Reflections in Sápmi Territory
Winter in Northern Norway is the curve of a reindeer’s antlers, bleached bone bending towards darkness. I last saw the sun a few days ago, before landing in the Kirkenes Airport with a backpack and a distorted sense of time—at two in the afternoon, the landscape around me was veiled in dark blue, a quiet emptiness that made me feel I had reached the edge of the world. A light snow was falling as I waited outside the tiny airport for a bus that would take me further north, around the fjord that separated me from Vadsø.
Today, after catching a ride with my neighbor, I’m in Neiden. We had driven for two hours through a large expanse of space, occasionally interrupted with small towns. Now I’m standing in a clearing surrounded by short trees and herding corrals, and my friend Ilja is working a blade through the body of a reindeer stretched out in front of her. This is the first time I’ve witnessed a slaughter and it’s jarring at first, but Ilja moves and speaks in a way that makes it look like art. As a Sámi woman, reindeer husbandry is a deep part of her history—her family has lived and worked in these borderlands between Norway and Finland for generations. The head of Ilja’s reindeer sits in the snow a couple meters from us, eyes black and endless, antlers nearly symmetrical.
“I haven’t done this in two years, so it might take a while. I’ve gotten weak,” Ilja tells me. She laughs and continues cutting through muscle, her bare hands coated with fur and blood. Standing at least six feet tall, clad in a heavy snowsuit, headlamp, and a leather belt of knives, she looks anything but weak.
“When did you learn to do this?” I ask.
“Traditionally, we learn when we’re very young, but I didn’t learn until six years ago. It’s more common now for men to participate in the slaughtering process, but eventually I decided it was something I should know.” She pauses to wash her hands in a pile of snow. “I felt like it would bring me closer to where I come from.”
There must be at least one hundred people here, ranging from infants to the elderly. They move between the corrals, the scattered slaughtering posts, and the tiny one-room cabin filled with coffee thermoses and soup. I learn that this annual herding event is one of the most important days of the year for a Sámi family. A clearing behind us has been transformed into a makeshift parking lot where people take turns, warming themselves in their cars, from the subzero cold. Ilja jokes that, for a community with a deep connection to nature, the emissions from the humming engines are not so good.
The nucleus of this entire operation is the sorting corral next to us, where the herd owners decide which reindeer to slaughter. Spotlights illuminate the large ring filled with reindeer as they orbit in a blur of breath and snow. I see the strands of identity tracing their way from one person to the next—everyone here is connected to each other, a continuation of culture through generations. Small children stand on the fence posts of the corral as their brothers and sisters run around in the ring among the deer; other children stand next to their parents at the slaughtering posts, marveling at the reindeer strung up over snow; women walk around with babies wrapped in layers of blankets, showing them their families, the life waiting before them. I’m the only outsider in this place—its own complex universe.
Ilja and I are nearly strangers. We met on the flight from Oslo only two days ago. For the first part of the flight, I slept through long, vivid dreams. It’s something that usually happens to me on airplanes—maybe it’s the altitude, the wavering drifts through clouds that make me feel like I’m rowing a boat through my mind. Or maybe it was exhaustion from sleeping on two wooden chairs in the Gardermoen Airport. In the darkness of the early afternoon, I sunk below the surface; I couldn’t keep my eyes open. It had been happening to me all day: getting pulled into the current of sleep, and pushed back out again.
When I woke up, we had climbed up the long, slender arm of Norway and were descending towards Tromsø for a brief stop. The sunlight had drained, leaving the sky ethereal and open without end. A polar glow with no origin, a fluidity that swirled around the afternoon stars. The lights of the city I once knew rose to meet us—the illuminated bridge, the blinking harbor, the surrounding fjords like a silent audience in the background. Most of the passengers got off, and then the plane was nearly empty.
“Skal du gå av her?” The woman beside me asked, gesturing to the aisle. She was knitting a scarf with thick, grey wool.
“Oh no, it’s okay. I’m going to Kirkenes,” I said. I smiled at her, self-conscious that I couldn’t respond in Norwegian.
“Ah, you speak English! Where are you from?”
“I’m from the U.S.”
“You’re what? And what are you doing all the way up here in this dark, cold part of the world?” she laughed.
“I guess it does seem crazy, doesn’t it?” I smiled. “I’m going to visit my friend in Vadsø. I haven’t seen him in a few years, so I’m looking forward to it. And I have this strange love of the North. Is that where you’re from?”
“Oh, yes. I’m going home. I’m Ilja, by the way.”
The plane taxied to the runway and once again we were taking flight. We paused our conversation to let the roar of the engines drown everything out. And then: altitude, the blue-black burst of sky. Below us, the snowy mountains of Tromsø became smaller and smaller. The moon shone like an eye.
To say I needed to find peace would be cliché, but in truth I was coming to Norway because I knew it had the darkness and open spaces that I needed to find my footing again. I had spent the previous month traveling with my best friend. Apparently our idea of a good trip meant dissecting political and social systems in different countries, then using our findings to hypothesize how long it will take for the world to end. Our conclusion: things didn’t look too good. I wanted to return to a landscape that would swallow me in thought and shadow. I wanted to reflect.
Ilja and I spoke for the hour we were in the air—she explained that she’s Sámi, and was going to her family’s house to celebrate Christmas and herd reindeer. Her parents had already started the herding process, and would continue for days after she arrives. She was open about where she came from and all the places she’s lived, from Australia to England and now Oslo. She had chosen to pursue higher education and overseas opportunities rather than sticking with the family business; Reindeer husbandry used to be the primary way of sustaining a family, but once the herd and grazing regulations were imposed on the industry, a new source of income became almost necessary. She told me that the North and the reindeer will always be her home, regardless of where she lives.
The change with the reindeer industry was one of many that were unfolding in the Arctic—some sooner than others. We talked about the unusually warm winter this year that delayed the herding process. As we spoke, the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) was happening in Paris. Leaders from countries all over the world were discussing the damage we’ve inflicted on Earth, sharing numbers, statistics, calculations. Speaking of odds and countdowns. Meanwhile, the rest of us were waiting. Ilja and I wondered what the outcome would be—if there would even be one.
Some of her friends and family members were demonstrating in Paris with other Indigenous populations, and others had participated in Run For Your Life—a relay race beginning in Northern Sweden and ending in Paris. It covered 4,000 kilometers and lasted twenty days, twenty-four hours a day. Together, runners passed a small stone from the beginning of the race to the Climate Conference. The event was inspired by a Sámi poem: Take a stone in your hand and close your fist around it until it starts to live, beat, speak, and move. It’s a reminder that we are intricately tied to nature and the wellbeing of our planet, that our life is the Earth’s life.
“We want visibility. Sometimes I wish humans would disappear so the Earth could rebuild itself again and continue in peace. I would totally sacrifice myself for that,” she told me with a smile. In a world economy that revolves around growth and profit, Indigenous narratives are often conveniently erased. Native ways of life that go back thousands of years differ too much from capitalist models, so these populations fall under the category of “other.” Exotic. Not one of us. When the pollutants of Western systems hit the lands connected to Indigenous populations, this division allows the polluters to brush it off their shoulders. All around the world, the concept of “othering” is turning native populations into ghosts, making different geographies less valuable than others. The scale is uneven.
When Ilja invited me to visit her over the weekend while she worked with the reindeer, I immediately accepted. I wanted to know everything I could about her family and culture, their different approaches to the issues we’d been discussing. We exchanged numbers after the plane landed in Kirkenes, and decided that I would come visit later that week. I expressed how grateful I was to have met her, and to once again be in the North with all of its mystery.
“I know you’ll love your time here,” she said. “There’s something about the landscape that I still can’t put my finger on. It’s definitely a place that triggers reflection, alone time, and for me: creativity.”
It’s nearly impossible to look into this landscape and not see a part of yourself looking back at you. Maybe it’s the space, the bare stretches of land that blend with the sky. Or it could be the light, or lack thereof, and the way it pulls a person inward. The area above the Arctic Circle falls into darkness starting in November. For the next couple months, the sun never completely rises above the horizon, casting the North in an eerie light. A portion of the sky brightens for fewer and fewer hours each day until the solstice—the shortest day of the year. Afterwards, the days gradually become longer until sunlight illuminates the land for 24 hours. It’s a landscape of extremes, of wild and shifting power.
I think of my past visits to Northern Norway, the long winters and sense of heaviness that sparked my imagination and made me want to submerge myself in dreams. The people I’ve met up here are more aware of the world, more intricately tied to their surroundings in a way I’ve never experienced before. When Ilja begins to talk about her family’s lifestyle, I begin to understand the human-to-landscape connection as a fundamental value of Sámi culture.
Sámi are historically a semi-nomadic population—they move in a way that mirrors the circle of life. Before Russia, Sweden, Finland, and Norway closed their borders, before the introduction of new land use laws in 1952, before the start of a cash-based economy and modernization, time was measured by the migrations of reindeer. When resources began running low in a certain area, the community would move for a while to let the Earth replenish itself. Ilja’s family moves to a different part of Finnmark during the summer for the reindeer, following the herd as it swims out to islands off the coast, making sure they don’t wander too far or drown. While Sámi are semi-nomadic, their reindeer are semi-domesticated. It’s a unique relationship of meeting each other halfway, creating one interconnected entity. In this part of the world, the dividing lines are hard to trace between human and animal, human and land.
“We use every part of the body, so nothing goes to waste,” Ilja explains as she continues working on her deer. “I’m going to try to make sausages this year with the intestines. But it’s my first time, so it might be a big failure.”
Nearby, two men pull the hide from a hanging reindeer with one motion, as if slipping it out of a jacket.
“It’s amazing how they can do that,” I tell Ilja.
“Ah, yes, that trick takes practice. We use the hide for a lot of things—shoes, clothes, blankets. It’s incredibly warm,” she says. “But the best part is the heart. There’s nothing like the heart.”
Ilja works for a while longer before she tells me we should go warm up in the cabin and drink coffee. When she suggests this, I realize that I’ve never been so cold—throughout the process, I had moved closer and closer to the reindeer’s body, heat still rushing out of it. I’m wearing a bad pair of shoes, and my feet are completely numb. As I follow her towards the cabin, constantly slipping on the thick ice, it’s clear to everyone how alien I am here. We pass several slaughter areas, and I almost run straight into the hanging bodies because I’m focusing so intently on my steps and remaining upright.
The inside of the cabin is tiny, but a dozen people are sitting cozily around the table, laughing loudly and ladling reindeer soup from a giant pot in the center. They squeeze closer together to make room for me, and I feel guilty for interrupting their meal. But they welcome me warmly when Ilja introduces me as a new friend.
They’re all speaking in Sámi, a language that’s even more confusing to me than Norwegian. I fall into the hum of the surrounding conversation, feel a sense of isolation that can only be felt through lack of common language. I observe facial expressions to understand what people are speaking about and focus on body language. I listen for words that I recognize from Norwegian. When a few people at the table make an effort to speak English to me, I feel grateful, but embarrassed that I can’t make the same effort to speak their language.
“You’ll have to tell all your friends about this experience when you go home,” one of the men tells me. “They probably won’t believe you, though!” Everyone around the table laughs, and Ilja hands me a bowl of soup. A small woodstove is burning next to me, and I feel the blood begin rushing through my feet and hands again. A bench against the back wall is covered in reindeer hides and knitted blankets. Above it hangs a map of Finnmark. All that land, all that infinity.
Ilja introduces me to her mother and grandmother, who are both standing near the stove and making a fresh batch of soup. All three women strongly resemble each other. The grandmother looks at me with quiet, curious eyes.
Ilja’s mother tells me how glad she is that I’m visiting, that I’m able to experience something so different from my own culture. She thinks it’s important that people step outside their walls, and I agree with her. Everywhere at once, stories vibrate from the ground, waiting to be heard. Whether it’s for climate justice or for a better understanding of the world in general—maybe it starts with a pause to listen, a hesitation, a willingness to hear someone.
After a couple more cups of coffee, everyone around the table stands up to head back into the cold. Ilja explains that there are only a couple breaks throughout the day—if they want to finish before the truck for the slaughterhouse arrives later at night, they have to be moving nonstop.
“So, what do you think about all this?” Ilja asks me.
“I think I might wake up and realize all of this was a dream,” I laugh. “It’s going to be hard to describe to other people. I can’t believe this is part of your life.”
“Yes,” she says. “But there are also differences that can be difficult to navigate. Sámi culture has a lot to do with practicality. It’s all about the reindeer and what’s best for the business. The first time I brought my husband here to meet my family, it was during the herding process. He jumped in and started helping with the reindeer, and that helped earn my parents’ approval.” She pauses to finish her coffee. As much as I try to understand being part of an identity so different from my own, it’s something that will always stretch beyond me. I’ll never know the struggle that Indigenous people face in Westernized countries, the internalized parts of their culture practiced from birth, the things hidden in language. The most I can do is pay attention, watch, wonder.
Ilja insists that I borrow the skaller (traditional Sámi shoes) sitting under the bench and a heavier coat, both of which I accept gratefully—I’m an amateur with this kind of weather. The shoes are handmade—they’re lined with reindeer hide, and warm. I feel drowsy from the woodstove’s heat, the darkness doing cartwheels outside, but when Ilja opens the door, the cold welcomes me again.
Back at the main corral, reindeer run in one endless circle. Their bodies press up against the slats of the fence, their black eyes unblinking, focused.
“And this is where we determine each reindeer’s fate,” Ilja tells me.
“How do you decide their fate?”
“Well, its up to each owner. We mark their ears in the summer, and that’s how we tell which reindeer belong to whom. The individual family decides which ones to keep for the following year, which ones to slaughter for food and clothes, and which ones to sell to the slaughterhouse.” She pauses to reach under her scarf and the collar of her sweater, pulls out a small silver pendant with notches around the edges. “This is my earmark. Each owner has their own unique marking—it’s like a signature. It’s a symbolic thing for Sámi people.”
The earmark is something that can be assigned at birth—the parents can apply for it when their child is born, and it’s usually a similar marking to the father or mother’s. It’s a way for both men and women to have legal ownership rights over individual reindeer. Imagine families connected through the ears of deer, a web between nature and people.
“How long does the sorting process take?” I ask.
“We’ll probably work two or three days straight for twelve hours a day. Then we’ll sit around the house and do nothing, which is proper Christmas behavior,” Ilja laughs.
“And this happens at the same time every year?”
“Usually around the same time, but as I mentioned on the plane, the winter has been really warm this year. We use snowmobiles to herd the deer, and since there wasn’t enough snow on the ground, everything got delayed.”
The Arctic is warming at nearly twice the rate of the rest of the planet. This statistic is impossible to ignore, and populations that have existed on these lands for thousands of years are being drastically affected. Sámi people are known for their ability to adapt, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult to keep up with the climate. A lack of ice has caused entire herds of reindeer to drown during migration, an inability to navigate through different territories, and an interruption of the practices that have sustained these people for generations.
The irony of climate change is that the populations who are least responsible for its causes are most vulnerable to its consequences. Wealthier nations, for example, that purchase oil from Arctic drilling companies are not directly affected by the exploitation of resources in the Arctic. The first people who will notice and pay for the damages are the people who live on the land and depend on its resources for a sustainable way of life. Those communities, like the Sámi, who have always rejected the fossil fuel industry, are disproportionately affected by the industry’s most immediate and detrimental consequences.
“You have to come inside the ring.” Ilja leads me through the gate and shuts it quickly behind us, and we’re closed in a frenzied world of reindeer and humans. The spotlights fall on the trampled snow, the tall fence surrounding the corral. It’s the brightest place I’ve seen in the Arctic winter, and everything outside the corral is one ongoing shade of night. I never knew that cold has a color. I feel like I’m going to be in the way of everything, so I try to find a vacant part of the circle, dodging people as they wrestle reindeer.
It’s less like wrestling and more like a dance that starts with antlers. As the deer runs by, someone grabs hold of the antlers, moves with the deer while trying to slow its momentum. With the larger ones, another person always comes over to help. Human and deer connected to each other, mirroring each other as they jump and toss and turn in the cold air. The people in the ring lead each deer out of the corral before determining where they’ll go. For the deer without antlers, it sometimes takes three people to catch it in the right way—they hold the two front legs together and lift them from the ground, making it impossible for the deer to keep running.
Each animal is handled as individual, each life weighed the same. The ring is filled with kaleidoscopic movements of living things. I feel hypnotized by what’s in front of me, and I’m overcome by a desperation to fit in. To belong, in some way, to a culture that is enthralled by nature like this. To have this strong of an identity and understanding of the natural world. At the same time, I feel pity for the deer. I wasn’t raised around animals this way—herding them for slaughter seems unnatural to me. Maybe being an observer means to be constantly uncomfortable. I watch Ilja handle each deer like she understands what it’s thinking, where it will move next.
There’s a sense of equality to this process in both age and gender. An even number of men and women communicate in an unspoken language as they work. They anticipate each other’s movements, help each other when necessary. Their routine is precise, habitual, and stunning. It’s an ongoing conversation between humans and nature, one of intimacy. An awareness of the other that seems deeply rooted. Everyone possesses a navigation of the landscape, the winter, that comes from generations of working in the same area. Around me, small children seek out reindeer their own size and catch them, help each other lead them away. Their mothers teach them early the nature they’ll inherit, instilling a responsibility to care for their landscape and its resources like they would their own family. Instead of Western “every man for himself” individualism, Sámi communities pass on an inherent consciousness of being both a good citizen and a good ancestor.
“Now they’ll bring more deer in from the back pasture,” Ilja tells me. The ring has emptied, and a group of people opens the long fence separating this ring from another field. They move quickly—a few people run into the shadows to herd the deer toward the part of the field nearest to us, and when they pass the right threshold, other people lift the edges of a black tarp from the ground and use it to chase the deer into the corral.
“I’ll show you where we keep the rest of the herd,” she says. I follow her into the back pasture. Once we walk outside the ring and move further into the field, everything is muted, leaving us with the sound of our footsteps in trampled snow, our breath in cold air. Above us, the sky looks like a chalkboard smeared with stars and energy. I want to sink into it the way I want to sink into the shadows around me—the horizon with its faint blue glow, the silhouettes of short trees coated in ice. Three days in the Arctic winter and I’ve already felt the energy readjusting in my body, the effect of no sun. I imagine living up here, being so closely tied to the rotation of the Earth and its axial tilt. An awareness of the seasons, of the constantly transforming landscape.
The reindeer have moved to the back of the field to form one tightly-bound, huddled circle. The deer on the outer edges run around the group like the rings of a strange planet. They’re nearly invisible, blending in with the land, but we hear them. Running. Breathing. When Ilja shines her headlamp toward them, the glint of hundreds of eyes stares back at us.
“It’s funny, they always run counterclockwise. I have no idea why,” she says.
The main corral is still a blur of bodies and light when we return. I feel clumsy on the snow, out of place in the middle of all these people as they do what they’ve known since childhood.
“You have to try grabbing a reindeer!” Ilja tells me.
“Me?” I look around.
“Yes! You’ll regret it if you don’t. When else will you be able to?”
She has a point—I don’t know the next time I’ll be here, and I don’t know how much will change between now and then. But I still hesitate. It’s that jumping-from-a-waterfall feeling. I consider the likelihood of falling, of not being strong enough. It doesn’t feel like my right, and grabbing a deer to determine its fate is completely outside of my own upbringing. But deer are moving all around us, and all I have to do is reach out.
I step out of my body for a minute and see myself, an outsider, placed in the middle of a longstanding tradition that has welcomed me, allowed me to listen, showed me ways to speak to the Earth. Take a stone in your hand and close your fist around it until it starts to live, beat, speak, and move. I feel the cold in every inch of my bones, the press of the North submerged in winter, the stars lending light to the land. And the reindeer keep circling, around and around, and then around again.
KELSEY CAMACHO is currently living in Longyearbyen, Svalbard, where she cares for ninety-one sled dogs and writes about her love of the Arctic. She has a thing for snow and darkness. Her writing can be found in The Portland Review, Entropy Mag, Coldnoon: Travel Poetics, and elsewhere. ☆ Judge Bronwen Dickey selected “Antlers and Open Spaces: Reflections in Sápmi Territory,” as first runner-up of Proximity’s 2016 Narrative Journalism Prize.