In time for Christmas, there’s a short article up at the National Geographic site that takes a closer look at reindeer. We’re familiar with Rudolph and use of the sleigh-pulling northern deer in holiday stories and songs, but we don’t often consider them outside of this context.
Reindeer live in the northern tundra and taiga regions (closely resembling our Canadian caribou) and have been closely associated with the Lapps for many centuries. The Lapps live in, you guessed it, Lapland along Fennoscandia, which comprises the highest latitudes of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. The connection between this group of people and the reindeer is one of mutual benefit: the Lapps have domesticated large numbers of the animals, providing meat, clothes, transportation, and beasts of burden while the reindeer (those not taken for food) benefit from a kind of protection and secured lifestyle.
The Lapps have been known for centuries as domesticaters of reindeer. I remember back to my university days studying Old English and The Voyages of Othere and Wulfstan, in which Othere, who was most likely from around Tromsø in northern Norway, told the Anglo-Saxon court of Alfred the Great of his travels to Lapland and his interaction with the people there:
The Beormas told him many stories both about their own country and about the lands which surrounded them, but he did not know how much of it was true because he had not seen it for himself. It seemed to him that the Finnas and the Beormas spoke almost the same language. His main reason for going there, apart from exploring the land, was for the walruses, because they have very fine ivory in their tusks – they brought some of these tusks to the king – and their hide is very good for ship-ropes. This whale [i.e. walrus] is much smaller than other whales; it is no more than seven ells long. The best whale-hunting is in his own country; those are forty-eight ells long, the biggest fifty ells long; of these he said that he, one of six, killed sixty in two days.
He was a very rich man in those possessions which their riches consist of, that is in wild deer. He had still, when he came to see the king, six hundred unsold tame deer. These deer they call ‘reindeer’. Six of these were decoy-reindeer. These are very valuable among the Finnas because they use them to catch the wild reindeer.
There’s just a short mention here, but it does illustrate their use for the reindeer, not only as a source of food and domesticated work animal, but as a symbol of wealth and power. The mention of using tame reindeer to catch and domesticate their wild counterparts is equally interesting. There’s no surprise how valuable the creature was to Lapp culture at the time, especially when one considers the subarctic climate and short growing season, which produce poor conditions for agricultural activities. Herding an animal that can subsist on low shrubs, mosses, and grasses would have been a tremendous boon to the economy of the region.
Reindeer in their Scandinavian form have been introduced to other subarctic regions around the world in an attempt to see how well they adapt and whether or not they form significant populations. Canada is one such location and here a distinction has been made between reindeer and caribou (they are essentially the same animal, but here reindeer is used to identify the domesticated version, while those that run wild are termed caribou).