IN NORTHERN SAMI, a language spoken in the uppermost reaches of Norway, Sweden and Finland, eallu is a herd, or more precisely, the herd — of reindeer, always, on whose lives the speakers depend. Between 400 and 500 words may be used to single out each animal within the herd, by coloring, girth, stance, stage of life, branching pattern of antlers, even temperament, from the truculent female who resists the rope (njirru) to the plodder whose hooves hardly leave the ground (slohtur) to the one that keeps its own counsel, hovering at the fringes (ravdaboazu). That this is poetic is incidental; it is knowledge first, essential to survive. Etymologically, “eallu” is kin, via the proto-Uralic root ela, to ealat, which encompasses both a pasture and the conditions that make it good for grazing, and to eallin: life, which the eallu and ealat make possible.
There are 29 Indigenous peoples, the Sami among them, who have herded reindeer, many for centuries. Although the verb puts humans in the position of authority, to herd is in many ways to submit: to accept the dictates of the animals. “We follow them; they don’t follow us,” said Anders Oskal, the 47-year-old secretary-general of the Association of World Reindeer Herders (W.R.H.), based in Guovdageaidnu, a small Sami village in Norway. Some herders follow the reindeer across the treeless tundra, where the subsurface of the soil stays frozen all year, and others through the taiga, thousands of miles of marshy primeval forest just south of the Arctic Circle (66 degrees, 34 minutes north), host to bitter winters and some of the lowest temperatures on Earth. These include a reported drop to minus 89.9 degrees Fahrenheit in 1933 in Oymyakon in eastern Siberia, where the Eveny tend their snow-dusted herds — a depth of cold that the British writer Sara Wheeler memorably described in “The Magnetic North” (2009) as “a level at which trees exploded with a sound like gunfire and exhaled breath falls to the ground in a tinkle of crystals.”
Such places are often considered inhospitable to humans, at least from the perspective of those who cleave to warmer climes. But for the people who make their homes in the highest latitudes, less distinction historically exists between the environment and the lives unspooled within it. As Kathleen Osgood, an American scholar of circumpolar literature, has pointed out, no one term corresponds to the Western concept of “landscape” in the core Sami vocabulary. This is simply practical; only the postlapsarian, who have conceded the wild for modernity’s ease, would see oneness with nature as esoteric ancient wisdom, unmoored from necessity. The American environmental historian William Cronon, in his 1995 essay “The Trouble With Wilderness,” cautioned against romanticizing nature as if it were somehow separate from us, as if “by definition wilderness leaves no place for human beings, save perhaps as contemplative sojourners,” a binary that gives us “little hope of discovering what an ethical, sustainable, honorable human place in nature might actually look like.”
IN PARTS OF the world where we’ve grown distant from the sources of our food, much has been made in recent years of the idea of nose-to-tail eating: of not just taking what we want and discarding the rest. If one of the precepts of sustainability is wasting as little as possible, few animals have been honored so completely, and for so long, as the reindeer. Its bones litter campsites from 12,000 years ago along the river Seine, just south of Paris. It’s built for the cold, warmed by a thick undercoat and outer hairs like hollow tubes that trap air and keep it buoyant swimming across icy lakes and rivers. When the pastures are snowed under and seemingly barren, it uses its hooves to unearth buried lichen, herbs and grasses. In the tundra and the taiga, its fur and skin are sewed into clothes, blankets and tents, with its sinews as stitching, and its antlers are honed into sheaths for knives. (Taiga herders do not eat their domesticated reindeer except in times of extremity, but they do milk and ride them, and hunt their wild counterparts.) The relationship between herder and reindeer is not merely reciprocal; it is symbiotic. Like the whale to the Inuit and the buffalo to the Lakota, the animal is at once everyday fact and sacred presence — not symbolically so, but in the sense that the sacred is immanent in all things, manifest in the world, in the land and the people of it.
Even today, for many herders, reindeer is the daily meal. Its stomach, washed and inverted, may become a pot for cooking or a storage vessel for preserving meat and brackets of vertebrae. Its milk is soured for yogurt and cheese. The meat is lean and as mild as veal, clean and delicate, tasting of pastures and mountain springs. It might be flash-frozen raw and shaved fine, barely melting in the mouth; or hung to dry, smoked, fried, baked in embers or boiled with little more than salt, rye flour, and a crumble of dried, tart cloudberries in shades of orange and red, bearing precious vitamin C. Almost every part of the animal is eaten, not just the great tenderloins but the creamy thymus, the trachea cut in rings, the hooves simmered until they leach jelly, the eyes submerged in soup, the mineral-rich blood reserved for sausages and pancakes and as a dip for raw meat, or drunk warm after a fresh slaughter. To the Nenets, who live on the West Siberian Plain, the heart is revered and must never be cut against the grain or eaten raw. One rule is universal: No one eats the tip of the tongue; the Sami believe it will make you lie.
When we say that what we eat tells us what we are, in keeping with the 19th-century adage of the French epicure Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, most of us speak nostalgically. We might see in ourselves a sum of remembered tastes, each conjuring a time, place, childhood or heritage. For the reindeer herders, food is more immediate, its pursuit an organizing principle of life in spartan regions where vigilance determines survival. These dishes are almost impossible to recreate outside the conditions from which they came. And those conditions are changing: Surface air temperatures are rising faster here, at more than twice the global mean, altering growing seasons, greening the tundra and inviting nonnative species to thrive and compete for the limited resources. The permafrost is thawing, turning summer pastures to sludge. Winter rains sometimes freeze into a shield of ice that the reindeer can’t break through to reach the lichen — itself receding as the soil gets warmer, encouraging shrubs that cast shadows over the lichen, depriving it of sunlight — and so the animals starve. Grazing lands are further threatened by industrial logging, hydroelectric dams, wind farms and roads; by mining for nickel, platinum, diamonds and palladium, ironically a key element in combating climate change, used in making catalytic converters for automobiles to cut down on toxic emissions; and by drilling for oil and natural gas. (Arctic fields account for a tenth of the world’s existing reserves, along with estimated billions of barrels of oil and trillions of cubic meters of natural gas as yet untapped.)
In the past two decades alone, the reindeer population has declined by more than half, to 2.3 million in 2019. And only a fraction of those descended from the original reindeer-herding peoples still work with the animals that kept their ancestors alive. In their number are thousands from the Sami, along with the Chukchi, Evenki, Eveny and Nenets in Siberia. But among the Soyot and Tofalar, near Lake Baikal, only a few dozen remain; and among the Kets in the Yenisei River Basin and the Negidal on the Sea of Okhotsk, almost none at all.
AT ONE IN the afternoon in late September, the sky was pale over Guovdageaidnu, at 69 degrees north. Oskal carried his laptop to the window of his office to show me the view, all the way in New York. He wore a gakti (tunic), royal blue with appliquéd red ribbons, their patterns and placements a kind of heraldic device, designating his family and siida, a community and geographic unit that includes both the physical area covered by his clan’s herds and the relationships of the people within it. The leaves have fallen, he told me. Each night the sun is quicker to bed. But when I asked him when it would stop rising entirely, when the dayless days would begin, he furrowed his brow and for a moment couldn’t remember, despite having spent his entire life above the Arctic Circle. December? January? “We just live it,” he said. He tapped the top of his wrist, which was bare. We think of time differently here, he explained: “Time is not passing. Time is coming.” When you work with the herd, you don’t look at your watch. You work until you are finished.
Oskal, who also serves as the executive director of the International Center for Reindeer Husbandry (I.C.R.), a group funded in part by the Norwegian government to document Indigenous knowledge, was born in a rural county to the west. His was a “stubborn” family, he said, determined to preserve the Sami culture. In early childhood, he and his brother had to take a bus an hour and a half to get to school, where there were few students of Sami descent and even fewer who openly embraced their heritage. Eventually, Sami parents in the area were able to establish a Sami-language school, a victory in a country with a legacy of forced assimilation, from the Lutheran missionaries of the 17th century, who tried to stamp out local shamanism, to the separation of children from their families to send them to boarding schools — a trauma that the Sami share across Fennoscandia and with other Indigenous peoples around the world — which were originally instituted by the church and then taken over by the government in the 19th century and maintained through the 1960s. Oskal was the first in his family to pursue higher education, a path that took him away from the herd, and then returned him to it, as an advocate.
Three years ago, just before the reindeer spring migration, he and his colleagues filed a 161-page report on food security and sovereignty with the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum established in 1996 to address issues of environmental change, whose members include representatives from native peoples and the eight nations with borders that extend above the northern tree line: Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, the Russian Federation, Sweden and the United States. (In 2018, China declared itself a “near-Arctic state” with a stake in the fate of the region and, pointedly, in “the exploration for and exploitation of oil, gas, mineral and other non-living resources.”) The report, titled “Eallu: Indigenous Youth, Arctic Change and Food Culture — Food, Knowledge and How We Have Thrived on the Margins,” was in fact a cookbook — a compendium of oral recipes recorded by young people from the tundra and the taiga, in consultation with their elders, as part of a larger project to protect and revive ancient traditions. Formal policy recommendations shared the pages with tips on preserving reindeer meat in buckets of salt and snow and the difference in cooking times for walrus (long) and bearded seal (short).
A diligent reader could learn to prepare seal intestine, preferably from a young seal (“not as stringy”), braided and stuffed with fat, heart, kidney or lungs, and eaten cold with mustard — or, better, hot, when “it almost tastes like corned beef,” advises Lucy Kenezuroff, an Aleut born in 1930 in the Alaska Territory. For a reindeer version of the Russian dish kholodets, the Sami of the Kola Peninsula simmer hooves and tongues for much of a day, then shred the meat and ladle the broth over it to cool and thicken into jelly. Most recipes require just a handful of ingredients, but these might be difficult to come by; as Sandy and Marjorie Tahbone, Inuit from Nome, Alaska, write in an entry on seal blubber and innards, “It is not like you can go to the store and pick up a few pounds of meat and intestines and they are ready to cook.” Half the work is done before the meat arrives in the kitchen: knowing how to choose the right animal to slaughter, and then how to kill it. The Nenets lasso the reindeer by the neck and strangle it swiftly, believing this brings less suffering, spilling none of the treasured blood. The Sami plunge a knife to the heart, so the blood leaks inward, collecting under the ribs.
Instead of shoving the report into a suitcase or handing it off to an underling, the delegates on the council did what was apparently unthinkable: They read it. Oskal recalled Rex Tillerson, then the U.S. secretary of state, asking if he could adapt the recipes for the whitetail deer he hunted back home. Only 70 copies had been printed, and they almost immediately disappeared. The book wasn’t glossy or destined for a coffee table; the photographs — a crowded platter of reindeer eyes, reindeer being butchered in bloodstained snow — were documentarian in approach and intentionally unaestheticized. The young researchers wanted “to show the reality,” Oskal said. “To show everything.”
A YEAR LATER — after the calving and the reindeer shedding their thick coats for summer, after the nubs of their antlers grew back to regal height, after the notching of ears to mark the herds and then the long night of winter and hooves scrabbling at the snow — “Eallu” won the top prize, Best Book of the Year, at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards, administered by the Madrid-based Gourmand International. More than 10,000 cookbooks from 216 countries had been submitted for consideration; “Eallu,” which had never been formally published, was up against clothbound volumes from the likes of a chef of a three-Michelin-star restaurant in France. At the outdoor ceremony in Yantai in eastern China, Oskal and nine colleagues, including five teenage contributors, lined up onstage, stunned. Taking the microphone, Oskal said, “The food traditions of Arctic Indigenous peoples are probably among the least explored in world cuisine.”
They are not entirely unknown: A few Arctic ingredients have made their way to balmier zones, via Nordic cooking, which gained 21st-century renown under the banner of René Redzepi’s Noma in Copenhagen, prompting chefs from Cleveland to Houston to experiment with reindeer lichen, a composite organism of fungus and alga, faintly bitter to the taste, that some Indigenous peoples harvest from the stomach of the animal, half-digested. But this ascendance has rested in large part on a celebration of terroir, the unique character of an area’s ingredients, that focuses on the land without necessarily taking into account the people in it, especially those at its fringes.
Magnus Nilsson, the chef of the now shuttered Faviken in western Sweden, broadened that notion of terroir in his weighty testament “The Nordic Cookbook” (2015), for which he traveled across the region, interviewing people and “eating with them in their homes,” he writes, to give his readers context for not only what but “why and how” they eat. Out of more than 700 recipes in his book, three are Sami: reindeer heart stew, thick rye flatbreads plush with reindeer fat and pancakes suffused with golden syrup and reindeer blood. They come from the chef Elaine Asp, a Swede who until this year ran the restaurant Havvi i Glen in a Sami village in Jamtland with her now ex-husband, Thomas Johansson, a reindeer herder, serving a luxe, nine-course tasting menu that once featured salted smoked reindeer meat with crispy elk nose, potato gratin and a pesto of angelica, an herb used in Sami medicine, suggesting a bridge across both cultures and time.
Still, the wonder of “Eallu” lies not in its recipes alone but in the youth of its authors, who are neither trained chefs nor writers, and are as much rescuers as chroniclers. Edouard Cointreau, the French founder of Gourmand, said after the ceremony that “Eallu” was a book that could “change the life of Indigenous families, their nomadic communities and villages,” whose very existence has been a point of contention since outsiders began to encroach on their territory in the 16th century. In Sweden, from the 1920s through the 1950s, the Sami were subjected to medical experiments by the State Institute for Racial Biology; Indigenous remains were taken from burial grounds and tested to support theories of racial difference, and some Sami women were forcibly sterilized. Soviet collectivization policies in the 1930s tried to turn herding into just another job that workers punched in and out of, rather than a way of life. Wheeler writes that during the economic crisis in the Russian Federation in the 1990s, doctors witnessed scurvy among Chukchi who, suddenly bereft of modern food supplies, had “forgotten which berries or whale organs to eat to fulfill their vitamin C requirements.”
More recently, the Norwegian government has called for the culling of herds, ostensibly for environmental concerns, to protect the land from overgrazing, even as controversial mining projects have been allowed to proceed. In 2016, the Sami artist Maret Anne Sara stacked 200 severed heads of freshly killed reindeer on the lawn of the courthouse in Tana in northeastern Norway, in support of her brother, who was suing the government to protest the reduction of his herd; a year later, in front of the Parliament building in Oslo, she hung a curtain of 400 reindeer skulls embedded with bullets — a nontraditional means of slaughter, revealing “the colonial killing system’s disrespect for Indigenous processes that would have preserved and utilized every part of the dead animals,” Katya García-Antón, the director of the Office for Contemporary Art Norway, later wrote — and arranged in weathered tones to evoke the stripes and blocks of color in the Sami flag. Shortly after, Norway’s highest court ruled against the artist’s brother, concluding that his rights had not been violated.
IN EARLY MARCH, Guovdageaidnu was readying for the first Arctic Indigenous Peoples’ Food Congress, organized in part by W.R.H. Then the number of Covid-19 cases in Norway began to rise. There is a history of dangerous illnesses in the Arctic, including the tuberculosis epidemic brought to what is today Alaska by European and American visitors in the late 18th century — as recently as 1934, more than a third of native deaths in the area were because of TB — and the Spanish flu, whose mortality rate in Guovdageaidnu was four times higher than in the rest of the country. Viruses and bacteria may sleep in the ice for centuries; in 2016, scientists theorized that high summer temperatures in Siberia’s Yamal Peninsula had caused the permafrost to thaw and disclose the decades-old carcass of an animal felled by anthrax, releasing spores that infected reindeer by the thousands, along with dozens of their herders. W.R.H. thought it wise to cancel the food event, and shortly after, Norway went into lockdown.
But Oskal still hopes to build on the momentum from the “Eallu” win. “The most important thing about this prize is that it reinforced the faith of our youth in their own cultures, their own knowledge,” he said. One of the cookbook’s 55 authors, Elvira Okotetto, a computer-science and engineering student born into a Nenets reindeer-herding family on the Yamal Peninsula, was astonished that outsiders had even noticed. “I thought it was just us,” she told him. “Just me and my friends who were interested.” Among these unexpected allies from afar is the New Zealand-based chef Robert Oliver, who grew up in Fiji, and who today hosts the TV show “Pacific Island Food Revolution,” a crusade to revitalize Indigenous foodways in the guise of a genial cooking competition. His cookbook “Me’a Kai: The Food and Flavors of the South Pacific” (co-written with Tracy Berno and Shiri Ram) was Gourmand’s 2010 Book of the Year, and at a 2019 Gourmand event at UNESCO headquarters in Paris, he and Oskal announced a culinary north-south alliance — a pact between the regions most vulnerable to climate change. As ice melts in the north, seas grow warm and rise in the south.
To achieve sustainability, Oliver and Oskal agree, they must affirm the resilience of original food systems. W.R.H. is trying to expand the global market for reindeer meat — a product that was promoted with some success in the U.S. in the 1920s, when the Minnesota-born meatpacker Carl Lomen arranged for Santa to ride on a reindeer-drawn sleigh in Macy’s Christmas parades across the country, before the cattle lobby pressured Congress to limit reindeer ownership to Native Americans — although Oskal wonders if this could cause the price to escalate “to the point that people can’t afford to eat their own food anymore,” he said. “Are we going to be producing the best meat but eating industrial sausages?”
Processed foods have increasingly come to replace the old ingredients in both the Arctic and the Pacific, out of convenience and a sense, enforced by the long-imposed hierarchy of native and intruder, that anything modern must be superior to what’s in your own backyard. That attitude is slowly changing, although in the rest of the world, those who preach seasonality and localism are most often those who can pay to do so. In a recent Zoom, late evening in Norway and early morning in New Zealand, Oliver joked that doctors talk about an apple a day when guavas have more than 60 times as much vitamin C. Oskal said simply, “Cloudberries.”
HOW DOES A culture on the world’s periphery survive? “We could all turn around, leave this ancient civilization behind,” Oskal said. “Or we could stay in the tent and close our eyes.” Neither is a solution: “We have to do something in between.”
In the 272nd poem in “The Sun, My Father” (1988), a collection by the Sami multimedia artist Nils-Aslak Valkeapaa, who was born in Enontekio in northwestern Finland, eallu takes shape in the form of words moving across seven and a half pages that are otherwise as white and blank as the tundra. Harald Gaski, a Norwegian professor of Sami literature, notes in the introduction to the book’s 1997 English edition how the words of poem No. 272 denote each reindeer individually, this one inky black and pale-bellied, that one ringed white around the eyes, along with the herders among them and their movements, some inscriptions pure sound, the landscape responding to each hoof and footfall. But the poem exists only in Northern Sami: Valkeapaa requested that it be left untranslated. To those who do not know the language — all but perhaps 25,000 people in the world — it is unreadable, “an ironic commentary upon the inability of the majority language to fully express Sami experience,” Gaski writes.
Yet there is still a possibility of understanding. John M. Weinstock, a professor emeritus at the University of Texas at Austin, has put together an online glossary to accompany an animation of the text, pages scrolling horizontally, first the lead reindeer and herder in single file, then the widening formation, antlers swaying, matching the rumble that is both of hooves and of the tundra below. We meet the herd, but it doesn’t meet us; it moves toward and then away from us, until we are left in its wake, tracks of ellipses drifting across the page. The procession of words is slow, befitting the pace of the migration. Here is the coarse rasp of an angular bell, there the creak of a lumbering, weighed-down sleigh. At times verbs stand in for the animals themselves, as if there were no division between action and being: the desire to get somewhere, the tentative gallop, the sudden bolt. The one that refuses to be held. And late, toward the end, at the snowy edge, the appearance of an unknown reindeer, a stranger to the crowd, which opens nevertheless; which takes it in.