In Sweden, a long journey home
During the summer mating season, uncastrated bulls raunch around like drunk teenagers, fighting other bulls, chasing the ladies, and losing up to a third of their bodyweight in the process. It’s no good to the herders who wish to sell their animals’ meat in the autumn, and the Pittjas are in the corral today to nip the problem in the bud. Kenneth and his son Juvva battle their young reindeer to the ground; with a summary snip of the pliers, its genetic legacy is forever lost. It hobbles away with a slightly wild look in its eyes.
The work is still very much a family affair. Lennart and Kenneth’s father, Josef, stands on the sidelines with their uncle Bertil, dispensing advice and stories. Nephew Emil grapples with a bull, yanking it by the antlers with one hand while taking a call on his mobile with the other. Reindeer skitter around the pen, darting in one direction and then the other, the movement of a single nervous animal setting the herd moving again just as they start to settle.
Despite the frenzy of activity, the lasting impression is one of calm. Voices are raised only to swear at Nasti, who stands well away from the kicking legs of the herd, barking furiously. The herdsmen’s treatment of the animals is firm, pragmatic, respectful. It is part of an approach to life that allows them to flourish in an environment most would consider hostile. The land, even when frozen, is a generous ally, providing food, shelter and warmth if you know where to look for it. Only a generation ago, the Sami would live outdoors with their herd and track the reindeer on foot. ‘But it was tough,’ reflects Lennart. ‘We would survive well without electricity if we had to, but change is not a bad thing.’
Indeed, modern reindeer husbandry comes with such a litany of financial pressures that, without change, there’s a real chance it won’t survive beyond Juvva’s generation. From the EU law that prevents them from slaughtering their own animals and thus getting the best return on them, to competition for land from forestry, mining and hydroelectricity, the biggest threat may well come in the shape of predators, such as the lynx and weasely wolverine, that stalk the northern wilds with a lusty eye on the Sami’s reindeer. These predators are protected species and the Sami are prohibited from hunting them if they attack the herd but, says Kenneth, if a reindeer is killed, the Sami are compensated only 50 per cent of its value by the Swedish government. During the last spring migration, half of his herd disappeared in a single night. ‘We are not part of the economic system – if we lose reindeer, it can take us years to build the herd again. How is Juvva going to survive if he has to give up half his income every year?’ Gloominess seems to sit uneasily with the Pittja brothers. ‘I’m angry sometimes but I am always optimistic,’ says Lennart. ‘We realise it is up to us to keep the culture going, not the government or the EU. We have been here thousands of years so we are not doing so bad.’
The family is nothing if not resourceful, making extra income selling homemade traditional Sami clothing and knives carved from reindeer antlers. Lennart’s own solution is tourism. Since 1995, he has been guiding small groups through Laponia, trekking in the mountains in the summer and joining the reindeer in the early spring. ‘We bring guests out here to share our lives. I don’t know anything about marketing and I’m not a politician but I know people like to come here and they go home and tell their friends about us.’