was integrated in the Inari Sámi’s seasonal governance system. They fished from several lakes on a rotating basis to allow stocks to self-replenish over time, and diversified their catch sites within a lake.

In the 1990s, the community experimented with trawling methods, using large nets to scrape the bottom of the lake. This yielded large catches of vendace (Coregonus albula) a non-native white fish introduced by the Finnish government, but soon led to a boom-and-bust fishing cycle and degraded the lake. Now, fishing is mostly done using gillnets, large nets that hang in the water column and trap fish that swim through.

Arctic fishing in Finland
Fishing with nets on Lake Inari, Nellim. Image courtesy of Elle Maarit Arttijeff.

Today, none of the Inari Sámi rely on fishing as their main source of income, though it remains a major source of food.

Unsustainable industries disrupting sustainable systems

Fishing, herding, and gathering — the basis of the Inari Sámi food system and traditional practices — are threatened by industrial logging, climate change, mining, and hydropower.

“Most of these forests have been clear-cut around Nellim,” Mustonen said. “As a young person, I can still clearly recall the old-growth forests … And now when you go there, essentially nothing is left.”

Only 5% of Finland’s old-growth forests remain, mostly due to logging. Logging around Nellim is largely carried out by the state logging company, Metsätalous Oy.

“During this [one-hour] call, 17 trees have died, so to speak,” Mustonen told Mongabay. “This is happening in some of the last primary forests of Europe … the part of the continent where the last post-ice-age boreal forests exist.”

Not only does logging destroy habitat for reindeer and other animals, it has an impact on the availability of important winter foods. Reindeer rely on lichens in the coldest winter months, but lichens are slow-growing and found mostly in mid-to old-growth forests. When a forest is cut and replanted, it can take 20 years for lichens to reestablish themselves.

Industrial forestry practices, which churn and erode the soil, also pollute waterways with mercury and organic matter. Several hydroelectric dams were built by Norway and the Soviet Union (the latter in the 1930s) in the outflowing river from Lake Inari. These dams have, according to the report, “consequences for spawning sites and the spawning times of fish which are central to Inari Sámi culture, household and food security.”

Whitefishes (Coregonus lavaretus) and trout on Lake Inari, Nellim. Image courtesy of Elle Maarit Arttijeff.

Climate change also affects food availability. Dry snow in the early winter creates the best grazing conditions for reindeer, which cannot reach lichen under sheets of ice or frozen vegetation. As snow conditions become increasingly unpredictable, herders cannot be sure where the lichen or other foods will be from season to season.

And among the newest threats to Nellim are mining claims by the Swedish company Arctic Mineral Explorations. The company has a mining claim to look for nickel, copper, gold, platinum, ruthenium, rhodium, palladium, osmium and iridium over an area spanning 50 by 30 km (30 by 19 mi), covering all of the Nellim Inari Sámi home area.

“So everything that was in the report is now under a mining claim,” Mustonen said.

This underscores the issue of Inari Sámi land rights, he added. “How can a community of [a] few hundred cope with climate change, logging, mining claims, road construction, tourism and maintain all of these things simultaneously without any buffers or land rights?”

The current Finnish Constitution recognizes the Sámi as Indigenous people and grants them self-governance in the spheres of language and culture. The state is obliged to negotiate with the Sámi parliament on issues pertaining the Sámi, including land use, but no Sámi land rights or land tenure are recognized by law.

“There is no special legislation enshrining the rights of the Sámi to land, water and natural resources nor special provision for exercising these rights,” Maarit Arttijeff said.

In 2005, the U.N. Human Rights Committee stepped in and created its first ever moratorium on logging in some parts of Nellim. “Even though it was a small part of the land, nevertheless, symbolically and historically it’s a very important one,” Mustonen said.

In 2009, the herders came to an agreement with Metsätalous Oy, the state logging company, to declare parts of the Nellim forests not to be logged as long as there’s reindeer herding in the area. The agreements are on different parts of the land for 10-year moratoriums. The first agreement ended in 2019 and the second, on a different site, ends in 2029. This moratorium is dependent on the practice of reindeer herding.

winter reindeer
The winter reindeer roundup in NE Sámi home area. Photos by Tero Mustonen.

The legal status now is that the state owns all non-private lands around Nellim. But through reindeer herding, hunting and fishing, the Inari Sámi are able to use this land and exercise their livelihood. But this only “gives a very weak protection,” Mustonen said. “It doesn’t stop logging. It doesn’t stop other industrial land use.”

Erosion of language, erosion of a sustainable culture

The village also faces another, more existential threat: the loss of language and the out-migration of youth. The Inari Sámi are a linguistic minority; the language is only spoken fluently by around 20 people, and most of the residents of Nellim are elderly. Many young people choose to leave the village for more populated areas.

“Everybody knows the story of the Arctic and climate change,” Mustonen said. “Everybody understands people getting old and losing traditions and so on. But what’s far more important to realize and think about are what specific things are being lost in such a small community and a linguistic minority.”

Clear-cuts and mining claims not only erode the forest, Mustonen said: they erode systems of thought and culture that have inherent as well as practical value. “They could perhaps know something about curing diseases or offering solutions to water management,” he said. “They can solve all kinds of problems [if we] give space to the traditional mind.”

“A language [is] the flesh of the human spirit. It’s a vehicle through which the soul of a culture comes in the material world,” famed anthropologist Wade Davis said in a 2020 interview with Mongabay. “Every language, I once wrote, is an old-growth forest of the mind, a watershed of thought and ecosystems, social and spiritual possibilities, and to lose a language is to lose a branch of the family tree. And the glory and the power and the beauty and the contents of a language has nothing to do with the number of speakers who use that language.”

Indigenous reindeer herder
Elle Maarit Arttijeff is Inari Sámi reindeer herder. Image coursesy of Elle Maarit Arttijeff.

“Indigenous Peoples’ cultures are sometimes described as dying ones, but we have living cultures,” Maarit Arttijeff said. “Indigenous Peoples are also often described as vulnerable, but maybe instead we are often in vulnerable situations caused by others than us.”

Certainly, Indigenous cultures have been able to sustain themselves in very small spaces, in the harshest of environments, for thousands of years. This, Mustonen said, is “an extremely important messages for today’s world. How do we get away by being as thoughtful as we can, using as little resources as we can, especially in the Arctic and in the north?”

Perhaps the key to understanding how Nellim endured, Mustonen said, is to understand the value of smallness: small community, small ecosystem and small language. Smaller groups in Amazonia, Siberia, Australia and elsewhere, he said, inform us how to actually live sustainably with the world, within our means.

“The fact is, these communities like Nellim are actually the most precious … like living monasteries on this planet,” Mustonen said. “Maybe small is how we survive.”



FAO, Alliance of Bioversity International, & CIAT (2021). Indigenous Peoples’ food systems: Insights on sustainability and resilience in the front line of climate change. Rome. doi:10.4060/cb5131en

Banner image: The winter reindeer roundup in NE Sámi home area. Photos by Tero Mustonen.

Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: We speak with Tero Mustonen, one of the authors of the FAO food systems report and the president of Snowchange Cooperative, about the group’s rewilding program in Arctic and Boreal habitats using Indigenous knowledge. Listen here:

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