Sometimes it’s easy to think of Scandinavia as a utopia but it pays to remember that the region’s Indigenous people, the Saami, have suffered many of the same cruelties and injustices as other countries.
Australiam film maker, Janet Merewether, shone a spotlight on this in her latest documentary, Reindeer In My Saami Heart, which chronicles the life of Inghilda Tapio, a writer and performer and one of the last generation of Saami reindeer herders born to nomadic parents in Saapmi, Sweden’s Arctic Circle.
“Inghilda is a rare person now because she grew up in a nomadic reindeer herding family before the Swedish government forced Saami kids to go to boarding school at seven years old and become separated from their families for a long time,” Janet said.
“Her generation had the worst experience. They couldn’t speak their language – the northern Saami had to speak Swedish.”
In her experience as a film maker, Janet has found that many interviewees don’t believe their lives are anything but ordinary. In Inghilda, Janet saw a great story.
“I thought it was a struggle people needed to know about,” she said.
“It’s an important story to tell which I think has a lot of resonance with Indigenous Australians who went through similar assimilation policies which erased a lot of cultures.”
Filmed over a 10-year period, the documentary begins with Janet’s first visit in 2002 and concludes in 2013. It was a time of considerable change, and meant that Janet got to see Inghilda’s grandchildren grow up.
“Inghilda’s really focussed on teaching her own children and grandchildren the northern Saami language and culture and much of the reindeer herding culture,” Janet said.
“It’s a strong continuity of culture.”
On her third and final trip to Sweden, Janet decided to take her seven-year-old son, Arlo, along with her. His presence added an extra depth and insight into the documentary.
“One of the reasons I took him at that age was because when I started the film I had no child,” she explained.
“When I went back with Arlo, I think I really understood the enormity of what separating parents and children is like.”
Janet is cautiously optimistic about the future of the Saami.
“I think there are new threats environmentally, like damming and hydroelectric schemes that disrupt reindeer herding; but they have worked hard to keep Saami schools.”
Plans are currently underway to show Reindeer In My Saami Heart in Scandinavia for Saami National Day next year. It is currently being shown at the Scandinavian Film Festival.