The Sami Reindeer Herders of Sweden

Although Western culture has lighthearted associations reindeer and the holiday season, these animals have been central to the Sami peoples’ livelihood for centuries. The Sami are the indigenous people who first inhabited the area of northern Scandinavia that extends across current day Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. Conflict regarding land rights and borders has troubled Sami reindeer herders since the arrival of the current dominant ethnic group from Southern Europe around the 9th century. Colonists continued to push the Sami further north and inland, taking from them their sacred land. Today, while the Sami have been granted some land rights by the government, they still struggle to maintain ownership of their land.

The Sami people have lived moving fluidly through their land in northern Scandinavia since prehistoric times. They were not one people, but groups in a large area who led varying lifestyles. Some developed into permanent settlements based on fishing, while others led more nomadic lifestyles that evolved into reindeer herding. Reindeer herding has existed among the Sami for over 1,000 years. There were some groups that led completely nomadic lives following the reindeer year-round, but present day herders live a more sedentary life. Today, herders typically move between summer and winter pastures where they have a home. These pastures are organized around villages since they are only allowed to herd the reindeer in designated areas. The Reindeer Husbandry Law of 1971 established this system in order to promote the continuation of reindeer husbandry. The law designates the lands that the Sami have rights to, as well as provides specific land and water rights. Only those who belong to the government certified villages are allowed to herd, which constitutes about 10% of the total Sami population in Sweden (The Sami People in Sweden). Even though these rights help the Sami in the preservation of their culture, when there is an economic incentive or the option for environmental protection, the Swedish government acts in its own best interest.

There is no one specific area that the Sami deem sacred to their culture. However, reindeer herding is essential to Sami identity, making the land they use for herding critical to the survival of their culture. The Sami practice a type of shamanistic spirituality that is inextricably rooted in nature. Given this close, respectful relationship to nature, they see all of their land as sacred, but mark some specific holy sites (Polidor). Since they cannot designate certain areas as more sacred than others, since all their land used for reindeer herding is sacred, it is difficult to protect all of their land. In the late 18th century the Scandinavian countries began to designate their borders and demand the Sami acquire a citizenship to their respective country. The concept of borders and the inability to cross was completely foreign to them and divided their land and people. Early laws required Sami to become citizens, but they were allowed to cross borders freely to continue their traditional practices. Over time there was a general shift in the governments’ reclamation of the land from the Sami for state or private ownership and border crossings became stricter. This began a long process of Westernization through limiting their ability to lead a nomadic lifestyle. As the Sami continued to lose their land to the encroaching government and colonists, they tried to hold on to what was essential to their traditional culture and identity. The more land they lost, the more difficult it would be to maintain their way of life.

By 2020 the Swedish government plans to complete construction for the world’s largest land wind farm near Pitea in northern Sweden. This massive project includes installing over 1,000 turbines and an 800 km road, fragmenting reindeer migration routes and herding areas. Mattias Åhrén, president of the Sami Council said, “The Swedish state has admitted that the project will destroy at least 25% of the Sami community’s winter reindeer herding pastures, but the state has argued that renewable energy is more important than Sami rights” (Sami Council Criticize German Bank Funding of Wind Power on Reindeer Pastures). The project will produce enough power equivalent to two nuclear reactors and will hopefully fulfill the government’s goal of generating half of their energy from wind power. The government has removed veto power for wind farms from local towns, ensuring its success (Sullivan). Although Sweden claims that they care about the preservation of the Sami culture, the country also violates Sami land rights when it is in the country’s best interest.

It is tragic for the Sami to see their land destroyed since any land they use for herding is sacred to them. “Being a reindeer herder, the strongest Sami symbolic act in Swedish Sami culture, means having a natural but exposed position in the Sami community. This means that the occupation should not be viewed as ‘just a job’ but also as a position that is important to one’s existence as a Sami” (Ellinor Salander Renberg). This highlights the serious concerns of the Sami regarding the wind farm construction in their grazing land. Their reindeer would be limited in their movement, as well as endangered by the machinery. Although the company building the wind farm has agreed to provide compensation, money cannot replace the threat of their diminishing land and culture. As in other conflicts, the Sami were not consulted prior to the approval of the project. This is not the first time the Sami have faced issues over land rights. Currently, their land is threatened by oil exploration, mining, dam building, logging, military bombing, tourism, and commercial development (Polidor). It is especially difficult for the Sami to witness the degradation of the land that they cared for and have had deep relationships with for centuries. The issue over the construction of the wind farm, however, has a more contemporary and compelling twist. While most previous exploits by the government have had damaging environmental effects, the wind farm is a huge step towards sustainable, clean energy. This is an issue that many countries are dealing with and it seems that Sweden is a progressive leader in the green movement through the construction of this project. The wind farm will help to reduce green house gas emissions and limit pollution from coal and nuclear power plants. For many people, this is seen as a positive step for Sweden that will hopefully set an example for other countries. But where do the Sami fit into the picture?

The issue of tradition versus progress continues to arise in many indigenous communities. In cases previously analyzed, it was easy to sympathize with the indigenous people whose land was being destroyed or disrespected. However, the promotion of green energy is essential for the future protection of our planet. For the Sami it must be frustrating to lose their land and have no influence, especially when it is their sacred land. It is tragic to lose something that is sacred and essential to their identity and it has become more difficult for them to maintain their traditional culture without the support of the Swedish government and people. Though they have received more international attention in the past few years and Sweden has received criticism in its efforts to help the Sami, they still have a long way to go before they will have any real leverage in the government. It is extremely important for the government to recognize and protect their culture, especially as the world continues to progress at such a rapid speed. It is a difficult situation because the Sami hold all of their land as sacred since it is critical to their livelihood, and the northern part of the country where they live is the only place the wind farm can be built. The government has their priority, which is made clear by Sullivan’s assertion that “The government can take over land earmarked for reindeer grazing-if it’s in the national interest.” It is hard to determine who

is ultimately right in this situation. The construction of the wind farm is important for Sweden, however, they could have consulted the Sami about the location and their wishes since it is on their land. Land disputes involving sacred land that cannot be replaced is challenging for those involved, but if done in a respectful manner, can sometimes be mitigated in a way that does not do too much damage to either party.

-Julia Van Raalte


Watch this video clip to learn more about the Sami:



For more information on the Sami, visit these websites:



Works Cited:

Ellinor Salander Renberg, et al. “Depression And Anxiety In The Reindeer-Herding Sami Population Of Sweden.” Circumpolar Health Supplements 7 (2010): 383-393. Academic Search Complete. Web. 5 Nov. 2011.

Lantto, Patrik. “Borders, Citizenship And Change: The Case Of The Sami People, 1751-2008.” Citizenship Studies 14.5 (2010): 543-556. Academic Search Complete. Web. 5 Nov. 2011.

Polidor, Amberly. “Lands of the Sami.” Sacred Land Film Project. 01 Aug. 2004. Web. 04 Nov. 2011. <>.

“Sami Council Criticize German Bank Funding of Wind Power on Reindeer Pastures.” Reindeer Blog. 19 Apr. 2010. Web. 05 Nov. 2011. <>.

“The Sami People in Sweden.”, De Site over Wandeltochten in Scandinavië. Web. 04 Nov. 2011. <>.

Sullivan, Tom. “Sámi Opposition to Giant Wind Farms.” Eye On the Arctic. Radio Canada International, 6 Dec. 2010. Web. 4 Nov. 2011. <>.






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