The Family in Motion
The special understanding between people and the animals they love is timeless and enduring. Because of our ancient connections to the natural world, all cultures have animals they connect with on a psychic and spiritual level. Sometimes, the animals we most identify with and desire to control are the ones that move with beauty, speed, and enviable liberty. At other times, we keep company with animals that remind us of ourselves in idiosyncratic ways. From crocodiles to army ants, the animals we love and identify with reflect special aspects of our own personalities and relationships to specific environments.
These bonds we establish with other animals provide us with more than just food and sustenance. Our ultimate perspective on life and the determination of who we are depend a great deal on our own estimation of our place and responsibility in the natural world. Animals can become partners in innate relationships that go beyond the social relationships we have with other people. Sometimes, these relationships prove to be more precious than a relationship we might have with another person. As the distances and barriers between human beings become more ominous and extreme, the relationships we have developed in the past with animals become all the more valuable and necessary.
Reindeer are a case in point. Prehistoric man in Europe relied heavily on the reindeer herds. As the ice receded, the herds moved north. Today, the modern keepers of the great reindeer herds are the extreme northern peoples of Lapland, known as the “Saami.” The Saami people have inhabited the northern reaches of the European continent for many thousands of years, and modern genetic testing has revealed that they are some of the oldest residents of Europe. Their reliance on the traditions and knowledge of the past has resulted in preservation of a very unique lifestyle. The symbiosis between the human beings and the animals that provide every sustenance is remarkable and precious. This interwoven relationship ensures the provenance and existence of both species and reinforces the familial nature so necessary for survival under such extreme conditions. The animals provide meat, milk clothing, transportation and companionship. Survival in such a climate without the benefit of their animal partners would be improbable and tenuously difficult. With the aid and protection of the reindeer herds that they follow, the Saami enjoy a lifestyle that is relatively successful given a very cold and stark environment. Both the Saami and the reindeer herds benefit from this unique symbiotic relationship. The Saami may provide protection from predators, while the reindeer produce virtually everything else.
The Saami people follow the reindeer herds across their migratory patterns. These ancient people construct their nomadic dwellings from the hides of the reindeer. As Brian Gottesman notes in his research paper “Nomads,” these small, round structures bear considerable resemblance to the yurts of the Mongol people. With mobility being of the highest priority, these structures must not only be light and portable, they must also provide superior warmth and protection from the elements. The result is a very cozy little environment. Many modern home builders use techniques and materials from this ancient model.
The familial nature of the relationship between the Saami people and their reindeer cannot be overstated. When a calf is born, very often the mother and the calf are cared for and nurtured within the structure that the people live in. The necessity for ensuring survival of the reindeer is paramount and clearly recognized throughout the community. The individual relationships developed within the family extend beyond and supersede specie designation. Each integral, individual unit is valued, whether human or animal. The harsh reality of life in the Arctic demands that every participant, whether man or reindeer, act in a greater good for the herd and family. This reliance on each other is the backbone of the Saami family.
The traditional Saami homeland spreads across the Arctic Circle from Norway well into Russia. Some countries, such as Finland and Sweden, have sought accommodation with the Nordic nomadic peoples by providing access to traditional migrating pathways. Other countries like Norway and Russia have restricted access to traditional migratory patterns and have actively tried to stop nomadic practices to assure integration and assimilation of the Saami people into the greater population. Although recognized by the United Nations as an indigenous people, the face and lifestyle of these nomadic peoples is undergoing significant change. The modern Saami have endured the confiscation of their ancestral lands and the suppression of their nomadic lifestyle with remarkable dignity and aplomb. Regardless, the beauty and richness of the tapestry of indigenous cultures is swiftly being erased from our planet. Hopefully, a collective consciousness of caring individuals can help preserve a unique lifestyle and culture we must value now or lose forever.