In the Arctic, Reindeer Are Sustenance and a Sacred Presence


AT ONE IN the afternoon in late September, the sky was pale over Guovdageaidnu, at 69 degrees north. Oskal carried his laptop to the window of his office to show me the view, all the way in New York. He wore a gakti (tunic), royal blue with appliquéd red ribbons, their patterns and placements a kind of heraldic device, designating his family and siida, a community and geographic unit that includes both the physical area covered by his clan’s herds and the relationships of the people within it. The leaves have fallen, he told me. Each night the sun is quicker to bed. But when I asked him when it would stop rising entirely, when the dayless days would begin, he furrowed his brow and for a moment couldn’t remember, despite having spent his entire life above the Arctic Circle. December? January? “We just live it,” he said. He tapped the top of his wrist, which was bare. We think of time differently here, he explained: “Time is not passing. Time is coming.” When you work with the herd, you don’t look at your watch. You work until you are finished.

Oskal, who also serves as the executive director of the International Center for Reindeer Husbandry (I.C.R.), a group funded in part by the Norwegian government to document Indigenous knowledge, was born in a rural county to the west. His was a “stubborn” family, he said, determined to preserve the Sami culture. In early childhood, he and his brother had to take a bus an hour and a half to get to school, where there were few students of Sami descent and even fewer who openly embraced their heritage. Eventually, Sami parents in the area were able to establish a Sami-language school, a victory in a country with a legacy of forced assimilation, from the Lutheran missionaries of the 17th century, who tried to stamp out local shamanism, to the separation of children from their families to send them to boarding schools — a trauma that the Sami share across Fennoscandia and with other Indigenous peoples around the world — which were originally instituted by the church and then taken over by the government in the 19th century and maintained through the 1960s. Oskal was the first in his family to pursue higher education, a path that took him away from the herd, and then returned him to it, as an advocate.

Three years ago, just before the reindeer spring migration, he and his colleagues filed a 161-page report on food security and sovereignty with the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum established in 1996 to address issues of environmental change, whose members include representatives from native peoples and the eight nations with borders that extend above the northern tree line: Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, the Russian Federation, Sweden and the United States. (In 2018, China declared itself a “near-Arctic state” with a stake in the fate of the region and, pointedly, in “the exploration for and exploitation of oil, gas, mineral and other non-living resources.”) The report, titled “Eallu: Indigenous Youth, Arctic Change and Food Culture — Food, Knowledge and How We Have Thrived on the Margins,” was in fact a cookbook — a compendium of oral recipes recorded by young people from the tundra and the taiga, in consultation with their elders, as part of a larger project to protect and revive ancient traditions. Formal policy recommendations shared the pages with tips on preserving reindeer meat in buckets of salt and snow and the difference in cooking times for walrus (long) and bearded seal (short).

A diligent reader could learn to prepare seal intestine, preferably from a young seal (“not as stringy”), braided and stuffed with fat, heart, kidney or lungs, and eaten cold with mustard — or, better, hot, when “it almost tastes like corned beef,” advises Lucy Kenezuroff, an Aleut born in 1930 in the Alaska Territory. For a reindeer version of the Russian dish kholodets, the Sami of the Kola Peninsula simmer hooves and tongues for much of a day, then shred the meat and ladle the broth over it to cool and thicken into jelly. Most recipes require just a handful of ingredients, but these might be difficult to come by; as Sandy and Marjorie Tahbone, Inuit from Nome, Alaska, write in an entry on seal blubber and innards, “It is not like you can go to the store and pick up a few pounds of meat and intestines and they are ready to cook.” Half the work is done before the meat arrives in the kitchen: knowing how to choose the right animal to slaughter, and then how to kill it. The Nenets lasso the reindeer by the neck and strangle it swiftly, believing this brings less suffering, spilling none of the treasured blood. The Sami plunge a knife to the heart, so the blood leaks inward, collecting under the ribs.

Instead of shoving the report into a suitcase or handing it off to an underling, the delegates on the council did what was apparently unthinkable: They read it. Oskal recalled Rex Tillerson, then the U.S. secretary of state, asking if he could adapt the recipes for the whitetail deer he hunted back home. Only 70 copies had been printed, and they almost immediately disappeared. The book wasn’t glossy or destined for a coffee table; the photographs — a crowded platter of reindeer eyes, reindeer being butchered in bloodstained snow — were documentarian in approach and intentionally unaestheticized. The young researchers wanted “to show the reality,” Oskal said. “To show everything.”



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