It was the snowmobile – a machine designed to conquer nature if ever one was – that has made the biggest difference to the herding lifestyle of the Sámi people.
Scattered across the north of Finland, Norway, Sweden and into Russia, the Sámi are Europe’s only remaining indigenous people. Of the total population of some 70,000, just over 7,000 live in Finland, with 40,000 in Norway, 20,000 in Sweden and perhaps 2,000 in Russia. Their former lands – called Sápmi by them, Lapland by others, although the word “Lapp” once used to describe the people is now considered derogatory – have been broken up by national borders.
Those borders, not to mention the conflicts over them, helped put an end to the nomadic lifestyle that followed their reindeer herds, but the snowmobile proved the biggest cataclyst to change. The first Bombardier Ski-Doo arrived in Finland from Canada in 1961 but within a few years there were hundreds. The Sámi quickly abandoned their skis as they found that the machine could haul large loads of fodder to the herds as well as allow the herders themselves to range over a larger area. There was no longer the need to live with and follow the herds.
Of course, having to buy gas and even the machines themselves saw the sale of meat and skin from the herds put on a much more commercial footing. Then the herds started to be concentrated in fewer, often younger hands as only those prepared to take the financial risk of borrowing money to buy snowmobiles prospered. In Finland, this issue was even more marked than in other countries where reindeer herding was reserved to Sámi only.
I get an idea of what a snowmobile means in this environment when I go on a photo safari with nature photographer Lassi Rautiainen. When he meets me at Kuusamo Airport, the so-called “Gateway to Lapland” and more than an hour’s flying time north of the capital Helsinki, he says: “It will be quite warm tomorrow: 20 or maybe even 18.”
It is late January and, looking at the snow being swept from the runway, and shivering in a thick down jacket, I try to comprehend how the weather could change so quickly, before realizing he is just leaving the minus sign off. Why keep repeating the obvious?
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