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REINDEER TRADITION AND MYTH

 

Reindeer Hunting

Human beings have been hunting reindeer for thousands of years in both Eurasia and North America; in some areas, like Alaska, northern Canada, Norway, and Greenland, this relationship has continued essentially unbroken since the Pleistocene. In Deer of the World: Their Evolution, Behaviour, and Ecology, Valerius Geist provides a fine overview of the importance of the tundra-form reindeer inhabiting Western Europe in the Pleistocene to Upper Paleolithic people. The highly nutritious meat, the thermal protection of clothing rendered from the hide, and the suitability of the animal’s antlers for carving made reindeer a critical and multipurpose resource for humans. At this time, humans shared in the pursuit of reindeer with wolves, cave lions, and other large carnivores.

Old brush fences for funneling caribou into the spears and arrows of First Nations people persist in some parts of the Yukon landscape, just as similar fences as well as pit traps for capturing reindeer can still be found in central Norway.

Human pursuit of reindeer continues today, both in the form of indigenous subsistence and commercial sport hunting.

Reindeer Herding

Reindeer are the only deer species to have been domesticated. Geist suggests the husbandry of reindeer came about as climatic change and human hunting pushed many Pleistocene large mammals to extinction at the end of the last glacial period. Surviving reindeer in the northern latitudes of Eurasia thus became that much more of a crucial resource for humans, who began more tightly following the herds rather than just intercepting them on their migratory routes. This reindeer-directed travel could, given the animal’s tamable nature, potentially have led to domestication. The exact timeframe of the reindeer’s domestication is unclear, and it’s possible different cultures tamed reindeer independently of one another at different times. Some of the earliest written records to reindeer herding—dating from the early centuries A.D.—come from China, in reference to pastoralists in the boreal forests.

Long practiced in Eurasia and exported—along with domesticated reindeer—to Alaska and Canada, reindeer herding is a semi-nomadic practice, catered to the seasonal movements of the herds. The ancient relationship continues: Domesticated reindeer yield meat, hides, antlers, bones, and milk. They’ve also traditionally been used for transportation, hauling sleds and pulks. The International Centre for Reindeer Husbandry lists nine countries in which reindeer herding takes place: Finland, Sweden, Norway, Russia, Mongolia, China, Greenland, Canada, and the United States (Alaska).

In Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia, the Sami people are famous reindeer herders, although this pastoralism was traditionally practiced only by some of that diverse cultural group. In some specially designated regions like Sweden’s Laponian Area, Sami semi-nomadism and reindeer-herding continues much as it has for hundreds of years.

Reindeer in Legend

An animal so important to human livelihood—both for hunter-gatherers and pastoralists—is bound to figure prominently in myths and legends. Barry Lopez recounts one in his Of Wolves and Men, stemming from the Naskapi people of Quebec and Labrador. Their hunting beliefs make mention of “Caribou House,” a center of caribou movement and the remote, dangerous residence of the Animal Master with whom Naskapi hunters parleyed during lean periods to make game available. Caribou House is described as being surrounded by a deep layer of discarded caribou antlers.

By the 1800s, the modern association of Santa Claus with eight magical, flying reindeer was established. In their pulling of the jolly gift-bringer’s sleigh (if not in their aerial nature), the team—Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, and Blitzen—evokes the traditional use of reindeer as draft animals in northern Eurasia.


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