Nurturing the next generation of reindeer herders.
Reindeer are essential to life in the Eurasian Arctic. Reindeer herding, fisheries, and sea-mammal hunting are the most important livelihood practices among Indigenous peoples in the Arctic region, which stretches across parts of Alaska, Canada, Denmark (Greenland), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, and Sweden.
But over the last few decades, with the planet warming rapidly – and the Arctic warming three to four times faster than the rest of the world – the changing climate poses a huge threat to the reindeer population, and risks ending the traditional way of life of Indigenous reindeer herders.
Despite the many challenges, several Indigenous communities in the Arctic are determined to keep their traditions and sustainable living practices alive. A nomadic school established by the Chukchi Nutendli, a reindeer herding Indigenous community in the Lower Kolyma region of Sakha-Yakutia, Siberia, is at the forefront of an effort to pass on traditional knowledge and customs to their children.
In the Arctic, Life Without the Reindeer is Unimaginable
The Arctic is home to more than 29 reindeer herding Indigenous peoples, including the Sami, Finno-Ugric speaking peoples from the Sápmi region which encompasses parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia; the Chukchi, Nenets, Even, Evenki, and more.
“The Even people have always been reindeer herders and hunters. Reindeer are core to their culture, and fundamental for their livelihood,” said Mikhail Pogodaev, who was born into a reindeer herding family in Yakutia and is of Even Indigenous descent. Pogodaev served as the Chair of the World Reindeer Herders Association until March 2019 and is now the deputy minister for Arctic Development and Indigenous Peoples Affairs of Sakha Republic (Yakutia).
“We use almost everything we get from reindeer; for our food, to make clothes and shelter. I think that almost 100% of the reindeer is used traditionally in our culture,” he added. Reindeer skin is stitched into clothes, blankets, and tents, with its sinews used for sewing. Even the kidneys and intestines form part of the traditional diet.
In the painfully cold climate of the Arctic, subzero temperatures and low sunlight make it extremely difficult to cultivate crops, and plant life is scarce. Meat and fish form the bulk of the Arctic diet... consumed raw, dried or even frozen, depending on the local traditional cuisine.
In the painfully cold climate of the Arctic, subzero temperatures and low sunlight make it extremely difficult to cultivate crops, and plant life is scarce. Meat and fish form the bulk of the Arctic diet, and arctic char, seal, polar bear, and reindeer are the most popular food choices, consumed raw, dried or even frozen, depending on the local traditional cuisine.
Fresh produce is hard to come by, and even though some greens like beets, turnips, spinach, kale, Swiss chard, mustard, and collards do manage to withstand the harsh Arctic climate, they can be expensive and are often used only for garnishing or in restaurants. Processed and packaged food can be even more expensive due to the energy-intensive process of flying groceries into the upper reaches of the Arctic. In Nunavut, a territory in Northern Canada, vanilla creme cookies can cost as much as $18.29 a pack, and basic groceries cost $500 a week for a family of four or five.
A traditional meat-and-fish-dominant diet is cheaper, packed with nutrition, and the most sustainable way to thrive in the Arctic. In the Eurasian North, reindeer meat forms the daily meal for many herders, even today.
It is believed that reindeer were amongst the first animals to be herded and raised by humans, and reindeer hunting is what initially enabled people to inhabit the Arctic region, leading to an increase in Arctic human populations.
“Reindeer were and continue to be the most important animal for food security and for clothing in the Eurasian North,” said Dr. Tero Mustonen, a researcher from North Karelia, Finland, who is the President of the Snowchange Cooperative, a network of local and Indigenous cultures around the world. He has spent a significant amount of time working with Indigenous communities like the Chukchi Nutendli and others, and has traveled to the Russian Arctic almost every year since 1986, spending months on end with the Chukchi community.
“Our local and regional authorities usually consider reindeer husbandry only from the point of view of its potential impact on the economy of this region,” Yakov Kymet, a Chukchi journalist in Anadyr, Chukotka Autonomous Okrug told Tero and Kaiso Mustonen, as part of a compendium of traditional knowledge from the Eurasian North they compiled in 2016. “But reindeer husbandry should never be seen as simply some kind of branch of economic activity. It is a way of life for many people. In fact, it is life itself for this region as it has been for centuries,” he added.
Grigorii Andreevich Tynakergav, Chukchi from the same region, added, “Reindeer herding makes this world richer. One day the mining of gold and other minerals will come to an end here. Reindeer herding, on the other hand, will always be able to go on.”
The Chukchi inhabit the Sakha Republic and Chukotka regions in Siberia, Russia. With winter temperatures plunging to as low as minus 70 degrees Celsius when factoring the wind chill, the Sakha Republic region is home to the planet’s coldest city, Yakutsk, also the capital. Like other areas where herding is a mainstay, the extreme temperatures and perpetually frozen ground make it hard to grow crops, and meat is the main source of food for locals. Reindeer meat is a major component of this diet and is valued as a local delicacy.
“Some Sámi herders also say that historically, the presence of the reindeer was the only way they could survive in that environment, so they have the reciprocal responsibility to take care of the reindeer today through herding. It is not just a matter of practicality, as reindeer herding in Northern Europe is becoming increasingly difficult, but also a deep-rooted duty,” said Dr. Ilona Kater, a researcher in the DurhamARCTIC whose work focuses on the Saami reindeer herders in northern Europe.
Reindeer Starve to Death as Climate Change Grips the Arctic
But climate change has wreaked havoc on this way of life in the Arctic and poses a massive threat to the reindeer. In winter, reindeer use their hooves to dig into the snow to find lichen, moss, herbs, and grasses. Unusual weather patterns in the region, commonly attributed to climate change, are leading to alternating freezing and thawing periods, which can create layers of impenetrable ice, barring reindeer access to food.
In winter, reindeer use their hooves to dig into the snow to find lichen, moss, herbs, and grasses. Unusual weather patterns in the region, commonly attributed to climate change, are leading to alternating freezing and thawing periods, which can create layers of impenetrable ice, barring reindeer access to food.
“Reindeer herders are very close to nature, so they feel even small changes in nature. And these changes affect their lives,” said Pogodaev.
Over the last couple of years alone, tens of thousands of reindeer have starved to death in Norway, Russia, Finland, Sweden, and other parts of the Arctic. Another damaging consequence of climate change is wildfires, added Pogodaev. With hotter and drier summers leading to more frequent wildfires, grazing land is damaged. Nomadic peoples often must cross rivers and lakes while migrating and with climate change causing variations in the thickness of ice, that can be tricky.
The challenges are not new, but they are intensifying.
“I couldn’t sleep last night because of the horrible hurricane impacts from global warming I saw on TV. I also saw a show about how the glaciers are retreating and becoming smaller. I have been watching changes in my territory too,” said Viatcheslav Kemlil, a traditional Chukchi reindeer herder from Nutendli during a 2005 Snowchange Conference in Alaska. The conference, organized by Snowchange Cooperative, Alaska Native Science Commission, and Inuit Circumpolar Conference-Alaska, was an attempt to find solutions to rapid climate change in the Arctic, rooted in Indigenous knowledge, and included the participation of many members of Circumpolar nations and Indigenous peoples from Finland, Greenland, Norway, and other parts of the Arctic, who shared their challenges and recommendations.
“We watch the weather and notice the changes. Lakes are flooding the banks. Small rivers become larger. On grazing grounds, I come across unknown plants. There are many dwarf willows growing on the tundra,” Kemlil added. “When I was a kid, we had to search hard for the willows. Today, I don’t need to look hard at all. We used to migrate north slowly to reach the sea. Now we reach it very fast because of the mosquitoes that bother the reindeer. We observe new streams and very little ice on the sea.”
Tamara Andreeva from the Evenki people in Southern Yakutia reflected at the time, “Reindeer herders are still nomadic and move around all year long. [But] the signs that our grandfathers used are no longer useful. It is difficult to know when frost or rain will come. The snow covered with ice is hard on reindeer hooves and leads to diseases. New diseases in reindeer herds have led to diminished quality of hides. Sable skins are less valuable because they are becoming lighter in color. Water is becoming white, and fish are disappearing because of coal and gold mining.”
The impacts are far reaching. “When reindeer herders lose their jobs, the social situations worsen. The rules of behavior deteriorate. Questions and issues of natural protection are very important to my people. Native knowledge will be invaluable in understanding the causes of global warming,” said Andreeva.
The events Kemlil and Andreeva described in 2005 – melting permafrost, extreme deep snow events, and river bank erosion – have now sped up significantly, said Mustonen, and they pose major issues for communities in the Kolyma region of Far East Russia.
Reindeer: Both Victim and Solution
The presence of reindeer has been known to slow climate change in the region, owing to their grazing, which keeps the tundra free of vegetation, letting sunlight reflect into the atmosphere.
Kater explained that the presence of larger plants and trees in the Arctic leads to the release of greater amounts of carbon, in a process known as “Arctic greening.” By grazing on these plants, reindeer help slow down warming of the region.
“Whilst we think of planting trees as being a good way to take carbon out of the atmosphere, this doesn’t apply so neatly to the Arctic,” she said. “Soils in the Arctic hold a lot of carbon, and when bigger, more productive plants like trees start growing in the region, this can cause more activity in the soil, making it release more carbon than the tree would take in. Reindeer grazing however has been seen to stop the advance of some new, productive plants into the Arctic, as they graze away the saplings before they have time to grow, meaning they spare the soil from losing its carbon,” she added.
Some Indigenous communities are determined to keep their practices alive, tackling challenges from climate change, and draconian Soviet policies which destabilized traditional families, and were in action from 1922 to 1991, and more recently, the COVID-19 pandemic. An integral part of holding onto these sustainable practices is to ensure traditional knowledge gets passed onto future generations. One of the best ways of doing that are through the region’s nomadic schools.
Passing Down Traditional Knowledge
For reindeer herders, the education of their children is a significant and important concern, as evidenced by the questions raised by reindeer herding youth at various conferences and gatherings, including the Eallin Reindeer Herding Youth Project 2012-2015, and the many Snowchange conferences held since 2005.
Nomadic schools, which first emerged in the 1920s and 1930s, were an early attempt to find a culturally appropriate way to educate the children of reindeer herders who were often on the move.
Modern education systems often fail to take the nomadic way of life of reindeer herders into account. Nomadic schools, which first emerged in the 1920s and 1930s, were an early attempt to find a culturally appropriate way to educate the children of reindeer herders who were often on the move. Often run by the Indigenous communities, as is the case with the Evenk and Chukchi Nutendli in the Republic of Sakha Yakutia in eastern Russia, nomadic schools provide basic Western education to the children who study there, using the internet, while also introducing them to the traditional way of life of reindeer herders, and teaching the culture and language of their peoples.
“Teachers live with the families for months, teaching their children and keeping the same lifestyle as a reindeer herding family,” said Vera Kuklina, a researcher from the Buryat community in the Southern part of Russia. The Buryats are one of the two largest Indigenous groups in Russia. “For reindeer herding families, learning about how to take care of reindeer is a part of their lifestyle; they learn it very informally from their parents or grandparents, beginning when they are old enough to start walking.”
“But nomadic schools are specifically for formal education. So the subjects they teach include mathematics, physics, chemistry, literature, and so on. In some cases, this may even include the study of Indigenous languages,” she added.
In 2002, the Nutendli, under the guidance of Elders Jegor Nutendli and Akulina Kemlil, established a nomadic school and kindergarten, the first of its kind. The school, run by the community, had local elders teach young Nutendli children about the culture and wisdom of the Chukchi nomadic lifestyle and reindeer herding practices, alongside a modern Russian curriculum.
“The approach to learning in Nutendli is unique. Every child has his or her own reindeer, and their parents help the children take care of them,” explains the Exchange for Local Observations and Knowledge of the Arctic (ELOKA), an organization that partners with Indigenous communities in the Arctic to preserve traditional knowledge. “During the summer, children take part in reindeer herding and other traditional activities such as fishing. In winter, the students remain with their families, rather than being sent to residential schools in towns.”
Since 2005, the school has been supported by Snowchange Cooperative and many other donor organizations, including the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and Save the Children Iceland. Other examples of reindeer herding schools include the Sami Upper Secondary and Reindeer Husbandry School in Kautokeino, Norway, a vocational school that provides a four-year education consisting of two years of theory and two years of practice. Although not a nomadic school, it allows children from reindeer herding communities a chance to learn about their culture’s traditional livelihood.
After completing their secondary education, students can also go on to earn a bachelor’s degree in Reindeer Herding studies at the Sami University College. These schools, including the Nutendli nomadic school, are in part an attempt to undo some of the damage the former Soviet Union, which ruled the northern part of Eurasia from 1922 to 1991, inflicted upon Indigenous communities. The Yakhutia region has approximately 11 nomadic schools in different districts, run by different peoples, according to Pogodaev.
The Soviet Era: “Schools Were Places of Violence”
Soviet era policies were often damaging and abusive to Indigenous peoples and their way of life. Children from reindeer herding families and other Indigenous communities were separated from their parents and sent to boarding schools where they would get a modern education. This caused isolation, identity crises, and poor mental health for the children, who also failed to learn the reindeer herding skills they would need.
State policies, especially in the Russian North, created a system of residential schools that forced many nomadic communities to send their children to boarding schools, creating lapses in the culture, language, and knowledge passing amongst the Indigenous communities.
State policies, especially in the Russian North, created a system of residential schools that forced many nomadic communities to send their children to these institutions. This created lapses in the culture, language, and knowledge passing amongst the Indigenous communities. Additionally, many forms of abuse happened in the residential and boarding schools which left generations scarred.
“It was often the case that children were taken from parents and put in boarding schools. They were forced to stay in boarding schools during the school term and would only be able to see their parents during the summer. This created problems of social marginalization as these children grew up very dependent on state support and were unable to support their families when they grew up. It was very damaging for their culture,” said Kuklina. However, several families were able to get away from the state and maintain their traditional lifestyle even during Soviet rule. “These families became centers to learn about and revitalize Indigenous cultures after Soviet rule ended,” she said.
“We have to remember that over 50 years of Soviet power has already influenced multiple generations of Chukchi and Indigenous children. The residential schools of the time were also places of violence, abuse, racism, and state-led horror, especially under the Stalin regime,” said Mustonen. “The Nutendli’s efforts in establishing a nomadic school that combines the Russian and Indigenous Chukchi way of learning was extremely important, because they did it themselves in order to maintain their culture,” said Mustonen. “I have not seen many other examples like this out there.”
Remnants of Soviet-Era Still Loom Large
Besides tearing children from their families and destroying the Indigenous way of living and imparting education, Soviet-era policies also caused a lot of damage to Indigenous lands and the Arctic ecology. The Soviet Union prioritized oil and gas extraction and industrial development, which caused huge amounts of harm to the Arctic environment.
A famous Nenets herder and leader named Dmitry Horolye told Tero and Kaiso Mustonen, as part of their compendium on traditional knowledge, “[One of the challenges] reindeer herding faces across the planet is expansion of industries to the lands used by reindeer. In some parts of the world permanent irreversible damage has been caused to the reindeer herders by this activity.”
Speaking of the Soviet Union from 1960 to 1990, he added, “Natural resource exploitation was conducted by destroying the land and taking land away from local control. Indigenous people and local inhabitants had no means of opposing this process. The only thing to do was to avoid contact and silently observe the fantastic violence to nature. As a result of this trend, millions of hectares of ancient reindeer herding pastures were polluted and ruined. This was a form of criminal exploitation of energy resources. In many territories, reindeer herding was discontinued because there were no more pastures left.”
Mustonen, who visited the Soviet Union as a child in 1986, remembers the strict rules of movement, and border checks everywhere. He deplored the rigid and controlling policies of the Soviet-era that took away all the freedom and rights of Indigenous communities in Russia, and added, “Today's Russia is heading towards the same kind of Soviet mentality of extracting natural resources, assimilating the Indigenous cultures, language, and way of life into the mainstream.”
According to Pogodaev, under Soviet rule, the reindeer which belonged to individual herders were put into collectives, and reindeer herders became workers on these collective farms, while reindeer became state property. Although Soviet rule created development and provided social services such as hospitals and kindergartens, he said it also destroyed the nomadic family-based system of reindeer husbandry.
Indigenous communities in the Arctic, who have slowly been rebuilding their lives after Soviet rule ended in 1991, suffered another setback when COVID-19 hit the region. In addition to severe cases and deaths among the elderly who are more vulnerable, it also caused the cancellation of regional flights, which carry medical supplies and other resources to the region.
Although Arctic communities were spared the worst, owing to the natural social distancing that arises out of being so remote, and their autonomous capacity to produce food, the pandemic has badly impacted their way of life and caused many deaths among the Elders.
The Nutendli community, which suffered great hardships, especially after the passing of community elders Jegor Nutendli, who died in 2015, and his wife Akulina Kemlil, who passed before him, is struggling, said Mustonen. The nomadic school is no longer functioning fully, and a combination of factors, including the impact of modern Russian politics, globalization, and other hardships, are at fault.
Nutendli and other Indigenous reindeer herding communities continue to display resilience. The right kind of financial and legislative support could make all the difference.
Still, the Nutendli and other Indigenous reindeer herding communities continue to display resilience, clinging fiercely to their traditional ways of life despite the challenges. The right kind of financial and legislative support could make all the difference and help sustain these traditional ways of life.
“I’ve learnt reindeer husbandry from my grandparents, my uncles and aunts,” said Pogodaev. “It’s not an easy life and there is not much motivation to stay in reindeer husbandry because of the low income and difficult living conditions. But in my opinion, if reindeer herders can own their reindeer [instead of working at collective farms], they will be more motivated to stay and try to increase their income,” he continued. “I think states and society should develop legislation and protect these communities so that they can continue the traditional way of life.”
After all, if there’s one thing living in the Arctic teaches you, it’s resilience.
Aishwarya Jagani is an independent tech journalist who has written about authoritarian tech, climate change, racism and diversity. Her work has been published in The Open Notebook, The Postscript, Modern Farmer, Bustle, The Quint, Unbias the News and Secure Futures. She is based in India.