On Domestication, Transformation, and the Concept of Tradition regarding Sami Reindeer Herding in Finnmark Northern Norway

Ivar Bjørklund

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingPublished conference contribution


Prevailing literature treats Sami reindeer pastoralism as a rather uniform adaption through time. The general view states that pastoral reindeerherding came into existense because of economic differentiation among Sami hunters and gatherers sometime around 15-1600 AC (Vorren, 1980). The underlying assumption is that the transition was rather swift and was due to increased taxation, new markets and a reduction of the wild reindeer population. It has also been argued that such a change implied a transition from collective to private ownership of reindeer., which must have had profound consequences for the Sami society at the time (Olsen, Hansen, 2004; Ingold, 1980).
The scholarly understanding of the history of reindeer pastoralism has been presented in terms of being a rather static «traditional» kind of adaption through the centuries, characterized by common access to pasture and private access to animals1. In other words, it is the material footprints in terms of technology, dwellings and herding routes which have been documented and presented as a «traditional» lifestyle in a rather common unchanging pastoral world (Vorren-Manker, Niemi etc.). Furthermore, such an approach is today strengthened by the general ethno-political discourse regarding Sami land claims.
The problem however, is that we have much less knowledge regarding internal dynamics and transitional processes within the Sami society through time. To what extent and for what purposes did domestication take place and in which ways were herding combined with other activities? Was there actually an abrupt change from collective to private ownership or is possible that domestication took place in such a way that domesticated (private) reindeer could be kept all along within a hunting/fishing economy with common access to the resources?2 If so, what kind of management practice and rules faciliated such a regime? Such questions adresses topics like social organisation, demography and economy, not to speak of biology and animal behaviour. Historical and current data from different parts of Fenno-Scandia present quite a variation regarding domesticated reindeer as an economic adaption and it would be rather hazardous to categorize it all as «traditional Sami pastoralism». Ethnografic descriptions from Nordland (Kalstad, mimeo), Northern Sweden (Jernsletten, 2007) and Northern Finland/Kola (Tanner, 1929, Nyyssønen, 2003) tell of quite different management regimes when it comes to domesticated reindeer in different areas of Fenno-Scandia. The material from Nordland, for instance, illustrates vividly the relation between domestication and ecological variation.
Furthermore, comparative insight could be made by looking into changing degrees of domestication practised by the reindeer owners in Finnmark up til today. Here domestication has been a rather fluctating practice, at any time reflecting contextual changes in terms of new technology, legislative rules, labour available and market situations. The Sami inhabitants of Inner Finnmark have been regarded as hard-core pastoralists (e.g. Paine, 1994, 2009), but the current realities presents a very complex picture re. domestication and resource control. Management strategies of today are probably not only governed by cultural values and ecological considerations but more and more by administrative rules and market opportunities.

1 The only variation being the two typologies of extensive and intensive herding (e.g. Beach, 1981), categories which actually only reflects contextual changes and not different kinds of”traditions”.
2Lingvistic evidence dates some of the pastoral vocabulary at least two thousand years back in time.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationIntegrating archaeological and ethnographic research
Place of PublicationIrkutsk, Omsk
ISBN (Print)978-58038-0835-0
Publication statusPublished - 2013


Dive into the research topics of 'On Domestication, Transformation, and the Concept of Tradition regarding Sami Reindeer Herding in Finnmark Northern Norway'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this