Remembering a reindeer herder Evá Hansa

When I heard that my childhood friend Hans Nuorgam had passed away I was overcome with an avalanche of memories. I first met a reindeer herder Hans Nuorgam in early May 1946 at Angeli. "Hanssi" and his parents were our close neighbours. What I remember best about that meeting was how we, Hanssi and his father looked at one other. I also remember everything we talked about; we talked and talked.

During the long winter nights in the company of Hanssi and his father I had the opportunity to listen and participate in conversations, particularly about reindeer husbandry. Through those anecdotes and stories I learned to understand what was meant by traditional reindeer lore. The atmosphere in Hanssi's home was thoroughly different from anything I had been used to until then. It assured me that there were good people in the world.

In the society of Hanssi's youth the individual and the family were part of a larger clan-like entity in which the individual, the immediate family and relatives had their own strategy for securing their existence and income. All the essentials were first taught and carried out within the family or among the kinfolk. As the population increased they continued to work with the clan and with neighbours and then with those of neighbouring villages. Over time, contacts increased with outsiders, mainly along the sea coast or through barter in the larger villages.

Hanssi was born with the gift of a sensitive mind and sharp intelligence. As a young reindeer herder he was known for his intelligence, sociability, determination and vivacious spirit. He overlooked nothing. Toiling with his reindeer out in the countryside, he was able to work in any situation. He showed with his own actions that traditional knowledge meant the knowledge of his surroundings which his generation had learned from its parents. He and his father, Antti, transferred that lore through living tales and stories to us young ones. Later, as my own awareness grew, I realised that in every yarn I heard from Hanssi and his father lay a seed of truth.

Hanssi's accounts of reindeer husbandry of that time remain particularly in my mind; of how in the very depths of winter as they herded reindeer in the hills and wilds they chewed reindeer meat, sheltered under canvas and slept on a reindeer pelts. Innate strength, patience, courage and a furious desire for life gave reindeer men like Hanssi the power to survive even the worst setbacks. Even in the bitterest frosts of midwinter they had to live and struggle for survival against blizzard and predator alike. In such inclement weather it sometimes happened that reindeer simply vanished without trace, which in such circumstances meant enormous extra effort. It was easy to get lost in such conditions and the only hope was to find the whereabouts of yourself and your reindeer.

Amid the chilling frost and fierce teeth of nature, life became very simple. There was merely the primitive urge to stay alive. One is frequently astonished at how in such extreme conditions the reindeer herder could face dangers that exceeded human limits. Hanssi's accounts of reindeer herding during the varying conditions of the different seasons in the mountains and the remote wilds reveal how the environment of that time had affected him positively in many ways. His way of life to take responsibility for other people is appropriate for us today, for example. Through his own experiences he had learned that mankind is a part of nature.

The way of life of the reindeer men of Hanssi's generation was a balanced interplay. In his youth it was largely due to entire community to create that balance.

During the reindeer culls at Sattivaara and Paistunturi in 1959 I observed how Hanssi's ability, skill and way of working with reindeer was the result of long practice. In addition to his tangible skills and qualities, his instincts, sensitivity and ability to react to his surroundings were exceptional. He possessed all the necessary knowledge to carry out his livelihood as a reindeer herder. And he also mastered in an exceptional way the Saami language terms used in reindeer herding, words for snow, reindeer naming and ear marking. He also divined how best to draw on reindeer husbandry expertise even in changing circumstances.

Hans took part in the war in Lapland. He told how they would occasionally be marched across wilderness and fen for dozens of kilometres at a stretch in a day. Nor did he forget those wartime memories which still touched him deeply decades later. Until this day the personal memoires of the Saami people who took part in the war in Lapland have not been written down. As we know, that war caused terrible destruction, which we who returned from the wilderness in 1945 experienced and witnessed with our own eyes. After the war, Hanssi's generation had to endure enormous social changes which still affect the lives of reindeer herders' families. The change in reindeer herding began in the 1960s when mechanisation began to appear. The result was more efficient reindeer husbandry, which at the same time reduced its importance for employment. The significance of reindeer management as a carrier of Saami culture also declined.

The conflict between the new technologies and the structure of reindeer ownership forced many herders to think about supplementing their income. Hanssi was unprejudiced and brave and was one of the first reindeer men to embrace tourism. He was also interested in playing a social role and became involved in the Saami parliament. There, safeguarding the reindeer man's income was close to his heart.

Taking care of his wife, Karoliina, and his family were the focus of his life.