Ella-Li Spik of Jokkmokk, Sweden, is one of only a small percentage of Sami who grow up herding reindeer. She is part of a new generation with plans to attend college. "I want to explore the world," she says, "but I always want reindeer to be part of my life."
Two hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle, near the jagged tips of Norway's crown, the sun does not set for weeks on end during the summer months, and the midnight sun bounces off fields of midsummer snow. The solstice comes and goes, but the Sami reindeer herders are too busy to pay much attention. "We're always in the middle of calf marking at this time," Ingrid Gaup says, referring to the yearly ritual in which the herding families carve their ancient marks into the ears of the new calves. In the Sami's homeland, spread across northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia, the notion of time is untethered from the cycles of the sun and is yoked instead to something far more important: the movement of the reindeer.
Sami herders call their work boazovázzi, which translates as "reindeer walker," and that's exactly what herders once did, following the fast-paced animals on foot or wooden skis as they sought out the best grazing grounds over hundreds of miles of terrain. Times have changed. Herders are now assigned to specific parcels of the reindeer's traditional grazing territories at designated times of the year. To make the lifestyle tenable, herders need expensive all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and snowmobiles to maintain hundreds of miles of fences between territories and move large herds in accordance with land-use regulations—even when they clash with the instincts of the reindeer. As Ingrid's husband, Nils Peder Gaup, explains, "Reindeer think with the nose, not the eyes. They go with the wind."
Like many Sami of his generation, Nils Peder went to a compulsory boarding school where his native tongue was forbidden as part of the country's "Norwegianization" policies. Sami have been given more autonomy since then, but irretrievable damage was done to their language, now spoken by a minority. The Gaups are among the few Sami—a population estimated at around 70,000—who still herd reindeer.