Out on the sunlit, snow-covered tundra, you hear only two sounds: the tinkling of bells hanging around reindeer necks and revving snowmobiles. There is an almost rhythmic standoff taking place between herders on snowmobiles and the reindeer; a game of cat and mouse where the herders circle the flock, trying to force the reindeer into small groups so they can locate the designated prey.
Suddenly, an orange plastic-covered wire lands around the antlers of a reindeer, which kicks and brays. A few moments later, a knife is pierced through the back of its head, paralyzing the deer, before it is stabbed in the heart and killed.
We are in northernmost Norway, in the region of Finnmark, which borders Russia to the east and Finland to the south. This part of the world is home to the Sami, the indigenous reindeer herding people who live across the northern territories of Scandinavia and Russia. The Sami have a rich and ancient culture, but in Norway they face a very present struggle. Climate change affects the pastures where they herd, and the country's strict food policies hand power to meat and dairy monopolies, making it difficult for the Sami to sell their reindeer products.
The profound connection between the Sami people, nature and reindeer dates back thousands of years and remains a guiding cultural denominator. "You could say there is a type of contract between reindeer and man which is the foundation for the existence of the reindeer herding people," says Anders Oskal. He is the executive director of the International Center for Reindeer Husbandry (ICR), an organization set up to share knowledge among reindeer herding people throughout the Arctic region. Anders has a well-groomed moustache, a fashionable haircut with clipper-trimmed sides, and wears a blue wooly Sami dress (a gakti) with a neatly-ironed white and red pattern. "We are intimately tied together in that the reindeer traditionally provide everything for us. It's food, clothing and transport. It's the foundation for our understanding of the world. Even our understanding of ourselves. We, the reindeer herding people, follow the reindeer. Not the other way around."
While food distribution remains a political struggle, food is also a source of empowerment and identity among the Sami people. Part of the remit for Anders and the ICR is to document food traditions, not just for the Sami, but also for the more than 20 different reindeer herding people living in the Arctic region. "We should remember that these people inhabit some of the most inhospitable natural environments on the planet with temperatures down to minus 70 degrees in winter. Coping in such an environment is demanding for humans. And a very important part of this equation is what type of food you eat."
And, of course, what you wear. "Going into Siberia, you could wear Gore-Tex and eat vegetarian food," says Anders, "but I can assure you, that is not the choice I would make."
We wear long johns, insulated snowmobile suits and helmets as we leave the town of Guovdageaidnu (Kautokeino) and drive two hours up the mountain to reach the reindeer herd where the slaughter takes place. It's a striking trek through an expansive landscape; one moment sunlight is bouncing off the ice like a camera reflector, and suddenly the scenery is virtually hidden behind fog and snow, which falls in slow motion. The swirling chills smack against the cheeks like numbing darts.
About 50 kilometers up the mountain, we reach a camp on a small hill known as Gussiid dievva ("guest hill"), which used to be reserved for travelers and their reindeer, before snowmobiles became the main mode of transport. We join the herder Issat Turi, whose reindeer are grazing nearby, digging their hooves through the thick snow to uncover patches of lichen on which they feed. The butchering takes place out in the open on the crunchy, icy snow. Issat waits a couple of hours after the reindeer is killed so the juices can flow back into the meat, making it more tender. This process also dries up the layer right under the skin, preventing bacteria from attaching itself to the meat.
There is a cloud of steam billowing from the flesh as Isaat tears off the skin, before he meticulously breaks down the animal. "It's probably about 37 degrees inside the deer," he says, while removing the bloated grey stomach and intestines with his hands. "It feels nice." When Issat is struggling to rip the skin from the belly of the reindeer, his mother, Kirsten, helps out and yanks the skin off with a forceful pull. Next to them, Issat's niece Sara uses a spoon to stir the blood in a white plastic bucket to prevent it from coagulating. Not a bone, organ or drop of blood is wasted.
During the butchering, another reindeer herder, Jon Mikkel Eira, breaks into a joik. It's an ancient Sami singing style which harks bark to the culture's shamanic roots and is often performed to honor a person or an event. Jon Mikkel is 24 years old. He has studied at the reindeer husbandry school in Guovdageaidnu, trained as a chef, works as a herder and plans to open a 'landscape' hotel where he can combine his passion for cooking with Sami traditions. "I want to sell this incredible landscape," he says. "I want to sell people what I see when I look over the mountains."
It's an ambitious plan, but Jon Mikkel laments that his peers don't dare to dream big. He says there is creeping apathy among some young people who rely too much on the older generation and thus fail to learn the craftsmanship crucial to their heritage. In an ever-changing world, traditional knowledge is precious to the Sami. Even if Jon Mikkel succeeds with his hotel plan, it will always be secondary to life as a reindeer herder. "People often ask me what it's like to work with reindeer. I tell them it's not a job; it's a lifestyle."
We gather in a lavvu, a traditional Sami tent similar to a tipi, where the frozen ground is covered with birch branches and reindeer hides. Meat from the reindeer saddle and brisket is stewing in a black casserole (ruitu), hanging from steel chains over a fire. Salt and water are the only other ingredients added to this dish. At Issat's cabin nearby, his mother and niece are making blood sausage with fresh blood from the slaughter. Sara holds the cleaned-out intestines while her grandmother ladles the blood—mixed with salt and rye flour—into the casings. To prevent the blood from spilling out, they stitch the sausages together with small birch twigs, which Kirsten grabs from trees outside the cabin and trims with her knife.
Darkness has descended on the camp when it's time for dinner. Blood sausages are added to the stewing pot and the food is served from the back of a sleigh, illuminated by snowmobile headlights. The unctuous broth from the reindeer stew is poured into cups, and we pick through bones and cartilage to uncover tender chunks of meat. The blood sausages may lack the comforting notes of sweetness and spice, but they have a clean, mineral taste. Before we huddle around petroleum-powered heaters in our sleeping tents, flashes of Northern Lights appear on the horizon, swaying ghost-like across the sky like snakes being charmed out of a basket.
The next morning, we feast on reindeer leg meat which has been smoked in the lavvu, hung overnight and heated in the ruitu; it has a sweet, fragrant flavor that works perfectly with sticky lingonberry jam. Isaat has been up throughout the night, moving the reindeer flock down to a patch close to his cabin. Today, the spring migration of the reindeer begins. Over the next two days, Issat will move his flock across the mountain to Guovdageaidnu, where they will be transported by truck and boat to the island of Ráidna (reindeer island), which is their summer pasture.
As we follow the herd on our snowmobiles, a reindeer from a neighboring flock has gotten mixed up with Issat's group. Before we can move on, the reindeer has to be caught and transported home. It's time for a break. Jon Mikkel, wearing a bear-like jacket (known as a beaskka) made from six reindeer hides, black Ray-Bans and a multicolored scarf, checks messages on his iPhone 6. He keeps the phone in a green felt bag he has sewn with a red trim and a black elastic band that holds the phone in place. Jon Mikkel kneels down next to his snowmobile and leans back on his right arm.
"This time of year we don't get much sleep, so if I can get a spare moment to rest, I'll take that opportunity and just sleep on the snow." Seconds later, his eyes shut behind the dark sunglasses.
For a moment, there are no sounds on the mountain. Just silence.
This article originally appeared on the MUNCHIES Denmark website. It first appeared on MUNCHIES US in December 2016.