Within the Arctic, Reindeer Are Sustenance and a Sacred Presence
In the afternoon in late September, the sky over Guovdageaidnu was pale at 69 degrees north. Oskal carried his laptop to the window of his office to show me the view of New York. He wore a gakti (tunic), royal blue with applied red ribbons, the patterns and placements of which represented a kind of heraldic device and denoted his family and Siida, a community and geographical unit that encompassed both the physical realm of his clan’s flocks and relationships of the people in it. The leaves have fallen, he told me. Every night the sun goes to bed faster. But when I asked him when it would stop rising altogether, when the dayless days would begin, he frowned and couldn’t remember for a moment, even though he had spent his whole life above the Arctic Circle. December? January? “We just live it,” he said. He tapped his bare wrist. We see time differently here, he explained: “Time doesn’t go by. The time comes. “When you’re working with the flock, don’t look at your watch. You work until you’re done.
Oskal, who also serves as executive director of the International Reindeer Herding Center (ICR), a group partly funded by the Norwegian government to document indigenous knowledge, was born in a rural county in the west. He is a “stubborn” family determined to preserve the Sami culture. In early childhood, he and his brother had to take the bus to school for an hour and a half, where there were few students of Sami descent and even fewer who were openly committed to their heritage. Eventually, Sami parents in the region managed to establish a Sami-speaking school, a victory in a country with a legacy of forced assimilation from the 17th century Lutheran missionaries trying to stamp out local shamanism to the point of separating children their families to be sent to boarding schools – a trauma shared by the Sami throughout Fennoscandia and with other indigenous peoples around the world – which were originally launched by the Church and then adopted by the government in the 19th century maintained by the US in the 1960s. Oskal was the first in his family to get a higher education, a path that took him away from the herd and then brought him back as a lawyer.
Three years ago, shortly before the reindeer spring migration, he and his colleagues submitted a 161-page report on food security and sovereignty to the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum set up in 1996 to deal with environmental change and whose members include representatives of local people eight nations with borders that stretch across 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” that was involved in the fate of the region and in particular in the “exploration and exploitation of oil, gas, minerals and other non-living resources”.) The report, entitled “Eallu: Indigenous Youth, Arctic Change and Eating Culture – Food, Knowledge and How We Thrived on the Edge ”was indeed a cookbook – a compendium of oral recipes recorded by young people from the tundra and 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 how to preserve reindeer meat in buckets of salt and snow and the differences in cooking times for walrus (long) and bearded seal (short).
A diligent reader could learn to prepare seal intestines, preferably from a young seal (“not so stringy”), braided and filled with fat, heart, kidney or lung and eaten cold with mustard – or better hot if “it almost tastes good like corned beef, ”advises Lucy Kenezuroff, an Aleut who was born in the Alaska Territory in 1930. For a reindeer version of the Russian dish kholodets, the Sami of the Kola Peninsula simmer their hooves and tongues for a day, then chop the meat and scoop the broth over it to cool it down and thicken it into jelly. Most recipes only require a handful of ingredients, but these can be hard to come by. Sandy and Marjorie Tahbone, Inuit from Nome, Alaska, write in an entry on seal sponge and offal, “It’s not like you can go to the store and pick up a few pounds of meat and intestines and you’re ready to cook. “Half the work is done before the meat gets to the kitchen: knowing how to choose the right animal to slaughter and then kill. The Nenets hang the reindeer by the neck and quickly strangle it. They believe that this brings less suffering and does not shed any of the cherished blood. The Sami stab a knife in the heart, causing the blood to leak inside and pool under the ribs.
Instead of shoving the report in a suitcase or giving it to a subordinate, the delegates on the council did what was apparently unthinkable: they read it. Oskal remembered Rex Tillerson, then US Secretary of State, and asked if he could adapt the recipes for the white-tailed deer he hunted at home. Only 70 copies were printed which disappeared almost immediately. The book wasn’t shiny or meant for a coffee table; The photos – a plate overflowing with reindeer eyes, reindeer slaughtered in blood-stained snow – were documentary and deliberately not aesthetic. The young researchers wanted to “show the reality,” said Oskal. “To show everything.”