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If anyone tells me they’re ‘going to see the Northern Lights’, I always counsel them to plan on other activities too, so they aren’t too disappointed if they don’t show. They’re always there … although if the weather conditions are wrong, they can’t be seen. All of our time in Alta, Norway, there was almost complete cloud cover, and occasional flurries of snow, which precluded any sight of the lights.
But, there are many other things to do in Alta, and one of them is to travel across the snow in a sleigh drawn by reindeer, and in order to do this, we had to visit the Sami. The establishment we visited is called Boazi Sami Siida and here, Håkon Kristian Haldorsen, his wife and his sister showed us the traditional costumes, and demonstrated the Sami reindeer herders’ way of life.
I think what struck me most was the brightness of their clothing, all obtained from natural dyes. I suppose that’s largely for practical reasons, so they can easily be seen against a usually drab background.
Not all Sami are reindeer herders, though … some of them are fur trappers or fishermen, while a few herd sheep. But, we only saw the reindeer side of things. And, of course, we saw reindeer!
I was going to start discussing the Sami and the reindeer ride by saying that everybody knows about reindeer; they pull Santa’s sleigh. In many cultures, though, the sleigh is actually drawn by a white horse. Which stands to reason. In Norway, anyway, only the Sami people are allowed to own reindeer. Santa Claus morphed from St. Nicholas of Myra, who was Greek, therefore unlikely to be Sami. And, Myra was in modern Turkey … an area not really noted for its reindeer population.
Anyway, the reindeer are found in the Arctic regions, and it’s not really true to say the Sami herd them. It’s more correct to say the reindeer herd wander where they will, and the Sami follow them.
The Sami depend on the reindeer for almost everything. Hides for their dwellings, or laavu, their clothing and their food. We didn’t get a chance to ‘eat Rudolf’, but on tours in other places, they did. I didn’t hear any reports on it, so I assume it would taste something like venison?
Another little factoid you can amaze your friends with. The reindeer is the only species of deer in which both sexes grow a full set of antlers … and the males lose theirs in winter! So, as depicted in many an illustration around Christmas … Donner, Blitzen & Co. must be … female!
The reindeer ride wasn’t quite what I expected. Certainly not the snugly-wrapped jaunt of Christmas cards, with mince pies and a slug of glühwein at the end. Or Santa’s laden sleigh. Just a wooden framework, holding one … or, at the most two people.
But, it was still an experience not to be missed. As the handler launched me on my way, he r said:
‘You can go on your own!’
Eh? Did I look like I could, or something? My sole experience of this sort of thing was fifteen minutes at the controls of a one-horse buggy, and that was with an experienced coachman beside me.
But, I managed, for one of several reasons:
The reindeer understood English (doubtful)
The commands ‘Walk on’ and ‘Whoa’ are the same in Norwegian, or the language of the Sami (unlikely)
It doesn’t matter what you say, it’s the intonation that counts (maybe)
The reindeer are so accustomed to this circuit that they stop and go when required, whatever you do (most likely)
Just a circuit of the paddock, but an experience to be added to the list certainly. And, I look forward to the more upmarket kind of sleigh ride … if it exists!
After we’d seen the reindeer, we crowded into the laavu to see some of the crafts of the Sami.
And, we were treated to the performance of the ‘joik’, the traditional unaccompanied folk music of the Sami. I was reminded a little of Hebridean mouth-music, and a Canadian friend told me that the Inuit also have a version.
The Sami said that, one year, a ‘joik’ had been entered into the Eurovision Song Contest. But, he didn’t say how it did … I sincerely trust it wasn’t a case of ‘La Norvège … nul point’ !!