Erika Larsen: The Reindeer People | Nat Geo Live

ERIKA LARSEN: The Sami are by tradition reindeer herders that have lived as nomads Everything revolved around reindeer The food, the children, the stories… everything Herders were working so in tandem with nature that they could interpret the Arctic to the rest of the world The Sami people have their own voice and their own way to tell the world who they were (SAMI YOIK CHANTING) (AUDIENCE APPLAUDING) I’m going to open tonight with a journal entry November 2010, reindeer herd separation Dusatatsva, Norway ‘I’m not ready to leave this place, the longer I stay the more it suits me The land is like a magnet, a person can either repel or connect to this landscape I woke up this morning and the lavut closest to ours revealed it had snowed all night It was covered like a white sugar almond that one might have received as a wedding favor But as this world becomes more real to me the other fades away I came here to find people of when the land speaks could interpret it’s language I came here in search of silence so that I could begin to hear again I am now more a stranger in my own home than here.’ So tonight I want to take you to the Scandinavian Arctic, where I encountered the Sami people The Sami are by tradition reindeer herders that have lived as nomads Today they are considered the indigenous group of Europe To create this body of work, I lived there for four years and worked as a beaga A beaga is a woman in Sami culture that would go and live with a family of reindeer herders She would help with the children, she would help cook and clean She would also travel with the herders when they were with the reindeer She would help slaughter the reindeer, and basically anything that needed to be done Um, but first let’s watch a small video This ran with my article in 2011 (INSTRUMENTAL MUSIC) (SAMI YOIK CHANTING) -(BABY GIGGLING) -(SAMI YOIK CHANTING) (INSTRUMENTAL MUSIC) (SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE) (AUDIENCE LAUGHING) So, the Sami homeland is called Sapmi, but maybe many people here have heard it referred to as Lapland It ranges today in four countries, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia But the majority of my work was done in Norway and Sweden, where you see the grey dots Jokkmokk, Gallivare, Harra, Kautokeino Today there’s approximately between 80,000 to 100,000 Sami But only 10 percent are actively involved in reindeer herding So, my journey began in 2007 I had a few email correspondences with a Sami woman I wrote her a letter and said, I was interested in learning about traditional medicine of the Arctic landscape And she invited me to come and stay with her for several weeks And so I did And, when I got there, she made a few things really clear to me

One was that the Sami people had their own voice and their own way to tell the world who they were They didn’t need someone coming from the outside and telling them who they were And the other was, ‘but if you want to learn who we are then you need to stay here for a long time.’ And I said, ‘Well, you know I worked on my last project over eight years.’ And she said, ‘Well, that’s great!’ – (AUDIENCE LAUGHING) – And so it kind of set the scene for us So she said, ‘Why don’t you go visit my husband, he is a reindeer herder.’ And she goes, ‘But I think he is hunting moose right now.’ And she drew a map on a napkin, and she said, ‘Just follow this map and you’ll find him.’ – (AUDIENCE LAUGHING) – I said, ‘Okay.’ So, I drove about an hour to rail– railroad tracks, it was like the main marker on the map I drove to the railroad tracks and put on my backpack And, parked the car and put on my backpack and I walked another three miles until I found this house And to me this house was ‘the middle of nowhere’ And, this is Arild and he is slicing dried reindeer meat at the table But this was the first thing I noticed on the wall There was just this picture and I really had no idea what it was and what was happening And I would truly have no idea of the deep significance of this event for another year and a half But it was the only thing on the wall, so I figured intuitively it must be important And, um… it’s a reindeer calf that’s being marked in the ear The earmark shows the ownership And in Scandinavia today the majority of reindeer are owned And at that time, I didn’t speak Sami language and Arild didn’t speak English, so we had to find ways to communicate And the first thing he did was come up to me and he had me smell his watchband He kind of put it up to my nose and I said, ‘Ah.’ And it smelled like he had just slaughtered an animal And that was his way of saying, ‘Well, you know, we actually did shoot a moose, why don’t you come out and we’ll show it to you.’ I said, ‘Okay.’ So, we walked out and I followed him And this is what I saw And I said, ‘Ah, finally, like I feel really comfortable This is… this is what I came to look for.’ And instantly he just made some gestures and he was with his nephew and they were telling me to collect some wood to see if I could build a fire And so that again set the stage for not only would I be here for an extended period of time but that I would be… needing to make myself useful It wasn’t that the Sami people needed my help by any means, but, um, they really also didn’t need someone standing around doing nothing Um… about a year later, I follow Arild to his summer grounds and this is a calf marking And this is one of the most important times in the Sami herding year, as it projects the prosperity of the herd for the families for the years to come And what’s happening here is you see female reindeers running in circles and the herders are watching their earmarks And they’ll watch as the calf is following and then they’ll lasso those calves and mark the ears And that’s how this continues, this tradition And that fall, I followed Arild’s daughter, Sunna This is during the fall slaughter and I took notice of… a few of the women were collecting the blood after the reindeer’s were slaughtered And they would sit there and stir it for about an hour And I asked her what they were doing She said, ‘We collect the blood We can either dry it or we will freeze it and this will be later used in cooking.’ And, when I began to work as a beaga this is one of the first things I did was learn how to cook I cooked many dishes with blood but my favorite was blood pancakes (AUDIENCE LAUGHING) The first year and a half though I went back and forth from New York to Sapmi, trying to find ways to to stay there, get visas, how I could live in one person’s home, just logistically how this was going to work When I would go back and forth, I thought of the images and was making those impressions, my impressions of what I was seeing And this, this reindeer skin hanging on the side, this is a side of a shed, but there would be houses every– and Sami villages had skins and skin on houses after house after house And I’d later find out that these skins could be sold but also they could be used on the snowmobiles to kind of keep warm, they would wrap around the snowmobiles Or they’d put them on the floor of the lavut which was that first structure you saw in the, in the first slide that I showed And this is Laila the woman that invited me with Sunna her daughter And, of course I was taken by the visual beauty of their traditional dress, which is called the Gahkti But in time I learned that it had deeper significance The Gahkti would tell an outsider exactly where they were coming from what village they were coming from But even more so it could tell you what family they belonged to And if you really knew what you were doing and you looked close enough, you could tell who sewed the Gahkti I later learned that if a minor, Sami minor got in trouble, if a picture went in the newspaper no part of the Gahkti could be shown as well as the face

It would be like identifying the person And, this is Ella-Li, she is the niece of Arild and Laila She is from Jokkmokk and she is a reindeer herder I was struck by this luminescent quality she had, but I was also taken by her scarf And I had no idea if it was Swedish or Sami And she said to me, ‘Of course it’s Sami!’ And she said, ‘You know, we wear it on our traditional Gahkti but when we are in our street clothes’, and I call it street clothes, she didn’t call them that but, ‘you know, when we wear it in our everyday clothes, it’s called Sami-inspired.’ (AUDIENCE LAUGHING) And finally I made my way to Kautokeino Kautokeino is considered the– it’s just, if you want to say, sort of the Sami capital, 98 percent of the people speak Sami language And Laila took me there to meet her extended relatives And this is where I ended up meeting Nils Peder and Ingrid Gaup And it was them that I worked for as the beaga And, Nils Peder comes from a long lineage of reindeer herders It was from him that I could finally begin to get answers about my initial question Were there people that could interpret nature’s landscape? And not only did the Sami language itself have deep, deep and rich vocabulary to describe the natural world, but herders were working so in tandem with nature that in fact they could interpret the Arctic to the rest of the world Um… another thing in this image, I think it was the first time I had experienced where I could see no horizon line I just kept looking around and it was like you couldn’t– the focal point was this And this is Nils Peder and Ingrid’s main house And I say main house because many herders have a house in their summer grounds and a house in their winter grounds, where the reindeer are in the summer and where the reindeer are in the winter And then they have a main house This is where I mostly lived and worked And one day I had been out all day, most likely with the herd and with Nils Peder and I came in and I saw this sitting on the table and I thought, ‘Okay.’ And they told me, you know, it was so cold outside that they couldn’t cut the meat up outside It was freezing, so they had to bring it in So of course, I run downstairs and I get my camera and come back up and everyone laughing ‘Oh my gosh, again she is taking pictures every day This is– what is she taking a picture of.’ (AUDIENCE LAUGHING) And so, I was like, ‘I have to get this picture.’ They… ‘okay’ And then about a year later, I came across the same scene I had been out all day, probably with the reindeer and I came in and the calf was sitting on the table And I thought to myself, ‘Oh my gosh, I got to get some food.’ I’ve been out all day and I made myself some soup and I sat down and I started eating And Ingrid raced and got her camera and she came back (AUDIENCE LAUGHING) And she took this picture And she said, ‘Well, now you’re part of the every day.’ And, but, you know, it– I think it felt really good but at the same time it made me think, ‘Wow, what’s my perspective now, what does that mean?’ And then I realized that I… I… could make pictures like this That’s what it meant This is Nils Peder and his herding dog, Giddeo And for them this is what would be considered the ultimate herder’s perspective You can see the entire herd in the background, you can see what weather is coming in, if there’s reindeer missing, if there’s predators, if there’s food But, you know, three years before I wanted to be as close as possible to the reindeer, I wanted to be as close as possible to the people, I wanted to capture their face, I would never have taken a picture like this And also probably I wouldn’t have been in a position to be here to see this And as I studied more and learned more about Sami artwork, when a herder would paint a herding scene, it would always be from this vantage point And the lavut again Many herders today use the lavut when they are actually out with the reindeer And by this time I decided I had to learn Sami language In Kautokeino, like I said 98% of the people speak Sami, so I was surround with it all the time, but there’s also something called Sami Allaskuvla or Sami University And I took a seven-month immersion course And Sami were put in boarding schools and many generations lost their language, so this school kind of gives this back to the generations that have lost it But I also took it and– Finally I could sit in a lavut like this and this is when I began to understand the history and learn about the culture because grandparents, extended family, aunts, uncles, children were all sitting in this lavut and telling stories in Sami and drinking coffee and eating dried reindeer meat And they weren’t being translated into English and if they were, they really lost the significance So, finally I could hear and feel these stories And, this is Mattis Gaup, he’s Nils Peder’s brother and they, they

work with the herds together and for me pictures like this are important because I didn’t take very many of them A lot of my work is kind of silent and still and more reflections on the moments But it would be a real disservice to take away… what hard work reindeer herding is It’s all year long, there’s no vacations If a herder takes vacations it’s usually to visit extended family members and help them with their herd They are often working in minus 30, minus 40, minus 50 It’s not a lot of money, this is a lifestyle One side note, I was at a family party and this guy Mattis walks in His entire face is frostbit, it’s brown and kind of peeling away And nobody blinked. It’s just me, I was like, ‘Wow’! It was just just came in He’d been out with the reindeer for a few weeks. So And one spring I got to follow the Gaups on their spring migration The spring migration is probably about 200-250 kilometer trek from the winter grazing grounds north to the summer grazing grounds It can take anywhere from a few days or a few weeks depending on the weather And in this situation, the weather would, you know, get a little bit bad, so they would stop, sometimes they would pitch the lavut and we could sit for 15 or 20 hours Or some times they just take a break life this for an hour and go to sleep And this is how I saw the herd on that migration And again I just remember it was a– the migration itself is very meditative You’re just kind of going and going and you don’t see very much, you just see the herd. And I saw this and I realized, ‘Wow, my only focal point are reindeer’ And… and that extended to many years, it wasn’t just today in this time And in that moment, I realized I had been living in a bubble of reindeer for like years And in, in the best way, I mean everything revolved– with the herding families I lived with everything revolved around reindeer The food, the children, the stories… everything had to do with reindeer And this picture is really important to me because this is Nils Peder sitting with his herd Actually today the herds are a lot more wild than they used to be Because of things like snowmobiles and helicopters, which a lot of herders use, they are not physically with the herds the way they used to be They used to ski with the herds or walk with the herds so the herd was more tame So for him to sit and have the herd kind of circling with… around him, it means he’s been with his herd every single day And then he sat there and he began to yoik And yoik is that sort of throaty chant you heard in the video I showed at the beginning And, um, the yoik has– it’s very special to the Sami It’s a way to pay reverence to a person, place or thing And he sat down and he began to yoik his wife, which means he is evoking her presence in the herd And, this is his wife, Ingrid And she took me under her wing when I was there And she showed me what a woman’s role was in a reindeer herding family And the role is to be the heart and soul of the family And that’s what she was And just like Arild in the very beginning that had me build a fire, Ingrid did the same thing She had me cook, she, she went out to cut grass which she is doing here. I would go out and cut grass And she is cutting grass, it will later be dried, it will be put in shoes in the winter time And she swears this is warmer than synthetic material And, this is skin, reindeer skin And Ingrid taught me how to work with skin How to take the hair off, how to dry it, how to later make a bark concoction, which would preserve the skin, and also how to sew with it When I was six months pregnant, I went back and we sewed shoes for my son, which is a tradition (AUDIENCE MURMURING) And, these are not my son’s shoes (LAUGHTER) But these are reindeer shoes But these have this has the hair on it, so these will be shoes that are used in the winter These are for female and these would be for fancy, very dressy occasion, it would be used with the Gahkti But this style of the toe being curled up would be on men or women’s shoes and it comes from the old days when they used to lock into the skis with it This is Ellen-Ingrid, this is the granddaughter of Nils Peder and Ingrid And, this would be like similar to a Native American cradleboard, and you can see here the wood has been covered with this skin that’s finally been preserved by the bark A lot of the women today use these for the children And, this is Ingrid and her youngest daughter, Sara, in a lavut And this is during their calf marking

And I followed them when we were here for a couple of weeks We set up the lavut and we went inside, and you can see the skins that I showed you in the beginning on the shed, they are on the ground there sitting They set up the fireplace and she cooked coffee Um, and, she sat down and all she said to me, she said, ‘This is home, this is what home is.’ This is Johann, he is a young herder from Sweden and I spent a couple of weeks with him And I asked him, ‘What is herding to you? What are you going to do? What are you going to be?’ And he said, ‘Herding is everything I’ve learned this from my uncles, I’ve learned it from my aunts, I learned it from my mother I am a reindeer herder But to be a reindeer herder today, it’s very, very difficult I won’t be able to be just a reindeer herder I will have to take another job.’ Just the cost of the gas, and the equipment, reindeer herding isn’t economically viable, it’s regulated by the EU but what he was telling me is that young reindeer herders, they can continue but they will have to take other work And, this is Sven. I spent a lot of time with Sven He came to visit me in New York He is 70, he’s been reindeer herding his entire life And I’m going to end on another journal entry ‘Today we came across two women reindeer that while fighting locked horns Unable to unlock they starved to death I watched Sven as he approached the scene He seemed forlorn and lost in thought I only took a few pictures It struck me how a man close to 70 that had been a reindeer herder his entire life could be so sad I could only imagine how many reindeer he had slaughtered in his lifetime And that this cycle of life and death would seem so natural When I asked him, he said that they had suffered He estimated it took them three days to die of starvation and cold And this is what bothered him He looked at the earmark to see whom they belonged to One was his and one was his cousin He separated their locked horns, cut them off and brought them home to give as a keepsake.’ Thank you (AUDIENCE APPLAUDING)