I’m thinking about women. Drag your mind from the gutter – not in that way.

“Women are a forgotten part of the Saami story,” Marie says. She describes herself as a herder and a nurse and a feminist. She keeps her sunglasses in the fruit bowl. That’s not a euphemism and Marie isn’t her real name.

I’ve heard tell of many Saami stories. There are reindeer Saami, sea Saami, farming Saami, city Saami, emigrated Saami. (Did you know Renée Zellweger and Joni Mitchell have recent Saami ancestry? Me neither.) Like so many people in so many places, Saami people criss-cross the whole nebulous mess of human endeavour.

I’m talking about Saami who make their living across the land, herding reindeer – a lifestyle we term ‘pastoralism’. Specifically, I work with Saami in one district of one county of one country. I don’t want to give the impression I’m doling out universals here.

Of the published work about Saami pastoralism (the articles I have read so far, at least), researchers write about labour, they write about the land and change, resilience and community-based management and the future of the lifestyle. Within these pressing and important kingdoms of enquiry, fairly little is said about women.

That’s not to suggest nothing exists on the topic – just, it’s more that you talk about herders when you talk about herding; the people out in the pastures and the corrals, tossing lassos, sewing fences, wrasslin’ reindeer. Turns out it’s all rather blokey.

My questionnaire, by way of example, asks people to rate how often they take part in various activities. I chose the jobs spoken about most often in the literature: looking for lost reindeer, slaughtering, fence repair and so on.

“These are all men’s jobs!” Marie exclaimed.

Nowadays, men tend to labour in the pastures. Women, from what my informants suggest, are almost expected to be at home, bringing up the kids.

Before the boarding schools closed – in the early 90s, according to Marie – Saami women were very much active herders when the young’uns were away. Herding, several people tell me, is a lifestyle, not an occupation. You can’t clock off; you can’t plan holidays. You must be around for your reindeer. With children to raise, it is especially hard to get out in the field. Winters are harsh and dark.

Marie paints the boarding schools as a jail – all hierarchies and gangs, protection rackets and the survival of the strongest. It sounds almost Darwinian (minus the reproduction, one assumes).

Marie’s husband plonks down next to her on the sofa and generally agrees with everything she tells me. We’ve now been talking for an hour after the formal interview ended and I wish I hadn’t turned down that coffee. (Pro tip: if someone in Sápmi invites you into their home and offers you coffee, it’s considered good form to accept. You host will be pleased, though, on sociable days, your palpitating heart and shot nerves won’t.)

A week later, I’m sitting in an office of the Saami mental health centre (known as SANKS). Dr Snefrid Møllersen clucks her tongue while searching for information. She is a psychologist who has spent many years looking at how the ethnicities of patients and therapists affect treatment.

Møllersen is svelte, with long charcoal-grey hair and a steady gaze. Vending machine coffee sears my fingers through the paper cup. She tells me the same story about boarding school closure and says there is a feeling that women “ought not” be herders. How unspoken, how internalised this apparent norm is, I have no idea. Of the 80 people in this district licensed to herd reindeer by the Norwegian government, only 13 are women.

Apparently, mothers now must bridge gaps between Saami and Norwegian ways of life so their children aren’t made to feel like outsiders when they go to school.

Saami women do the “invisible work,” as Kari says. While we talk, she smokes half a Pall Mall at a time and I munch chocolate biscuits with the nerviness of a quitter. She passes a samovar of coffee back and forth. Kari isn’t her real name, either.

Women work to keep the family running, keep the house running. They know where everything in the house is – taking care of admin tasks, paperwork, bills, clothing, food and fuel, according to Kari.

This pattern is a stark example of what anthropologists call sexual division of labour. The term is most familiar (and, indeed, stereotyped) when applied to a more hand-to-mouth mode of subsisting – men hunt while women gather. Many societies portion work in this way: from forager societies to nomadic pastoralists, settled farmers and everything in between and beyond, at one time or another.

Tasks are also doled out by age, not just sex. Younger herders may be lumbered with more of the grunt-work. The grandparents oversee, they muck in, and they teach.

With hundreds of words classifying types of snow, tines of antlers and patterns on a pelage, Northern Saami is a complex language needing a deep form of experience to master. As well as making good portable dictionaries, grandparents are advisers, storytellers, tailors, chefs and psychologists.

Sitting on wicker chairs, I’m still nibbling biscuits on the porch. Kari’s blonde, braided ponytail droops over one shoulder, mirroring how I feel in this sweltering sunshine. She tells me that if you forget the maze of words explaining why this reindeer is a high-quality beast, the grandparents will know. The burdens of this lifestyle seem to lessen when spread across the sexes and through generations.

Over the world, divisions of labour are not rigid. Humans, being various and variable, do not conform blithely to some stereotype of behaviour. I’ve seen women cutting chunks out of baby reindeer ears and I’ve watched men mopping the floors. How I’m told things are done is not necessarily the same as how things are done.

I return to camp as the clouds to roll in and unleash a sloppy wet hell over Karasjok. There will be thunderstorms for the next three days. The seasons begin their shift.

(Updated 04-Aug-13 at the request of an informant.)