Saami culture is changing with climate change

The changing climate affects not only the environment and livelihoods of Saami people, but also their language and culture. The “SAAMI – Adaptation of Saami people to the climate change” project of the University of Oulu examined climate change-related perceptions and experiences of Saami people living in the Saami home region and living off reindeer herding.

Reindeer-herding Saami people see impacts of climate change in their everyday life. Impacts are a source of fear and concern because they affect livelihoods and health in unpredictable ways. Adaptation requires efforts.

“It is important that Saami people, researchers and the state work on enabling the cultural adaptation of Saami people to climate change and not just to survive it,” says the principal investigator of the project PhD Klemetti Näkkäläjärvi.

“Cultural adaptation means that Saami people can maintain their own traditions and adapt to climate change in accordance with their cultural values, customs and traditions.”

In the project, reindeer herders were interviewed in the Saami home region, i.e. in the municipalities of Utsjoki, Inari, Sodankylä and Enontekiö. A total of 72 interviewees were systematically selected to include both women and men and representatives of different generations. Their main occupation was reindeer herding or they had retired from the actual herding work. The SAAMI project has received the Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC), which is a recommendation applied by the Saami Parliament and the Skolt Saami Village Assembly from an international human rights standard for projects exploring the cultural heritage and traditional knowledge of Saami people.

Klemetti Näkkäläjärvi comes from a reindeer-herding Saami family, something that helped to build trust in the research.

Changes at many levels

The increase in average temperatures resulting from climate change is greatest in the northern regions. Vegetation, weather conditions and even seasons are changing at an accelerating rate. Aridity is suffered during summers and precipitation in winters is greater than before. Strong winds, storms and floods are becoming more common.

“The interviewees noted that autumns have extended by several weeks. The early winter conditions have changed dramatically. Previously, permanent snow came in late October, now temperatures fluctuate between plus and minus and snow falls and melts several times before a permanent snow cover is formed,” says Näkkäläjärvi.

Ice conditions in waterways are also uncertain long into the winter, which makes it difficult to move in terrain and to herd reindeer. Falling into ice can be fatal.

“Reindeer herders have traditionally had eight seasons. Now, the intermediate seasons, such as spring-winter, have become shorter and are about to disappear,” says Näkkäläjärvi.

“Instability and abnormality are the new normal. The seasons do not hold true anymore, the snowless period in particular has extended as has the period of slush. We need to go to the forest, irrespective of the weather and whether conditions are safe or not. Otherwise, the basis of our livelihoods disappears.” Interviewee, over 50 years, occupied in reindeer work, Näkkälä.

Reindeer herders have felt that natural scientists do not always consider their observations reliable. In the ethno-climatological analysis carried out in the SAAMI project, the observations of the interviewees were compared with data from the Finnish Meteorological Institute, and it was established that the observations of the reindeer herders match up with the measured results. The observations of other Arctic indigenous people are also similar.

Nutrition and behaviour of reindeer during the change

The greening of the Arctic regions has been known about by researchers for several decades already. This phenomenon is also visible in Lapland. On fells, the tree line is edging upwards and willow thickets on are growing higher and denser. This is also reflected in ground vegetation as lichen cover vital to reindeer gives way to moss.

In many years, an ice cover is formed on the ground already in early winter, which makes it difficult for reindeer to obtain winter nutrition, i.e. lichen: reindeer cannot dig through a hard ice layer to find lichen with their hooves. This increases the need for winter feeding.

“The nutrition availability conditions of reindeer are called guohtun in the Saami language. The term guohtun refers in a multi-layered manner to the ground: is the vegetation frozen, mouldy or usable and is the ground frozen or unfrozen. Snow is also important in guohtun – is the snow soft, hard, layered or icy,” says Näkkäläjärvi.

Poor guohtun and difficult winter conditions may starve reindeer, and winter feeding has become more common in recent decades. Today, winter feeding is practised in almost all siidas (reindeer herding communities) of the reindeer herding cooperatives in the Saami home region with the exception of some siidas of the reindeer herding cooperatives in Western Lapland.

Climate change also impacts the behaviour of reindeer. Reindeer lose the velvet on their antlers later in August than before, and the rutting season has been delayed by over a week in the last decade alone.

From reindeer nomadism to supplementary feeding

Although Saami reindeer herding is based on shared traditions, skills and knowledge, reindeer herding is practised in different ways in different areas. In the fell reindeer herding cooperatives north of the coniferous forest belt, reindeer herding does not compete for resources with forestry. In the forest reindeer herding cooperatives, conflicts of interest with the other forms of land use, especially forestry, are common.

Differences in the reindeer herding models are due to environmental, cultural and land-use conditions and also to innovations and administration.

“We identified ten different models of reindeer herding,” says Näkkäläjärvi.

The traditional reindeer nomadism is an increasingly rare model, which has, in part, been replaced, for example, by adaptive reindeer nomadism making use of supplementary feeding or reindeer herding supported by tourism or reindeer racing. Technological innovation, such as GPS collars, the use of a helicopter for herding reindeer, and drones are used in an innovation-oriented model for reindeer herding. Several models may occur within one reindeer herding cooperative.

“A drone is like these motor vehicles. Last week, I was flying a drone (summer 2019). Our reindeer fence, the one between the national borders on the River Teno side. There were reindeer without antlers on the wrong side of the fence. A group of older reindeer herders was there with ATVs, and I was flying the drone and I alone herded two small herds to the other side of the fence with the help of the drone.” Interviewee, under 40 years, occupied in reindeer work, Kaldoaivi. 

Climate change, landscape memory and cultural change

Saami reindeer owners practise their livelihoods in conservation areas, often far from the road network. Such an environment is natural wilderness for outsiders. However, for reindeer herders, the Saami place names, grazing areas, memories and stories related to places make it a cultural landscape. The term used is landscape memory.

“Reindeer-herding Saami people observe, examine, follow and analyse nature and its phenomena through reindeer herding: how a specific phenomenon affects reindeer and their herding, how weather conditions affect future conditions,” says Näkkäläjärvi.

Reindeer herding as a cultural livelihood and way of life can almost be said to be endangered. Adaptation to climate change has cultural implications, as traditional knowledge and skills are being lost as they make way for new innovations and adaptation measures. For example, knowledge of the reindeer earmarks is disappearing as the new coloured collars replace the earmarks. Traditional know-how, not used by this generation, will not be passed on to future generations either.

“The impacts of the cultural change are as great as those of climate change itself, because the Saami culture is changing and its special features are disappearing, being replaced and forgotten.”

Naturally, cultures have always changed and developed. Climate change, however, is a far greater change factor for Saami people than, for example, the assimilation of mainstream culture because it cannot be rejected. Saami people cannot prevent climate change and it affects everything, from well-being to identity.

“It is one of the consequences of climate change that old knowledge and skills are becoming obsolete... It is a tertiary impact, but true all the same. There are clear side effects that have come along with climate change.” Interviewee, over 65 years, occupied in reindeer work, Muddusjärvi.     

Measures promoting adaption are needed

The Saami people should not be seen as just victims of climate change, as they are actively trying to combat its effects. Adaptation measures have been taken and innovators have introduced new practices for reindeer herding. Younger reindeer herders are exploring new technologies in reindeer herding education and, for example, the use of drones has become common in reindeer herding.

Attitudes, administration and also legislation are considered barriers to adaptation.

The SAAMI project presents measures to promote adaptation. Their implementation would require approximately half a million euros.

“The most important measure is the establishment of an independent, multidisciplinary national climate panel of Saami people,” says Klemetti Näkkäläjärvi.

The task of the expert body would be to prepare an adaptation programme to promote adaptation in legislation, administration, research and education and also in development activities.

“A herding allowance would be one good measure. I would also be prepared to bring my own knowledge and thoughts to the table if an independent expert group were to be set up with our own experts and us reindeer herders. It could consider ways to mitigate the impacts of climate change and to ensure the continuity of reindeer herding by Saami people.” Interviewee, under 40 years, occupied in reindeer work, Vätsäri.

Text: Satu Räsänen
Photo, reindeer fence: Klemetti Näkkäläjärvi
Photo, reindeers: Rodeo / Pentti Sormunen



Last updated: 4.5.2020