I had been documenting hunting culture in Canada and the US for eight years. I was interested in the primal drive of the modern day hunter-gatherer, and the way hunters could be immersed in nature for long periods of time. I started looking at the Arctic landscape, and was fascinated by how long the Sami have lived there and kept this unique culture going.
In 2007, I contacted three women in Sweden, Norway and Finland; Laila Spik, a woman from a reindeer herding family in Sweden, got back to me and said I could come and stay. Initially, it was just a two-week visit, but I spent a lot of time listening to her and learning. What came across very clearly was that in order to understand Sami culture I’d need to spend a significant amount of time; you can’t just go up there for the weekend. A seed was planted, and I spent the next year and a half visiting Laila and her family. Eventually, she introduced me to the Gaups in Kautokeino, in Norway’s far north, a family of reindeer herders with five children ranging from teenagers to two in their early 30s with kids of their own.
They became the focus of a lot of my images, and I became their beaga, a woman who traditionally cooks, cleans and helps out with the family. I also attended the Sami University for eight months, and got to the stage where I could have conversations in Sami. It was all-encompassing.
The Gaups embraced me completely. Family is so important, and in time I began to feel like part of the family – I remember going back to New York, where I live, and realising that Kautokeino felt more like home. They were also open to being photographed as there’s a real respect for photography in Sami culture. Most Sami can tell you their family history through many generations, and there’s a reverence for family photos. As for me, I wasn’t there to tell people who they were, but to learn who they were. They found it refreshing – Ingrid, the mother, told me that what I was documenting was just daily life to them. They were invigorated by the fact that I found their lives so beautiful and extraordinary.
I was fascinated by the culture. Things like the traditional yoik (or joik), Sami songs of reverence that are one of Europe’s oldest living music traditions; the fact that 2,000 people might come to a wedding from all around and celebrate for three days; or the annual Easter festival, with reindeer races and a Sami grand prix. Yet despite traditions dating back 1,000 years, the people I met embrace modern technology and different cultures. Some of them speak five languages, and kids can take French or German at school in addition to Norwegian and English. When it’s calf-marking time, young people will post the pictures on Facebook.
As well as learning the language, I learned countless ways to cook reindeer, using every part of the animal – like gamsu, a meal prepared in a stomach filled with blood and fat. The Sami have a long tradition of craftsmanship called duodji. Art can be made using skin, bones and horns, or they’ll make winter shoes from hide of the reindeer, stuffing them with suoidni (“shoe grass”), a type of grass that offers insulation.
Of course, not all Sami are reindeer herders, and there are many distinctions within herding culture itself, with complicated government rules and local Sami laws as to where you can and can’t herd. Nowadays, most of them are semi-nomadic, in that they live in settled communities rather than following the reindeer full-time.
Reindeer are central to the life of the family I was with, and they come first. When spring comes, the herds are separated based on which reindeer are pregnant. The males and non-pregnant reindeer will first travel 200km to their summer herding grounds. The herders go with them, travelling with snowmobiles and a sled with supplies such as an oven and a lavvu, a Sami tepee. I followed this migration, taking photos and cooking. Calf-marking in June is another major part of the year, when new calves are earmarked with each owner’s individual sign.
There’s always a herder with the reindeer – even in the depths of winter, someone will watch over them. After a week or so, they’ll usually come back to Kautokeino and switch. The herders are part following the reindeer and part pushing them on – the reindeer follow the rhythm of nature, and they follow the reindeer. I began to notice that Sami herders were interested in studying them from far off to keep watch on the entire herd. There was this understanding between the reindeers and the herders.
My years with the Gaups and the other Sami were transformative on a personal level. My father is Norwegian, and Ingrid found many of my relatives in Norway – I became close to my cousins, and stayed in the house where my grandfather lived. It changed me, too. Something about the way the families worked together showed me a new way to engage with the world. I found a deeper inner peace within myself, and it made me realise that I wanted to start a family myself. I still keep in touch, but I also carry what I learned with the Sami people, even in New York. I feel more in touch with my instincts, and need time to be out in nature. They showed me a new way to live.
See another N by Norwegian photo essay on the Moroccan village of Taghazout here