Skip to main content
To KTH's start page To KTH's start page

Making Reindeer

The Negotiation of an Arctic Animal in Modern Swedish Sápmi, 1920-2020

Time: Wed 2021-06-02 14.00

Location: Videolänk, Du som saknar dator /datorvana kontakta Sofia Jonsson / Use the e-mail address if you need technical assistance, Stockholm (English)

Subject area: History of Science, Technology and Environment

Doctoral student: Corinna Röver , Historiska studier av teknik, vetenskap och miljö

Opponent: Professor David G. Anderson, University of Aberdeen, Scotland, UK

Supervisor: Professor Sverker Sörlin, Historiska studier av teknik, vetenskap och miljö; Professor Dag Avango, Luleå University of Technology; Associate Professor Per Axelsson, Umeå University; Dr Annika Nilsson, Luleå University of Technology

Export to calendar


The Arctic has long been perceived as a static, timeless place of shielded wilderness. This perception extended to the reindeer as both part of the Arctic environment and of traditional Indigenous livelihoods. Physically, the reindeer of Swedish Sápmi looks largely the same today as it did a century ago - an animal ostensibly unaltered and unchanged.

Nevertheless, this thesis argues that the reindeer has undergone a number of fundamental shifts of meaning in Swedish Sápmi over the past century. The dissertation asks how the reindeer's roles and functions evolved in Swedish Sápmi from ca. 1920 to 2020 and examines how, why and by whom the reindeer has been negotiated. It explores the changing understanding of the reindeer's role in society, studies emerging idea(l)s and purposes, and considers what mark they left on the animal.

This study is a history of the ideas, discourses and practices that shaped the modern reindeer. It examines ways of understanding and making reindeer. At different points in time, varying combinations of actors have sought to control, shape and re-define this Arctic animal. The meaning attached to it changed as a result, and with it reindeer-related policies. Swedish state policies towards the Sámi and reindeer husbandry have especially deeply impacted the way reindeer were understood and governed. Over the course of a century, policy efforts aimed to control the reindeer's movements, health, reproduction and death, with varying success. Discourse and associated practices generated multiple versions of the reindeer. In terms of these changing versions, the thesis conceptualizes the reindeer as a changing technology and a socially constructed resource.

Five empirical chapters trace how the reindeer was negotiated, especially between the Swedish state and Sámi herders. They show how the reindeer's role and purpose has been under repeated negotiation and discuss some of these roles. Restrictive border and grazing policies made the reindeer a trespasser at the turn of the twentieth century. From the 1950s onwards, a modernist improvement project envisioned it as economic resource. In the course of such rationalization efforts, the reindeer became an object of techno-scientific interest. Improvers attempted to transform reindeer into productive, reliable meat machines. These efforts faced a severe setback when the Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986 contaminated considerable numbers of reindeer, turning it into a toxic animal and a threatened bearer of Sámi culture. In more recent years, we find the reindeer at an intersection of consumer demand for natural foods and Sámi agency. It has become a symbol for claims to self-determination. Sámi champions of food sovereignty and land rights have started to reclaim and promote the reindeer as traditional and wholesome source of food through the Slow Food Sápmi movement.

A closer look at these re-definitions reveals that the reindeer is no timeless, passive backdrop to human action. The reindeer itself has history - it is a historical animal with agency of its own, able to challenge efforts of control. Nevertheless, the different notions of the reindeer materialized into policies and ways of governing not only the reindeer but also their Indigenous herders. The (re)negotiations of what reindeer are or ought to be provide insights into the relationship between representatives of the Swedish state and of Sámi reindeer husbandry, as well as colonial legacies and persistently unequal power relations.