Karina Lukin’s defense of her dissertation on the Nenets of Kolguev Island

Members of the Anthropological Research Group of the Arctic Centre Rovaniemi Florian Stammler, Roza Laptander, Nina Messhtyb and Stephan Dudeck took part in the defense of Karina Lukin’s dissertation at the University of Helsinki on 10 December 2011.

She published her dissertation under the titel “Elämän ja entisyyden maisemat – Kolgujev nenetsien arjessa, muistelussa ja kerronnassa” (Landscapes of the Living and of Bygone Days. Kolguyev in the Everyday Life, Recollection and Narration of the Nenets) and had done her research among the Nenets living on a vast island of approximately five thousand square kilometres in the Barents Sea of North Russia above the Arctic Circle.

Lukin’s dissertation is of special interest and value to the upcoming ORHELIA project because of the extensive use of oral history methodology and material in her research and because ORHELIA shares its interest in Nenets of the European part of North Russia. The ORHELIA delegation was therefore especially pleased to have the possibility to hold a meeting with Karina Lukin on the day before her defense. We discussed the plans to collect oral history with the European Nenets and shared our methodological considerations.

Research of the Nenets’ oral traditions was up to this point often preoccupied with the most conservative genres of Nenets’ folklore and with mythology that contains less information on the recent history of the indigenous groups but Karina focused on oral traditions that are nowadays transmitted in Russian language and thus stay outside the attention of traditional folklore.

She shared with us her considerations about the fieldwork ethics and her ways out of the dilemma that some information about historical events, the story tellers, and their personal evaluation of events is important to share with the wider public and some is not and should remain private or anonymous. We also discussed the question of the relationship of form and context of oral recollections and how important the performative aspect, the social context of storytelling, and the audience as a co-producer of the story are for an understanding of oral history.

The Nenets’ conceptions of place and landscape on Kolguev Island were in the centre of Lukin’s work. She revealed an internal Nenets’ system of evaluation and relation to the places on the Island that is distinctive and sometimes diametrically opposed to the concepts of the Russian population living on the coast or coming to the island for trading. The Nenets have a different perspective on the centre –periphery relationship building their relationship to geography around a spiritual and moral centre in the tundra that is opposed to the spatial organisation of state administration. These alternative views on the geography that are kept private seem to resemble in a way James Scott’s “hidden transcripts” (“Domination and the arts of resistance” 1990) as prerequisites for resistance against the colonization process. But the relationship of innovations and views coming from the outside and internal and traditional Nenets values and practices are more complicated, as two of Lukin’s examples show. She was able to record stories about the planned establishment of ethno-art sculptures on the highest mountain of the Island that despite of their recognition of the ethnic aspect met tacit resistance from the local population because the Nenets’ concept of sacred landscape is opposed to the European one of the display of art. In another example she presents stories about orthodox Christian chapels that were built by the Nenets’ religious specialists, so called shamans, where they organized religious services according to Nenets traditions.

Both examples of self-determined reaction to outside concepts reveal that dichotomies, quite common in the scientific discourse, like the tradition- modernity antagonism as well as the centre-periphery opposition do not capture the Nenets’ reality well. The question of the allocation of agency, sovereignty or autonomy over processes of change, adaptation, or innovation seem thus crucial for the understanding of the Nenets’ reaction to the colonization process.

In addition, we had some exchange with the opponents of the defense, Eva Toulouze from Paris and Tartu Universities and Jarkko Niemi from Tampere University. Both have worked with the Nenets and are involved in recent research that is related to our project. Fresh from the press Eva Toulouze donated us a new version of her bilingual book “Triptyques” with poems and stories of the Forest Nenet writer Jurij Vella, a longstanding friend of some of us.

2 thoughts on “Karina Lukin’s defense of her dissertation on the Nenets of Kolguev Island

    1. I think the dichotomy question is worth more general consideration indeed, and Karina’s dissertation seems to capture very well those examples where dichotomies assumed for granted by outsiders actually distort our idea of what people do and feel on the land. I have argued the same in my 2005 ethnography, where I tried to show that Nenets herders creatively navigate among all these different concepts that seem contradictory to us, e.g. displaying defensive territorial behaviour on the one hand on their reindeer pastures, while sharing their grazing resources flexibly and inclusively with others. Or accepting technological change and innovations on the one hand (e.g. snowmobile, mobile phone, etc), while at the same time using their own reliable tools for moving and communicating.
      This pattern works far beyond the Nenets in Siberia, I think. Whereever we find a dichotomy, it’s probably quite easy to show that one option does not exclude the other, and that maybe in fact the apparently opposing views are in fact not perceived as mutually exclusive.
      On the other hand, we can’t deny that most of us grew and were educated with dichotomies that help us organising the way in which we perceive and navigate through our environment, natural, social, cultural, spiritual, and total.

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