Legends of the tundra: Life among Sami reindeer herders

TASS/Lev Fedoseev
Indigenous Sami people are developing ethno-tourism in a recreated village in Russia's Far North.

"After getting electricity we are going to be displayed on Google," says Ivan Golovin, standing in the middle of a street full of tents similar in appearance to temporary teepees made of animal skins on wooden poles.

As Golovin speaks he breathes out little wafts of steam. We are in the tundra near Murmansk in Russia's Far North. The first Sami tourist village Sam-Syyt (meaning "Sami village") is located here. The village is being developed by the Sami people themselves, including Golovin, who is the chairperson of the Russian Sami Community.

Forgotten language

Photo credit: Alamy/Legion-Media
Sami (also Saami and sometimes Lopari) are an indigenous people that live in the Murmansk Region and can also be found in Norway, Sweden and Finland. According to Russian Sami, despite the need for visas, long distances and many years of isolation, today they still understand the language of its people in other countries.

During the Soviet times the Sami forgot their language and traditions. Sami children were forced to learn Russian in school and to forget their native tongue and those that continued to speak Sami were punished. The Soviet authorities feared that the Sami would attempt to establish their own state or join Finland.

Today, on the other hand it's even a little trendy to be a Sami, although there are not more than 2,000 of them left in Russia. They constitute Russia's smallest national minority and are concentrated around the settlement of Lovozero and in neighboring Sami villages.

To feed or to eat a reindeer?

Photo credit: TASS/Lev Fedoseev
The most precious thing that the Sami people have is the reindeer. In the village it is possible to feed these elegant animals and stroke their fancy antlers. The  most important thing to remember when feeding reindeer is to not lift your arm too high or they will put their hoof on your shoulders and take the treat. The villagers encourage visitors to praise the incredible power of these northern animals: just a couple of them can easily carry six people on a sled through the tundra.

After developing a bond with these animals it may seem a bit discourteous, but visitors are offered reindeer meat for lunch. The traditional soup vyar is made with reindeer meat and reindeer sausage production is in the works as well. One can also taste lim, a traditional fish soup, and pakula, an herbal tea, which is served from a 200-year old teapot with cloudberry jam.

This menu might seem disrespectful, but Sami people do not hesitate in explaining the importance of the animal in their lives.

"The reindeer gives us food, drink, remedies, it is our transport and clothes," says Vitaly, a local herder. He adjusts his reindeer skin pants.

Photo credit: TASS/Andrei Pronin

There is a special word in the Sami language that describes the deep stillness that appears before reindeer arrive. The legends tell about the Sami totemic primal forefather Myandash, a reindeer-man, who taught Sami people the art of hunting. The entire Sami calendar is structured around reindeer and Sami men spend nine month of the year in tundra.

How to find love in the tundra

Photo credit: Alamy/Legion-Media
During the remaining three months of the year local men have to settle all domestic concerns, including finding a wife. Here another animal – the bear – comes to the rescue. Vitaly, our reindeer herder guide, is carrying a bear penis on his waistband. He says that due to this amulet he has married for the third time.

"When I got married for the first time I was too young," Vitaly says. "I spent years in the tundra and my wife couldn't wait for so long. With my second wife we were just too different from each other. My third wife walked 50 kilometers (31 miles) to find me in the tundra. This is real love."

You can find love (and not only love) in the Sami village. In the village there's an enchanted alley of idols where you can find one that suits your needs such as happiness, luck, love, fate, health or the four elements. You can gain the idol’s favor by giving it a yellow coin and hugging it tightly. To be on the safe side, buy an amulet that an old shaman woman living in seclusion for a few years has put a spell on.

The three Sami worlds

Photo credit: Alamy/Legion-Media
Shamans have a tremendous influence on the Sami people up until the present day. The shaman is the guide between the three worlds: upper - the heavens, lower - the underworld and middle - the earth. According to local Sami, Tibetan shamans helped them choose the location for the village.

Golovin says that the Tibetan shamans performed a ceremony.

"Three hours of my life were erased," Golovin says. "It was a real witch sabbath. But they said that the aura was clean and that the village would prosper and would have many residents. So our village is growing in a place with a clean aura."

How to get there
There are regular flights to Murmansk from Moscow and St. Petersburg. From Murmansk it is a 110 kilometer (68 mile) drive to Sam-Syyt on a road surrounded by tundra.

The best time to visit is winter and summer. During the winter it is quite cold, but there is plenty of snow and the northern lights to enjoy, while the summer brings the white nights. Spending the whole night outside in summer is only for the very strongest: the temperature rarely rises above 15 degrees Celsius (59 Fahrenheit).

The authors would like to thank the German-Russian Forum for help in preparing this article.

All rights reserved by Rossiyskaya Gazeta.

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