Saturday, 18 February 2017

Visiting the Sámi Village of Rávttas


One of the biggest selling points of our stay at Björkliden Fjällby was its unmatched view of the Lapporten, a U-shaped valley in the stretch of mountains overlooking Abisko. We were told that according to old Sámi folklore, this natural spectacle was considered the gateway to Swedish Lapland, where the indigenous peoples of Scandinavia have lived for millennia out amidst the ice and snow. On our last full day north of the Arctic Circle, we travelled over an hour on a Visit Abisko bus to get a taste of Sámi culture, on a journey that took us far past the Lapponian Gate. 


Day trips to the sameby of Rávttas is a typical part of the itinerary for visitors to Abisko, providing a fleeting glimpse at the traditional lifestyle of the Sámi. Historical records of these people date back centuries, with Tacitus in Rome writing about them hunting through the forests and mountains in 98 A.D. Reindeer husbandry came in later centuries, but soon became a cherished resource intertwined with their lives and culture.  


In a land of polar night and the midnight sun, seasons are affixed to the rhythms and movement of the herd - a year-long business of calving, marking, grazing and corralling. Today, all the reindeer in Sweden are owned by the Sámi. Inherited from generation to generation, the reindeer form part of their birthright. There's no such thing as a wild reindeer, as all of them are from one herd or another. At this point it must be noted that asking a Sámi how many reindeer they own is as crass as asking a rancher how many acres and cows they have, so don't do it. 


A sameby is often referred to as a Sámi village, but clear all mental images you may have of quaint log cabins perched on snowy knolls - it's more an administrative union than anything else. Like people everywhere across the world, the Sámi are thoroughly modern. Of the approximately 20000 Sámi who live in Sweden, less than 10% are actively involved in reindeer herding, even if they own some livestock. Many are also keen to stress that as much as they are Sámi, they're also very much Swedes. 



There's a delicate balancing act between the need to preserve and share Sámi culture, while also acknowledging that this isn't necessarily how most Sámi live anymore, explained our host. Even the everyday reality of herding reindeer is more than a little different to how it was done in the past. Dressed in a traditional kolt, he told us stories of reindeer herding in the 21st century, which involve lots more ATVs than you probably imagined. 


So if you're looking to see something exotic and utterly unchanged, this isn't for you. What you can expect though, is a learning experience about the naturally evolving traditions and culture that the Sámi remain proud of. And of course, you'll learn more about reindeer than you knew before. 


Visiting Rávttas isn't complete without getting up close with some reindeer, and that's exactly what we did. The first reindeer we encountered had massive horns, from which strips of fur hung off, the underneath looking surprisingly red and raw. Reindeer are the only species of deer where both the males and females grow and shed antlers each year - when these grow in, they're rubbery masses of blood and marrow covered in fur, which is then rubbed off against trees or bushes once the antlers harden. 


Male reindeer typically lose their antlers after the mating season is done in early winter, while the females keep theirs till spring. If you've ever visited the LA Zoo during Christmastime, you'll notice that all their Santa-ready reindeer are female, which means one thing: Robert L. May hadn't the first clue about reindeer biology. The only way Rudolph wasn't female, according to our host, was if he was a castrated male. Most male reindeer herded by Sámi are castrated young, which reduces aggression and tension among the herd and make them easier to manage. 




Each of the reindeer has its own distinct personality, and we were able to see it most clearly not while we were feeding them nutrient-rich moss, but during the reindeer sled ride. It was a simple set-up: One person to a sled, pulled by a single reindeer. The somewhat grumpy one I harnessed turned out to be the Ferrari of reindeers, careening down the snowy path with reckless abandon. All the children were enthralled, and immediately demanded that one. Those who ended up with a gentler ride had to contend with  reindeer that stopped in the middle of the ride to have a curious nibble through a patch of snow, slowed down to have a breather, or in one memorable incident, refused to move completely and had a bit of a poo. 






Sledding aside, we were also taught the art of lassoing reindeer, which doesn't involve splashy overhead rope spins, but a simple toss and pull. We practiced on a stationary set of antlers, which for some of us (I.E. Me), was difficult enough. The true test came when you had to try and catch the antlers when someone was running around with them. This, I did not dare attempt, though other people in the group tried, and were quite successful. 



We enjoyed lunch in a lávvu, where our meal of smoked reindeer meat was cooked in butter over a roaring wood fire. Wrapped in warm Sámi gahkku (The Lebanese family on the tour marvelled at how similar it was to pita bread), the reindeer was remarkably tender, and utterly delicious. A treatise on the benefits of reindeer meat soon followed, highlighting its virtues of being both low in fat yet high in omega 3 and 6 essential oils, as well as rich in minerals and vitamins like B12. There's also a particular trait of reindeer meat that's absolutely apt for the Lapland climate: it's apparently the only meat that can be frozen and defrosted up to seven times without any significant worsening of texture. Washed down with cool, tart lingonberry juice, we polished it all off in no time. 



When the meal was through, we settled in by the fire to listen to more stories, the smell of smoke sinking into our hair and our clothes, the only other thing we'd take back with us to Abisko. 




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