Piers Vitebsky’s The Reindeer People: Living with Animals and Spirits in Siberia

vitebsky-reindeer-peopleSiberia, that vast tract that covers the Russian North from the Urals to the Pacific, is one of the most inhospitable places that humanity has found to live, equaled only by its American counterpart (although Siberia does hold the record low temperature for any inhabited part of the earth). In its southern reaches it was the site of one of the most significant events of animal domestication in human prehistory, and one that is little-known in the West: the domestication of the reindeer. This phenomenon, and the lives of the people who live with their herds, are the focus of Piers Vitebsky’s The Reindeer People.

Reindeer cannot be said to be truly “domesticated” as the term is commonly understood. At best, they are semi-domesticated, always with the possibility that they may be “kidnapped” by a wild herd or just wander off on their own. The peoples of the region, the Evenki, Eveny, Nenets, Yukaghir, Enets, Sami, and others, see their relationship with the reindeer as a partnership rather than as master and servant. Vitebsky relates an Eveny story about the origin of reindeer: a hunter was tracking through the forest and came upon a head emerging from an alder tree. The animal was completely helpless, and the hunter helped it to gain its freedom. The reindeer, for such it was, promised to serve the man, providing meat, hides, and transport in return for the man’s care and protection. This is still the basis of the relationship of man and animal today.

Although the first section deals extensively with the history and prehistory of the reindeer culture of the north, The Reindeer People is not obviously focused on the scholarly aspects of the reindeer economy, but more closely on the recent history of it and the way the Soviet program of collectivization and State Farms, and most recently the return to private ownership after the collapse of the Soviet Union, have impacted the traditional lives of the indigenous peoples. Reindeer are migratory, and so, of necessity, are those who herd them. The Soviets, in their drive to bring the benefits of communism to all the Russias — and Vitebsky gives full credit to the idealism that underlay this effort, as misdirected as it might have been — established villages and towns, providing schools and, in the larger towns, hospitals, but also subverting the family-based nomadic social structure and economy of the herders. This subversion and its consequences — the equivalent of what the United States and Canadian governments did in North America with mission schools — has left a once viable culture in tatters with a new generation that simply is not equipped to take up the traces.

It’s a vivid account — Vitebsky visited the area several times, and stayed for several months on each visit, ultimately bringing his own family with him for a summer at a reindeer camp. Nor is it a glamorized account — it’s not an easy life, and the seesaw of Imperial, Soviet, and post-Soviet policy has done as much to disrupt the native cultures as the actions of the white governments have in North America. Vitebsky does avoid polemic, merely laying out the historical record with the precision of a scholar and letting the people speak for themselves, but it’s not an entirely pretty picture. (Like the white man in America, Russian traders soon discovered the advantages of making vodka an integral part of trade.)

What is surprising and refreshing about Vitebsky’s treatment is his reliance on the natives, allowing them to speak for themselves. In spite of what we might have believed, they are politically sophisticated, intelligent, articulate and many of them are highly cultured — there are several mentions of discussions through the long arctic night centered around important works of literature and philosophy — with an irreverent sense of humor (the “dramatis personae” in the beginning lists, among the human and spirit characters, Margaret Thatcher, Bill Clinton, Cleopatra, and Sancho Panza, “reindeer of character”). Vitebsky’s portrayals of his major contacts among the Eveny bring the reality of the taiga and tundra to life: Vladmir Nikolayevich, a retired herder turned hunter who takes him on a winter hunt; Anatoly Alekseyev (Tolya), who became a close friend and, inspired by his contact with Vitebsky, went back to school and became an anthropologist; Kesha, the brigadier of Camp 8 and his wife Lyuda, a national reindeer racing champion, who believe that their infant daughter Diana is the reincarnation of a shamaness; Kostya and Arkady, the brigadier of Camp 10 and his lieutenant, both hard-working and brought to vivid life with all their strengths and frailties; Granny, a shrewd matriarch who with her husband managed to keep a family based brigade intact when it was against government policy; and others who come and go throughout the narrative. The “spirits” referred to in the subtitle are also much in evidence, an integral part of the daily life of the peoples of the north, in spite of the “civilizing” impact of the schools — they are one part of traditional ways that lives on.

Although Vitebsky is an anthropologist, he has produced in The Reindeer People a vivid and particularly rich recent history of the Siberian peoples. Don’t look here for folktales or a serious study of shamanism (although his bibliography provides some good leads in those areas), but even if you are not particularly interested in reindeer and those whose lives are intertwined with them, read it anyway. It’s that good.

(Houghton Miflin Company, 2005)

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

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