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Reindeer Herding in Finland

Juhan (Jonathan Munves)

There is no question that in the Sámi culture, there are few things as important as the reindeer.  They have been a source of food, clothing, shelter, and inspiration from time immemorial, as well as occupying a central position in ancient Sámi shamanism and iconography.  The reindeer and the Sámi have sustained one another.  Though the importance of the reindeer has changed little for the Sámi over thousands of years, the particular role played by the reindeer has changed as Sámi society has changed and been forced to adapt to Western incursion, absorption, assimilation, and appropriation.  In order to understand the role of the reindeer in the present-day Sámi and Finnish societies, especially in the complex arena of environmental politics and legislation, one must first understand the historical processes that have shaped this current configuration.  It was a very slow process for the Sámi to go from hunting only wild reindeer to herding their animals with snowmobiles and helicopters, and turning a sizable cash profit each autumn in the process. 

Essentially, there are three periods of Sámi history relating to reindeer herding, and though each stage played itself out with slight variations in each of the nation-states making up Sápmi, the three-stage model is helpful to understanding how the role of reindeer herding in Sámi society has changed through the course of history.  The first stage is the hunter-gatherer period of Sámi history.  During this period, the Sámi subsisted entirely on wild foods: wild game including wild reindeer, bear, moose, elk, fish, and berries and nuts that could be gathered from the natural environment which surrounded them.  They were adept trappers and even tamed a few reindeer to use as hunting decoys and draught animals.  The second period was the period of reindeer pastoralism, also referred to as reindeer nomadism, or intensive reindeer herding.  This type of herding is characterized by a yearly pattern of migration in which the herders accompany their deer along their grazing routes: up into the mountains for the summer and the rut, and down to the coast when the chill of winter comes.  The third period was that of large-scale reindeer herding, also known as extensive reindeer herding.  The difference between a hunter-gatherer society and a pastoral society is fairly obvious, but the juxtaposition of intensive herding systems with extensive herding systems is a crucial one; therefore, that nomenclature will be used whenever possible.  Intensive herding is characterized by a maximization of herd size through controlled reproductive increase. (Ingold 1976: 18)  Extensive herding systems are conversely characterized by maximization of the profits produced by the sale of reindeer bulls at slaughtering time in the fall.  (

The hunter-gatherer period of Sámi history is still characterized by dependence on the reindeer, but in a different way than that of later epochs.  “Deer were tamed for use as beasts of burden, providers of milk and decoys in connection with an economy based on the hunting of their wild counterparts.” (Ingold 1976: 17)  The deer were cohabitants of the Sámi’s sphere of existence and as such both Sámi and reindeer were mutually dependent on one another.  The system of subsistence based on hunting and gathering was a very stable one.  Each population could neither rise too far above nor fall too far below the level of its counterpart.  There was little danger of a massive shortfall of resources, and both animal prey and human predator coexisted in a state of near equilibrium, but it was a relationship that was destined to change.  Settlers moved in and wanted to trade goods for reindeer, and the Sámi population was growing; in short, it was the first economic pressure they had ever faced.

The conscious decision to begin amassing vast herds of reindeer irrevocably altered the relationship between the Sámi and the animals.  It was the beginning of the absolute commodification of the reindeer, which had been sacred.  “Unlike the hunting economy, in which predator and prey may have existed in approximate homeostasis, with each population exerting a controlling influence on the other, pastoralism is ecologically unstable.  The exponential growth of herds following the designation of deer as reproductive capital with scarcity value altered the pressure on pasture resources from an abnormally low to an abnormally high level in the space of a few generations.” (Ingold 1976: 19)  This pattern of increasing resource consumption as the society moved from hunting to intensive herding to extensive herding is an important trend, because the later herding systems could no longer be considered self-regulating.  This would eventually lead to the Finnish national government stepping in to regulate land use, resource conservation, and even herd size, all factors that were controlled in the past by the internal mechanisms of the hunter-gatherer’s relationship to his environmental surroundings. (Ingold 1976: 19)

Nomadic reindeer herding (intensive herding) probably can trace its origins to the region of Vefsen, in central Norway possibly as far back as the 11th Century.  Over several hundred years, the practice of nomadic reindeer herding very gradually spread to Finland from Sweden and Norway via Enontekiö and Muonio.  The first large-scale nomadic reindeer herding in Finland probably took place in the region of Käsivarsi, where by the end of the 15th Century, nearly all taxed Sámi had herds of reindeer in their possession. (

 “The advent of pastoralism may be defined by the extension and individualization of rights of ownership over live deer from the core of tame animals to cover whole herds.” (Ingold 1976: 17)  In this system of intensive herding, wealth was the amount of live animals one could claim, which might provide quite an insurance policy against a cold winter—but as an asset, a herd of reindeer is highly illiquid.  In this aspect, intensive herding differs sharply from extensive herding by actively seeking to acquire an illiquid asset rather than the most liquid asset of all, cash money in hand following the sale of part of one’s herd. (Ingold 1976: 18)  The period of intensive reindeer herding was a transition period between the ancient Sámi culture and the modern capitalist incarnation that has produced the extensive model of reindeer herding so prevalent today.  The Sámi during this period paid more taxes and suffered more governmental interference than their hunting and gathering predecessors, but much less on both counts than the modern Sámi, who must wade through volumes of environmental legislation and European Union statutes in order to exercise their right to graze their livestock on their ancestral lands. (Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, 2001, (

Reindeer herding as a large-scale economic activity (extensive herding) is a very new innovation for the Sámi people, when juxtaposed with the vast length of their cultural history.  Extensive herding, which reached its apex in the 1960’s, nevertheless has its roots in the 16th and 17th centuries, when Sámi society, though it had been dependent on reindeer as game long before the arrival of the Swedish, Finnish, or Viking cultures, first began to change from a reindeer hunting society to a society based on reindeer nomadism, or intensive herding.  During those 200 years, the breeding of reindeer rather than hunting gradually became the main source of Sámi livelihood.  With natural resources dwindling as each Finnish farmer moved into Sápmi, and the Sámi population continuing to grow, the Sámi economy had to grow much more specialized, thus forcing the traditional reindeer hunting to be replaced by reindeer herding and breeding, activities that would provide the Sámi communities with a commodity of known value.  (

Over the course of history, reindeer herding has traced its development in Finland along a slightly different path than the one it had followed in nearby Sweden and Norway.  Non-Sámi Finnish settlers, almost upon arrival, began to adopt the practice of reindeer herding, and as an economic activity it soon spread far beyond the borders of Sápmi.  By the mid-1700’s reindeer herding was practiced widely north of the line stretching between Kuhmo and Oulu, spanning approximately the same herding range that still exists today, area-wise.  (  Only about forty per cent of the reindeer in Finland are currently located in the Sámi Homeland (Sámiid ruovttuguovlu).  But even today, reindeer herding in Finland still consists of two fixed annual events: calf marking, which takes place in traditional marking sites in the high fells between June and August, and the herd separation which always takes place in November or December. (

The extensive system of reindeer herding, which exists on a much larger scale than intensive herding ever did, came into being in the 1960’s when the Sámi both confronted the devastation of reindeer pastureland and received an influx of new technologies which in combination would permanently alter the ways in which reindeer herding was practiced, and not for the better, more than a few would argue.  It was at this time that traditional intensive herding “was replaced by a more extensive, predatory form.  The three most important factors contributing to this transformation were the deterioration of pastures, the adoption of the snowmobile in herding, and the growth of the commercial market for reindeer products.” (Ingold 1976: 29)  The destruction of pastureland had the effect of limiting the massive herd sizes that had built up over the years of careful breeding and expansion of grazing lands.  The early 1960’s were the time of peak herd sizes, with almost 450,000 reindeer as compared to the nearly 300,000 today.  Undernourishment from a lack of plentiful food sources actually lowered calving rates for reindeer cows in Sápmi during the early 1960’s from sixty per cent annually to twenty per cent annually or in extreme cases, to almost nothing. (Ingold 1976: 30-32)

This scarcity of pastureland and low calving rate made way for the introduction of the snowmobile into Finnish reindeer herding.  The snowmobile was first introduced to Sámi herders in Finland in the winter of 1961, and it quickly revealed the advantages it had to offer.  A herd of sixty-five reindeer could be collected and driven by a single man on a snowmobile, which would save thousands of man-hours for the herders.  This technology was supremely useful when lichens were scarce and the herd had to be driven far in search of food, or even when the snow machines were used to supplement the reindeers’ diets with hay and other farm-raised foodstuffs.  But in the long run, the snowmobile signaled the final death knell of intensive herding.  The snowmobile was an expensive machine, so herders with a lot of capital bought them first.  The smaller herders were gradually driven out of competition and forced to join a larger herding conglomerate or face unemployment.  This eventually produced a concentration of big herding operations at the expense of many smaller ones.  This restructuring also unbalanced the Sámi herding community economically, creating a class gap, wealthy and poor, dominant and non-competitive.  Lastly, the snowmobile produced a much higher rate of slaughter of deer for sale, risking the stability of the herd.  Tim Ingold observes that “whereas pastoralism recommends a man to slaughter only the minimum of deer needed to maintain his family, stock-rearing requires him to leave alive only the minimum needed to maintain his herd… The definition of stock-rearing obviously implies that meat is to be produced primarily not for subsistence but for sale and export, and therefore assumes the existence of a fully developed market structure as well as the acceptance of commercial values.” (Ingold 1976 p.89)  Thus, the Sámi herders in Finland were flung headlong into the modern cash economy and forced to adjust nearly every aspect of traditional reindeer herding to fit the new paradigm.  The reindeer had now been utterly commodified, had no meaning left save as an economic unit.

Today, there are about 7000 Finnish Sámi, 4000 of whom live in the Sámi region of northernmost Finland, with 2000 living elsewhere in Finland, and 1000 living abroad.  The Sámi region in Finland includes the municipalities of Inari, Utsjoki, Enontekiö, and the northern part of Sodankylä. (  In the 1997-1998 herding season, there were 196,000 reindeer in Finland and a legislated national maximum of 224,900 reindeer. the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry reports that there are ca. 300,000 reindeer in Finland today (2001) ( Yet only ten percent of Sámi families in Finland make their living exclusively through herding.  There are about 900 combined Sámi and Finnish households that are currently earning a livelihood solely through reindeer herding and another 1500 households that merely supplement their incomes with herding activities; non-Sámi Finns are able to herd reindeer because unlike both Sweden and Norway, reindeer herding is not an exclusive Sámi right according to Finnish law, a fact which has complicated Sámi relationships with the Finnish government over the years. (Tirri 1999, (

The only legal requirement to become a reindeer herder in Finland is to live within a herding district and be either a citizen of the European Union or a member of the local reindeer-herding association.  The transformation of the traditional siida system of Sámi self-government into the modern herding district system first occurred in 1898 while Finland was still under Russian rule, and today the Finns have taken much the same position.  In each one of the fifty-seven districts, there is a local reindeer-herding association called a paliskunta, whose administration is very similar to that of a Finnish municipal government.  The paliskunta is a livestock cooperative, to which each member pays dues based on herd size, and it has a communal treasury shared by all members. Above the district cooperatives is an umbrella organization known as the National Federation of Reindeer-Herding Associations, which is in turn governed by the Finnish Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, the body that actually decides the national maximum number of reindeer, apparently based on how much grazing the 114,000 square kilometer herding area can sustain. (Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, Finland, 2001, ( The basis for the majority of Finnish herding legislation is the Finnish Reindeer Act of 1948, which although several times amended and 53 years old, still has legislative clout.  The most recent piece of legislation is the Reindeer Herding Law of 1990, which isn’t all that different from the older laws it was intended to replace.  Finland has been very slow to deal with the problems in the herding industry in the eyes of many. (Nieminen, “Reindeer Husbandry and Research in Finland”, (

The issue of land rights of the Finnish Sámi is one of those thorny issues, and it is intricately and inexorably tied to the reindeer herding industry, both in Sámi politics and national Finnish politics.  In 1990 the Finnish government failed to ratify the 1989 ILO Convention Nr. 169 Concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries, which would have formally recognized the Sámi’s claim on their homeland, because they did not acknowledge “the rights of ownership and possession over the lands which they traditionally occupy.”  As of November 1998, the Finnish government was still studying the conditions of ratification.  (Tirri 1999, ( The reason these ownership rights cannot be acknowledged is that the Finnish government claims ownership of virtually all (over ninety per cent) of the Sámi homeland (Sámiid ruovttuguovlu) with no solid legal grounds for such an ownership claim.  Hence, no lengthy investigation of the matter is likely to be forthcoming from any governmental source. ( When it comes to land use and land management policy in Finland, there is a constant conflict between the government and the Sámi for the following reasons: the government wants to limit reindeer herding and put forth its own agenda of land management, whose laws are often found to violate the Sámi’s human rights.  On the other side of the fence, the Sámi want to practice reindeer herding unbothered, but unrestricted and rampant reindeer grazing decimated much of the Finnish pastureland in the 1960’s and 1970’s.  Finding a balance between land management concerns and Sámi cultural and economic concerns is a very delicate matter, and not always easily resolved without outside arbitration.

One tactic that the Sámi have begun to employ with a modicum of success in their dealings with the Finnish government in recent years is appealing to international human rights organizations like the Human Rights Committee when they find themselves running into brick walls in the domestic bureaucracy.  For example, in October of 1994, a reindeer herder named “Ilmari Lansmann and forty seven other members of the Muotkatunturi Herdsmen’s Committee submitted a communication claiming a violation of article 27 by the Government of Finland.”  ( Lansmann and the other herders were upset by a Central Forestry Board decision to award a quarrying contract to a mining company in Sápmi.  The herdsmen claimed that the quarry would disturb their herding activities, which were a crucial part of their cultural identity, and that the mountain itself should not be quarried because it contained several sites that were considered sacred by the Sámi.  Finland countered by saying that the Sámi had not yet exhausted all domestic avenues for the redress of their grievances.  Thus, human rights have become a battleground, and the battle is often waged with semantics, but the stakes for the Sámi are very high, indeed.  Article 27 of the ICCPR protects the cultural rights of minorities by giving them an international forum to discuss their concerns.

The government has a fundamental responsibility to stimulate the national economy, but the logging of the state forests that has been going on in Finland for years has the potential to wipe out the Sámi herding economy.  For example, the Finnish government is lax about logging and all of a sudden there is a shortage of arboreal, or tree-growing, lichens, which are a staple food of the reindeer herds in the late winter months when there is literally nothing else for which to forage in the snowy and desolate tundra.  In certain ways, then, the Sámi herders are entirely at the mercy of the land management policies set forth by the state Forest and Park Service, which manages all public lands in Finland.  According to Finnish law, no land use policies will be undertaken in Sápmi without due consideration being given to the traditional culture and livelihoods of the Sámi.  But the reality of the situation is that the two sides often come into direct conflict and dispute resolution and advocacy thus become integral parts of the Sámi effort to control their own economic and cultural destiny.  The Finnish Forest and Park Service has actually developed what it calls a system of “participatory planning”, but it remains to be seen whether it will work as a viable means of resolving conflicts over land management. (Pykkö,ÁMI)

In the final analysis, the extensive herding model may not even be anywhere near what could be called sustainable as a means of economic livelihood for the Sámi in Finland.  Today, many reindeer herders in Finland work as employees of large herding conglomerates that can afford the modern technologies necessary to the business, and still have to supplement their incomes with other sources, such as handicraft sales and tourism, in order to support their families.  Though extensive herding may only be a stopgap solution to the economic problems of today’s Sámi, it is the only viable option in a modern cash-based economy.  A return to intensive pastoralism is both impossible and unsustainable in the marketplace.

Many Sámi reindeer herders open their reindeer farms to the public and subsidize their incomes with both tourist dollars and through the sale of Sámi handicrafts to the tourists while they visit the farm.  Some examples of reindeer tourism include a veritable plethora of reindeer farms that are accessible to tourists almost year-round in some cases.  The Inari Reindeer Farm boasts a capacity of one hundred fifty visitors during the summer and one hundred visitors during the winter months.  Visitors are served coffee out of wooden cups, traditional Sámi game dishes, and the program concludes with the singing of traditional joiks.  The Inari Reindeer Farm also offers a “reindeer safari” that travels by sled, and visitors can earn a “reindeer driver’s license”.  The Inari Reindeer Farm has a well-presented website and advertises with the Finnish travel bureau  ( The Purnumukka Reindeer Farm  ( also offers reindeer safaris and driver’s licenses.  Lea Magga, one of the owners of Juhani and Lea Magga’s Reindeer Farm  (, is “one of the former semi-nomad Sámis.  Thus, she has vivid personal memories of this migratory way of life that the Sámi have by today given up.”  Utilizing tourism as a means of economic support has necessitated the adoption of modern business practices by the Sámi reindeer herders, including travel advertising and having a strong electronic presence on the Internet.  The Sámi herders’ ability to quickly adopt these modern business practices is just one example of the bicultural competence that is requisite for an indigenous people living in a modern post-colonial context within a larger group.  A definite fringe benefit of this phenomenon of bicultural competence is a greatly increased effectiveness of Sámi advocacy and political action.  Electronic media make it that much easier to link together a geographically dispersed people like the Sámi.

But does this tourism phenomenon marginalize the Sámi?  Does it trivialize the culture that worked so beautifully for thousands of years.  Perhaps not, perhaps the Sámi will adapt as they have always seemed to do in the past.  After all, the world of the modern Sámi reindeer herder in Finland is familiar ground.  Pushed to the margins by the dominant colonial society and forced to adapt, Sámi society has responded as best it could to changing marketplace conditions and emerging economic pressures, all while battling the Finnish government over land use and fighting for the preservation of the Sámi culture alongside the preservation of Finland’s natural environment.  As several Sámi herders have brought to the attention of the international community, at some point maintaining one’s cultural identity is a human right that cannot be sacrificed on the altar of fiscal practicality.  Through their perseverance and resourcefulness, the Sámi are leading the way in hashing out the role that indigenous cultures worldwide will play in the Information Age, now and for years to come.


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