Travel Story 

Reindeer essential to life in Sweden’s Arctic

Indigenous Sami people considered the original Scandinavians

Bob Mackin

NIKKALUOKTA, Sweden: There are hundreds of synonyms for reindeer and some of the words are on banners covering the walls of the visitors’ centre in this hamlet 150 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle in Lappland province.

"Our people have been living, depending on wild animals and you have to describe it very well," explains Anna Sarri. "Depending on how it looks like or what age it is or what kind of horns it has."

Nikkaluokta is on Lake Paittasjarvi, an hour’s bus ride west of Sweden’s most northerly city, Kiruna, and 1,250 km north of the capital Stockholm. The sun circles around Nikkaluokta, but doesn’t disappear at this time of year. Sarri’s grandparents settled here, near Sweden’s tallest peak, the 2.1-kilometre Kebnekaise, to tend their herds of free-roaming reindeer. The horned animals are the traditional food source of the 80,000 Sami indigenous people scattered from Norway to Russia. Reindeer herders take advantage of summer’s midnight sun for roundup and the food helps sustain them in the dark days of winter.

"In summer you have a lot of power, a lot of energy, so you don’t need so much sleep, you do a lot of things during late night and the small kids stay up later," Sarri says. "In the winter when it’s darker and cold, you take things a lot easier."

The animals have predators, like wolverines, lynx, bears and even eagles, but they seem notoriously camera shy; herds have a habit of showing up when one is separated from his camera.

Sarri serves reindeer, harvested locally by her family, with potatoes, vegetables, gravy and lingonberries in the restaurant at her family’s visitors centre. She uses the hides and horns for clothing, shelter and handicrafts.

Once nomadic and called Lapps, Sami people are considered the original Scandinavians. Most have planted roots in recent times and created settlements, like Nikkaluokta, in their traditional territory called Sapmi. Sarri’s visitors centre, a red, wooden structure inspired by the traditional four-cornered Sami hat, has views in all directions through large windows and an atrium. The voice of a single person can fill the modern building with sound.

"Wherever you are in this building, you can see the nature, it’s close to you," she says.

Nikkaluokta’s Protestant chapel, built in 1942, sits elevated on a hill overlooking the hamlet, yet dwarfed by the majestic snowcapped glaciers of the surrounding valley.

Small cabins, tents and traditional earthen huts are scattered among the property. Some of the traditional dwellings, which employ birch bark and logs, fit as many as 16 people in comfort.

"It gets crowded when it’s four corners in a building, but when it’s round it has more space," Sarri says. "It’s nothing strange that everything that comes from a nature culture has a lot of thinking in it, it has to work practical."

The Sapmi flag flaps in the wind next to the visitors centre. The flag contains a circle, symbolizing summer’s round-the-clock sunshine and winter’s darkness, divided by green and gold stripes on a red and blue background.

"In the old stories, the Sami people, we called ourselves the sons of the sun," Sarri says. "That’s the meaning to the flag, it’s nature and sun and the moon."

Sweden’s 17,000 Samis are rediscovering their heritage with a monthly newspaper and daily radio and TV newscasts in their mother tongue. Sarri admits youths here are like those anywhere, influenced by pop culture and foreign media and therefore reluctant to immerse themselves in their ethnic roots. The visitors centre, meanwhile, is a way of educating foreigners and keeping Sami customs alive.

"It’s small, but it’s a start," she says. " It’s a living culture, it’s not a dead culture like you study in a museum."

If you go: Contact Swedish Travel and Tourism Council (or or 212-885-9700), Nikkaluokta ( or 011-46-980-550-15) or Lappland tourism ( or 011-46-980-188-80).

Getting there: Begin the long journey in Vancouver via Alaska Airlines or Horizon Air to Seattle ( or 1-800-252-7522). SAS Scandinavian Airlines ( or 1-800-221-2350) flies daily non-stop from Seattle to Copenhagen, Denmark where you can connect to Stockholm’s Arlanda Airport and transfer to one of several daily flights to Sweden’s most northerly airport in Kiruna. English is spoken widely in Sweden and the summer climate is not unlike British Columbia’s.


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