Illustration by Stephen Olson.

Illustration by Stephen Olson.

The herds are on their way, says Anders Eira, stepping from his truck. They’re somewhere to the north, maybe a couple hours, maybe more. There is no predicting with reindeer. His brothers and cousins are with the animals, driving them on with ATVs and dogs. They will call when it is time.

Like many Sami, Eira could easily pass as an ethnic Norwegian. He has brown hair and gray-green eyes; he’s in his mid-forties but looks younger. He begins to unload his truck. The rest of the camp is quiet, just the hush of wind across the tundra. Beyond the small cluster of conical tents—the lavvu—are the wood chutes and wire fences of the corrals. The dun-colored land is smooth and rolling, clothed in lowbush blueberries and crowberries, fireweed, and stands of birch, all dusted with last night’s snow.

It is fall 2014. We’re in the highlands southeast of the town of Alta, in Finnmark, Norway’s northernmost county, a couple hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle. The river that flows through these highlands empties at the narrow end of the Alta Fjord. There, near the river mouth, someone etched figures into the boulders that poke from the moss: moose, foxes, wolves, bears, birds, fish, women, men, and—in greatest numbers—reindeer. The oldest of these petroglyphs are at least six thousand years old. It’s unclear if the people who carved them were the ancestors of the modern-day Sami, the indigenous people of northern Scandinavia, but Eira believes they were. When the glaciers receded at the end of the last ice age, the reindeer moved in, and the reindeer people followed, he says. Eira and his ancestors have lived here in Sápmi, the Sami homeland, ever since, spread across the northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia’s Kola Peninsula, divided by national borders but united in language and culture.  

But few practice the old way of life. Most of Norway’s roughly forty-five thousand Sami, often called “Laplanders” by outsiders, are settled, living either scattered among ethnic Norwegians or in smaller predominantly Sami towns, including nearby Kautokeino. Fewer than three thousand are full-time herders. “The reindeer-herding people are a minority in a minority,” Eira says, but they are the center of Sami identity, “fundamental for the whole Sami culture.” Like many Sami, Eira helps his family herd during part of the year, but works another job, as an advocate with Protect Sápmi, a nonprofit that helps herders negotiate with developers. His skills are increasingly in demand: Finnmark County, home to about three-quarters of the reindeer in Norway, is also the center of oil and gas development in the Norwegian Arctic. The offshore drilling has brought new infrastructure and many more people to the region, forcing Europe’s last nomads into competition for the lands they’ve used for centuries.

Eira’s school-aged son and daughter help him carry supplies from the truck to his lavvu: a basket of food, bundles of willowy branches, rawhide reindeer skins. Inside, Eira connects a jerrycan of gas to the stove’s fuel line, then spreads the branches on the ground. These create an insulating layer of air, he explains. The reindeer skins go on top. He sheds the trapper’s hat and unzips his puffy black down jacket, lights the stove, and sets a pot of coffee to boil, pouring the grounds directly into the kettle, cowboy-style.

Reindeer avoid humanity’s footprint, Eira says. Every new road and power line, every new skier with their dogs, makes the herders’ life more difficult. Reindeer migrate throughout the year, from the coast and mountains in the spring and summer to the interior highlands in the winter, ranging across roughly 40 percent of mainland Norway. Though it is a huge area, every patch of land is a crucial part of the chain, Eira says. “Even if we only use an area for two months a year, without it, the rest of the year is useless.” And development is not the herders’ only worry—climate change will hurt them, too, already bringing wetter, icier winters and hotter, buggier summers. Meanwhile, outside culture is unavoidable and alluring. Few of the young people are learning the old ways. Cities beckon.

Tallying up these challenges, many have augured the end of Sami culture. “Last of the reindeer herders,” they were called in a 2009 Al Jazeera documentary short. “Climate change could end this Arctic culture,” predicted a 2015 Deutsche Welle program. A 2009 United Nations report described reindeer herding as “slowly vanishing due to land pressure, ecological degradation, and climate change.” The feeling is not confined to outsiders; many Sami are worried, too. “Overnight, things could change so much,” one herder told a group of researchers in a 2011 study of the challenges facing Sami herders in Sweden. “And it’s not certain…that we’ll be able to still herd reindeer in fifty years’ time.”

More cars arrive, and the camp fills with people and dogs. Lavvu spring up, and the skiff of snow fades into the tundra. Men work the edges of the big corral with spools of baling wire, mending holes. This year, at least, the reindeer will come.

*

When Leopold von Buch first arrived in Hammerfest, he thought that the town couldn’t possibly last. The German geologist and his oarsmen spotted the world’s northernmost town on the evening of July 22, 1807, after rowing north all day from the town of Alta. They saw nine homes, a few shops, a church, and a school. Though he expected the community would spread out and continue as they approached, that was it. The town “promised more in the distance than it realized on our approach,” von Buch wrote in his 1813 book, Travels Through Norway and Lapland During the Years 1806, 1807, and 1808.

The sixth son of a wealthy Prussian family, von Buch spent much of his life wandering alone through Europe, writing of its geology as well as of the cultures he encountered. He seemed to value industry above all other human traits; he saw little for Hammerfest’s residents to gain by living there, and little for the outside world to gain by the town’s existence. With its sheltered harbor, which remained ice-free all winter, the town was intended by its founders to serve as a hub for trade with Russia. But as von Buch wrote when he encountered it, “All these plans have failed”—its provisions were depleted, its wood all cut. Traders bypassed the town for more convenient ports. “Hammerfest,” he wrote, “will therefore never be more than what it is.”

But Hammerfest remains. The town has weathered multiple economic doldrums as well as repeated razing—once by British gunboats, once by wind, once by fire, and once by the German army, retreating at the end of World War II. Its present incarnation is a boomtown, the hub of oil and gas development on Finnmark County’s Barents Sea coastline. While the petroleum industry has transformed the entire region, it has shaped Hammerfest most dramatically, bringing the town sudden wealth and an influx of newcomers. And nowhere else do the Sami herder’s current struggles so clearly correspond to the rising fortunes of others.

Today, visitors to Hammerfest are greeted by an enormous fiberglass polar bear, which stands guard across from a grocery and a dilapidated motel, gazing blankly out over the sea. Past the bear, the road turns a corner, and the town of ten thousand spreads out below, red, yellow, and blue houses crowded together on the flats that extend from the north side of mountainous Kvaløya (meaning “Whale Island”), city blocks square as the landscape allows.

On the horizon, Håja Island pokes up from the water like a beer-bellied giant floating on his back; beyond that lies the low undulating line of Sørøya Island. This far above the Arctic Circle, the fall-time sun stays low to the horizon, and the golden hues of dawn and dusk extend deep into the day. “Every hour, a new painting,” one resident told me, of the way the light plays on the fjords.

Along with the big petro-industry ships, a few fishing boats line the harbor, remnants of an earlier prosperity. In 1952, the frozen-foods company Findus bought the local fish-processing plant. There, it manufactured many of its revolutionary new products, including fiskpinnar, fish fingers, which it sold frozen in Norway and abroad. At its peak, in the 1970s, the fishing industry employed more than 1,200 people in Hammerfest, nearly a fifth of the town’s population.

Those were the good times, says Alf Jakobsen, mayor of Hammerfest, sitting behind the desk in his office at city hall. The walls behind him are decorated with framed photographs of local oil and gas projects and an image of the town’s crest: a polar bear passant on a red background. Jakobsen has gray-brown hair and bushy eyebrows and wears a suit over a red-and-white-striped button-down shirt. He has the manner of a man pressed for time but trying not to show it. When he was a kid, Jakobsen says, his mother worked at the Findus plant and his father aboard a trawler. By the time Jakobsen was first elected as mayor, though, in the late 1990s, the town was in decline. A round of consolidation in the fishing industry had led to the arrival of factory ships from out of town—boats that could catch, clean, and package fish aboard, all without help from the factory ashore. By the millennium, the town was desperate for tax revenue, and many young people were leaving. “You could see Hammerfest was going down,” he says.

People I spoke with credited Jakobsen with much of the town’s current success: he’d pushed the municipality to adopt property taxes—unusual in that part of Norway—just before the Norwegian parliament granted state-owned Statoil’s application to develop a natural-gas field in the Barents Sea, north of Hammerfest. Pipes running from the field, called Snøhvit, or “Snow White,” come ashore on Melkøya, a small island a couple miles from downtown Hammerfest. Along with the tax revenue the city collects from Melkøya, the development brought many jobs. Now the town is building a new airport on top of the hill, as well as new homes. People are moving back, getting married, starting families; Jakobsen is particularly proud that the town can now afford to provide free kindergarten for all its children. The old Findus packing plant has become an arts-and-culture center.

More projects like Snøhvit are coming. In a conference room at Italian energy company Eni’s local headquarters, a company administrator named Bjørn Bjørgve uses a blue dry-erase to draw on a whiteboard, sketching out the Goliat, “the Goliath,” a massive new oil rig the company is building, and which will soon arrive in Hammerfest. The rig is shaped like an enormous barrel, topped with square living quarters, cranes, and a lattice tower. It will pump oil farther north than any previous offshore platform, expanding the frontier of the Norwegian oil industry and further transforming this little town. Bjørgve says that even the local fishermen, whose counterparts have fought development in other parts of Norway, support the project. It will bring more jobs, more money, a better future, he says. “It will be like Christmas and Easter at once.”

Though Eira thinks most of Hammerfest’s expansion will have little effect on the herders, he is concerned about how its new prosperity will change the surrounding countryside. There is already more traffic, more skiers, snowmobilers, hikers, and hunters; more people are building summer cabins in the hills. The biggest problem, Eira says, is a major new power line that will run from Balsfjord to Hammerfest, cutting across dozens of reindeer herding districts. It is intended, in part, to supply power to the approaching Goliath.

These projects and the accompanying new human arrivals are shrinking the space available to reindeer herders by as much as 1 percent every year, according to a report prepared for Statoil by the International Centre for Reindeer Husbandry. If it carries on at its current rate, development could impact more than three-quarters of the reindeer herding lands by the middle of this century.

“Finnmark is a big county, but people think it is bigger than it is,” says Gunnar Reinholdtsen, an environmentalist in eastern Finnmark. “They think they can eat off the cake and it won’t get any smaller.” Reinholdtsen sees the development as a shortsighted trade—petroleum will only last forty or fifty years, he predicts, while fishing and reindeer herding sustained the region for millennia, and could for millennia more if well managed. “We have a Norwegian saying,” he explains. “‘Pissing in your pants makes you warm’—but it doesn’t take long before you regret what you did.”

*

The road from the town of Alta slithers through rocky gorges as it follows the river into the high country. Beyond a run of cataracts, the land opens and the river slows into a series of lakes. Across from the village of Masi a dirt road heaves and rolls up into the tundra highlands before splitting around a series of fences: the first is a circle fifty or sixty feet across with horizontal wooden slats hung between high posts. A series of chutes and gates connect to this first pen, one leading out into a much bigger area surrounded by a short wire fence. This main corral is overgrown with fireweed, stalks turned a dull red, purple flowers all gone to cottony seed. At the far end of this corral is a cluster of conical tents.

It’s afternoon now. More members of Eira’s extended family, the siida, arrive, setting up their lavvu, working on fences and preparing for the cull. The reindeer should be here soon, Eira says, although it’s hard to say exactly when. The animals are skittish, and if they scatter in the wrong spot, it can take hours to get them under control again. A chance encounter with a lone hiker or hunter this time of year can be disastrous, and Eira says these encounters are growing more frequent. Even worse is when the herds of two different siidas are pushed together and intermingle, forcing the herders to painstakingly sort out whose reindeer are whose.

Though it has accelerated recently, the conflict over land in northern Scandinavia is an old one. The oldest evidence of human presence in Sápmi is from around 9,000 BC, writes Neil Kent in his 2014 book, The Sami Peoples of The North: A Social and Cultural History, and the area’s inhabitants were clearly Sami in culture and language by 1,000 BC. They were not then reindeer herders but hunters; they probably didn’t start herding the deer until about 800 AD. Around that time, Ohthere, a wealthy Norwegian, visited King Alfred of Wessex in what is now southern England. Ohthere told Alfred that most of his riches were from the taxes he collected from the Sami. University of Texas at Austin professor Douglas Simms notes that “unfortunately, Ohthere’s primary source of income [shows that] even in the ninth century, outsiders had already begun taxing the Sami.”

By the middle of the thirteenth century, Norwegians were the Sami’s permanent neighbors, especially in the coastal fishing areas. They forced the Sami to convert to Christianity, made them pay high taxes, and at times drove them from their land. Subjugation and racism remained the rule through the centuries. Von Buch, after returning to Alta, traveled inland along the same route I followed two centuries later. He stayed briefly with the Sami and noted their harsh treatment by ethnic Norwegians. Referring to the Sami as “Finns” (as was then common), von Buch explained, “‘I care no more for him than a Finn’ was[…]an expression of the most sovereign contempt; and we have frequently heard it said that ‘a Finn is not worth more than a dog.’”

Although less given to outright racism himself, von Buch also disapproved of the Sami’s way of life. “The present moment is alone prized by them, and what lies hid in futurity has little concern for them,” he wrote, echoing earlier visitors to the Sami homeland, who, in variously admiring or condemning tones, all seemed to agree that the Sami were singularly carefree. 

We sit in the tent, drinking coffee and eating strips of reindeer. The kids continue to play on their iPad. In Eira’s parents’ day, the herders walked in the summer and skied in the winter. Now they use ATVs and snowmobiles; some siidas even use helicopters. These things have made herding faster and more efficient, but they are also extra costs. Partly because of the extra financial pressure, herders in Finnmark now raise more reindeer than at most points in the past, the larger herds pushing them into ever greater conflict with the Norwegian government and environmentalists, who believe the extra deer are stressing the pastures. This view also prevails in the Norwegian media, where herders are often portrayed as greedy, says Kathrine Ivsett Johnsen, who studies conflict between reindeer husbandry and industry at a Norwegian environmental nonprofit. This can taint negotiations over land as well, she says. “There’s a view that knowledge and perspectives from herders are not as valid as those of biologists and national scientists.”

Meanwhile, there is less time for acquiring the old knowledge. The ownership of each reindeer is indicated by a distinct series of wedges cut into the animals’ ears as calves; Eira says his father can recognize hundreds of these patterns by sight. “He knows his reindeer better than he knows his own children.” Eira says he knows a couple dozen, maybe. With us in the tent is Eira’s sister, who is working on her PhD, and his brother, who does communications work for the government. “Our parents told us that to survive, even in reindeer husbandry, you need formal education,” Eira says. “‘You need to understand other parts of society.’” Only one of his brothers is a full-time herder, and that life, too, is increasingly cluttered with policy papers and forms, with things that are not reindeer, not herding.

Von Buch thought the Sami needed more belongings, more desires, more responsibilities. Now, his prescription has been filled. Most of the Sami are settled down. It is a familiar, modern life, filled with worries and thoughts of tomorrow. Today, though, there is only the moment, nothing to do but sit and wait for the reindeer to arrive.

*

The spring after my visit to Finnmark County, the Goliat oil rig made its long trip from the Ulsan shipyards in South Korea, around the Cape of Good Hope and up the Atlantic coast, arriving in Hammerfest in April 2015. The Goliat was “a potential harbinger of big changes in the Arctic if not the whole planet,” claimed the first line of a post by Joel K. Bourne on National Geographic’s website. But the rig’s arrival seemed mostly unnoticed outside of Norway. On her blog, Cryopolitics, Mia Bennett quoted a Norwegian member of parliament who predicted that the rig, delivered vastly behind schedule and over budget, would be the end of Arctic oil, and asked, “Why so little controversy?” Two summers earlier, Greenpeace had fought to stop Russian state oil company Gazprom from drilling at the Prirazlomnoye field in the Pechora Sea, at a much lower latitude. The organization hadn’t shown up to try and block the Goliat.

By the time the Goliat began pumping oil, though, in March 2016, oil prices had remained low for more than a year. Low commodity prices had foundered mines and other planned development across the Arctic. The once imminent Arctic “rush” seemed to be ebbing.

But Norway is betting that the tide will return. Hammerfest’s recent petroleum boom is a miniature version of the one that has buoyed the country ever since 1969, when oil was discovered in the North Sea, off its west coast. Norway, population five million, now has the world’s biggest sovereign wealth fund, worth more than $800 billion, a treasure chest built from oil and gas. Once among Europe’s poorest countries, the country is now its richest. Energy development is seen by many as a national good, and the Sami herders, a minority within a minority, as an obstruction.

This fall, the Norwegian state electric company, Statnett, will begin building a 220-mile power line from Balsfjord, in Troms County, northeast of Hammerfest. The line, meant to ensure steady power to Finnmark County, will also cut across three dozen herding districts; as it passes by Alta, it will bisect the coastal calving areas used by Eira’s siida. Construction crews will clear a 125-foot-wide corridor of trees and brush on either side of the line, but Eira says the herders will lose more than that. Although some reindeer are adventurous, the vast majority are skittish and stay away from roads, houses, and other manmade objects. Power lines are especially problematic—British researchers have shown that to reindeer, which see into the ultraviolet spectrum, the lines appear to drip with lightning. 

Although the overt racism of past centuries has faded and the Sami have gained representation in parliament, the herders still have only tenuous rights to the lands they have traditionally used. They are, in the eyes of the government, easily outweighed. “They say it’s in the national interest to build this line, and so it will be built,” Eira says. Nearly all of the reindeer districts that the power line will cross have already signed an agreement, allowing it to proceed, although Eira characterizes this less as the result of a measured exchange and more as a kind of coercion. “You’re standing with your back against the wall and your only alternative is to sign,” he says. His district, though, has not signed, along with four other holdouts; they will have to make their cases in court.

The power line is only one of many new developments throughout the region, though, one of a hundred small abrasions slowly wearing down the land available to the herders. They are losses the herders say they cannot afford. “The reindeer need valleys for when it’s windy, they need sandy areas for when there are mosquitos, they need mountains for when it is hot,” says Egil Kalianen, the leader of a nearby siida. “The animals need all types of areas to protect themselves from weather and predators.” Development forces the herders into narrower and narrower channels, Eira says, a maze with ever-shifting walls. “It will make it more expensive and more resource-demanding to continue with reindeer husbandry,” he says. The herders are paid when land is taken from them, “but, you know, we don’t need money,” Eira says. “We need land.”

Over the last decades, Norway has taken a public stance as a friend of the environment. Most recently, the country has spent billions on projects to prevent deforestation in Liberia, Brazil, and Indonesia—though, of course, those countries cannot afford to pay Norway to leave its oil and gas untapped. As the British journalist Michael Booth points out in his book, The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia, “Norway sources much of its own energy from clean, renewable hydroelectric power, thus absolving itself of direct consumer guilt. It is the wily drug pusher who refuses to touch its own product.”

In Finnmark County, cause and effect can be found side by side. Although most of the Sami herders I spoke with said that development is their chief concern, climate change will add to their struggles. Already they’ve faced warmer, wetter winters that leave pastures covered in thick ice, sometimes forcing them to buy hay to feed the reindeer. Meanwhile, at other times of the year, the ice over rivers grows thinner, rendering traditional routes impassable; forests are moving north, encroaching on the tundra; all that was predictable now is not.

But climate-change hypocrisy aside, should a few thousand people have exclusive use of 40 percent of Norway? After all, the ethnic Norwegian interlopers have been there, more or less, for most of the last millennia, and the livelihood of those few thousand might stand in the way of the country’s greater wealth. “We ought to rejoice,” von Buch wrote in Travels Through Norway and Lapland, “when we see people, who formerly lived isolated and alone, carried along by the world in its progress.” He was writing about the Sami, but the words could as easily have referred to the people of Hammerfest, or even broader Norway. Are they carried, though, or dragged?  

*

When we emerge from the lavvu, the world has taken on a golden patina. It’s time. Men hop onto ATVs and drive off, dogs on back or running beside. In the distance, a black mass appears over a hill. I go with Eira to hide just inside the corral. He crouches by the gate, and I lie down in a thick patch of fireweed, staring up at the sky. The fireweed’s rib-shaped petals are a pale pink, fading to porcelain at the tip. Above are some birch branches, scraggled with fall’s last leaves, and above them, blue sky and white clouds. For a moment, it is quiet.

Then the reindeer arrive: hooves thundering, bells clanging, grunting, chased by barking dogs and whining ATVs. They are wild-eyed, white, brown, tan, gray. Streamers of bloody velvet hang from their antlers. The herd flows into the big corral, and when it is inside, the men shut the gate behind it. At first the herd is confused, directionless, and then it begins to turn again, bellowing, clanking, counterclockwise in the center of the pen. Men toss out lassos, snagging antlers and legs. They lean back on their heels, wrestling the animals down by their antlers. The deer are waist-high and stocky, and they fight and buck when they are caught.   

The herders are looking for calves that escaped their attention during the spring roundup, judging who owns which calf by the cow it follows. At the edge of the circling herd, a man straddles a squirming reindeer at the neck. His kids lean in to watch. He draws a long knife from the sheath on his hip and makes several quick cuts to each ear, the wedges that mark his ownership of the deer. Then he steps away, releasing it. The reindeer stands up and shakes its head, drops of blood welling on the tips of its ears, and runs to rejoin the herd. In an hour the herders have finished their work, and they leave the pen. The reindeer continue circling, slower, finally stopping, gathered together in one corner. The ground is torn, fireweed laid flat.

It’s easy to see how this might end. Slowly, things will get too hard. There will not be enough land, and not enough young people will follow their parents into herding. Perhaps before it goes away completely, it will become only half-real, a stunt for tourists, a living-museum piece. But maybe this is just a kind of laziness: it is simply easier to imagine this way of life ending than to envision all the ways it might continue—harder to imagine that, six thousand years on from the figures etched in the boulders at the small end of the Alta Fjord, six thousand more might unfold into the future. Hammerfest remains; so too, perhaps, will the reindeer herders.

After dark, everyone moves to the inside of the last pen, a small circle lit a greasy orange by overhead lights. Bundled in thick jackets and with earflaps down, the members of the siida line the inside of the wooden fence or stand in the center around the light pole. In the main pen, a small group of herders separates out a couple hundred reindeer from the herd and drives them down a chute into this smaller pen. A door bangs open, and the deer rush in. They are startled by the people waiting on all sides and hesitate, but the animals behind pile up and force them in. They begin to run counterclockwise around the circle, close enough to touch, their antlers whirling by at eye level. When they are all inside, the gate bangs closed behind them.

The herders watch, picking which of their reindeer they will slaughter and which they will let move inland to the winter grazing. The smell of dust and animal musk mingles in the cold air. Overhead, the aurora is barely visible beyond the glare of the lights, a green and purple scarf tugged by some invisible wind. Two men lunge forward. The flow of reindeer parts around them as they grab one animal by the antlers and drag it stiff-legged toward one of the gates. There, a woman is waiting. She swings the gate open then slams it shut after the men shove the reindeer through. For a second the deer pauses, looking back. Then it turns and disappears into the dark.

Zach St. George

Zach St. George is a freelance reporter based in Oakland, California. He writes about science and the environment.

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