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In Focus: Lapland's Reindeer Culture

By: Jessica
Posted in: Lapland, Sweden, In Focus, Finland

In this installment of In Focus, let's get to know more about Santa's sleigh-pullers and Lapland's best known creatures. The reindeer.

Not just cute animals

Reindeer are an integral part of the culture in Lapland. For the indigenous Sámi people of this region, these animals have been the crux of their existence for centuries, providing transportation as well as warmth and nourishment in the challenging Arctic climate.

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Reindeer are well adapted to the Arctic climate. For example, their hooves and food pads change between seasons according to conditions on the tundra, and for insulation they have two layers of fur, with the underside being more woolly -- a good lesson for how all visitors should dress in Lapland!

 

In the past, the Sámi were nomadic and moved with their herds between grazing lands on the tundra. Reindeer husbandry—the term for herding reindeer in a limited area—may not be a matter of survival anymore with all the modern technologies, but it is still a major livelihood for many in the region and is considered an important tradition to keep alive.

In Lapland, knowledge of reindeer husbandry has traditionally been passed down orally from generation to generation, and reindeer-herding terminology is very specific as the native Sámi dialects have hundreds of precise terms for snow, ice and other natural phenomena.

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Parking a reindeer is easier than parking a car...

 

Today, visitors to Lapland can experience the unique culture and traditions surrounding reindeer firsthand with visits to Sámi reindeer farms.


For more interesting facts about the reindeer culture in Lapland, we turn now to Sofia, one of our travel consultants in Sweden.

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Fun fact: reindeer antlers can grow as much as 2 cm in a single day! Sofia puts it into perspective here. In the old days, the antlers would be used to make tools or handcrafts.

Are there many people who still live this traditional way of life?

Sofia: There are approximately 80,000 Sámi people across the far northern parts of Sweden, Norway, Finland and parts of Russia. According to our supplier for our reindeer tours in Kiruna, approximately 10% of the Sámi people in Sweden are living off reindeer husbandry. The life in the harsh long winters is tough, but it is maintained as a tradition to keep the culture alive. For this reason, reindeer herding is legally reserved only for Sámi people in some parts of the Nordic countries.

What activities are typically involved in a reindeer tour?

Sofia: On a visit to a Sámi farm you will learn a lot about their culture and lifestyle, and you will also go into the enclosures and have the opportunity to feed the reindeer.

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Imagine, reindeer eating from the palm of your hand! Reindeer in Lapland eat mainly lichen, moss, hay, grass and other plants. Here Cicci, Sofia's colleague, feeds her new friends a custom feed-blend from the farmers.

 

Another typically activity is that you will be able to try to drive your own reindeer sled around a short track in the forest. It's not too fast, and it's a fun ride!

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Reindeer sledding is the oldest form of transport here, and visitors to Sámi farms can experience what it feels like to zip around on an old-fashioned wooden sled. With no loud engine or exhaust sounds, you only hear the crunching of snow.

Can you tell us a little about reindeer meat? 

Sofia: Reindeer is the local delicacy you have to try in Lapland. The Sámi signature dish of lightly-smoked reindeer meat is called Souvas and is traditionally prepared over the fire.

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Reindeer outnumber people in Lapland, so not surprisingly reindeer meat is a mainstay in the area's cuisine. It's just as popular as it was in old days, and chefs are always coming up with innovative ways to prepare it.

 

The meat is served on flat bread with lingonberry jam. The pieces of reindeer meat are thinly sliced and are smoky and intensely flavoured. The combination of the hot smoked reindeer meat, flat bread and sour lingonberry jam is a winning concept and tastes so good!

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The people of Lapland have always made the best of whatever was seasonably available in nature. Besides reindeer, the traditional cuisine is characterized by berries, potatoes, game, freshwater fish and wild herbs. Yum!

 

Our meal was prepared by our Sámi hosts inside a lavvu. Sitting on reindeer skins around an open fire after a day outside in the cold is very cosy, and the fire makes it really nice and warm inside the lavvu. And there is of course a vent in the top to keep the air fresh.

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A lavuu is a traditional Sámi tent, or tepee. For centuries these mobile shelters have been made by stitching together reindeer pelts (or canvas), and inside reindeer furs serve as soft, warm seating pads.

 

After our meal we were served coffee that was also prepared in the old fashioned way on the fire. It tasted strong, but one needs that for the cold weather.

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Here, coffee is prepared in the traditional way, with a coffee pouch (made of reindeer leather, of course) and a tinned copper kettle over the fire. There is also a certain etiquette for drinking the coffee, which your hosts will teach you.

 

Thanks, Sofia!


There's far more to learn about reindeer and Sámi culture than what can fit here in one blog post. The best thing to do is experience it in person! Luckily, Nordic Visitor has a variety of tours in Lapland that include fun and informative visits to farms, reindeer parks or even the Ranua Wildlife Park, the northernmost zoo in the world.

To learn more about travelling in Scandinavia's northernmost region, check out Nordic Visitor's handy Lapland at a Glance guide. And for a closer look at the unique aspects of life and travel in the Nordic countries, check out other stories in our In Focus series.

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Post by: Jessica

When not writing about Northern European tourist attractions, Jessica Bowe is busy daydreaming about her next trip or scouring Instagram for travel inspiration. Originally from Wisconsin (USA), she's lived in Iceland since 2008 and has since become fully immersed in Eurovision mania and Scandinavian coffee culture.

More posts by Jessica

Getting there

We'd love to give you the same amazing travel experiences as you read about in our blog! To visit the destinations and attractions mentioned in this post - and to discover a few new highlights along the way, check out these recommended Nordic Visitor tours.

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