I made my way into the Kola Peninsula two or three times as part of this project (read more about Circling the Midnight Sun). My friend and guide there was a lovely Sami woman, an environmental consultant called Anna Prakhova.
She made it very clear that if I were to understand what was going on in Sami lands—Sapmi—that I needed to understand what was going on with reindeer.
These reindeer used to be herded by the inland Sami from the highlands in the winter down to the sea in the summer. But they’re now contained in smaller herds on ancestral lands.
Anna and her husband invited me to go to take a herder in to rotate into this crew that was there looking after them. So we got some groceries, including a big bag of bananas from a grocery store in Murmansk. I remember taking pictures of the produce in that store and being asked by a security guard to — well, he stood there while I deleted the pictures. Apparently that was not allowed.
We put the bag of bananas and the bag of groceries in the car and we drove for hours starting at about nine o’ clock at night. We drove southwest towards the Finnish border to a milemarker on the road where we turned onto a sandy track through the taiga, through the stunted spruce, and eventually pulled up at an old wheeled construction shed or cookhouse. It was two in the morning, and sure enough three herders came out to greet us. And we gave them the groceries.
They said, "Put the bananas in your pockets," and we went off to see the reindeer.
It was as if we were in the middle of nowhere. There were no reindeer to be found. And as we walked and crunched, you could smell the musky, piny smell of the sphagnum and reindeer moss underfoot, and the piny smell of the spruce were there against the indigo sky and the stars which had come up through the twilight in this Arctic night. And all of a sudden the herder started to call. And the voice echoed back from the trees — or maybe from the landscape — and at first I thought: How poignant, he’s calling for something that’s disappeared. There are no reindeer here. Which is probably the future, unfortunately, of this area. Reindeer herding is very much a part of Sami life, but it’s not a good way to make a living anymore.
And the herder called and called. And finally as if by magic, from a distance, as if there was some troika approaching, a horse-drawn sled or something — the imagination runs wild in the twilight like that — I heard bells. Faint, faint bells.
Then as we walked, and as the reindeer herder called, the bells got closer and closer. And it turned out that some of those lead animals in this herd had different sounding cowbells on them.
Eventually, the first thing I felt in what was essentially darkness where you couldn’t see clear lines against the backdrop of the trees of the taiga, I felt the butting heads of strange beings around my body. And these were actually the reindeer with their bells trying to get at the bananas.
Who knew that one of their favourite foods of Sami reindeer are bananas?
It was an incredibly powerful moment captured on film with a camera that really can’t deal with the darkness. But that sense of being part of something that has survived through 70 years of oppression through the Soviet realm and through all kinds of other pressures from development — it really was a magical moment on the Arctic Circle.