Finding Family—and a Reindeer Herd—in Norway’s Far North

Mary Blair holds her Sámi heritage close to her heart. For the longest time, however, she didn’t even know it existed. A member of SEARCH’s Human Well Being co-production team and Director of Biodiversity Informatics Research at the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History, Mary was working through her PhD in 2008 when her father discovered that her great grandparents were not Norwegian, like they had always thought. Instead, they were Sámi, the Indigenous People of Arctic Scandinavia, and they herded reindeer for a living. Then, Mary and her family were invited to travel to Kautokeino, 200 miles north of the Arctic circle in northern Norway, to meet their Sámi cousins and join a gathering to commemorate the 110th anniversary of the Manitoba Expedition, the U.S. government project that brought Sámi reindeer herders to Alaska to establish a reindeer herd. The trip saw Mary spend days out in the tundra and villages with her rediscovered family. Experiences filled with reindeer steak, reindeer stew, reindeer pizza, and more, it was the animals in live form that perhaps stuck with Mary the most. After snowmobiling out to a reindeer herd hundreds-strong full of “huge, furry antlers and beautiful fuzzy silver-gray fur”—the descendants, in fact, of her great great grandfathers’ herd—she realized something very profound. “If my great grandparents had stayed,” she says, “these animals might have been my responsibility, and this landscape might have been my responsibility to care for.” This realization is made all the more weighty as Mary learns from her cousins all the ways in which climate change is ravaging the tundra. Including, they say, family members and reindeer lost forever in avalanches and in rivers as ice conditions become more unfamiliar. In reflecting on these complex realities, Mary remarks, “This beautiful landscape and the reindeer and these people that I’m just getting to know could be gone in a few decades if we don’t do anything about climate change.” Since that first journey in 2008, Mary has stayed in close contact with her Sámi family and visited them again several times. Mary regales this story in full during a recent episode of The Moth, the highly acclaimed storytelling podcast enjoyed by millions the world over.