Canadian Museum of Nature: Exhibition captures the reindeer herders of Northern Europe

From Frost: Spring migration can be very hard. For some animals, it is too hard. This little fellow was eventually transported by sled. Photo: Fred Ivar Utsi Klemetsen, courtesy of the Royal Norwegian Embassy.

By Michael Sun

The world of the Sámi reindeer herders of Northern Europe — as photographed by an artist of Sámi heritage — is revealed in a new exhibition called Frost at the Canadian Museum of Nature.

Norwegian photographer Fred Ivar Utsi Klemetsen spent 15 years observing the reindeer herders. The photographs, that will be on view until Jan. 7, were captured during that time.

The Sámi are Indigenous people who live in Russia, Finland, Norway and Sweden. Klemetsen, who is a veteran photographer for the Bergens Tidende (The Berjen Times) newspaper, is of Sámi descent.

“I used my camera to kind of search for my own heritage and background,” Klemetsen said in an interview. In fact the very first pictures he ever took, at age 12, were of Sámi reindeer herders.

From Frost: Sámi families often keep their reindeer herds together. Several times a year, the owners gather the reindeer in closed-off ranges to separate them. Photo: Fred Ivar Utsi Klemetsen, courtesy of the Royal Norwegian Embassy.

Klemetsen said the photos are an attempt to offer an “honest” reflection of the reindeer herders.

“For me, it’s really important not to show (just the) beauty of it. It’s important to show the daily life … I haven’t tried to hide anything. For me it’s important to show exactly how it is.”

The exhibit has been travelling the world for some time including stops in Washington D.C. at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History and at the Gladstone Hotel in Toronto.

The show at the Museum of Nature includes 30 photos, five of which are being seen publicly for the first time, according to Stacy Wakeford, the museum’s director of exhibits.

She said the exhibit is part of the museum’s overall Arctic emphasis this year, which has included the Canada Goose Arctic Gallery.

The Norwegian Embassy approached the museum last December about the exhibit and helped organize it, said Jan-Terje Storaas, the embassy’s cultural affairs and communications officer.

Storaas said he hopes the exhibit will attract a variety of people, in particular Indigenous Canadians: “It’s important for them to connect with other Indigenous peoples around the world.” He says the embassy plans to invite Indigenous groups to see the exhibit.

“There’s some really wonderful images of Arctic landscape, the lighting — everything is very unique up there, so I think people will appreciate that,” Storaas said.

Storaas said the Sámi reindeer herders are unique. “It’s a lifestyle that is not very common,” he said.

Wakeford says the images of the Sámi puts “humans back into the story of nature … we think it’s really important for our visitors to kind of make those personal connections and not see nature as something outside their experience but as something that is part of their life and their world.”

The reindeer herders are a central feature of Sámi culture, according to Klemetsen.

“For me, it’s really important to make a documentation of that (lifestyle). I’m not sure if it’s going to disappear, but it’s definitely going to change,” he said.

He said the herders connect with historical Sámi traditions than do other Sámis, such as himself. “They are actually dealing with the animals,” he said.

Klemetsen’s grandfather was a reindeer herder. He says that the work involved in putting Frost together has helped him discover his own heritage.

“For me, it has been a really sadness of my life that I didn’t learn the Sámi language,” he said. “I feel like I’m not a good enough Sámi.

“To show and make these photographs, it has been a really important thing for myself just to recognize me as a Sámi, to be proud of being a Sámi.

“I hope people learn from that exhibit it is important to take care of (Sámi reindeer herders), even if there aren’t that many people – like in Norway, 1,500 people,” he said. “That’s a really small group of people, but it’s really, really important for the culture.”

This story was produced in collaboration with the Carleton University journalism program and Centretown News.

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