Disclaimer: If you do not approve of eating animals, become uneasy at the mention of blood, or wish not to see a reindeer being processed *read only to the asterisk*!
“We are not working in Porjus tomorrow. I have to pick up a few of my reindeer,” Olof Thomas, my boss, phoned to tell me. Porjus is the town about 40 km north of where we live, the location of Utsi Ren and my current place of employment. Olof Thomas (OT) has dark hair, a slight frame, is just over 30 years old with two kids, and in typical Sami fashion (and in contrast to most Swedes) is not very tall. He often appears quite serious, but more often he is keeping a straight face to enhance some joke or jest. A focused worker, he is most happy when doing something and does not like to sit still. Luckily he almost never finds himself with that particular problem. He grew up in Jokkmokk and trained as a nurse in Uppsala before returning home to herd reindeer and take over his family’s reindeer meat business.
OT received a call from another Sami reindeer herder, telling him that a few of his family’s reindeer were in a neighboring herder’s corral about 100 km away. The herder, not wishing to care for another person’s reindeer, requested that OT come separate his reindeer from the couple hundred reindeer that were ready to be transported to their winter grazing areas along Sweden’s Bothnian Coast.
OT asked if I would like to accompany him. I excitedly said yes and also secured a car seat for Amanda. Her studies inevitably overlap with reindeer (note the word reindeer doesn’t have an “S” in the plural form, a common mistake). OT said he would pick us up when it was light, which on December 4th was about 8:30 am, even though the sun doesn’t officially rise until almost 10 am. He arrived in his old 940 Volvo wagon with a trailer hitch and the first thing we did was retrieve a trailer made to haul reindeer. The trailer is basically a wooden box, about 5 ½ feet tall by 6 ½ feet wide by however long. This one was about 20 feet. These djur transport (animal transport) vehicles have a space in the wall near the top so the reindeer can breathe. When the trailer is full of reindeer on a cold day, one thinks smoke is pouring out from the trailer.
We drove east on the snow covered highway heading towards the coast’s large city of Luleå, following the Little Lule River, one of the traditional autumn migration routes of the reindeer. We turned off the highway onto a small road where we eventually came across a small herd of reindeer, perhaps 12, digging calmly through the foot deep blanket of snow, looking for edible plants and lichens. Even though some of the reindeer were on the road and in our path, they moved unconcernedly and deliberately, steam escaping from their noses and antlers nodding in the crisp air. OT spotted a few of his own reindeer in the herd, discernible by notches cut into the ears which serve as a “brand” of sorts. One must have a trained eye to identify the different marks, knowledge often only gained by growing up as a herder. Another Sami reindeer herder recounted that someone once asked him how they can tell their reindeer apart from the hundreds and sometimes thousands of others. He responded, “We look at their ears and we can tell who the reindeer belongs to.”
The observer’s follow-up question was:
“Where are their ears?”
So it certainly takes a bit of practice and training.
We arrived at the corral, but before we could get out of the car first we had to turn the car and trailer around so it was facing the correct direction. We drove nearly 2 miles down the road, which like most winter roads in northern Sweden is flanked with high snow banks and just enough space for two cars to pass. Finding no turn around, we ended up getting out of the car, unhooking the trailer, turning it by hand, then turning the car around and hooking everything back together again. We arrived at the corral to find about a dozen or so men and one woman standing around a fire, sipping coffee from thermoses and slicing hunks of meat in their hands for lunch. In a wooden fenced corral, reindeer circled counterclockwise—they mysteriously always move counterclockwise—and their antlers made a light clinking sound. They are beautiful animals, more stocky than a white-tail deer, with heavy fur and beautiful coloring, shades of browns and white. Some of them have antlers the size of a hockey goal.
The herders ended their lunch and the reindeer loading began. Trailers were backed right up to the corral, and the reindeer were funneled through the gate using a long, light 5 ft. plastic tarp held by three men. The men used it as a temporary wall to gently encourage the reindeer to move in the desired direction. The reindeer could easily break through the tarp, but it gives the illusion of being impassible and they usually do not test it. If a deer didn’t manage the jump into the trailer or refused to follow the rest, herders would simply grab it by the antlers and hoist it into the trailer. I was amazed at how the reindeer could be handled without going into a conniption fit. The loaded trailers rocked and bucked as the reindeer jostled for space. Once one trailer was loaded the next backed in. The feeling was similar to an airport with planes picking up passengers.
You might wonder why a migrating animal such as the reindeer must be moved to winter grounds by a carbon-eating truck. The reasons are complex but during the last century, these northern landscapes have been crisscrossed by hydroelectric dams, railroads, open-pit mines, highways, logging areas, and tourists, which have all made driving reindeer overland very difficult.
*I saw OT slog through the deep snow for about 10 meters in order to increase the moisture content of the snow, and on the short trip back he detoured to break a small dead, straight branch off of a spruce tree and stuck it in the snow close to the corral. OT joined the others in funneling and loading the reindeer until it was his turn. In addition to loading a few of his reindeer he was also planning on harvesting a reindeer to sell to a friend. With the help of another herder named Magnus (who towers over OT and me), he separated his five reindeer and forced them into the chute and then into his trailer. He and Magnus caught a medium sized reindeer by the antlers, and before we knew what was happening he had quickly stuck a large antler handled knife that hung from his belt into the back of the reindeer’s head, severing the spinal cord. The reindeer collapsed to the ground and OT and Magnus quickly pulled him out of the corral and off to the side. OT handed me a plastic container that had a former life holding ice cream and told me to catch the blood. He removed another knife from his belt and cut a tuft of hair from the reindeer’s chest, exposing the skin beneath. The knife plunged into the chest, and a few seconds later found the heart, releasing a stream of blood that I caught with the plastic container, holding it until it began to overflow.
“Here Aaron, this is your job. Take this stick and stir the blood until it cools off, otherwise it will coagulate,” OT instructed me, picking up the stick he had broken off earlier.
I crouched in the snow, stirring the blood and watching it coagulate around the stick into a gelatinous dark blob and marveling how the low temperatures (it was about 12°F) had prevented any of the spilled reindeer blood from soaking into my gloves. OT and Magnus dragged the reindeer over to a set of trees with a long metal pole fastened between them. They propped the deer up on its back. Pulling yet another knife from his belt OT began skinning the reindeer while Magnus helped. The men knelt in the snow and chatted as they worked, steam rising off the reindeer in the cold. Though my fingers were buried in thick gloves, they were still cold. OT and Magnus worked bare handed with their sleeves rolled up. This was obviously not the first time they had processed a reindeer, they moved quickly and surely, delicately freeing the hide around tight spots using their knives but mostly tugging and pulling it off. They scored around the elbow of the reindeer and broke the bone off.
They called me over to help lift the reindeer up, so that it could hang by its back feet from the pole tied between the two trees. It was heavy and three of us strained to lift well above our heads and slip its back tendons around the protruding pole. OT used his knife to open the body cavity, carefully covering the tip so as not to puncture the stomach contents. He removed the offal and then threw snow in the carcass to cool it off. He turned to us and explained,
“You can make many things from the blood. Yes you can make blood sausages but you can also make blood pancakes and blood dumplings” said OT earnestly.
I myself have a strong affinity for boudin noir, French blood sausages made with cream and usually served with apples. While these are made with pig’s blood, I found reindeer blood to taste very similar. When I worked at a French butcher shop I used to prepare 30 or 40 pounds of these boudin noir each week. Their texture is soft and luxurious and the taste is wonderful, though many people like blood sausage much more before they know what it is. “All parts of the reindeer can be eaten or used for something. Nowadays the slaughter companies throw these parts away and fewer and fewer people know how to prepare all parts of the reindeer. But my father still eats reindeer hooves and head for example” said OT. I learned that often the trick to prepare these lesser known “cuts” are to simmer them for 5-8 hours.
Amanda and I had been stationary for the last couple of hours and the lack of aerobic activity was causing us to become cold, so we were happy when Magnus carried the now cold reindeer like a bride across the threshold and into the back of OT’s Volvo wagon. Magnus invited us to his house to warm up and eat our packed lunch, which he supplemented with the usual black coffee so strong one abandons all hope of even trying to mellow it with milk, as well as saffron sweet rolls in the shape of an “8.” OT and Magnus shared information and exchanged drawings of family members’ ear marks in case future reindeer were mixed up, while we played with Magnus’s cute reindeer herding puppy, who was very pretty and well behaved until we started egging her on and Magnus scolded her, further proving we should never own a dog. Before we left, Magnus showed us an enormous black bear skin and head in his attic. He was forced to keep it there for the sake of the puppy who, he told us, would otherwise spend hours barking at the snarling bear head.
From Magnus’s, we stopped to let out the reindeer in Lakaträsk, the winter grazing grounds for OT’s family. Amanda and I created a wall to divert them from the road and towards the woods. OT released them from the trailer, and following a bit of panicked confusion, the reindeer trotted off down the powerline in the deep snow.
The trailer was now empty, which was fortunate because OT had to pick up a new snowmobile in Vuollerim, snowmobiles now being a crucial tool for reindeer herding. Even though the town was dark and quiet, there were quite a few people shopping for snowmobiles, or snowmobile parts. We helped OT load the new snowmobile, which involved lifting the front skis onto the back of the trailer and then running the tread which caught the lip of the trailer and pulled the snowmobile in.
“Are you excited about your new purchase?” asked Amanda as we drove home. “I am not excited like a kid at Christmas. This is a tool and I am forced to buy it because, now with two kids, I no longer have time to tinker with my old snowmobile. I would rather ski than use the snowmobile. Being a reindeer herder can become expensive,” replied OT.
In New England where I grew up, dairy farmers were forced to take out loans and had to invest tens of thousands of dollars on new equipment and machinery in order to continue to be competitive in a changing food system. The Sami people have already faced myriad challenges and obstacles, from loss of herding land to the threat of radioactive fallout in reindeer meat from the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. It is becoming increasingly difficult to make a living from reindeer herding, despite the technological advances, good reindeer meat prices, and labor saving devices, a plight not so different from small scale farmers in the US.
The trip back to Jokmmokk was hurried as OT was responsible for picking up his children from school. As we extricated ourselves from the car OT asked if he could have some of the blood to make blood pancakes for his family. We poured some blood into a jar and he drove off. His children might view blood pancakes the way an American child views a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Reindeer herding is variable work and a herder finds him/herself doing different things nearly every day. Despite the fact that OT had driven about 200 km, slaughtered a reindeer, loaded reindeer, unloaded reindeer, built a relationship with another herder, bought a snowmobile, picked up his kids, and made them blood pancakes, he considered such a day “easy.” A few days later we would get a taste of what we considered “hard” work, separating thousands of reindeer in -20°F weather….