What’s the difference between science and religion? Thoughts about indigenous knowledge systems

Several of our anthropology research team members just came from a lecture by Prof Sandra Harding from UCLA on different science and knowledge systems, which was really inspiring. It was part of an Indigenous Knowledge Systems Workshop here at the Arctic Centre, the other keynote lecturers being Elina Helander Renvall and Suvi Ronkainen.

When we ‘do’ science together, is it indigenous or Western Knowledge? Harding argues that nowadays all this is hybrid knowledge (photo from Nel’min Nos, Nenets AO 2004)

Harding placed her thoughts on different epistemologies in the framework of postcolonial science studies, starting out with one of the most fatal western misconceptions: that there is only ONE right way of knowing, and that this can be produced only by ONE culture, namely western culture. Rather than summarizing her entire talk, I would highlight some of the issues that I found most inspiring. Continue reading

Posted in All, Guests, Indigenous Peoples, oral history, Spirituality, Theoretical Issues | 6 Comments

Human agents or resources in Arctic extractive industries?

Human Resources in Arctic extractive industries – a PhD course under the Uarctic Thematic Network “People and the Extractive Industries”

It was a small but extremely diverse group that we got together between September 10-16 in St John’s, the capital of Newfoundland, Canada. The participants to the course came from 5 different institutions and 7 different countries, to learn for a week more on a broad variety of topics related to what the economists and business studies people call ‘human resources’ and we in anthropology call ‘people’. Actually, Gertrude Eilmsteiner-Saxinger, one of the participants of the course, made a valuable comment in this respect – which is that at least for us the term ‘human resources’ totally lacks the agency of people who are involved in or affected by industrial activity. So maybe it’s better to call this next time ‘human agents’?

“It was excellent teaching, it was interesting topics, it was free, and it was fun” – along these lines Gertrude Eilmsteiner summed up the course – quite nice, thanks Gerti for the nice quote, and sorry if I don’t remember it as exactly as I wish

Ships for servicing the Hibernia oil platform off Newfoundland ‘hiding’ in the harbour from Hurricane Leslie on 11 September

Continue reading

Posted in All, Announcements, Extractive Industries, North American North, Russian North, teaching | Tagged | 2 Comments

Arctic Design: Field Thoughts and Questions


Hi everybody, this is my second appearance in this blog (see the first one http://arcticanthropology.org/2012/03/07/arctic-design-and-indigenous-knowledge/). I have just finished my summer fieldwork in Northern Lapland; so let me share my fresh thoughts.

…In 2006, in the beginning of August, I was sitting in a big bus, drowning in a blue soft seat, traveling from the railway station of Pyt’-Yakh to the city of Khanty-Mansyisk, where my first fieldwork was supposed to start. Six years later, another bus, but with seats of exactly the same blue plush – what a coincidence! – moved me from Rovaniemi to Inari for my first fieldwork in a foreign country.

My Experience so far

Going to the field, I must admit I did not really know what to expect. I came with a vague idea of ‘indigenous patterns of movement’. I was not sure what particularly ask from people and what to tell them about practical application of my work, so all those things made me nervous. Well, I was also a bit scared of traveling alone for such a long period, i.e. approximately a month. But on the other hand, I was full of energy and, of course, longing for adventures and discoveries. Being over-enthusiastic and, at the same time, very naive, I underestimated the fact of my ‘alienness’: not only in terms of nationality, but also in terms of the very essence of the fieldwork in such an exotic context. Of course, designers also do fieldwork; it is a critical part of many projects; but design ethnographers usually work in teams, and mainly use prototypes to create dialog with the people under study. Also the main actors are users – actual or potential – but hardly ‘vernacular designers’ (let’s call so indigenous people and their material culture). And basically design fieldwork does not last so long.


Lazy morning. Lake Inari

I soon discovered that specific character of the designers’ fieldwork is to say very little about possible practical application, which in the initial stage can be difficult to formulate. While presenting something raw and yet unverified, the intention is to explain and defend what you have already done. However, it seems the first step for a design researcher is to map the ‘research surface': to put over it a certain multidisciplinary ‘mesh’ and then specify the ‘global coordinates’ of main disciplines…

When I came to Inari, ‘the heart of Sápmi’, having just an idea of possible accommodation (at a simple tourist camping) and a couple of contacts for exact work, my ‘inner adventurer’ was strongly disappointed by the ‘level of civilization’: I noticed hotels, supermarkets, even a pizza & kebab place, instead of a tiny remote indigenous village ‘in the middle of nowhere’ (yes, I am still captivated by my romantic field experience in Russia: small Khanty villages in Western Siberia). So, I ‘landed’ at the camping, in a modest wooden cabin, though with Wi-Fi. First week was probably the hardest: I was struggling with myself, suffering from my uselessness and an unfamiliar difficulty to approach people. But what did I expect? I could almost ‘touch’ and ‘smell’ a huge amount of information around me, but I was so annoyed with inability to get it all immediately. Well, things like that never happen ‘in one go’, I tried to convince myself, and after several attacks of impatience I decided just to get to know the place. After a couple of days I find myself painting the landscape, picking up berries in the forest nearby, swimming in the Lake Inari…

But still the question is open: what do you, experienced anthropologists and fieldworkers, do in case of delay, silence and ‘nothing happens’?

Of the week two, suddenly the ice-breaking period has finished: it happened after the festival ‘Ijahis Idja’ (obviously, such events are the best for approaching people: everybody is relaxed, positive and open).

At ‘Ijahis Idja’ festival. Inari


Catching impressions. Lemmenjoki

In two last weeks, I got most of the material to work with and felt much more relaxed in talking to people. And, though most of the people I met were quite serious and not easygoing, I have had the incredible feeling of being surrounded not by individuals who are putting practical matters first but by friends. Then I discovered another problem, i.e. how to get rid of this emotional attachment (and does it ever necessary?), how to come back to ‘normal life’.

And here comes another question: how you researchers can manage the issue of ‘personal involvement’ or ‘emotional link’ with people under study? There might be plenty of books about researchers’ ethics, but I would like to hear some ‘first-hand’ examples.


I will continue writing about my experiences in the field further on

By Svetlana Usenyuk

Posted in All, Fennoscandia, Fieldwork, Indigenous Peoples, Theoretical Issues | 6 Comments

Anastasia Lapsui and Markku Lehmusskallio – guests of the team in Rovaniemi

We all know and admire the films by Markku Lehmuskallio and Anastasia Lapsui about the life and history of the Nenets people. On the 30th August 2012 they came to the Arcrtic Centre in Rovaniemi for a preview of their latest film “Eleven human images” (Yksitoista ihmisen kuvaa). This film reflects the worldview of Markku and Anastasia and mix their philosophical ideas, ancient rock art and indigenous culture with avant-garde art and music.

Anastasia Lapsui and Markku Lehmuskallio discuss their new film “Eleven human images” with the public at the Arktikum. Floran Stammler is translating.

It’s a major oevre on the history of humankind using rock drawings and carvings from a time range of 50 000 years ago up to 1964. The film was shot in locations all over the world. The authors say that it’s a very personal interpretation of those paintings and how they connect to our present understanding of who we are. It was striking that all of the drawings depicted human-animal relations. The fact that this theme is so overarching tells us a lot how paramount these relations have been for our existence as species on this planet both in pragmatic and spiritual terms. We were left like pondering about these deeply philosophical issues of how much has changed in our relationship with the animals. That’s something that we have been thinking about for a long time when several of us were working on a volume that focused precisely on this theme. Until recently, these relations have continued to be crucial and in their position for us relatively unchanged, but then neoliberalism alienated us more and more from this relation, an aspect that is at the heart of Hugo Reinert’s work. Anastasia Lapsui emphasized in the discussion how she has been pondering about her own origin and the origin of her people, the Nenets as part of universal humankind since early childhood; so this film is also a powerful statement on her search for her own roots.

Roza Laptnader and Anastasia Lapsui

For the anthropological research team of the Arctic Centre it was a unique possibility to discuss with Anastasia and Markku the collaboration with Nenets reindeer herders and our project of collecting oral history in the North (ORHELIA).We had a lively discussion on how to transport anthropological messages to a visual audience. We were not surprised, that Anastasia’s main interest in our work considered the practical application of scientific research and how the outcome of our project could be useful for the reindeer herders themselves.

During our discussion we had a very tasty degustation of raw reindeer liver (in the Nenets way), which Florian Stammler bought from a Sámi reindeer herder from Enontekiö here in Northern Finland – so thanks to him also!

Anna Stammler-Gossmann Anastasia Lapsui and Markku Lehmuskallio tasting some reindeer liver
Stephan Dudeck, Florian Stammler & Nuccio Mazzullo
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Meeting old and new friends in Inari

For us from the Anthropology Research Team here in Rovaniemi the Sámi Cultural Centre SAJOS in Inari became a place where we regularly meet friends from the indigenous movement in Russia. Galina Platova from the Association of Nenets people “Yasavey” told me already in Naryan-Mar, that she will come soon to Inari for a conference. The ORHELIA team used the opportunity to meet up with our research partners on occasion of the conference organized by the Sámi Educational Institute “Traditional Knowledge of Reindeer Herding Peoples as Basis for Education and Research” in Inari.

Vlad Peskov gives a speech and shows the documentation of reindeer nomadism in the Nenets Autonomous Okrug

On the 17th of August Roza Laptander and Stephan Dudeck drove the 330km to Inari and where surprised how many familiar faces they recognized in the audience and among the speakers. Stephan ran into Dina Vasilievna Gerasimova, who appeared to celebrate her 70th birthday that very day. And we met Dmitry Ottovich Khorolya and delivered Florian’s greetings.

It would be tiresome to name here all the VIPs from Russian and Fennoscandian institutions dealing with traditional knowledge and reindeer herding and most of the papers contained well-known statements about the importance of safeguarding traditional knowledge for the future of reindeer husbandry. Of course we were proud that the director of the Arctic Centre Paula Kankaanpää mentioned prominently the work of the ORHELIA project as one of the activities of our institute to research and maintain indigenous knowledge in the Arctic.

It is of course a riddle how all these non-traditional institutions, bureaucrats, and highly educated people could contribute to the transmission of knowledge that is so highly rooted in everyday practices, nonverbal communication and rural livelihoods. But there were some examples that could give an idea that it’s possible that scientific knowledge and traditional knowledge can be mutual supportive. One example was the educational initiative of language nests, where preschool children learned again the almost abandoned Inari-Sámi language, which led to a real language revival. Vladislav Peskov from the Association of Nenets People , mentioned that it became nowadays a must that scientific research on traditional knowledge returns the collected materials and the results to the communities where it stems from. This should happen in a form that people could understand and use the materials provided by scientist for their community purposes.

But one unusual story stacked in our minds and we were discussing it on the way back. It was a fable told by Rodion Sulyanziga from the Association of Indigenous people RAIPON. When he once asked an old man about the past and the knowledge of the ancestors, he got the answer that he can tell him only one story about a cat that took a little tiger to nurture. One day when the tiger was full-grown he just wanted to strike away the small cat with his paw. But the cat jumped on a tree and told him: “You know, I taught you everything except for one thing: how to climb on a tree!”

After the conference we “kidnapped” Galina Platova from Yasavey and Galina Nazarova, the director of the Naryan Mar college for humanities, to Rovaniemi to discuss in detail a project to publish oral history materials and make them available for the people in the regions we are working in. Our dream is to have once a website where people can listen to the stories of the elders and learn something about the history of different places and indigenous communities from Finnish Lapland to the Yamal peninsula. Of course we will let you know more about it as soon as we decided how to finance and organize the work.

Posted in Announcements, Fennoscandia, Guests, Indigenous Peoples, oral history, Russian North | Tagged , , , , ,

Reindeer herder without legs continues to migrate on the tundra.

Does every person who grew up in a curtain place have roots like a tree? Well, trees have roots, which go very deeply to the ground to get nutrition. A human being been has other roots which connect him or her with a curtain place or territory. People have different nature, but this affection to the place where a person grows up is like putting roots.

We all know how difficult and sometimes even painful it is to leave to another place after living there for a long time. It is like cutting roots, and it gives feeling of instability and vulnerability. When people start to move to a new place it is like putting new roots again, but these roots could be not so deep, like the main stem stayed in the place where a man was born.

Well, how does this work with nomads? They migrate all year round. It seems that they have roots on the whole territory of their migration or even on the whole tundra. Migrating from one place to another they still are connected to their roots of migration and they feel at home and protected there.

Prokopij Vylka from Priuralskaja tundra, Yamal, Western Siberia. Photo Roza Laptander.

Here is a picture of a Nenets man from the Yamal peninsula.  Prokopij Vylka (1967) is a handicapped person. He looks very much like the American actor Richard Gere.

This famous American actor Richard Gere has never met his Nenets look-alike. Photo Wikimedia.org

Unfortunately, he is not as lucky as his look-alike.  Once he lost his way in the winter tundra. His legs were frozen and in the Yamalo-Nenetskij regional hospital doctors amputated them till his knees. Prokopij returned to the tundra. He lives in a tent with his parents, wife and two sons. He feels himself more comfortable here than in a warm and comfortable apartment in a settlement, even as an invalid person.Here in the tundra he feels like even his homeland gives him the power to follow the normal rhythm of nomads in the tundra and to be strong in his mind.

Prokopij migrates on a reindeer sledge. He even helps to collect wood and water and he is making sledges by himself for other people. He cannot throw the lasso or catch reindeer anymore. His sons do this now. It is very seldom that handicapped people continue to migrate in the harsh arctic climate, although some Nenets continue to live this way at a very advanced age.

by Roza Laptander

Posted in Fieldwork, Indigenous Peoples, oral history, Russian North | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Wondering about landscape appreciation

Hi everyone, I am a first time blogger here. Am based in Cambridge, UK, and doing a PhD there at the moment. I have come back from fieldwork some 6months ago.

Before I went off to fieldwork in the northern Taiga of Siberia I made a little booklet with pictures of my home country to show around at my fieldsite. I had compiled – in my opinion – the most beautiful photographs of 10 years of hiking and skiing in the mountains together with pictures of medieval towns. This, I felt, summed up well the beauty of my home country, the Tyrol.

Fast forward to a camp in the forest:

Surprised noises from the first person to look at it summoned more people to crowd around the booklet. I took the oohs and aahs at first as a sign of appreciation, until I was told otherwise.

‘My, how hard it must be to live there.’

‘Just rocks everywhere, how do people manage there?’

And finally, ‘Now I see why you like to come here to the forest so much. I can understand you.’

I was more than surprised. All the landscapes, views and vistas that I treasured were a reason for people to pity me. The locals especially commented on a series of pictures, taken from a mountain top of a little over 3000m where I spent the night tied with a rope to the top in order to not accidentally fall off in my sleep and capture the sunrise. The whole of the Alpine range from Austria to France could be seen.

The only two things they could relate to as something nice in the booklet where pictures of the monument of a hunter in bronze and the flower pots lining all the windows of the houses.

This got me thinking about my first reactions to the landscape that the locals of my fieldsite lived in. I did not find it beautiful but rather worrisome to navigate in. It was not only flat, but seemed to me to consist of swamps only, different types, but nevertheless. The lack of clear views and vistas among the trees and bushes posed to me a tremendous challenge of not getting lost and the swamps one of not getting stuck. But the more I walked in it, the more I learned to appreciate it. Not the clear views seen from a stationary point but the myriads of ever-changing tiny vistas created by my movement through the forest made the charm and beauty of the place. Beauty through movement?

So maybe the locals’ reaction to the pictures of the rocky alps was not only based on their preferring forest to rocks as a place of living, but also on their type of landscape experience and appreciation. Especially the pictures taken from mountain tops (as opposed to those taken on the way up or down) offer a tremendous view of very large distances without having to change place or move about. For me this is one of the reasons I love going up mountains and then sit for hours on the top enjoying the view without moving. But it also constitutes a very static landscape view, to a large point independent of movement.

What are the locals’ opinion and experience of vistas and, what’s more, what kind of vistas? When walking long distances with them I observed how much they appreciated changing surroundings to keep them interested and vigil. They told me how a walk seemed shorter to them that way, how different types of forest offer different grounds to walk on and demand different ways of looking (looking through the trees, towards the top of trees, on the ground, expecting different animals, different signs, and different resources). All these mini-vistas could change within minutes and form a dynamic mosaique.

Except for a newly introduced type of landscape that offers long, far distance vistas that do not change for hours even when one is in movement: clear cut tracts made by oil-explorers. These tracts allow the locals to look far ahead, to see a far away point that they have to reach. A different landscape experience: valued by some because it enables more direct movement, devalued by some because walking on them is so disheartening with the vista never changing.

To my surprise, after I have finished the fieldwork, my landscape appreciation seems to have changed for good. Where I loved open places with a good view before, I feel more intimidated now and tend to look for a dense forest to find good shelter. Where before I enjoyed a large pine forest, I now feel bored after a while, because it is only a pine forest and not a patchwork of different types of forest and swamps that makes reaching a patch of pine forest all the more wonderful. When I look at my booklet now, I see the rocks and barren places before I see the vista. I notice now that I tend to photograph mountain tops without showing the valley or the mountain forest below, which comes from taking pictures when standing on a high mountain top where valleys cannot be seen.

I am curious about your experiences of and ideas about landscape appreciation when it comes to your fieldsite and home country.

Ewe Landerer

Posted in All, Fieldwork, Indigenous Peoples, Russian North, Theoretical Issues | Tagged , , | 1 Comment