Think about a reindeer, with a big head and wide black eyes, downy antlers and a dusting of frost on his muzzle. Those antlers are huge and appear on both the males and the females (this is the only species of deer where the women have antlers too). Their shaggy fur coat keeps them warm in the extreme north of the world. By now, you're probably picturing them pulling a big red sleigh through the Christmas Eve sky... However, for the Sami, the indigenous people of extreme northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia, reindeer husbandry is not only an economic option-- it is a way of life that maintains the traditions of their ancient culture. In the stark and barren tundra encircling the Arctic Circle, the reindeer are kept in herds and make survival possible.
The earliest evidence of reindeer herding actually comes from the Western Hemisphere, in the northern Yukon Territory, where archaeological evidence revealed the 30,000 year old remains of a "corral". These corrals are twin wooden lines that become closer and closer over the course of several miles so that at the end the running animals would be trapped in a tiny space and easily killed. Today, the reindeer herders in Norway use the same technique for capturing the animals, except for one thing: they have added a door at the end of the shoot to release animals who are too small and need to grow larger. A special breed of dog, the Lapphund, was domesticated in this region and has evolved to help herd the reindeer.
The Sami use the reindeer much as the Native Americans of the Great Plains used the buffalo, using every part and wasting nothing. However, they also domesticated the animal thousands of years ago, milking them, breeding them, and occasionally riding them or using them to pull sleds (although they tire out much more quickly than a horse). The intestines provide vitamins that could not be found elsewhere in the climate. The sinews are thread, used to make clothing and shoes from reindeer hide; the antlers and bones tools.
In Norway, the Samis have been recognized as a separate people from the European Norwegians, and most of them now practice reindeer husbandry in the extreme north, carrying on the tradition of their ancestors. This freedom is in extreme constrast to neighboring Sweden, where the government seems to be going out of its way to stop reindeer husbandry among the native people-- so much so that it has come into conflict with the human rights watchers at the European Union.
When the Chernobyl disaster occurred in 1986, the fallout affected nearly every part of the world, demonstrating just how small Earth is. Today, the Norwegian Reindeer Husbandry Administration releases yearly reports on the radiation levels in a sample of about 10% of the reindeer in the country. The reindeer meat is tainted with radiation because the animals like to eat mushrooms, which accumulate cesium, the radioactive isotope released by Chernobyl. One way to solve the problem is "foddering down", which involves feeding the animals a controlled diet, sometimes laced with a cesium binder, like ferrocyanides of iron, for six weeks before slaughtering them. Also, Norwegians have increased the permissible amount of radioactive material in food to allow the Sami to continue herding the reindeer-- now it is five times that of the European Union.
This is my lovely traditional dress for the The Everything Noder Pageant 2003. I feel so pretty!