'Different knowledge systems reign in the tundra than in the slaughterhouses…'
Illustrated above are instruments used to kill reindeer to provide food for humans. These instruments also provide tangible evidence of a difference in perspective.
In 2008 the Norwegian Supreme Court ruled that Sámi slaughtering practices which used a long straight knife (on the top image) were illegal and inhumane. Instead, humane killing could only take place in factories that used a bolt gun (on the lower image) to begin the process of dismembering living animals into consumer commodities. The resulting fillets and steaks had never been central to Sámi food culture. Lost were parts of the total animal that Sámi had valued as food – blood, the head, intestines, and hooves – that now became waste or dog food.
In Precious blood and nourishing offal: Past and present slaughtering perspectives in Sámi reindeer pastoralism Sara et al. argue that traditional Sámi slaughter practices were actually more humane than bolt guns and carcass disassembly lines and that ‘the tightly coupled relationship between reindeer herders and reindeers positively affected animal welfare before the nomadic Sámi reindeer husbandry transformed into a Norwegian industry.’ ‘Different knowledge systems’ they conclude, ‘reign in the tundra than in the slaughterhouses.’
The theme of different knowledge systems runs through three additional articles on reindeer herding in northern Eurasia recently published in Pastoralism. In Productivity beyond density: A critique of management models for reindeer pastoralism in Norway Marin et al. assess the evidence for current Norwegian government interventions to modernize Sámi herding practices. These efforts focus on government attempts to regulate animal numbers, and to prescribe the proper sex and age composition of reindeer herds, with success measured in terms of the carcass weights of slaughtered deer. Marin et al. question the uniform applicability of the government model given local geographical variations and fluctuating weather conditions, and propose output per unit area as an additional measure of pastoral productivity. They base their critique on a reanalysis of existing statistical data and on conversations with reindeer herders. Many Norwegian reindeer herders, they conclude, have rational reasons to deviate from government directives, given the variable circumstances under which they operate.
In Unfounded claims about productivity beyond density for reindeer pastoralism systems Stein et al. again revaluate statistical data to cast doubt on the conclusions arrived at by Marin et al. In conformity with government policy, they argue that animal densities are not of minor importance for reindeer productivity and animal welfare. They do not discuss the extent to which Sámi herders agree.
In Reindeer Herding Statistics in Russia: Issues of reliability, interpretation, and political effect. Istomin et al., examine the complexities of statistically based and ostensibly objective knowledge systems. They show that official Soviet/Russian statistics reflected the world as the state wanted to see it, even if it did not completely correspond to the world ‘out there’. In Soviet times, the state attempted to change this world to better correspond to the statistics. These attempts were driven by the pursuit of what Istomin et al. call ‘magical numbers’ – the statistical targets set by officials to assess the quality of reindeer herding management.
The potentially distorting effects of pursuing ‘magical’ statistical targets is not confined to Soviet Russia. As described by Marin et al., carcass weights and prescribed herd structures are ‘magical numbers’ currently employed by the Norwegian state to regulate reindeer herding in conformity with state expectations. As Sara et al. concluded, different knowledge systems may reign on the tundra than in Norwegian slaughterhouses – or in Norwegian government offices or in the statistical services that support them. Beyond Norway or the USSR, almost all reindeer herders in Eurasia live in what Istomin et al. call high modernist states, states with the economic and administrative wherewithal to force reality into preconceived categories. Maybe it’s time for managers and administrators in these states to also talk to pastoralists and listen respectfully, if critically, to what they say.