SEASON TWO | EPISODE SIX
THE THINGS I CAN SEE ON THE MOUNTAINS
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Nick Mott This season of Threshold is underwritten by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
[ATV, DOGS YIPPING]
Amy Martin Welcome to Threshold, I’m Amy Martin, and I’m on an island in northern Norway, sitting in an ATV next to Reiulf Aleksandersen. And unbeknownst to me, I’m about to be initiated into a quintessential Arctic experience: a marginally terrifying four-wheeler ride. Reiulf is a reindeer herder, and he’s taking me up to the top of a mountain where he and his kids are going to be working all day. He tells me to brace myself as we leave a gravel road and head out into hummocky alpine terrain...
..through slushy snowfields…
...and straight up a mountainside, about 350 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle. As we power up the mountain, we lurch up and down and side to side. I’m still kind of shocked that I didn’t fall out.
[REIULF CUTS THE MOTOR]
Amy Martin That was some amazing driving. [LAUGHS]
As soon as the machine is off, silence washes in. This island is called Kvaløya, which means “whale island.” We have long views of the mountain peaks all around, and below us, we can catch glimpses of deep blue fjords.
Reiulf Aleksandersen This is Ruksesvárri.
Amy Martin And what does that mean?
Reiulf Aleksandersen The Red Mountain. The stones look like they are red.
The Aleksandersens are one of many Sámi families who are keeping the ancient tradition of reindeer herding alive.
Amy Martin And where are the reindeer right now?
Reiulf Aleksandersen They are everywhere.
Amy Martin Reiulf gestures to the trees in the valleys below us. The reindeer are hiding away down there, nurturing the calves which were born just a month or so earlier. Reindeer are tall, shaggy creatures in the cervid family – that’s the same family as deer and elk – and both the males and females grow big, branched antlers. You find them all around the Arctic: in North America, they’re called caribou. And although I’ve always assumed animals could either be categorized as wild or domesticated, in a Sámi context, reindeer are sort of neither, or both. Most of the time, the Sámi let their reindeer roam free, to brave the elements, face predators, and follow their natural migratory instincts. But at several key points during the year, they gather them up for different purposes. And Reiulf says there’s a real art to this.
Reiulf Aleksandersen You have to know the reindeers’ nature. Like, moving with reindeers, you have to think, where do they go, naturally. You can’t work against the nature.
Amy Martin For instance, later in the summer, when it warms up and the mosquitoes come out, the reindeer will naturally seek windy cooler spots, like this mountaintop. At that time, the Aleksandersens will then nudge them along, and herd them into a big fenced-off area, kind of like a wide corral, so they can put notches in the calves’ ears to signify ownership. Then they set them free again. It’s a system of careful observation and close connection with the reindeer, but not total control over them. And it’s a lot of work.
Reiulf Aleksandersen Work, yes, reindeer herding is working. You’re not getting fat.
Amy Martin As we learned in our last episode, the Sámi are the indigenous people of northern Scandinavia and western Russia. For hundreds of years, they’ve been pressured to assimilate, and now they have a new problem to contend with: climate change.
When I met the Aleksandersens in the summer of 2017, we talked a lot about how a warming planet is impacting their traditions. But a few months later, they reached out to tell me about another issue that had emerged: a separate but related problem which is seriously threatening their ability to keep herding.
All of the parts of this story are important for understanding climate change, and what it means to be a Sámi reindeer herder in the Arctic. So I’m going to take you through it, step by step, as I learned it, on this episode of Threshold.
Amy Martin Am I doing this right?
Ulf Isak Aleksandersen Yeah.
Amy Martin Ulf Isak Aleksandersen is ten years old, and he’s teaching me how to lasso a reindeer.
Amy Martin So if I want to try to throw it, now, do I…
Ulf Isak Aleksandersen Yes, see, point like that?
Amy Martin Uh-huh.
There aren’t actually any reindeer around at the moment – I’m aiming for their practice post. That hammering you hear in the background is the sound of his dad, Reiulf, and his older sister, Sara Katrine, building a fence.
Ulf Isak Aleksandersen You stand like this.
Amy Martin OK, kind of put one foot in front of the other.
Ulf Isak Aleksandersen And then you….back..
Amy Martin So I can lean back and then throw it?
Amy Martin I’m holding a loop of the rope in one hand, and with the other I throw the lasso as I hard as I can...
[ROPE HITTING FENCE]
...and I miss.
Ulf Isak Aleksandersen That was good!
Amy Martin You’re just saying that to be nice.
Ulf Isak Aleksandersen That’s really nice.
Amy Martin [LAUGHS]
Amy Martin Ulf Isak has blue eyes, rusty brown hair and an expressive, freckle-filled face. And he carries a knife on his hip, a signature of Sámi reindeer herders.
Amy Martin How does it feel when you get up here?
Ulf Isak Aleksandersen Ah, its feels good because you have a bad day, and then I go up here, and then I get better.
Amy Martin Why is that, do you think?
Ulf Isak Aleksandersen I think it is because my father is like a reindeer guy, and then I will also try my skills.
Amy Martin And Ulf Isak has a lot of skills. For example, he can speak three languages: Norwegian, English and Sámi.
[ULF ISAK SPEAKS IN SÁMI AND REIULF ANSWERS]
Amy Martin Ulf Isak says he’s proud to be Sámi, but sometimes it’s hard, too. He and his sisters are the only kids who identify as Sámi in their school. And that can leave him feeling a little isolated.
Ulf Isak Aleksandersen I can’t speak Sámi with my friends because they don’t understand me.
Amy Martin So you can kind of have two lives. Like, you have your Sámi life at home and then you’re more Norwegian at school?
Ulf Isak Aleksandersen Yes.
Amy Martin Is that hard, or do you like having two identities?
Ulf Isak Aleksandersen It’s very hard because the Norwegian, it’s very hard to learn and then it take over your life at school. And then you can’t stop it when you come home.
Amy Martin So it’s kind of like the two things are in competition a little bit.
Ulf Isak Aleksandersen Yes.
Amy Martin Do you feel one side is winning, or do you think you can have both?
Ulf Isak Aleksandersen Mmm, I think I can have both.
[POUNDING FENCE POSTS]
Amy Martin Sara Katrine Aleksandersen is 16, the oldest of the family’s three children, and she’s using all of her strength to drive a fence post into the ground. Her blonde hair is tucked into a white New York Yankees baseball cap, and like her brother, she wears a knife, and knows how to use it.
[CLATTER OF POST HITTING GROUND]
Amy Martin You did it.
Amy Martin It starts to rain lightly, and it seems like a good time for a little break, so we sit down and take in the view. It’s the end of June, and there are still patches of snow everywhere. We’re well above tree line. The clouds are clinging to the tops of the mountains all around us. It’s incredibly peaceful, and quiet. I ask her how it feels to work up here.
Sara Katrine Aleksandersen Oh I’m very tired, but I feel very good, too.
Amy Martin Honestly, it looks like you’ve got the hardest job of everybody.
Sara Katrine Aleksandersen It is the hardest job, yes, but I’m very glad I got it because it means that my dad, he’s, it’s 50/50.
Amy Martin He’s saying, “You can do this.”
Sara Katrine Aleksandersen Yes. And that’s very good.
Amy Martin Women and girls traditionally played a large role in Sámi reindeer herding, but as the Sámi were colonized, women were increasingly restricted to indoor work, while men dealt with the herd. And this dynamic continues to play out today. It’s really tough to make a living from reindeer herding alone. To cover the family’s needs, one person has to work a more conventional job.
Sara Katrine Aleksandersen It costs so much, a family needs one who is working with other things.
Amy Martin Ah-ha, yeah, and in your family that’s your mom?
Sara Katrine Aleksandersen Mm-hmm.
Amy Martin And that’s the way it is in a lot of families?
Sara Katrine Aleksandersen Yes, every family.
Amy Martin Really?
Sara Katrine Aleksandersen Most of it.
Amy Martin But Sara Katrine’s not really on board with this plan.
Sara Katrine Aleksandersen I could not think that I’m going to work in an office with papers and computer and sit there all the day, and I think I like more to be outside and help with the reindeer herding, and the jobs that the boys do. I need to, yeah.
Amy Martin Yeah, it sounds like you feel more alive.
Sara Katrine Aleksandersen Yes, much more.
Amy Martin When we met, Sara Katrine was preparing to leave home, to go to a special school with a reindeer herding focus. Even though this meant she would have to stay in high school for an extra year, it was worth it to her. It’s not only that she enjoys reindeer herding – she feels responsible for protecting it.
Sara Katrine Aleksandersen I think everything we do with the reindeer, and in the reindeer herding life, is special and have meaning. That is something I want to take care of.
Amy Martin And she says the only way to take care of it is to keep doing it.
Sara Katrine Aleksandersen If you don’t work with reindeers, you will never learn the words because you don’t need them. So it is fewer and fewer people that learn these words and can talk about the reindeer with these words.
Amy Martin Like if you lose reindeer herding you lose all of that knowledge.
Sara Katrine Aleksandersen Yes. I think I lose myself if I lose reindeer herding. Part of me.
Risten Turi Aleksandersen The reindeers have always been the thing that we think of first.
Amy Martin I met Sara Katrine’s mother, Risten Turi Aleksandersen, in her office in Tromsø, a city on the northern coast of Norway, about an hour away from the family’s reindeer herding grounds. She works here as the general secretary of the Sámi Church Council, which is part of the Church of Norway. But her roots are in Guovdageaidnu, a community on the central Norwegian tundra where Sámi culture is very strong.
Amy Martin How much was reindeer herding part of your life?
Risten Turi Aleksandersen It was all my life. [LAUGHS] I didn’t know of anything else.
Amy Martin Risten says the migration of the reindeer herd was the central rhythm of her life as a child.
Risten Turi Aleksandersen You always have to, OK, what do we need to do now, in our reindeer herding life, like the yearly cycles.
Amy Martin The Aleksandersens were living in Guovdageaidnu until just a few years ago, but they moved out here to the coast because there was a reindeer herding permit available for this area.
In order to herd reindeer in Norway, you have to be Sámi, and you have to get a permit which is issued by the Norwegian government. They’re granted only for specific spots, and they’re increasingly hard to come by. So, when a permit came up, Risten and Reiulf decided to leave their families and a strong Sámi community behind for the sole purpose of trying to pass on the knowledge of reindeer herding to their kids.
Risten Turi Aleksandersen We want them to know about the way of living, know about the traditions, know about this knowledge that we have, and try to bring it forward to them. So it’s important for us.
Amy Martin But Risten and Reiulf are worried about their children’s future. Sámi reindeer herding lands have been fragmented by mines, railroads, highways and other developments. And now, climate change is a threat, too.
Risten Turi Aleksandersen So because of the climate changes we have other kinds of winters now, which are not good for reindeers.
Amy Martin Reindeer and caribou are built for winter. They can smell lichens and other plants through meters of snow. In fact, the word “caribou” comes from a Canadian First Nations word that means “snow shoveler.”
Risten Turi Aleksandersen In the old times you first had cold periods were so the ground was frozen, and when you then had snow on that, the ground was dry and frozen. So the reindeers would be able to dig themselves down through the snow.
Amy Martin But Risten says northern Norway is getting warmer and wetter.
Risten Turi Aleksandersen Now we have rain, and then snow, and maybe cold weather. So you have ice on the ground. Which means that they will not find food. Because they will not manage to dig themselves through the ice that’s on the ground.
Amy Martin Digging through the kind of sugary snow you get when it’s extremely cold is one thing. Getting through heavy, wet, cement-like snow and then breaking layers of ice to get to the food below is quite another. Reindeer and caribou didn’t evolve to do that. So Risten says, in order to keep their herd healthy –
Risten Turi Aleksandersen We need to give them food, extra food now. We have been doing that for quite some years now. I think it’s maybe five years or so.
Amy Martin Feeding the reindeer in the winter is an additional financial burden, and it creates more work. But Risten says what really bothers her is how doing this undermines traditional knowledge.
Risten Turi Aleksandersen With these changes happening, the knowledge that the old people have can no longer be used today. It’s just like, so, there’s a huge difference. They never had to give their reindeers extra food. And now we do it on a daily basis during the winter. And that is becoming the normal thing.
Amy Martin Are you trying to tell your kids, like, this isn’t normal, we shouldn’t have to feed them. Do you think they understand that?
Risten Turi Aleksandersen I hope they do. We try to speak about that and try to tell them that this is something that has not been done earlier, and you need to know why not, and you need to know how it was in the earlier time.
Amy Martin Yeah. So your kids are hearing that, but it’s a little bit theoretical for them.
Risten Turi Aleksandersen Yeah, I guess, I’m afraid so.
Amy Martin All of this has turned Risten into a passionate advocate for climate change action. It’s one of the main things she focuses on in her work with the Sámi Church Council.
Risten Turi Aleksandersen I would like it to be as it was when I was a child. Before the climate change started.
Amy Martin Sara Katrine, Ulf Isak, and Reiulf are now resting in their tent at the top of the mountain after a day of hard work. It’s almost midnight, but since it’s late June in the Arctic, the sun is still flooding the mountaintop with light. And Reiulf tells me that when he first heard about climate change, he didn’t really believe it.
Reiulf Aleksandersen It seems so bad that it can’t be true.
Amy Martin Uh-huh, so there was a way that you were like, oh, people are just being extreme.
Reiulf Aleksandersen Yeah, but now I’m getting a little bit older, and know a little bit more. And, and I started to understand that it is real. It is really something that we are, we are the reason.
Amy Martin The turning point for Reiulf was when he started to see climate change happening with his own eyes.
Reiulf Aleksandersen But you know for a lonely reindeer herder, it’s not so much. I have not been in school and learned so much. I just have to trust on the things I can see on the mountains.
Reiulf Aleksandersen I think when it’s starting to rain in the middle of winter, then I’m thinking about what, what’s going wrong, what are we doing, what, what have we done. Every old person I speak with they say, this is not normal.
Amy Martin And he’s seeing other changes, too. After the Aleksandersen family made the move out here to the coast, they found out that some new wind turbines might be going up on their reindeer herding grounds. They were worried about how this might affect their animals, but the plans they were given made it look like there would still be space for their herd. So that was the situation when I met them in the summer of 2017: they were anxious, but trying to be optimistic. But a few months later, when I was home, I got an email from Risten. She sounded panicked, and we set up an online call.
Risten Turi Aleksandersen Last Friday at ten minutes to nine in the evening, I received an email that said, “Tomorrow, we will start to have these explosions.”
Amy Martin The new wind farm was definitely moving forward, and they had just received word that a new road was going in, a road wasn’t in the plans they’d been given earlier. And it cut right through their grazing area. The first step was going to be to blasting the mountain with dynamite.
Risten Turi Aleksandersen And I got so mad, I got so mad. I called to this man who sent the email and I just, I, I was so angry, and I said to him, “You are not doing anything because we have not had the chance to move the reindeers away, they will be there, and they don’t know anything, and you can’t send an email nine o’clock in the evening that you are coming the morning and starting to do this.” I was so angry.
Amy Martin The first time I met Risten, I was struck by her measured, understated way of talking, even when we landed on big, weighty issues, like threats to her family’s future in reindeer herding. But at that time, those threats were on the horizon. Now, they were at her doorstep.
Risten Turi Aleksandersen Once you start like with dynamite, then you could scare the reindeers, really like scare them, and we wouldn’t know where they go.
Amy Martin Risten managed to get the company to hold off using the dynamite until they’d had a chance to move their reindeer. But as it turned out, that was just the beginning. We’ll have more after this short break.
Amy Martin Welcome back to Threshold, I’m Amy Martin, and we’re in the middle of finding out about a new wind farm going in on an Arctic Norwegian island. It’s called Project Nordlicht, and when it’s complete, it’ll have 67 turbines, supplying 281 megawatts of power. That makes it one of the largest on-shore wind energy projects in Europe. And it’s located right on top of the land used by a Sámi reindeer herding family. This is Risten Turi Aleksandersen.
Risten Turi Aleksandersen First they have build the big cities and taken the land from the Sámis like that. And then when they have this problem with the climate change and the pollution and so, then they need to solve that problem. And the way they do it is they take even more land from the Sámis, and other indigenous people as well.
Amy Martin Like a lot of big energy projects, there’s an international cast of characters behind this wind park. Siemens Gamesa, a Spanish company, is supplying the 67 turbines, a German pension fund is one of the project’s largest investors. And although it was promoted as a project that would supply clean energy for 50,000 Norwegian households, for its first 15 years of operation, all of the power from the wind farm will actually go to an aluminum smelting plant owned by Alcoa, a U.S.-based company.
So while these huge, multinational entities have been celebrating Project Nordlicht as an environmental success story, to the Aleksandersen family, trying to herd their reindeer on this land, the picture looks very different.
Risten Turi Aleksandersen So you are still colonizing the indigenous peoples’ land. But now you are doing it in a “friendly” way because now you are like “environmentally friendly” and that’s so good for people. But you are still taking the land, and destroying the indigenous peoples’ opportunity to live their traditional lives. I get so angry because of this.
Amy Martin Risten is a recognized leader for climate change action – she’s been invited to speak to representatives of the UN and the Vatican about how carbon emissions are directly impacting her family, and she wants a world in which we are not relying on fossil fuels. But she says how we get there is crucially important.
Risten Turi Aleksandersen We will all need to sacrifice something if we are to save this planet. And people are not willing to do that. So they just push it forward to the people who, like, have a smaller chance to fight against it. Or whose voice will not reach so far away.
Amy Martin That conversation happened in the fall of 2017. We talked again in the summer of 2018, after the Aleksandersens had been living with the development of the wind farm for about a year.
Amy Martin So you can just describe to me, how has the mountain changed, like what does it look like now?
Risten Turi Aleksandersen Ah, you know, it’s, there are roads everywhere. I think there is 90 kilometers of roads there.
Amy Martin That’s about 56 miles of new road. When I visited the reindeer herding grounds, it was wide open space as far as we could see. No roads, no power lines, no buildings. Now, Risten says the sounds of dynamite and constant truck traffic fill the air, and it’s hard for them to keep the reindeer herd together.
Risten Turi Aleksandersen You know, especially for Reiulf who is up there every day, it’s really hard. You know because, you know, all the mountains, it’s so changed. And it’s so challenging to work with the reindeers now.
Amy Martin Risten says she’s spending countless hours writing letters, attending meetings, and trying to get the different parties involved to listen to her family’s concerns. She doesn’t really have hope that they can stop the development. She’s just trying to mitigate the impact. I talked to the Norwegian government and one of the companies involved to get their perspectives, and they say that the permitting process for this project followed all of the rules for public input. But Risten says the published plans don’t always match what’s actually happening on the ground.
And things keep changing. In July of 2018, they found out another wind project is going in, with a different owner. And this one is small: just four wind turbines. But the plan is to put the turbines right where the Aleksandersens gather their reindeer -- in the very spot where I spent the day with Reiulf and the kids the year before. Risten says news of this additional project hit the family hard.
Risten Turi Aleksandersen Right after we received the letter, you know this letter with the four new windmills, I really just felt like I fell into a big black hole.
Amy Martin Risten says they’d been clinging to the idea that they were at least going to be able to keep this one area protected from the development. But if these last four turbines go up–
Risten Turi Aleksandersen We wouldn’t have a place to gather the herd anymore. And if we can’t gather the herd, then the reindeer herding is like, it’s not possible, if you can’t gather them. So, actually right now, I can’t even think about that.
Amy Martin As we prepare this episode for release, the Aleksandersens are waiting to find out if those additional four turbines will be built. Risten says if that project is stopped, they are going to try to keep herding, even with all the changes happening around them. But, if those additional four turbines are approved, she doesn’t see how they can continue.
Risten Turi Aleksandersen And sometimes I think that, what if we just give up, but then I think again, no, why? Because this is the life I want to teach my children. So I can’t give up. And sometimes, maybe I don’t even have an explanation, I just keep on. Because if I stop being a reindeer herder I guess I stop being myself. And that I, I can’t do that.
Amy Martin So, after being passed down generation by generation, for thousands of years, the fate of this family’s reindeer herding operation may come down to whether or not a government official approves or denies the building of four wind turbines. The strain on the family has been enormous, and the irony of the situation is not lost on Risten. She’s ended up in the strange position of being a passionate advocate for climate change action, and an opponent of a major renewable energy project. I asked her if this experience has made her less interested in climate change activism.
Risten Turi Aleksandersen No, I guess it makes me even more passionate about it because what I see is that the way we work with climate change is also important. You know, how do we solve the climate change.
Amy Martin Risten says we’re never going to solve the climate problem using the same mindset that created it: a system that continually shifts costs onto less visible places, and less powerful people. She says that’s what we have to fix if we really want to address climate change at its root.
Risten Turi Aleksandersen For me, I think it’s not just to change the way we act. But the way we act needs to be guided by the way we think. And to that I can see that the indigenous peoples’ thinking, and the indigenous peoples’ connection to the Earth is a guide.
Amy Martin But she says it’s very hard to get people to listen. Sámi families across the Scandinavian peninsula are in the same position as the Aleksandersens – fighting climate change on the one hand and new wind farms on the other. In fact, all around the world, indigenous communities are simultaneously being threatened by climate change, and being forced to sacrifice land and resources in the quest for climate change solutions.
Amy Martin Do you feel hopeful for the future? Like, do you feel like reindeer herding will still be a way of life a hundred years from now?
Reiulf Aleksandersen Huh. [LONG PAUSE] To be honest, I don’t really, I don’t really think so. And without the reindeer the Sámi people are, I think they are gone.
Amy Martin And Reiulf says if that happens, the world will be losing a very special form of wealth. He says he can feel it, when he’s out working in the mountains.
Reiulf Aleksandersen I, I think about it when I'm alone, and when, I'm, yeah, I'm a little bit richer, they are a little bit poorer than me. Not in a way to hurt anybody, but, but, because I feel that there is something, we have something. We have something we can share which make a difference.
Reiulf Aleksandersen This is my way to live. Nobody can take it away from you.
Risten Turi Aleksandersen I can’t give up. You know, I can’t, I can’t, I can’t accept that the way that we live and the way that my ancestors have lived is a livelihood that’s supposed to end. You know, because I can’t see one single thing in my way of living that has a less value than other ways of living.
Amy Martin Risten says she thinks they’ll find out about those last four wind turbines soon. If you’d like to be informed when that happens, please join our mailing list at thresholdpodcast.org.
Nick Mott Our reporting for this season was funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, the Park Foundation, and you, our listeners. Our production partners are Montana Public Radio and PRI’s The World.
Amy Martin Threshold is made by Nick Mott, Rachel Cramer, Cheryl Skibicki and me, Amy Martin, with help from Frank Allen, Jackson Barnett, Josh Burnham, Michael Connor, Rosie Costain, Matt Herlihy, Rachel Klein, Zoë Rom, Nora Saks, Maxine Speier and Zach Wilson. Special thanks to Lars Magne Andreassen, Stephanie Frostad, Niila Inga, Sven Roald Nystø, Shanley Swanson, Line Vråberg and Kathrin Wessendorf. Our music is by Travis Yost. And on the next episode of Threshold, what happens when the world gets a whole new ocean?
Tero Vauraste There are now new areas, new types of operations, which were more or less impossible 20, 30, 40 years ago.
Amy Martin That’s next time, on Threshold.