Traditional Ecological Knowledge
among Reindeer Herders in Northern
Faculty of Forest Sciences
Department of Wildlife, Fish, and Environmental Studies
Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences
Cover: Autumn Migration, ink drawing by Gunnar Östman Inga
© 2008 Berit Inga, Umeå
Tryck: Arkitektkopia, Umeå 2008
The present thesis analyses the traditional ecological knowledge about the plants
reindeer graze upon among reindeer-herding Sámi. The study was carried out by
means of interviews with a total of 22 Sámi reindeer herders from four Sámi
reindeer herding communities (in Sweden the term “sameby” is used) in northern
Sweden: Gabna, Laevas, Girjas and Udtja. The subjects of the interviews were the
plants reindeer graze upon during the summer season (Paper I) and the lichens
reindeer feed upon during the winter season together with the reindeer grazing of
mushrooms (Paper II). The informants were given the following tasks: a) to identify
and name plants either in the Swedish or the Sámi language, b) specify which plants
the reindeer eat, c) specify which plants are used during different seasons, and d)
describe a good winter pasture. The nomenclature for vascular plants in the Sámi
language is limited to a few species, many of them are traditionally used in the
reindeer herder’s own fare. Other fodderplants the herders have knowledge of are
plants that are eaten by reindeer in seasons of sparse pasture, as during the winter,
spring and autumn. Accordingly, lichens have a detailed nomenclature in Sámi,
where the different species are categorized according to their appearance and
habitat, such as jeagil, lahppo and gatna. Grasses in the Sámi language are generally
called rássi, but some species of grass are called sitnu. Rássi is the name used for grass
and sedges, and also for forbs. Rássi is grazed upon during the summer, while sitnu
is grazed upon in the winter as well. The Sámi nomenclature for known
fodderplants sometimes have a uniform nomenclature, and this occurs for especially
important plants or plants that indicate good pastures, such as Equisetum fluviatile
which is grazed upon when summer forage is passed, or utilized under the snow
during the winter. Apart from these functional groups, Sámi nomenclature for
vascular plants is very sparse.
When the reindeer herders characterize good winter pasture they first pay attention
to the snow conditions, rather than the amount of lichens. The reindeer herders
choose to let their reindeer graze in moist ground areas during early winter, while
dry areas are saved until later in the winter. Dry areas are expected to have thinner
snow cover than moist areas. Snow quality is of cardinal importance for winter
pasture, and the Sámi language has about three hundred words for different snow
conditions. This thesis concludes that knowledge about the plants that reindeers
graze upon in the summer is sparse among the reindeer herders, but that there is a
highly functional terminology for winter pastures conditions. Not only actual forage
as lichens is described by a detailed nomenclature, but also snow conditions play a
major role in the evaluation of the pastures. It is probably important that the herders
preserve their collective traditional knowledge. It is also important that they seek to
increase and deepen this knowledge to keep up with the growing demand for more
rationalized reindeer herding, and to be able to communicate effectively with other
parties in an increasingly arronded reindeer herding pasturage.
Keywords: Reindeer husbandry, pastoralism, forage, range management, scientific
knowledge, Sámi terminology, lichens, snow
Author’s address: Berit Inga, Department of Wildlife, Fish, and Environmental
Studies, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, SE-901 83 Umeå, Sweden;
Ájtte Swedish Mountain and Sámi Museum, Box 116, SE-962 23 Jokkmokk,
Följande avhandling analyserar renskötande samers traditionella kunskap om renens
födoväxter. Studien utfördes genom intervjuer med totalt 22 renskötare från fyra
svenska samebyar: Gabna, Laevas, Girjas och Udtja. Intervjuerna berörde renens
födoväxter under sommaren (Paper I) samt svampar och vinterbete av lav (Paper II).
Informanterna gavs följande uppgifter: a) identifiera och namnge växter på antingen
samiska eller svenska, b) ange vilka växter renen betar, c) specifiera under vilka
perioder av renskötselåret olika växter betas, samt d) karaktärisera bra vinterbete.
Den samiska nomenklauturen för kärlväxter är begränsad till ett fåtal arter, varav
många är sådana som renskötarna traditionellt själva använt i sin kosthållning. Andra
foderväxter som var välkända bland informanterna är sådana som nyttjas av renen
under perioder då betet är begränsat, dvs under höst, vinter och vår. Därför är den
samiska nomenklauturen för lavar mer detaljerad, och olika arter kategoriseras
utifrån sitt utseende och växtplats, såsom jeagil, lahppo och gatna. Gräs kallas
generellt för rássi, men en del arter kallas sitnu. Rássi är det namn som används för
gräs, halvgräs och örter som nyttjas under sommaren. Sitnu inkluderar vintergröna
arter som betas även under snön. Den samiska nomenklauturen för kända
foderväxter är mest enhetlig för särskilt viktiga växter som indikerar gott bete, såsom
sjöfräken som betas på senhösten och vintern. Bortsett från dessa funktionella
grupper används få artnamn för kärlväxter i det samiska språket.
Informanterna lade större vikt vid snöförhållanden än faktisk mängd lav när de
karaktäriserade ett gott vinterbete. Torra områden förväntades få tunnare snötäcke
under vintern än fuktiga. Man valde generellt att låta renarna beta områden som
förväntas få mycket snö först och spara torrare områden till senare på vintern, när
renarna kan ha svårt att gräva genom snön. Snöförhållanden är mycket viktiga för
renskötseln, och samiskan har fler än trehundra ord för snö och snöns relation till
renbetet. Min avhandling visar att renskötarna har sporadisk kännedom om de
växter som renarna betar under sommaren, men att det för vinterbete finns en
mycket utförlig terminologi som inte är begränsad till själva betesväxterna, utan
även inkluderar snöförhållanden. Det är förmodligen mycket viktigt för rennäringen
att bevara den traditionella ekologiska kunskapen för att kunna hålla jämna steg med
de ökande kraven på rationalisering och effektivisering av näringen, och för att
kunna ha en effektiv dialog med andra parter som gör anspråk på renskötselområdet.
List of Publications 8
Current Reindeer Husbandry in Sweden
Traditional Ecological Knowledge
3.1 Study Area
Material and Method
Study Design 16
Identification of Plants
Traditionally used Nomenclature of Plants
Seasonal use of Fodderplants
Ecological Characteristics of Grazing Areas
List of Publications
This thesis is based on the work contained in the following papers, referred
to by Roman numerals in the text:
I Berit Inga & Öje Danell. 2008. Traditional ecological knowledge among
Sámi reindeer herders in northern Sweden about vascular plants used by
reindeer (Arctic, manuscript under revision)
II Berit Inga. 2007. Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus tarandus) feeding on lichens
and mushrooms; traditional ecological knowledge among reindeer-
herding Sami in northern Sweden, Rangifer 2/2007, 93-106
Paper II is reproduced with the permission of the publisher.
The reindeer, Rangifer tarandus L., has existed in the northern hemisphere for
a very long time (Baskin & Danell, 2003). The Sámi people in Fennoscandia
and on the Kola peninsula, along with other ethnic groups in Asia, lived by
reindeer hunting and began early, at least during the last 2000 years, to keep
tamed and domesticated reindeer (e. g. Roung, 1967; Skjenneberg &
Slagsvold, 1979 (1968); Hultkrantz & Vorren, 1982; Baskin, 2000). The
reindeer, called caribou on the American continent, are not domesticated
but are hunted by various indigenous people.
By feeding on lichens in the winter the reindeer has made life possible for
people in the harsh environment of the Arctic (e. g. Skjenneberg &
Slagsvold, 1979 (1968); Hultkrantz & Vorren, 1982; Syroechkovski &
Kuprianov, 1995; Syroechkovski, 1999). Until the 1500’s the nomadic Sámi
had a few tamed reindeer that were used for transport and milking, while
meat was obtained by hunting wild reindeer (e. g. Hultkrantz & Vorren,
1982; Aronsson, 1991; Mulk, 1991). After the sixteenth century and due to
a changing economical system, the Sámi people began keeping larger herds
of semi-domesticated reindeer (Lundmark, 1989). It is likely that the Sámi
people have accumulated a significant amount of knowledge about the
reindeer’s ecology, first as hunters and later as herders, which is essential to
their survival and way of life. I have conducted a series of interviews with
Sámi reindeer herders to explore and document the nature of this
1.1 Current Reindeer Husbandry in Sweden
Reindeer husbandry requires land and is practised in approx. 50% of the
land area in Sweden (Renbeteskommissionen, 2001). It is important to note
that, when domestication of the reindeer took place in Fennoscandia, the
reindeer were already present in the area (Clutton-Brock, 1999). The
management strategies builds upon the fact that reindeer are adapted to the
environment and have the ability to utilize natural fodderplants (e.g. Danell
et al., 1999; Gaare & Danell, 1999; Forbes et al. (eds), 2006).
In Sweden there are two types of reindeer husbandry: forest and
mountain reindeer herding (Fig. 1). The forest type of herding is carried out
in the boreal forest area all the year round. The mountain type uses the
mountains during the summer and the boreal forests in the winter. In both
reindeer herding systems the reindeer are moved between different areas in
order to find new grazing areas and to avoid insects and high temperatures in
summer. Sweden hosts the tundra reindeer Rangifer tarandus tarandus
(Banfield, 1961), which is also known as mountain reindeer. Only the Sámi
people are allowed to practice reindeer herding in Sweden (Svensk
författningssamling, 1928). During the summer, reindeer herding is
prohibited below the Lapland-border (Fig. 2), with the exception of the
Torne River Valley and the valley of the River Kalix, the area bordering
Finland (Fig. 1). Since 1928 so-called concession reindeer herding is
practiced in eight concession reindeer-herding communities in the Torne
River Valley below the Lapland border. Here Sámi reindeer herders are
given the concession to practice reindeer-herding all the year round in
exchange for keeping up to 30 reindeer owned by each of the landowners in
the area of concession (Fig. 1; Statistics Sweden, 1999).
The intensity of the contact between the herders and their herd varies
with the seasons. It is mainly in the winter (November-April) and during
the calving-period (April-May) that the reindeer herders have close contact
with the animals and they certainly have observed what the animals feed on
during that time. In May during the calving season, the reindeer herders
have a close and daily contact with the herd to protect the calving
reindeerherd from disturbances (e.g. Svonni, 1983). In the summer, the
contact with the reindeer is more sporadic, but takes place when the herders
are gathering the herd into calf marking corrals five to seven times during
the middle of June to August. In September the slaughter of bulls takes place
and after that the reindeer are left undisturbed during the mating-season.
During the winter grazing period, that extends from November to
March/April, the herders nearly have daily care of the herd and move it
shorter distances to new grazing areas when necessary. In March/April the
contact with the herd gets more intensive when the herd is moving to the
lower mountains above the birch timberline (e.g. Skjenneberg & Slagsvold,
1979 (1968); Svonni, 1983; Paine, 1994; Kuhmunen, 1968, 2000). This
description is mainly for mountain reindeer herding, but can also partly be
applied to the forest herding system.
Figure 2. The chart describes how the reindeer herding areas are utilized by mountain
reindeer herding Sámi communities. Forest reindeer herding is also migratory, but the
reindeer stay in forest areas during the entire year. (Drawing by Jon Mihkkal Inga)
1.2 Traditional Ecological Knowledge
The Sámi people’s traditional knowledge of animals and plants in ecological
relationships is to a great extent unexplored from a scientific point of view.
The majority of studies in modern time have been done by anthropologists
(e.g. Manker, 1953; Ruong, 1956, 1967, 1982; Ingold, 1978; Beach, 1981;
Paine, 1994), who have studied the traditional use of land and water in
connection with reindeer pastoralism (pastoral farming).
Some earlier studies have been made on Sámi nomenclature of vascular
plants and lichens. The earliest was Linneaus (2003 (1732)) who during his
travels in Lapland had in his documentation of the Sámi people used their
words for some of the plants and animals. And 300 years later at the
beginning of the 20th century a series of interviews conducted with Sámi
map the Sámi nomenclature for lichens (Nissen, 1921). Nissen refers to
collections of Sámi words on lichens and vascular plants made by Qvigstad
(1901) and Nielsen (1945 (1912)).
Works in the ecological sphere about reindeer fodderplants were published
by e. g. Skuncke (1958, 1963, 1969), Skjenneberg & Slagsvold (1979),
Kararev (1968), Leander-Willians (1988), Danell et al. (1994) and Mårell
(2006), and also published reindeer grazing investigation in the government
commission connected with the dissolving of the union in 1905 between
Norway and Sweden e.g. Lönnberg (1909) and Holmboe (1912).
Researchers have recently begun to use interviews as a complement to
conventional methods when investigating the biology of the reindeer and
the practice of reindeer herding (e.g. Forbes et al., 2006).
People have lived and acted during millennia only with the knowledge they
got verbally from earlier generations, and through their own experiences.
This is commonly called a silent or tacit knowledge. Polanyi (1969) wrote,
“we can know more than we can tell”, and he also defined traditional
ecological knowledge (TEK) as knowledge that people have and simply put
into practice (Berkes, 1999; Berkes et al., 2000). Thus TEK as a method of
doing research also has other terms like indigenous knowledge, local
knowledge, Inuit knowledge etc. that are used as a contrast to western
science (Berkes, 1999). Grenier (1998) published a guide for research in
traditional knowledge where he uses the term indigenous knowledge, and
also discusses ethical issues concerning the collection of data for such studies.
The research method TEK was introduced during the 1980‘s and it has since
then been discussed among scientists (e.g. Berkes, 1999; Wenzel, 1999).
Several scientists have used this methodology in order to explain ecological
connections and long-time trends (e.g. Freeman, 1985; Berkes, 1987;
Helander, 1996; Ferguson & Messier, 1997; Huntington, 1998; Thorpe,
2000; Usher, 2000). People that are directly dependent on natural resources
notice changes in nature in ways that are often overseen by established
scientific methods. Standard ecological investigations are valuable, but can
with a few exceptions (e.g. paleoecology) only show the current state of the
system, not its history. To call it traditional knowledge is not the same as to
call it static knowledge, but rather accumulated knowledge that has been
operatively tested and refined by generations of people who have been
dependent on this knowledge for their survival (e.g. Grenier, 1998; Berkes
1999). Therefore researchers who are interested in changes in nature will
benefit greatly from interviews with indigenous people.
Fikret Berkes (1999) is one of the researchers who promoted the term
traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) in the 1990’s, and he has discussed
and written extensively about how we should relate to this concept.
According to Berkes (1999) TEK contains a strain of ethnobiology: ”The
study of traditional ecological knowledge begins with the study of species
identification and classification (ethnobiology)
considerations of peoples’ understandings of ecological processes and their
relationship with the environment (human ecology)”. Berkes (1987) also
divided TEK into three levels, in a “knowledge - practice – belief
complex”. The first level is knowledge on surrounding animals and plants
and also on the behaviour of animals, the second level is to practice the
knowledge in their livelihood as hunters, fishermen or herders, and the third
level is the belief system in which events are interpreted in some way. My
study mainly deals with the TEK in the knowledge – practice sphere and
not in the belief complex.
In this study the reindeer herders stand in focus with their accumulated
knowledge about the reindeer ecology and this can be seen as a complement
to knowledge derived from western scientific knowledge.
and proceeds to
Figure 1. The map covers the Swedish reindeer herding area. The different reindeer herding
systems are marked; mountain- (33 communities), forest- (10 communities) and concession
reindeer herding (8 communities). The Lapland regional border was established when
Norway and Sweden separated in 1751. The cultivation border was laid out in 1868 to
protect the reindeer herding areas from exploitation by farming and settlement. The four
Sámi communities in this study are marked. Map data from Renbeteskomissionen (2001).
(Drawing, Jon Mihkkal Inga).
The purpose of this investigation is to look at the extent of current
traditional knowledge among Sámi reindeer herders about vascular plants
and lichens that are considered to be important forage plants for reindeer in
the scientific literature. My hypothesis is that there is a long tradition of
ecological knowledge among the Sámi people, and that the ability to
recognize and name the different plants that reindeer feed on is vital for the
herders. Interviews were used to identify vascular plants, lichens and
mushrooms that reindeer use and then specify when they are being grazed
during the year (Papers I and II). The informants were also asked to
characterize a good winter grazing area (Paper II).
I also wanted to know if reindeer herders do have any special taxonomy
or terminology for plants, which differs from the scientific descriptions. The
investigation refers to conditions in four reindeer herding areas used by four
different Sámi communities in northern Sweden.
The aim of my study is to investigate the knowledge among reindeer
herding Sámi about the reindeer’s summer forage plants (Paper I) as well as
winter forage plants (Paper II).
3 Study Design
3.1 Study Area
The reindeer herders who were interviewed were members of three
mountain Sámi communities (Gabna, Laevas and Girjas, 68°N), and one
forest Sámi community (Udtja, 66°N) in northern Sweden (Fig. 1). A Sámi
community is an association of reindeer herders, and membership of a Sámi
community is a prerequisite for grazing reindeer within the reindeer herding
area belonging to that Sámi community. The mountain Sámi reindeer
herding areas extend from the Norwegian border in the west with bare
mountain into the boreal coniferous forest in the east. The mountain
herding communities practise a migratory reindeer herding, grazing in the
mountains during the summer and in the forests in the winter. The reindeer
herding in the forest Sámi community is more sedentary within the boreal
forest all the year round, although different parts of the landscape are used
during the different seasons.
3.2 Material and Method
The two papers were based on interviews with 22 reindeer herders, in three
mountain Sámi communities (Gabna, Laevas, Girjas) with 15 male and 1
female, and one forest Sámi community (Udtja) with 5 male and 1 female
informants. The first rounds of interviews (interviews I–III, 1999–2000)
were held with 17 informants from four Sámi communities (Papers I and II).
In the second round of interviews (interviews IV–V, 2001–2002) two
mountain Sámi communities (Gabna and Laevas) were involved with 9
informants in the interviews (Paper II).
The informants were all born in 1950 or earlier, and have had their
livelihood in reindeer husbandry (Paper II: Appendix). The reason for
choosing older herders was that they were expected to have got their
training in reindeer herding, when education in biology and plant ecology
was less commonly offered as a means for herder professional improvement.
The interviews were held mostly in the herders’ homes and in the language
of the informants’ own choice, Swedish or Sámi. Nineteen out of the 22
informants could speak Sámi, and 9 of them chose to speak Sámi, but all the
informants who spoke Sámi used Sámi terminology in their responses. The
interviews were held in an informal tone and usually developed into
discussions about fodderplants and grazing conditions. This occasionally
revealed additional knowledge that would not have been illuminated in
Each informant was given three main questions: a) which Sámi names
were used by the reindeer herders for vascular plants, lichens and
mushrooms; b) when during the year did the reindeer feed upon them; and
c) which species did the reindeer prefer (Papers I and II).
Interviews I–III were recorded on tape and transcribed by people who
spoke both Sámi and Swedish. This material was then analysed using the
QSR NUD*IST software (1997), which was used for sorting words and
terms to get a comprehensive overview of the collected material. Interviews
IV–V were documented both by notes and recording on tape.
The answers concerning the informants’ identification of plant taxa and
their use by reindeer were compiled as categorical responses in response
classes: “identified by name”, “identified without name”, “not recognised”,
and “grazed”, “not grazed”, “not known whether grazed or not”, “use not
addressed by respondent”, respectively. Possible associations of reindeer
herding communities and responses were tested for all species merged, for
groups of species, and for some specific species where differences between
herding communities could be expected a priori, using Fisher’s exact test in
the FREQ procedure of the SAS statistical software (SAS Institute Inc.
2002) (Paper I).
To get information about what characterizes a good winter grazing area,
two different experiments were carried out during the second round of
interviews (IV–V) (Paper II, Table 1). In the first experiment the informants
had to rank seven plant community boxes (18 cm x 18 cm) according to the
preference by reindeer. To test how well the rankings coincided with each
other, the results were tested with the Kendall coefficient of concordance
(Siegel & Castellan, 1988).
In the second experiment, the informants were shown two photographs
from two different types of winter pastures (Paper II, Fig 2A-B). The
informants were asked to value the two habitats as winter grazing areas with
the assumption that both had the same amount of fodder (both in quality
The scientific nomenclature follows Santensson et al. (2004) for lichens
and other plants are classified according to Mossberg & Stenberg (2003).
The Sámi names are underlined and follow the Northern Sámi spelling,
unless indicated otherwise. The spelling for the Northern Sámi names (NS)
follow Svonni (1990) and Lule Sámi (LS) spelling follows Spiik (1994).
4.1 Identification of Plants
In seasons, as during the autumn-, winter- and spring-time, with shortage of
available forage for reindeer the herders had a very good knowledge of
which plants the reindeer grazed on. Some species are especially important
during this period of sparse forage for the reindeer. Examples are Equisetum
fluviatile, that can be grazed even when the snow covers the ground (Paper I:
Fig 3e), and on the wetland in the spring (May – June) is Eriophorum
vaginatum (Paper I: Fig 3d) an early protein-rich fodderplant after the poor
winterdiet. Both species were well known and therefore have uniform
names (Paper I: Table 2). The knowledge about dwarf shrubs showed a
difference between mountain and forest herding communities. Herders from
mountain herding community had mainly a clear understanding of which,
when and where the dwarf shrubs are consumed by reindeer. This is valid
especially for Empetrum nigrum ssp. hermaphroditum, but also for Vaccinium
myrtillus and V. vitis-idaea ssp. vitis-idaea (Paper I: Fig 3a and Paper II: Table
Plants that the reindeer herders used in their own fare were easily
identified and they had also given a similar or identical Sámi name for it.
Berries as Vaccinium myrtillus, V. vitis-idaea ssp. vitis-idaea and Rubus
chamaemorus are all picked and eaten by all the informants (Paper I). Forbs
such as Angelica archangelica ssp. archangelica and Rumex acetosa are also widely
known by Sámi people and these species have traditionally been used in
their diet (Paper I). Other plants that were identified by the Sámi because of
their own use of them were Carex rostata and C. aquatilis ssp. aquatilis that
earlier, but even to some extent today, were used as shoe-hay (Paper I).
Trees and shrubs (Betula and Salix) were mainly identified with the same
name, but not always according to if it is eaten by reindeer (Paper I). The
informants did, for example, not separate species of Salix, although they
have different names for Salix, but one of the informants made a difference
between dead or living Salix (Paper I). In this case the willows (Salix) have
been identified as being good for smoking reindeer-meat or for making up
an ordinary fire.
Lichens are best known and the herders are able to distinguish different
lichen species (Paper II: Table 2). The herders also reported which of the
lichens are preferred and which are not preferred by reindeer (Paper II:
Table 3 and 4). The lichen that is preferred is Cladonia spp., and those not
preferred are Nephroma spp. and Stereocaulon paschale.
Mushrooms were not known at the species level at all by the interviewed
reindeer herders. However, the informants were sure that reindeer are very
fond of it and they could tell when the reindeer consumed mushrooms
during the year (Paper II: Figure 3b-c).
4.2 Traditionally used Nomenclature of Plants
Similar or identical names are given when the Sámi themselves use the
species. Examples are berries from dwarf shrubs and forbs used in their diet,
and trees or shrubs used for smoking, fire or timber (Paper I). Grasses did
not have names at the species level but there is a clear and uniform
nomenclature for a group of grasses called sitnu (Deschampsia flexuosa ssp.
flexuosa, D. alpina, Festuca ovina and Poa alpina). All the informants did
identify the grasses sitnu and 11 of them also gave descriptions that
confirmed the name they had used for these specific grasses (Paper I: Table
2, Fig 3c). The grasses they called rássi include different species of grass and
forbs that reindeer graze during the summer (Paper I: Fig 3b-c). It is obvious
that they distinguish between sitnu and rássi (Fig 3).
The nomenclature for lichens was very distinct and was also mainly used
by the reindeer herders. According to all the informants, lichens are the
most important fodder for the reindeer’s welfare during the winterseason
and in view of this importance, the informants also have a uniform
nomenclature (Paper II: Table 1 and 2). Among the reindeer herders the
lichen terminology is clear in relation to habitat and appearance: jeagil (NS)
or visste (LS) for fructiose lichens on the ground, lahppu for tree living
pendulous lichens and gatna for foliose or crustose lichens that live on trees
or on rocks (Paper II: Table 2).
Mountain ************************************ Snow cover (Dahlström, 1995)
Lichen (9 informants)
Forest****************************** Snow cover (Dahlström, 1995)
Lichen (5 informants)
Equisetum fluviatile (8 inf.)
Equisetum fluviatile (5 inf.)
Eriophorum vaginatum (9 inf.)
Eriophorum vaginatum (5 inf.)
Sitnu (9 inf.)
Sitnu (4 inf.)
Betula and Salix (9 inf.)
Betula and Salix (5 inf.)
MountainDwarf shrubs (9 inf.)
Forest Dwarf shrubs (2 inf.)
Mountain Forbs (9 inf.)
Forest Forbs (5 inf.)
Mountain Mushrooms (9 inf.)
Forest Mushrooms (5 inf.)
Percent of informants
Figure 3. Information on when the informants from the reindeer herding
communities investigated thought that the reindeer graze upon certain fodderplants
(Papers I and II). The mountain communities are Gabna, Laevas and Girjas, and the
forest community is Udtja. The shading of the lines represent how many percent of
the herders that claimed the plants were grazed regularly. Sitnu are grass like
Deschampsia flexuosa ssp. flexuosa, D. alpina, Festuca ovina and Poa alpina. Dwarf
shrubs are Empetrum nigrum ssp. hermaphroditum, Vaccinium myrtillus, V. uliginosum
ssp. uliginosum and V. vitis-idaea ssp. vitis-idaea. This investigation excluded dwarf
shrubs like Salix herbacea.
4.3 Seasonal use of Fodderplants
The informants from the mountain and forest herding communities largely
agreed when asked to specify during which periods the reindeer feed on
specific plant species/groups (Fig. 3). Somewhat different opinions were
expressed that may be explained by diverse reindeer use of habitat during
the year. As an example Equisetum fluviatile seem to be grazed during
different periods in the two types of herding communities. In the forest
herding community most herders claimed that it was grazed from June to
the end of the year, but in the mountain herding communities they claimed
that it was grazed from the middle of August to the end of the year. The
explanation is perhaps that the reindeer in the forest community use summer
areas where E. fluviatile is found, since the mountain community reindeer
arrive in August at the earliest to habitats with E. fluviatile.
Sitnu is the Sámi name of a group of grasses with special characteristics.
In some literature sitnu is claimed to be Deschampsia flexuosa ssp. flexuosa
(Warenberg et al., 1997), but when the informants were given their
description of sitnu it is quite clear that it is not only one grass that is called
sitnu (Paper I). Most of the mountain community herders claimed that the
sitnu-grasses were grazed during the winter season and almost at the same
time as lichens. On the other hand, most forest community herders claim
that sitnu was grazed also during the summer and until December (Fig. 3).
The mountain community herders, compared to herders in the forest
community, seem to assign a higher value on sitnu as a winter fodder. One
herder from the forest community said that the reindeer grazed sitnu and
leaves from Betula and Salix in the summer (Paper I: Fig. 2). It is obvious
that reindeer herders classify sitnu as grass with high fodder value all the year
4.4 Ecological Characteristics of Grazing Areas
The winter grazing season represents a decrease in the amount of green
fodderplants with high protein content. The reindeer has solved this
nutrition problem by choosing to graze on lichens with a high content of
carbohydrates. Further, the reindeer is also adapted to a lower food intake
during winter by catabolizing its accumulated energy resources from its body
fat and, if necessary, muscle protein (Paper II).
The discussions that arose during the experiment where the informants
were to rank seven boxes of different plant communities, gave some
information on what the reindeer herders consider to be important features
of good winter foraging areas (Paper II: Table 1). First they mentioned to
what extent the lichens covered the ground and rated the boxes after that.
Next, they discussed the snow cover, how deep it might be and if certain
boxes represented areas where the snow is easy to dig for the reindeer.
When the two photos, one of flat ground with young trees and one of a
more hilly area with bigger trees, were scrutinized the reindeer herders
focused on the snow cover in their discussion (Paper II: Fig. 2 A-B). The
reindeer herders agreed that a winter grazing area in an old Pinus sylvestris
forest was better than in a young one or forests with other trees, such as
Betula spp., Salix spp. or Picea abies, which normally grow in more moist
ground than Pinus sylvestris. Two of the herders also ranked the seven boxes
according to how moist the area was presumed to be and they also gave
recommendations on the optimal use during the winter. In these
recommendations a moist area will be utilized in early winter (October –
January) and a drier area during late winter (January – March). None of the
other informants had differing opinions on this suggested crop rotation of
This study concludes that detailed knowledge about specific species of
grazing plants is not essential for reindeer herding. It appears that the
reindeer herders use certain plants as “indicators” for evaluating the quality
of forage in an area. In general, the informants appeared to have a more
precise knowledge about vascular plants and lichens that are used mainly
during periods of sparse forage, such as in the winter. This also coincides
with the period when the intensity of the contact with the herd is highest
during the year.
Instead of following the established scientific method when investigating
the ecology of the reindeer, I have chosen to conduct interviews with
reindeer herders about their knowledge on what the reindeer feed upon. In
this method of investigation the reindeer herders are the material, and it is
therefore crucial that they are chosen with care so that they form a
representative group for all reindeer herders’ knowledge. The selection of
the informants was carried out partly in collaboration with the chairmen of
the reindeer herding communities, and some of the informants were chosen
by me based on my personal knowledge of these persons. One important
criteria imposed on the choice of informants was that they had not
participated in similar studies to assure that all material collected in the
interviews stems from true traditional knowledge. Statistic analysis of the
results in Paper I and II suggests that the group of informants chosen is
The purpose of this work was to investigate the nature and extent of the
reindeer herders’ knowledge about the reindeers’ fodderplants. It was
important to eliminate the differences that could appear in different locations
and at different times to produce as equivalent interview conditions as
possible. Hence I opted to show pictures of plants from Warenberg et al.
(1997) (Paper I) along with a number of living specimens of lichens
(Paper II), rather than interviewing the reindeer herders out in the field. It is
possible that the reindeer herders could have done better if they were to see
the vascular plants in their natural habitat instead of being asked to identify
them from pictures. However, the procedure chosen allowed for a greater
number of informants since it did not require the careful selection of
locations and precise timing. An option would have been to bring all 22
informants to one location at the same time, but it was unfeasible for such a
large group and is unlikely to have produced more reliable data.
In Paper I, which deals with summer grazing, a surprisingly small number
of species of grazing plants were recognised with a uniform nomenclature.
Such nomenclature would clearly be an advantage when knowledge is
passed on to the next generation (e. g Berlin, 1992; Helander, 1996). One
example where all the informants used the same nomenclature is a group of
grass species, Deschampsia flexuosa ssp. flexuosa, D. alpina, Festuca ovina and
Poa alpina. These species preserve their green colour under the snow and are
suitable for grazing in the winter. All the informants identified these species
as sitnu (Paper I: Table 2). According to Qvigstad’s (1901) dictionary of
Sámi plant names, the word sitnu was used as a common name for grass
species, such as Deschampsia flexuosa and various species of Festuca (Nielsen,
About lichens the reindeer herders had a considerably more detailed
knowledge, and could differentiate and name very similar species such as
Cladonia rangiferina/arbuscula/mitis and C. stellaris. The informants also had a
name for Stereocaulon paschale that according to the reindeer herders is not
preferred by reindeer (Paper II). Names used for lichens are a description of
the lichen habitat and their appearance: fructiose on the ground, pendulous
in trees, and crustose or foliose on rock or bark. The reindeer herders of
today still use the same names for categorization of lichens (Inga, 2007) as
was described in Nissen’s (1921) study conducted in the early 1900’s. This
kind of nomenclature is functional when used in the every-day work of the
herders. Keeping a homogenous and precise nomenclature for lichens
greatly simplifies the exchange of information. Combined with an effective
way of communicating snow conditions, the reindeer herders have a well-
developed tool for conveying knowledge about the vegetation and
condition in different areas.
Instead of extensive knowledge of different species of plants, the reindeer
herders have arranged the plants in functional groups such as rássi and
gieganjulla (Paper I: Fig. 3b and 3d). The word rássi is used for anything that
the reindeer feed upon during the summer, such as various species of grass
and herbs. Gieganjulla is used for plants that grow early in the summer and
are important to the reindeer from the end of May to the middle of June.
Some particularly important species as Equisetum fluviatile, which is grazed
when forage is declining towards the end of the summer, have specific
names that are regularly used by the herders. The grouping of lichen in
jeagil, gatna and lahppo is also functional because it conveys information
about the characteristics and habitat of the lichens (Paper II). The herders
communicate properties of pastures simply by mentioning the kind of
lichens that are present.
In the experiment with the seven boxes of vegetation samples, the boxes
containing much lichen were always identified as the best pasture (Paper II,
Table 1). But, the amount of lichen was seldom mentioned by the herders
when they were asked to explain their choice. Instead, most of the
informants claimed to have made their choice by considering whether the
sample came from a dry or a moist ground area, and by estimating how deep
the snow would be in the area during the winter. Depending on the snow
condition an area is selected for grazing at different times during the winter.
The informants said that they would choose to first use areas where the
snow is expected to become deep, and save the areas that are expected to
have a more shallow snow coverage for later usage in the winter, when
there might only be a few of places where the reindeer can dig through the
snow. Contrary to my assumptions, the areas with the thickest lichen were
chosen for grazing early in the winter while areas with thinner lichen were
saved for later in the winter. The informants simply assumed that areas with
more lichen would get more snow in the winter. When making their choice
the informants also considered that areas with large amounts of lichen are
found in moist ground areas while the pine forests are drier and have a
sparser layer of lichens on the ground. Using this principle when selecting
which areas to use first in the winter may also serve other purposes. Most
notable is the fact that areas with a thinner coverage of lichen are more
sensitive for disturbance (e. g. Crittenden, 2000). Saving these areas for
grazing later in the winter, when there is more snow, will also help preserve
them from excessive usage. This was not mentioned during the interviews
when the boxes were rated, but I think that it might be a form of silent
knowledge. If so, it is a practice that is simply used without being
mentioned (Polanyi, 1969).
In literature it is easy to find 300 Sámi terms for snow in relation to
reindeer grazing and also words that describe snow for people and animals to
travel on (Jernsletten, 1997; Ryd, 2001). From that perspective, it is not
surprising that the herders were more inclined to talk about snow conditions
than the quantities of lichen (Paper II). However, the purpose of my studies
was not to shed light on the various Sámi words for different forms of snow,
but rather to understand how the quality of the snow affects the reindeer’s
ability to find food in the winter. Paper II illustrates the interest and
knowledge about this subject among the reindeer herders.
The knowledge about the reindeer’s ecology among the reindeer herders
consisted consequently not mainly of knowledge about different plants that
reindeer feed upon. In literature about reindeer herding, where Sámi terms
are encountered, a relatively small percentage are names for reindeer
fodderplants (e.g. Ruong, 1964, 1968; Collinder, 1984; Eira, 1984;
Jernsletten, 1997). Common plant names in Sámi languages were recorded
by e.g. Linneaus, 2003 (1732); Qvigstad, 1901, but in some cases there is a
great uncertainty about what plants that they actually meant. Older reports
(e. g. Linneaus, 1732) show that historically the Sámi had best knowledge
about vascular plants used in their traditional fare, but then older works are
more concerned with how people survived in the harsh environment of
northern Scandinavia. I conclude that this is also true for today’s reindeer
herders, and that other vascular plants that are well known by the reindeer
herders are species that are important to reindeer during seasons of poor
forage. Historically, and in the beginning of the 1900’s, the reindeer herders
had a closer contact with the reindeer than they have today. This should
probably affect the number of fodderplants that have specific names. Only
lichens and a few common plants are mentioned in older literature and these
species are also known by the the reindeer herders in this study. Most of the
people, who wrote about the Sámi in the 1600’s and the 1700’s, had little or
no experience of systematics for plants (Shefferus, 1956 (1674); Magnus,
1982 (1555); Berättelser om samerna i 1600-talets Sverige, 1983).
Those who wrote about northern Sweden in the 1600’s were mostly
focused on the Sámi people and their use of the reindeer, but notes of the
reindeers’ grazing plants were also made in a few documents (Tornaeus,
1983 (1673); Lundius, 1983 (1674-1679). In the 1700’s Carl Linneaus
travelled to Lapland in Sweden to study its natural history, but he also
studied the Sámi people. Because of this he can be called our first ethno-
biologist. Thanks to his curiosity we know what names the Sámi people
used for some species of plants and animals in the 18
names found in the works of Linneaus are still in use by the herders
interviewed in this study (Linné, 1905 (1737); Linneaus, 2003 (1732). The
plants that are mentioned in older writings are the same as the plants that
today’s reindeer herders know well and have specific names for, and in
many cases these are the plants that are used as “indicator species”.
th century. Many of the
Species that can be denoted “indicator species” are those that reindeer
herders identify as grazing plants and that are foraged upon during seasons
when the reindeer herders frequently move their herd between different
grazing areas. Species that reindeer herders commonly have as a sign of a
good pasture are lichens on trees and on the ground, as well as the sitnu
grass species, and also Equisetum fluviatile and Eriophorum vaginatum, which
are all grazed outside the vegetative period, from September-May. During
the vegetation period (June-August), the reindeer herders are less concerned
with the grazing plants, since forage is normally more than adequate and
easily available to the reindeer. This explains why knowledge of common
summer plants is comparatively limited.
It turned out that it is not an easy task to make a distinction between
traditional and scientific ecological knowledge. Since Linneaus, scientific
methods have changed and today biologists have verified what reindeer
graze upon without asking the reindeer-herding Sámi. Young herders can
thus consult literature to learn about the reindeer ecology. When the
informants were asked how they once learned about specific plants, they
mostly answered that they had “thought themselves”. This is understandably
a hard question to answer as most of this study concerns knowledge that the
individual herders have had for a very long time. I can only conclude that
there is no definite way to distinguish traditional knowledge from scientific
knowledge. My opinion is that the knowledge about the reindeer, their diet
and their life — whether it is founded on scientific knowledge or stems
from a long tradition of practical reindeer herding — is traditional
knowledge as long as it is used as a tool by the reindeer herdsmen.
Large parts of the herders’ knowledge consist of detailed information
about their reindeer herding areas and much of this knowledge is thus only
applicable to a limited region. There are also differences between forest- and
mountain reindeer herding that stem from the different biotopes that are
used, especially during summer. In this case TEK can be said to be very
local, as Ruddle (1994) call it: “local knowledge”. Thorpe (2000) prefers the
term “Inuit ecological knowledge” to TEK because she wants to focus on
whom the knowledge belongs to. It would be in line with her to call the
TEK in my research “Sámi knowledge”, or to be more precise: “reindeer
The reindeer herders have acquired their knowledge about the reindeer
from their parents and elders, but it is also the fruit of their own experiences
and of their own reading. In this context it is more important to observe
that the herders have this knowledge, than it is to speculate about the origins
of the knowledge. Today the knowledge of reindeer herding Sámi people
can be called traditional ecological knowledge, with the emphasis given to
the word knowledge. All this ecological knowledge is used by the herders to
take care of their reindeer herd in the best and most effective way. Thus the
reindeer herders’ knowledge is specialized and professional. If the use of the
Sámi language diminishes, many significant ways of describing the
environment, the condition of the snow and the behaviour of the reindeer
will be lost (e. g. Helander, 1993; Heikkilä, 2006). That is why it is
important to document the Sámi-speaking herders’ knowledge about the
reindeer, a knowledge that researchers at the beginning of the 20
took for granted.
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Acknowledgments Download full-text
Sincere tanks to all the informants for kindly and patiently sharing their time and
knowledge with me using many hours and days. I really value the thoughts around
the Sámi terminology that you have shared with me. I appreciate all constructive
comments on this manuscript by Kjell Danell, Öje Danell and Roger Bergström. I
also want to thank Elina Helander-Renvall and Per-Andres Esseen for valuable
comments on the manuscript. The study was financially supported by Mountain-
Mistra phase I (grants to Öje Danell), the Sámi fund and EU-Goal 6.
Först av allt vill jag tacka alla de personer som i timmar och dagar delat med sig av
sin kunskap om renen, utan er hade jag inte kunnat skriva något. Jag vill också rikta
ett tack till dem som ingått i intervjuomgångar som inte ingår i avhandlingen och
som ställde upp på provintervjuer för att testa frågorna.
Jag vill tacka mina tålmodiga handledare Kjell Danell, Öje Danell och Roger
Bergström. Tack för all uppmuntran och allt stöd. Kjell Danell var prefekt vid
instutionen för skoglig zooekologi, SLU i Umeå och blev min huvudhandledare
med professorerna Öje Danell och Roger Bergström som biträdande handledare.
Jag vill tacka mina två museichefer på Ájtte, Svenskt Fjäll- och Samemuseum,
som uppmuntrat mig i mitt arbete – Inga-Maria Mulk som fick mig att ta det första
steget och min nuvarande museichef Kjell-Åke Aronsson som såg till att jag kunde
färdigställa licentiatavhandlingen. Jag uppskattar verkligen ert stöd.
Under mitt fältarbete har jag träffat och lärt känna många människor, det har varit
fantastiskt att få ta del av era kunskaper om renen och renbete. Jag har också fått
vänner bland akademiker, inte bara i Umeå och Uppsala, utan även i Finland,
Norge, Ryssland och andra länder. När jag besökte Renenheten på Ultuna i
Uppsala fick jag för vana att vara inneboende både hos handledare, hos Birgitta
Åhman och hos Anna Skarin. Tack för att ni ville hysa in mig hemma hos er. Tack
alla som gett mig goda råd och uppmuntran under de tio år som gått från det Öje
och jag telefonledes skrev ihop en ansökan till FjällMISTRA under en helg. Tack
alla, både nämnda och icke nämnda, som hjälpt mig på något sätt så att det till slut
blev en avhandling.
Jag tackar också FjällMISTRA-programmet fas I (tack Öje Danell), Samefonden
och EU-mål 6, för ert finansiella stöd.
Sist men inte minst vill jag tacka min familj – särskilt min son Jon Mihkkal för att
du hjälpt mig i slutfasen med engelskan, ritningar, formatering och lay out.