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Reindeer caravan

In “Reindeer caravan” we get to follow a child with insight in the state of things: the aunt wants to operate her eyes round, children are taken away from their families for six whole years, the boarding school forbids them speaking Dolgan. The only question is why.

Credits Ksenia Bolshakova Translation: Ainsley E Morse June 04 2024

A caravan of baloks[1] and sledges pulled by reindeer, crisscrossing the tundra all year long. In April, the nomadic settlement-on-sledges wakes from its winter standstill and sets out for its springtime pasture. The reindeer herders have twenty days to cart the summer balok over from the autumn pasture, fix the covers of the winter and summer baloks, fix up the sledges, saddles for riding and hauling and hurry to the summer pasture. In the summer reindeer herders don't stay in one place for more than three days. In September, with the first snow, the caravan moves on to the autumn pasture. They bring the winter balok, left at the spring pasture, to the autumn camp. When they've moved from the summer to the winter balok, the tundra people settle into wintering-over. By November, taking week-long stops, they make their way to the winter pasturing grounds, where they will stay in one place for up to a month at a time.

And now the time has come again for our reindeer to make their way to new moss patches. We prepare our balok for the road, made more difficult by hummocks and pits. We take apart and pack up our modest nomadic household. Grandmother takes the dishes down from the shelf and tucks them into a box between the woodstove and the wall. She folds up on our things on the bed and ties them down like a load on the sledge. I gather up my toys and books in a sheet, tie the corners crossways, and stuff the bundle under the bed. I take the slops bucket outside. When I come back in the balok is already empty. The walls and table are strangely bare, the woodstove has gone cold, the smell of food has dissipated.

Meanwhile the men are catching and harnessing the strong geldings. The bulls will have to pull the entire camp, and that means no more and no less than two families: two dwelling baloks for living in and two utility baloks for storage, the sledges for freight and the sledges for riding in. The camp is lined up in a chain of four reindeer teams. Grandfather's reindeer will go first and make the track. Three bulls are harnessed to his personal sledge. The harness extends from the riding sledge to the quartet pulling the freight sledge. Eight bulls are harnessed into this truss; they will pull the dwelling balok.

Grandmother and I will follow grandfather's column. I head over, business-like, to the reindeer who'll be pulling us, to check our horsepower, so to speak. Two for the riding sledge — check. Four for the freight sledge — check. Four for the utility balok — check. Further on stretch the two reindeer teams of N'uku's family. Their son Spirya will be riding a reindeer and will drive the herd along after our caravan.

“Grandmother, I checked our reindeer. We can head out.”

“What would we do without you, little one. Go sit in the sledge.”

The smoke from the last pre-departure cigarettes floats away over the camp. The dwelling balok leaves its resting-place. Sitting in the sledge, I hurry my grandmother along. Look, grandfather’s about to gallop off and we won’t be able to catch up. Grandmother laughs and tugs at the harness of the first reindeer. Behind them the remaining bulls start moving.

We move unhurriedly across the snowy expanses. The unseen sun diffuses light across the white tundra sky. To keep my eyes from being blinded, I turn back to the harnessed reindeer. Their hard-hitting hooves are kicking up snow. Their powerful backs are pulling our entire lives, packed into the baloks and sledges. Their large round eyes gaze directly at me.

Why do you have such round eyes — maybe you’re Russian? My aunt is saving money for an operation. She wants to get Russian eyes. She says that’s pretty and fashionable. Some fashion! What’s fashionable is curtains with New Year’s decorations. In the village everyone orders ones like that from the city. What kind of fashion can there be in Russian eyes. In Dudinka everyone has had them for a while now. And they don’t seem pretty to me. Mama has pretty eyes, grandmother, all the Dolgans. Our ancestors and nature made our eyes narrow and far-seeing, with special little hoods to keep out the snow and wind.

I used to think that all animals spoke Russian. After all, in the cartoons on TV no one spoke Dolgan. But you understand me, don’t you? You’re tossing your horns, so you do understand! Just try not knowing Dolgan with grandmother and grandfather. On TV they’ve probably never heard of us. In our Popigai[2] there aren't even any Russians, but in Dudinka[3] everybody's Russian. When we were visiting my aunt, she asked me and mama to be quieter when speaking Dolgan. As if we should be ashamed of it. At first I started speaking louder on purpose. But then one man looked at me so strangely, wrinkled his nose so hard, that I fell silent right away.

And people say very ugly things about us too. I won’t repeat the words. I might say something like: “Ugh, you’re just a tundra!” And they taunt us too: “Hey, Dolgans, where are your reindeer?” It’s a very stupid taunt. Whoever has reindeer is off with them in the tundra. But the people in the village are reindeerless. And this isn’t funny — it’s very sad. I also don’t understand when people yell things like: “Close the door, were you born in the tundra or something?” What’s bad about being born in the tundra? I was born in the village, but Chaakynas Balya[4] really was born in the tundra.

Soon I won't be able to go out herding with you. This fall I'm starting first grade in Popigai. And from fifth grade onwards, I'll be taken off to the boarding school in Khatanga[5] for six whole years. Alyosha is there now. When he came home for vacation he told us stories about the boarding school. Only the kids from Popigai and Syndassko speak Dolgan there. All the other Dolgans don't know their native tongue. People say those Dolgans don't have any reindeer either. Look out now, don’t leave us or we'll forget Dolgan too.

Alyosha had become different. Mama says he's just growing up. But I'm afraid he's turning into a Russian there. The teachers at the boarding school yell at him, saying it's not proper to speak Dolgan around other people. His classmates laugh at him, saying when he speaks Dolgan it's like the growling of an animal. I decided that when me and Lulu go to the boarding school we'll only speak Dolgan with each other. I want to speak my language. So familiar, so dear. In Russian I’m still always messing things up, mixing up genders and tenses: the pen falled, the pencil felled, the scissors falling, some other thing fellt.

When I go to boarding school I'll be given money for notebooks. I'll choose the cheaper ones and buy gum with the money left over. Or I'll buy something else that you can only get in Khatanga. There are some good things about life at the boarding school, after all. Only I'll be nine months without mama, without grandmother, without all of you. One of our girls from Popigai was really missing her mama at the boarding school and wrote her a song.

Mama, I love and miss you, dear,
Each morning, thoughts of you appear.
A bird takes flight, up in the sky,
Singing to me, how you get by.

I'm going to open my eyes very wide to look at the herd, so I'll remember it really well. When I feel sad at the boarding school I will think of our caravan.

[1]Balok — a portable home mounted on sledge runners.

[2] Popigai — a monoethnic Dolgan village in Taimyr, population about 300.

[3]Dudinka — the capital of the Taimyr Dolgan-Nenets autonomous region until 2007, became the center of the Taimyr district after unification with Krasnoyarsk Region, population about 20 000.

[4] Chaakynas Balya — Whiny Valya.

[5] Khatanga — the center of the Khatanga rural community in Taimyr, population about 2 600.

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