A reindeer herd is a sort of matriarchy. A cow decides. It is the leader cow who knows, or decides, if the ice will hold and when it is time to migrate from the fell country to the lowlands. It is the leader cow who knows when it is time to return to the calving grounds in the spring. The leader guides her herd through eight shifting seasons of the year.
I tell my good friend, reindeer herder Lennart Pittja, that I think it is a little strange that the female is clearly the leader of the herd but, where people are concerned, the Sámi world seems to be more of a patriarchy.
– Yes, we haven’t quite progressed that far yet, says Lennart, laughing.
– That’s a rather interesting thought. On the other hand, we have to be honest; patriarchy is a product of the agrarian society, stemming from a time when families had many children. Perhaps we Sámi were the last to live that way.
– Indeed, that is probably the case, but I really just said it as a passing remark. No harm intended, I say, trying to let it pass.
– I know, but an entire life of ‘passing remarks’ might make some of us a bit sensitive, counters Lennart.
I understand him. At his home in Gällivare, we sit in silence. We have to be careful with our words.
The apartment in gällivare is hardly Lennart’s real home. Instead, it is merely a place to stay, because the ‘modern world’ demands it. The kids have to go to school, forms have to be sent to the tax authorities, the car has to be taken in for motor vehicle inspection, and the hairdresser is fully booked before Christmas. The list goes on and on. We drink our coffee.
I place a bit of meat in my cup. Lennart smiles. Sårkåjaur, near the Norwegian border, where Lennart’s Sámi village Unna Tjerusj has its calving grounds, is where he really feels at home. A few years ago, we met at the Jokkmokk market. It had snowed heavily that winter and the spruce bows were hanging low under the weight. Every tree in the forest was white with snow. I remarked at the beauty of the landscape. Lennart said that he was very concerned about what it would mean for the reindeer. I stood there like an idiot. It occurred to me that the reindeer probably didn’t care about the lovely scenery. But if they did, they wouldn’t complain about the spectacle. A forest becomes a cathedral of light. Lennart explained that the snow on the trees covered the lichen. And when the reindeer ate the lichen they ingested mostly snow and water but not very much lichen. Although their hunger may have been stilled, they would derive little energy.