Bioversity international

Chapter 2. Voices from Arctic nomads: an ancestral system facing global warming Reindeer herding food system of the Inari Sámi people in Nellim, Finland

Section 1 Community and food system profile


The Nellim community inhabits an area located 260 kilometres beyond the Arctic Circle in the eastern part of Lake Inari, the largest lake in northern Finland, 42 km from the town of Ivalo and around 10 km west from the Russian border in the region of Lapland. More than 3 300 islands are located close to the shoreline. For the Sámi, the area is known as Sápmi, or Sámiland.

Nellim is situated on the border of the subarctic and temperate climatic zones and belongs to the sub-boreal vegetation zone. The nature around Nellim includes vast areas of wild forest and some fells and wetlands. The water quality of the lake is still, in a near-natural state, meaning that there is low impact from human activities. Overall, the water quality is good enough for the community members to drink it. The lake is influenced by hydro dam stations, causing large variations in water levels, erosion events and other alterations, such as variations of ice levels. The water from the lake is discharged into the Barents Sea through the Paatsjoki River.

Lake Inari is located far from large settlements; hence, its environment has elements that are undisturbed and intact. The lake is crucial for the Inari Sámi community, and carries cultural, social and economic value. The Inari Sámi language, endemic lifeways and traditional economies evolved around the lake, thus the lake has been a central component of this socio-ecological system. Many of the place names on the eastern and south-eastern side of Lake Inari are a mix between Inari and Skolt Sámi toponyms, thus it can be derived from this that the region has been a border area between the two Sámi nations in early historical times.

The main tree species in the forests around Nellim is Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris L., Pinaceae). Birch (Betula pendula Roth, Betulaceae) occurs as an admixture amongst the pine and in some parts spruce (Picea abies (L.) H. Karst. subsp. abies, Pinaceae) can be found.


The Sámi are the Indigenous People in Finland, and there are 10 000 Sámi in the country. The status of the Sámi was written into the Constitution of Finland in 1995 and the Sámi have constitutional self-government in the Sámi Homeland in the spheres of language and culture since 1996. This self-government is managed by the Sámi Parliament, an indigenous parliament established by a law. Sámi livelihoods are reindeer herding, fishing, handicrafts, hunting and gathering. The three Sámi language groups present in Finland are North Sámi, Inari Sámi and Skolt Sámi.

The traditional reindeer herding community in Nellim village is called “Nellim siida” or “Nellim unit”. Most of the community members participating in this research are members of the Nellim siida, which is part of the Ivalo reindeer herding cooperative, even though some of them belong to another reindeer herding cooperative called Paatsjoki. Community members who were interviewed for this report are mainly Inari Sámi as the study focuses on this Sámi group.

The different ethnic groups in Nellim are Inari Sámi, Skolt Sámi and the Finnish population. The languages spoken are Inari Sámi, Skolt Sámi and Finnish. Nellim has around 150 people, and the population of the Nellim siida is around seven families. Most of the inhabitants are elderly. The village consists of wooden houses that are fairly close to one another.

The households are mainly structured by nuclear families and extended families, although there are some unmarried men who live by themselves. People marry around 25-35 years of age. Reindeer herders herd the reindeer together as siida. Reindeer herding in Finland is regulated by the State and the reindeer herding area is divided into cooperatives. The area of Nellim is divided into two different cooperatives, the cooperative of Ivalo (2 889 km², 98 reindeer owners) and Paatsjoki (1 053 km2, 8 reindeer owners). Most of the Inari Sámi reindeer herders of Nellim belong to the Ivalo reindeer herding cooperative and herd their reindeer in a traditional siida way. Herders spend a lot of time together because of their various tasks of herding, such as gathering reindeer in the forests, marking them and holding reindeer roundups. Families and relatives eat together, in addition to eating with neighbours and friends.

FIGURE 2.1. Overview of land cover in the Nellim region and reindeer herding area image
Source: European Environmental Agency 2018, edited by Johanna Roto, Snowchange cooperative, 2010.

Nellim village belongs to the municipality of Inari, thus public administration includes local self-government of the municipality. Villages are represented in Finland through village associations of the third sector and have no specific legal status. Nellim siida reindeer herder leaders are normally both an elder and a younger reindeer herder.

Ancient Sámi religion was based on animism and shamanism. The Sámi believed that all significant natural objects possess a soul. Sámi religion had a multitude of spirits and gods. Over the course of time, the Sámi have converted to Christianity. The spiritual and cultural traditions of the Sámi society were greatly affected by residential schools during the assimilation process, carried out by the Finnish State, as they were often run by missionary services and churches. This led to the disappearance of many older cultural elements and spiritual leadership. Today, most Sámi practise the dominant Lutheran religion of the Nordic countries in which they live. However, their current belief system is based on a synchronistic mix of older thoughts regarding nature and imported religious spiritual practices. In Nellim, Inari Sámi are evangelic Lutheran. Further, the Skolt Sámi population brought Orthodox religion to the area, thus an orthodox church was built in the village in 1987. The traditional belief system is rarely discussed in public even though it is a target of a large-scale public and touristic interest.


The community’s main food-providing activities are reindeer herding, fishing, hunting and wild berry picking. Traditional Inari Sámi livelihoods are practised in a sustainable way. They let the nature restore itself; reindeer migrate between different grazing lands, fish populations are not traditionally overfished, and game populations are maintained in a carrying capacity to ensure food for the coming years.

Reindeer herding

Reindeer herding is one of the most evident parts of the Sámi culture. Albeit every Sámi do not practise reindeer herding, its social, cultural and economic importance is immense. It is the only traditional Sámi industry that is seen as being the most profitable without subsidies.

Traditional Sámi reindeer herding is based on the annual migration of the reindeer. For the Nellim area, the seasonal cycle follows the demarcation of the cooperative territory, in addition to the Nellim unit winter and summer pastures. Fences separate their usage areas from other cooperatives, but all the modern-day herding areas are in the north boreal. The grazing system is based on reindeer biology as an Arctic ruminant. Reindeer stomach rumination is adapted to the different seasonal foods. The reindeer graze in different summer and winter areas. In summer, the areas provide multiple food sources available in nature including mushrooms. In winter, the pastured areas provide traditionally lichen and tree-hanging lichen as the primary food, although they also offer a place for animal feeding. The boundaries of the grazing areas are not static and they may change according to the grazing conditions within the herding cooperative territory. Herding constitutes a socio-ecological system where the indigenous knowledge and culture of the herders also influence where the animals will feed. Good grazing conditions are formed when the snow is dry in early winter, the ground is properly frozen, and the snow cover has not frozen the vegetation. These kinds of conditions keep the vegetation edible and available for reindeer, so that they can dig and smell the food. The impact of climate change has already started to change these conditions and affect the food security and animal well-being.

Reindeer stocks in Nellim are of the boreal type of forest deer (Rangifer tarandus L., Cervidae) that was domesticated for herding purposes. Currently, the Ivalo cooperative is assigned 6 000 reindeer, including those of the Nellim Inari Sámi. As a distinct herding practice, the Nellim unit maintains a Sámi-style herding that is built on free grazing of stocks between winter and summer pastures. Herders are joined by other community members when marking the calves in June, and doing reindeer roundups during autumn and winter. The herding is therefore a “pulsating” tradition with a core of herders and reindeer owners involved in the daily work, but with a social impact that cuts across the whole village. More men than women are involved with herding activities.

In the winter, the reindeer eat lichen as their primary food. Lichen grows in woodlands, boreal pine forests, wetlands, fells and tundra. Reindeer can smell lichen even through thick snow, and they dig it out from the snow. However, given the land use changes and impacts of climate change, all reindeer are now also fed with supplements. Meat and other food products are processed and packaged in the village. During the herding roundups, the animals meant for the markets are chosen and then transported for slaughter. Reindeer meat is used for both private consumption and sales. The meat can be sold together by the cooperative to a preselected buyer, or each owner can process the meat and sell it privately. The cooperatives also collaborate during the roundup process and herd reindeer to the roundup places by motorcycles, quads, snowmobiles and even helicopters. All members of the cooperative are allowed to take part in the gathering.

Inari Sámi herders gathering reindeer during the roundup.
© Sámi Parliament in Finland/Elle Maarit Arttijeff.

Reindeer are marked with earmarks, indicating the ownership of the reindeer and family system. Each family has its own mark line. Whilst new technology, such as snowmobiles and the Global Positioning System (GPS), are now being used in reindeer herding, the traditional indigenous knowledge on reindeer, nature and climate still plays a very important part.


Fishing is another central Sámi practice. In the past, before the development of reindeer herding, fishing was most likely the key livelihood for the Inari Sámi. Each Sámi fisherfolk and family has traditional fishing places in lakes or rivers. In Nellim, fishing is practised in almost every household. Both men and women, elders and youth are involved in the cultural subsistence fishery. Traditionally, especially unmarried women would take part in such activities.

Inari Sámi language and fish are cultural indicators of the environmental knowledge. For instance, whitefish (Coregonus lavaretus), with its range of subspecies in the Lake Inari catchment, is an iconic species for the Inari Sámi. This is evident due to their archaeological catch sites, some dating thousands of years back, as well as the endemic linguistic concepts of whitefish as expressed in their language.

TABLE 2.1. Inari Sámi words related to whitefish image

These linguistic features can be seen as cultural indicators, and a socio-ecological matrix of how the Inari Sámi and their waters are interconnected. Even subtle changes to the keystone species cascade have both ecological and social impacts. The importance of fishing methods are also reflected in the local language.

TABLE 2.2. Inari Sámi words related to fishing methods image

Fishing has always been conducted using multiple gear depending on the seasons and species. One of the most important fishing methods for the Inari Sámi has been seine fishing, and they have practised it for hundreds of years. Seining is a method of actively pulling nets that circle the fish. Seining requires very precise knowledge of the lake bottom, the water column, seasonal conditions, winds and the behaviour of the fish itself. Usually it is used to catch schooling fish such as whitefish and perch.

Another method, gillnets, is used for fishing all year round. During winter, the net is spread under the ice between two holes. The summer gillnet season opens in May as the ice breaks up and targets first traditionally northern pike, grayling and perch. In the autumn, spawning species such as whitefish constitute the majority of the catch. Trolling, spin fishing and ice fishing are also practised. Fish is caught for one’s own consumption or to sell within the community as a whole or fillet. Fish dishes are prepared by boiling and baking fish on an open fire, in a pan and or in an oven. The most common species for fishing and consumption are whitefish, northern pike (Esox lucius), grayling (Thymallus thymallus), yellow perch (Perca fluviatis), lake trout (Salmo trutta), Arctic char (Salvelinus alpinus) and burbot (Lota lota).

Fishing is a key practice to maintain food security in the community. However, there are currently no professional fisherfolk left in the community, who traditionally would provide additional income to the community by selling their fish to restaurants and grocery stores.

Hunting and trapping

Hunting and trapping have always been part of Sámi livelihoods. The Sámi use different kinds of traps to catch animals and birds. Nowadays hunting alone is not a profitable financial livelihood, however, approximately 20 people are still involved in hunting activities in Nellim.

TABLE 2.3. List of wildlife used as food: fish image

Community members hunt during the hunting and trapping seasons. The main game species are the capercaillie (Tetrao urogallus), willow grouse (Lagopus lagopus), mountain hare (Lepus timidus) and moose (Alces alces); and amongst waterfowl, the mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) and taiga bean goose (Anser fabalis). Big game, such as bear, requires a special hunting license. Hunting is practised close to the village, and mostly men take part in this activity, although women can also participate. The traditional methods of hunting are stalking, tracking and hunting with dogs, but today guns are mostly used.

TABLE 2.4. List of wildlife used as food: game species image

In the community, some hunting products are sold for income. There used to be an auction for the moose meat during the special feast for moose during the fall. However, hunting is practised mostly for own consumption. Animals such as capercaillie and willow grouse are cooked in the oven, roasted or boiled. Moose meat is used for stew, minced or roasted.

Wild edibles

Gathering and wild berry picking continue to be important parts of the Sámi food culture. As with fishing, the Inari Sámi have their own traditional picking areas, one for each family. Families respect others’ territories, and the whole family is involved in berry picking. The most common varieties of gathered berries are lingonberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea), blueberry (Cyanococcus sp.) and Arctic cloudberry (Rubus chamaemorus). The village also uses the berries for sale to supermarkets nationwide, thereby receiving a supplementary income. The Arctic cloudberry is particularly attractive across the country. From the forest, the community also collects other wild plants and mushrooms such as boletes, brittlegills, milkcaps and false morels. Wild berries are eaten fresh, frozen, stored or used for baking. The community also uses them for juices, jams and marmalades. The Inari Sámi did not begin to eat mushrooms until the 1990s, as mushrooms were previously used primarily for reindeer food. Today, community members fry, stew, marinate and use mushrooms in soups. Mushrooms can also be preserved by drying, salting or freezing them.

TABLE 2.5. List of wild edibles image

Some plants and animals collected in the community are used for handicraft materials or in medicines. Chaga mushroom (Inonotus obliquus (Fr.) Pilát, Hymenochaetaceae) is an example of a species used for medicine.

Agriculture became part of the Sámi culture in the 18th century, especially in the Utsjoki and Inari areas. However, agricultural activity is limited due to the harsh Arctic climate and short summer periods. The species that can be cultivated in this area are potatoes, carrots and turnips. Cultivation areas are in close proximity to the households. There are in total approximately 20 to 30 hectares of agricultural area in Nellim.


Due to the close tie between Sámi culture and reindeer herding, many of the Sámi calendars are based on the life cycles of the reindeer, in addition to seasonal changes of climatic conditions. Nellim is located in an area with a subarctic climate characterized by mild summers and cold, snowy winters during which 70 cm to 80 cm of snowfall is recorded on average. During the coldest period, from December to February, the average temperature is about – 15 °C, with occasional lows of about – 30 °C or colder. The duration of the snow period is from October to May. In the summertime, temperatures usually oscillate between 10 °C and 15 °C or warmer and rainfall is moderate, between 400 mm and 550 mm. However, climate change has started to alter the established cycles. Long droughts and periods with temperatures over 30 °C have been recorded, with record temperatures in the summer of 2018.

The Inari Sámi traditional calendar used to reflect the specialized seasonal land use called varriistâllâm. The land use is particular for its internal governance and use of natural resources, such as small-scale herding and fishing. In older times, the traditional cycle used to be over 13 months. The names of the months still reflect the seasonal conditions.6

Reindeer herders follow the yearly cycle of reindeer. The yearly migration cycle is determined by reindeer’s natural movement from the forests in winter to the treeless areas in the summer, for instance to the coast or up to the fells for the calving period. The roundup period is the most important, as the reindeer that are going to be kept alive are separated from those that are to be slaughtered for processing and selling.

Wild berry picking.
© Sámi Parliament in Finland/EInka Saara Arttijeff.

The herding cycle has been impacted in recent years by climate change. These include the following examples:

the ground freezes up as an ice layer: in the autumn, the bottom layer of soil gets soaked in rain and then quickly freezes. This makes the pastures of lichen unavailable for reindeer, as they cannot access their primary natural winter food through the ice.

rain-on-snow (ROS) events: the snow freezes, following the warm winter rains.

decreased travel safety: the ice takes shape later than usual, and forms in unpredictable ways, in addition to earlier melting. The transport associated with herding is therefore more dangerous and new travel conditions are appearing that have not been experienced before.

droughts and summer events: extremely warm summers are causing localised drought events that affect the quantity and quality of the reindeers’ drinking water. The heat also propagates in waterways, which negatively affects the salmon and other cold-water-dependent fish species.

FIGURE 2.2. Average annual rainfall (mm), temperature (°C) and monthly cumulated daylight hours (d) in Nellim, and seasonal activities by the Inari Sámi of the Nellim siida (elaborated by Yanto Wahyantono, IRD, 2020) image


Food purchasing from grocery stores has become a normal way of obtaining food, in addition to traditional livelihoods. Approximately 70 percent7 of households still eat traditional food and complement their diets with purchased groceries. The community buys the following basic groceries from the supermarket: dairy, grain products, vegetables, macaroni, a range of meats and fruits. Potato is grown and cultivated as a summer crop and consumed over the winter months, thus community members do not have to buy potatoes. Previously, bread and sweet bakery products, such as pies, cakes and so on, were homemade, yet now they are mostly bought from grocery stores. The proportion of local diets that come from the market varies according to the seasons, however, approximately 75 percent of the meat and fish that community members consume come from the community.

Three grocery stores are found in Ivalo, 42 kilometres from Nellim. Supermarkets are typical chain supermarkets found in Finland, but they also sell some local products, including seasonally available products such as fish. Inari Sámi communities used to exchange products between the inland and coastal fishing peoples. The community does not exchange food with other communities anymore. Due to the advent of a cash economy, people who do not herd reindeer usually buy meat from the locals. However, some of the community members buy reindeer meat from the grocery stores, as they think it is easier.


The first historical reference to Inari or Aanaar was made in 1517. In those times, the region would be influenced by six ethnic societies: the North Sámi, Skolt Sámi to the east, Russians, Norwegians, Finns, and the “local” Sámi, the Inari Sámi people. The Inari Sámi language and culture are specific and their own in the family of surviving Sámi languages and areas. Traditionally, Sámi people were organised in a siida system, which describes the organization of Sámi society before assimilating to Finnish culture and before the State started to control Sámi land and reindeer herding. Some studies reveal that the siida system was potentially developed as early as in the Stone Age. Siidas were large and were formed by several nuclear families. The siida owned and administered the land and families used it. At least 11 siidas existed around the Aanaar-Inari lake system in early historical times.

Before the introduction of reindeer herding in the 1600s, the life of a siida was based on fishing and hunting. Instead of following the reindeer yearly migrations, families in a siida migrated by the seasonal cycle of fishing and hunting. It is unclear exactly when reindeer herding began in Nellim. Initially, reindeer herds were small, as the main livelihood was fishing, and meat consumption was based on deer and other wildlife. The switch from a hunting economy to herding was caused by the Finns and Swedes settlements in the Sámi area. It increased the hunting pressure, and the ecological carrying capacity of the northern ecosystems could not support the growing needs of the local population. This gave rise to the herding. In the eastern Sámi areas, including the Inari Sámi homeland, the herds remained small and fishing constituted the second major activity until the 1960s.

When the siida eventually became based on reindeer herding, the siida was more loosely organised, and individual families started to have more power to make decisions. This system is known as nomadic reindeer herding and is the centre of traditional north Sámi reindeer herding. Introduction of a herding economy changed the social structure in the community and allowed for specialization to advance in the society. In contrast to several Sámi communities in Norway with larger herds, the Inari Sámi have practised a smaller-scale herding system based on varriistâllâm (annual migration), as their fishing economy is central in the community. Concerning the species, there is a complex history over centuries of Sámi breeding and genetic choices. Often reindeer were exchanged between villages to renew bloodlines and quality of stocks.

FIGURE 2.3. Analysis of a seasonal resource in two of the neighbouring communities of Nellim – Sompio and Suonikylä, in late 1800s to early 1900s. Source: Mustonen and Mustonen, 2013 (used with permission) image

Nellim is one of the oldest inhabited Inari Sámi communities. However, life in Nellim has changed considerably over the past 100 years. Originally Nellim was the name of a household in the area of the present village. However, the Nellim area began to develop in the 1920s as a result of road construction from Ivalo to Nellim, and logging. Trees were transported to storage sites on the shores of Lake Inari in the winter, from where they were transported by boats, often either to local sawmills or down the Paatsjoki River to the Barents Sea coast in Norway. Later, some of the wood was cut in the village with a large sawmill.

During the Winter War, between the Soviet Union and Finland in 1939, the Inari Sámi from Nellim were evacuated to more southern parts of Finland. After the end of the Second World War, Finland had to hand over the Petsamo area, which corresponds to the northeastern corner of the country and the homeland of the Skolt Sámi, to the Soviet Union. The Skolt Sámi could not return to their traditional lands; thus, they were relocated to the Inari area, including to Nellim. Other major events include the establishment of the Virtaniemi border check-point between Russia and Finland, which provided local employment and trade flows in the community. Further, in 1960 a power line was established in Nellim. Yet, the most important factor affecting the community is seemingly the assimilation policy practised by the State. The policy included the imposition of State-led religious activity, schooling, reorganization of the reindeer herding, new road and transport construction, and, most importantly, the use of Inari Sámi land for the development of hydropower and forestry, largely affecting the Inari Sámi community.

The Sámi have historically suffered through various types of discrimination and repression. Since the nation-states of Norway, Sweden and Finland first began settling Sápmi, the Sámi have been removed from their land, stripped of their culture and made to believe that they were inferior. In order to eliminate Sámi culture, the church and the governments established boarding schools whose purpose was to assimilate Sámi children into the majority culture. Sámi children were denied the right to use their native language or to engage in their cultural practices. Since their beginnings in the 19th century, boarding schools were a major part of Sámi life until the 1960s, when a Sámi movement began demanding reforms to the educational systems. In Nellim, the boarding school system was active until the 1960s. Assimilation of Sámi people to the Finnish society was particularly rough, and as a consequence the Inari Sámi language is almost extinct. The Inari Sámi language is no longer the main language used with reindeer herding. However, it is used in a hybrid way, being central to the concepts and tasks of herding. Traditional reindeer herding maintains and renews the survival of the Inari Sámi culture, particularly in Nellim.

Major changes in the community’s livelihoods have included the structural changes in reindeer herding, in addition to the aging of the population. Today the population size of Nellim is constantly decreasing and the largest group in the community is elderly people. This is a threat to reindeer herding, as not enough young people are willing to take on the responsibility. The same applies to fishing. Further challenges connected to reindeer herding concern competition for land use and changes in regulations and legislation. The State highlights the production aspect of reindeer herding for the markets, whilst the Sámi population stresses the importance of maintaining a socio-ecological system, with the financial component being only one of many. Reindeer herding also provides cultural and linguistic services to the community. The landscape around the village has also changed, due to the intensive logging, tourist industry and a new road from Ivalo to Nellim.

Today it is a village of three different cultural communities, since the Finns settled in Nellim in the twentieth century and the Skolt Sámi were relocated to Nellim after the Second World War. Most of the Inari Sámi families currently live in modern houses, as Inari Sámi reindeer herders now also settle down far away from their traditional lands. This change was induced by new legislation, providing cheap loans and patches of land and forest to those who wanted to build a homestead and establish modern reindeer herding communities, as part of the State’s attempt to modernize traditional herding communities.

  • 6 Inari Sámi meaning added, all materials are summarized from the oral history archives.
  • 7 These percentage analytics have been calculated from the community participants and their answers, either through an oral interview or a survey collected for this study. Original data available from the authors.

“When we speak about fish, we speak about whitefish, unless otherwise specified.”

Elder from Nellim community.