Reindeer culture is part of everyday life for Saami people. But reindeer need Arctic conditions to thrive.
In Finnish Sápmi, the average temperature has risen by 2.3°C since the post-industrial period. If warming continues at this rate, the climate in Sápmi will resemble that of southern Finland by the end of the century—and this could threaten Saami’s traditional reindeer herding culture.
Meet Klemetti Näkkäläjärvi (Juvvá Lemet), a Saami cultural anthropologist and linguist at the University of Lapland. He warns that changes to the amount and structure of snow in Finnish Sápmi could threaten the Saami way of life.
1. Less predictable snow conditions
Changing snow conditions affect both reindeer and herders
Snow, or muohta, covers the Sápmi region—home of the Indigenous Saami people—eight months a year and determines the success of the reindeer year for herders. So, it is not surprising that there are at least 360 words for snow in Saami culture. One example is the word guohtun, a concept that describes both snow and nutrition conditions for reindeer. Unfortunately, Näkkäläjärvi says guohtun conditions are no longer predictable. Not only does snow arrive later, but the amount varies and the snow has a different structure.
Changes in snow and ice conditions have made it more difficult for reindeer to dig underneath thick snow and ice crusts for lichen. Unpredictable environmental conditions have also led to fatal accidents in Saami communities.
©Global Warming Images
I have always lived in Sápmi, and have lived the Saami way of life. I have also studied Saami culture extensively, and I see the changes every day.
Saami cultural anthropologist
2. Climate change = culture change
Changing climate threatens Saami’s herding culture
Snow plays a central role in the Saami way of life and their reindeer herding culture, as well as in climatic, ecological and hydrological processes in the region. But as the amount and structure of snow in the area changes, and the snow-free season grows longer, it is triggering changes to Sami culture, language and livelihoods.
Climate change has already forced many herders to change their livelihood models. For example, some have introduced modern technologies and others are providing additional food for reindeer herds to survive.
As livelihoods that were unique to the Saami are lost, Näkkäläjärvi says more Saami will shift to speaking Finnish, and Saami culture and language will begin to disappear.
3. An uncertain future
Searching for ways to protect Saami culture
In a warming climate, Näkkäläjärvi says the Saami will likely survive as a linguistic minority. But he warns that their unique culture and knowledge system will fade away. Reindeer herding could be transformed from a cultural livelihood to an industry.
Näkkäläjärvi says that like other Indigenous peoples, the Saami have always adapted, whether to assimilation, environmental conditions or climate change. “But we are facing a serious limit.”
To safeguard Saami traditions and culture, Näkkäläjärvi says we need to make sure there will be some good reindeer years left. And the only way to do that is by finding ways to limit global warming.
Climate change mitigation and adaptation are a question of human rights for Indigenous people.
Saami cultural anthropologist
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