“In the past you could ask the old people for advice about the weather, but that’s not possible any more because no one knows what it will be like. The seasons have shifted.”

Tjärnberg 2017: Emanuel, 13, together with his father Anders-Erling Fjällås Photo Maria Söderberg 


  • September, 15 2017

An unusually rainy summer has passed and autumn comes dressed in yellow-brown. At the south foot of Tjidtják is the reindeer enclosure of the Sami village of Semisjaur-Njarg, ten kilometres from highway 95, the Silver Road, and six kilometres from the mountain village of Tjärnberg. There are thousands of reindeer running around. Where stony areas, birch trees or people appear before them, the herd splits up in seconds, like water flowing around a rock in a waterfall. A reindeer would never run into a human being. The lasso in bright neon colours winds and twists on the ground. Occasionally it is thrown to catch a particular animal, marked or unmarked. The grunts of the reindeer vary in strength. If you listen a while you can distinguish the anxious bleating of the reindeer calves who have lost their mother. And then you hear a snort, a warning to others. But now, in the middle of September, is not the most hectic working period. The summer calf marking is over. The tasks now are the after-marking of calves and the selection of older animals for slaughter. Families are assembled by generations in the enclosure, and there are many conversations. The languages alternate between Pite Sami, North Sami and Swedish. This is an opportunity to teach the young ones how to identify the family’s reindeer, how to use a lasso, mark a calf’s ears, see when a reindeer is blind or otherwise injured.

For Anders-Erling Fjällås, 40, this is the place to be. For generations before him, on both parents’ sides, life has revolved around reindeer herding. Semisjaur as the name of a Sami village has existed for at least six hundred years – perhaps longer, but it is hard to find sources. An untrained eye has difficulty telling reindeer apart, but Anders-Erling can see quickly, even from a distance, if it is his and his family’s animals moving in the enclosure.
“This is Knubbis,” he tells me when he has lassoed a stubborn bull. After a while the reindeer stands still at his side.
“It’s not often a reindeer is given a name, but I know this one well. The name comes from the fact that he got rather ‘chubby’. He had got away from the herd once and I found him. He had to come with me and he was trained to become tamer. So, now we know each other… and Knubbis then got a GPS transmitter around his neck.

With the aid of new technology the reindeer herders can track their animals. Knubbis and the group of reindeer to which he belongs can usually be found on the east side of Tjidtják.
“The best thing about this technology is that we can demonstrate the presence of the reindeer in the terrain. This has helped us as proof when the authorities and others have asked for it. It happens that people doubt what we say, as in the matter of banning snowmobiles. It’s good when we can produce digital evidence.”
Through better mapping of the reindeer grazing habits and movements it is possible to reduce the use of off-road vehicles and helicopters. This saves money and reduces impact on the climate. With the help of new technology the Sami villages have taken the reindeer herds and their work into the future. Today 9,000 animals can be tended by eight full-time employees, although at certain times extra manpower is needed. The Sami village can see and store the positions of the reindeer, but can they sometimes have too much information?
“At first I was carried away by all the data, but after a while I realized that it’s in the forest and on the mountain, out there, that you can see how the reindeer are doing. Technology has become so important for the authorities and scientists. A reindeer herder’s own account is not accepted as fact if it can’t be verified by the new technology.”

Snowmobiles are now the essential form of transport, but forest skis are still used today, chiefly for hunting. New methods are not uncommon: when horses came into use in reindeer herding a hundred years ago, many were sceptical. Although reindeer herding is a historical and traditional livelihood, it is constantly changing. In a vuolle (joik) recorded in 1953 from Jonas Edvard Steggo – who often moved around the Tjidtják mountain – he sings:

…hear, in former times we old people travelled on skis with sacks on our backs, but young people nowadays no longer bother skiing, they take a horse and drive with it, and reindeer herding will surely decline, woe woe woe…

Knubbis the reindeer, at any rate, gets a new GPS band around his neck, and when he is released he stands perfectly still for a while. “Am I really free now?” he seems to be thinking. Then he sets off and in a few seconds he is back in the herd.
“Do you joik?”
“No,” Anders-Erling laughs, “I leave that to others.”

It could not be taken for granted that he would end up working in the Sami village or stay on in Arjeplog.
“When I left high school I wanted to be an agronomist, that was my dream,” he says.
“I went to the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Uppsala and met the vice-chancellor. Everything felt right. But when I ended up on the waiting list and didn’t get in at the first attempt, I looked back to home. My parents were pleased, of course, that I wanted to continue their life’s work in reindeer herding, but I know that they would have supported me no matter what I had chosen.”
Today Anders-Erling Fjällås is chairman of the Sami village of Semisjaur-Njarg. This is an important position in which he can cooperate with other Sami villages over a large area. But it is also a vulnerable post where issues such as the unregulated snowmobile traffic and predatory animals threaten the fragile consensus. Sometimes a solution is reached after a telephone call, sometimes the disagreement lasts for years. But in Arjeplog the level of conflict is lower than in other areas, he thinks.
“Here we have fewer problems, for example, with people shooting reindeer than in other areas. When it happens it’s quite often discontented people relieving their aggression against the Sami in general by shooting our animals.”
“And what causes the discord?”
“It’s usually about fishing and hunting rights and about the special historical position of reindeer herding, which is even inscribed in the Swedish constitution.”

Arjeplog municipality is a Sami administrative district, and after Jokkmokk Arjeplog has the largest percentage of the adult population who can vote in elections to the Sami Parliament, namely, ten per cent.
Anders-Erling Fjällås is on the reindeer committee of the Sami Parliament, represen-ting the Samiland Party (Samlelandspartiet, in Swedish). One of the frequently discussed questions is predatory animals. In other words, how many wolves, wolverines, lynxes, bears and eagles can be allowed within the reindeer herding area. This is a complex procedure with a compensation system based on predator stocktaking and family groups for wolverine, lynx and wolf. The counting is done in collaboration between the Sami villages and the nature conservancy patrols of the county administration.
“We have to abide by a good decision of the Swedish parliament. It says that we should not need to tolerate higher losses than ten per cent of the reindeer herd. But the problem is that it is not implemented by the country administrations and the Environmental Protection Agency,” he says with a sigh.
“This is our greatest worry and grief. Money can’t make up for lost animals. There are calving areas where our losses can amount to nearly fifty per cent and at a minimum it can be twenty or thirty per cent of the total herd. I know that you should be careful with figures, but that is what the reality is like.”

A recent doctoral dissertation from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences describes how up to thirty per cent of the reindeer calves can be killed by bears in the calving area. This corroborates what the Sami villages say.
“In this respect Norway is much stricter about keeping predatory animals at a more acceptable level. For us it would help a great deal if they just started enforcing the decision of the Swedish Parliament.”
Anders-Erling Fjällås lives with his family in a house in Arjeplog. His two sons go to school half a kilometre away and are keen on sport, and his partner Maria Kristoffersson works as a teacher. The favourite food of the family, not surprisingly, is reindeer. But while Anders-Erling brings out a shoulder of dried reindeer meat to put on the kitchen table, he tells me what keeps him perky, apart from reindeer meat and mountain fish. His elixir is grated ginger from which he makes a juice he drinks every day.
“The kids have tried it, but they find it too strong.”
Awareness about food has increased, both in their own household and in the surrounding world. It should be locally produced and organic, which means a greater demand for reindeer meat. This is rich in vitamins and minerals, with a lot of omega-3 which gives the meat a good flavour. Reindeer should pre-ferably be of the fatter kind, otherwise there is a risk that the dried meat – if you choose that – will be too dry.
“Reindeer is fantastic! It’s simply the best meat. It’s fun to produce a product that’s in such demand.”

But reindeer herding also means living close to Älvsbyn. When the mountains are filled with snow, the reindeer have their grazing in the coastal area. This has been the way for centuries. The Sami village has moved its reindeer to the coast, and for Semisjaur-Njarg the winter grazing used to be along the whole coast of Norrbotten, including Pitholmen. There used to be pine heaths and forests here, but not much is left today. The town of Piteå has expanded, and there are lots of holiday homes here, and the island also has a famous beach with a hotel and camp site. The old winter grazing areas have also been reduced by forestry, roads, wind turbines and mining. But the biggest enemy in the last few years is climate change.
“In the past you could ask the old people for advice about the weather, but that’s not possible any more because no one knows what it will be like. The seasons have shifted.”
He laughs and looks at the sky:
“Somebody must have done something to the axis of the earth! The stars haven’t caught up. Yes, something has happened when autumn is longer and winter is no longer recognizable.
The reindeer have the best instincts, according to Anders-Erling, who describes how sensitive the animals are to all forms of change. The cooler and rainier summers involve a shift in the calf marking and the rutting season. Their diet has changed.
“It’s very strange to see green leaves in the mountains well into September.”
In the wake of climate change comes another hazard. The Russian permafrost is melting, which increases the risk of anthrax among the animals. Anthrax bacteria are unusual, according to the Public Health Agency; they can hibernate for decades. But because the soil has been stirred up, they have woken up.
Along the coast a sheet of ice is increasingly common, a hard-packed crust, and the reindeer’s sense of smell is not always good enough for them to find something to eat. Moreover, it can be difficult to dig the food out of the ice.

The worries are justified. In the winter of 2013–2014 a disaster occurred among reindeer in Siberia when 61,000 animals died before the emergency slaughter could start. Intensive rain during a single day in November made the snow wet through. Then the temperature fell, creating a thick, impenetrable sheet of ice that covered an area the size of Dalarna. Scientists later could see a direct association between the reduction of the ocean ice and the extreme weather events. However, it has not been as dramatic in the Sami villages of Sweden.
“We have also been able to follow violent fluctuations in the weather in recent years. In the past there could be strong winds; now it’s almost hurricanes. In the winter the temperature can vary between warm and cold in one day, from minus thirty one day to mild weather the next. The higher temperatures have also meant that ticks have moved further north. There have been ticks at the coast for a while, but I hope that the mountain villages will escape them.”
“How will it end?”
“We’ll have to adapt. That’s what we’ve always done.”

At Gáldsdesbuovdda. Foto Maria Söderberg


The interview ends at the summit of Gáldsdesbuovdda, with a view over much of the grazing lands of Semisjaur-Njarg. We drive up there in Anders-Erling Fjällås’s light truck with the four-wheeler on the flatbed. There is thick fog all the way up along the tarred road. The summit is 800 metres above sea level. Ten minutes later the sun comes out, and the huge mountain panorama spreads out, with Hornavan at the centre, and a short time later comes a hail shower followed by snow. It is the 9th of October, but if you did not know it would be hard to guess whether it was spring, summer or autumn.

Translation from Swedish to English: Alan Crozier

Klimatförändringar och renskötsel, Nyhetsblad från Sametinget, April 2017.
Lapska sånger texter och melodier från svenska Lappland, Fonografiskt upptagna av Landsmåls- och Folkminnesarkivet i Uppsala II. Sånger från Arjeplog och Arvidsjaur, texten utgiven av Harald Grundstöm, musikalisk transkription av Sune Smedeby, Almqvist & Wiksell, Uppsala 1963.

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About Sami names