Reindeer, Herders and War

In the study of many pastoralist societies, the military dimensions of animal husbandry have played an important role. Indeed, if we think for example about the horse among Central Asian nomads, and it’s historical importance, e.g. for the expansion of Chingis Khan’s Empire, it is hard to overestimate the military significance of pastoral animals.

"Arctic Tank", reindeer herders in the Soviet Army. Note the Nenets way of harnessing them

When we look northwards, however, it is not obvious in the first place, and definitely we could not say that military use of animals was among the priorities for reindeer herders. Nonetheless, if we dig a little bit further, we find that reindeer have been extensively used by states during wars in the North in the early 20th century.

During the war with Russia, Finland used Sami reindeer herders with their reindeer successfully. The intimate knowledge among both humans and animals of the terrain, the quietness of movement, and the extremely high off-road capability proved to be  decisive advantages.

The Soviet army also came up with a ‘reindeer army’, and the museum in Lovozero (Murmansk Region, Russia), has a whole nice section of their exhibit on it, with names of herders who fought there, photographs, statistics and other information. The reindeer 14th and 19th  divisions of the Soviet Army had sections with reindeer that were called ‘Arctic Tank’ colloquially, at the Karelian front.

One source says that the Nenets reindeer divisions took out more than 10 000 injured from the forest, and 150 figther airplanes. This shows that they were used a lot just behind the front for supply chain operations.

Now the first monument for the heroic work of such herders in war was inaugurated in Naryan-Mar,European Nenets Okrug. Arctic Centre anthropologist Stephan Dudeck was there at the ceremony during his ORHELIA fieldwork and wrote a great blog entry on this. Worth reading!