Traditional Ways of Life: Reindeer herding

(The posters above show how the Sami were portrayed in the media in earlier times. On the left is a German travel agent’s poster, on the right is an advertisement for a film about a Sami woman, Sami Laila, made in 1929)


Many Sami people from all backgrounds have a close relationship to the natural world. From the inland districts of the north and as far south as Røros, reindeer herding is the most common traditional Sami way of life. To many people, reindeer herding is synonymous with being Sami. Often, the media have portrayed the Sami as wearing the traditional outfits of inner Finnmark and herding reindeer.

The reality of the situation is a good deal more complex. Fishing is also an important traditional Sami way of life. The Sea Sami, living along the coast of northern Norway, are experienced fishermen. Further south, the Sami are farmers, in much the same way as the ethnically Norwegian population. Also in inland areas, fishing in rivers is an important means of gathering food, as is collecting berries, mushrooms and other edible plants.

Below, you can read about reindeer herding. Other articles on this site will cover the Sea Sami and other traditional ways of life.

The siida

Siida is a Sami word referring to the reindeer communities in which the Sami work. The siida can include people who are related to each other, but it can also include different families who agree to work together for a season.

Siida are arranged for economic reasons. Reindeer herding is hard work that requires many people. It is impossible for one person or a small family to manage all on their own. Traditionally, in the winter, the Sami formed siida that would take care of the reindeer when gathered in larger flocks inland. Then in the spring, when the reindeer were migrating to the coast, the winter siida were dissolved, and the Sami families joined with others to form summer siida, who worked together until the autumn.

In the video below, you can see members of the siida working together to give the calves earmarkings:

The Reindeer Herd

All reindeer in Norway have been domesticated, which means that they all have an owner and are part of a herd. In the winter, the reindeer are gathered in inland areas, such as around the Sami towns of Kautokeino and Karasjok. The reindeer can dig through snow of up to 3 meters to find moss during the winter months. These days, they are often also given supplementary food pellets by their owners.

In the spring, the reindeer migrate towards the coast. The females are pregnant and want to reach their summer pastures before their calves are born. Some reindeer herds migrate 150km to reach their summer pastures. Before the borders between Sweden, Finland, Russia were made permanent, Sami from these areas would cross over the border to reach the Norwegian coast in the summer,  increasing contact and trade.

You can see reindeer herders in Northern Norway moving their reindeer in the video below:

In the spring of 2017, the Norwegian state TV channel, NRK, followed a flock migrating to the coast (you can find out more about the here).

When the reindeer reach the coast, they swim across the the islands, or are taken across in boats if the sea is too rough. The reindeer spend the summer on the islands or along the coast grazing. At this time of year, reindeer from the different herds can mingle freely.

Historically, the reindeer herding Sami had agreements, called a verdde relationship, with Sea Sami along the coast. The Sea Sami were fishermen who knew the currents and tides well. The Sea Sami would guide the reindeer across the sound to the islands in their boats, in return they would get meat, reindeer milk and other goods from the reindeer herders.

In the autumn, the reindeer migrate back to the winter pastures. There they are rounded up in pens and are divided into the section belonging to their owner. All the reindeer have earmarkings, cut into their ears when they are calves. The earmarkings are unique for each owner. A good reindeer herder can recognize hundreds of earmarkings. Children are given their own reindeer earmarking when they are small. A child can get his or her first reindeer when they are very young, 5-6 years old.  As the child grows, then he or she will gradually increase their reindeer herd.

The video below shows a reindeer flock being separated. The reindeer are brought into the area in the middle. As they run around, they are divided and sent into the pens belonging to their owner.

Challenges for reindeer herders

Reindeer herding is a traditional way of life that many Sami still want to live. However, in the modern world, there are a number of challenges they face. Have a look at the young reindeer herders here talking about the problems.

For more about reindeer herding in Norway, look at:

The site also gives information about reindeer herders all over the world:


Discussion questions:

  1. At the start of this article you can see two posters showing how the media has portrayed the Sami. Think of other indigenous peoples you know – how are they portrayed in the media? Do you think it is a fair representation? Why/why not?
  2. Reindeer herding is an activity that can only be done in certain areas of the world. Is this typical of other indigenous peoples´traditional ways of life? Why/ why not? Find arguments for and against, and back them up with examples from different peoples.
  3. If you had to make posters about Sami reindeer herding based on what you have seen in the videos, what would you include? Would your posters represent the real Sami way of life better than the two posters at the top?
  4. Choose another indigenous group from somewhere else in the world. How do you think their traditional ways of life should be represented to the public correctly?