The Cold Part

Jot’tit lea buorit go orrot is a traditional Saami saying that translates as, ‘to move on is better than to stay put’. Over the next two months, I’ll spend my time travelling across the pastures of Finnmark to find out exactly what that phrase means.

Through interviews and economic games, I aim to garner some understanding of how Saami pastoralists live together and herd together. At heart, mine is a project about why we hang out with the people we hang out with.

. . .

Finnmark is the northernmost county of Norway, deep into the Arctic Circle, where the world begins to wrap around itself. The county borders Finland, Russia, and the Norwegian and Barents Seas, encompassing 2.3 times the area of Wales.

Here, around 3,000 Saami people make their living herding reindeer. Reindeer wander and the pastoralists follow their herds across the land, nestling inland during winter and settling around the coast for summer. During wintertime, the deer scratch out a living – their shovelled hooves digging into the snow for the beds of lichen underneath. Summer is somewhat calmer and up on the cooler coastal pastures, reindeer have stretches of grasses and respite from insects. The deer feed to stock up on reserves to help them pull through the next difficult winter.

Rounding up reindeer in a corral
Rounding up reindeer in a corral (click to embiggen)

Pasturelands were traditionally family-based and the Saami lived by a land tenure system akin to usufruct. Your herds could graze on some of my pastures if needed; I could move my herd through your land during spring if a migration corridor was impassable. Nowadays, the government is trying to legislate towards privatised lands – potentially restricting the herders’ freedom of movement, potentially forcing herds to bear bad conditions and poorer-quality pastures.

Finnmark is a rich land. Gold, silver, copper and platinum mines are extracted. Gas fields bring economic booms. And, most famously, there is oil. Industrial pressures only increase the difficulties of being nomadic in a sedentary country.

To temper some of the difficulties, Saami pastoralists form cooperatives known as siidas*. These collections of herd owners work together throughout the year, often fissioning into smaller groups for the winter then reforming for the summer.

. . .

This is where the science bit comes in. It’s important to hang out with people who will help you. Family members have a genetic incentive to aid relatives. But human cooperation is more than nepotism – we frequently aid and abet unrelated friends, colleagues and neighbours. How people identify, pick and attract cooperative partners is at the heart of evolutionary theories of cooperation.

By studying how Saami pastoralists help out in their siida – sharing labour or tools; donating money – I hope to unravel some of the essential threads of cooperative herding. Who benefits, who loses out, who stays, who leaves, and why?

I will have much more to say about evolutionary theories of cooperation in future posts.

For insights into the Saami and their struggles to keep their traditional way of life, I suggest:

  • Herds of the Tundra, by Robert Paine
  • Land Usage and Siida Autonomy [pdf], by Mikkel Nils Sara

* The Saami-language plural of siida is siidat. Here, I will use the anglicised form: siidas.