City moose in Anchorage, Alaska

This is Sara Komarnisky, PhD student at UBC, currently in Anchorage doing fieldwork with Mexican migrants and immigrants here. One thing about life in Anchorage that is funny and fits very much with clichés about Alaska are all of the MOOSE!

Just like on TV

There are moose all over the city, all year, but they are especially noticeable in the fall and winter. They eat Halloween pumpkins and nibble on tree branches in front yards, and I have been prevented from leaving my house twice already due to a moose in the front yard! Moose amble down city streets and park paths, they sleep in deep snowbanks in front yards, and some neighborhoods see the same moose make its rounds day after day. About once a week, an email is sent to my entire university department informing us that there is a moose in the parking lot. One even went inside a local hospital using the automatic doors!! Recently, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game gave permission to a group of conservationists called the Alaska Moose Federation to start feeding the moose, in an attempt to keep them off of roads and sidewalks and prevent collisions and confrontations between moose and people.

My neighbourhood moose

Moose are managed by the state of Alaska for “abundance” – that means it’s a state goal to make sure there are lots of moose for hunting and ultimately, for food. Actually, I went to a talk a while ago about bear management in Alaska, and how recently hunting regulations on predators like bears have become more relaxed in order to increase numbers of moose. The idea is that bears prey on baby moose, and limiting the number of bears by increased hunting should lead to higher numbers of moose for local hunters.

Anyway, all of the moose and the politics around it got me thinking about life in a northern city and of human-animal relations. Urban experience always includes wildlife – but usually that means squirrels, pigeons, maybe rats or raccoons. Not moose. Also, I am starting to see how saving the moose is tied up with state plans to maintain high populations of moose for people to hunt and to eat. Finally, moose are a stereotypical but important symbol of life here – one that is taken up by my research participants and that travels with them to Mexico. I wonder what everyone thinks about this. Are there similar large urban animals in other northern cities?

Reindeer, Herders and War

In the study of many pastoralist societies, the military dimensions of animal husbandry have played an important role. Indeed, if we think for example about the horse among Central Asian nomads, and it’s historical importance, e.g. for the expansion of Chingis Khan’s Empire, it is hard to overestimate the military significance of pastoral animals.

"Arctic Tank", reindeer herders in the Soviet Army. Note the Nenets way of harnessing them

When we look northwards, however, it is not obvious in the first place, and definitely we could not say that military use of animals was among the priorities for reindeer herders. Nonetheless, if we dig a little bit further, we find that reindeer have been extensively used by states during wars in the North in the early 20th century.

During the war with Russia, Finland used Sami reindeer herders with their reindeer successfully. The intimate knowledge among both humans and animals of the terrain, the quietness of movement, and the extremely high off-road capability proved to be  decisive advantages.

The Soviet army also came up with a ‘reindeer army’, and the museum in Lovozero (Murmansk Region, Russia), has a whole nice section of their exhibit on it, with names of herders who fought there, photographs, statistics and other information. The reindeer 14th and 19th  divisions of the Soviet Army had sections with reindeer that were called ‘Arctic Tank’ colloquially, at the Karelian front.

One source says that the Nenets reindeer divisions took out more than 10 000 injured from the forest, and 150 figther airplanes. This shows that they were used a lot just behind the front for supply chain operations.

Now the first monument for the heroic work of such herders in war was inaugurated in Naryan-Mar,European Nenets Okrug. Arctic Centre anthropologist Stephan Dudeck was there at the ceremony during his ORHELIA fieldwork and wrote a great blog entry on this. Worth reading!

Oral history, European Nenets

Stephan Dudeck greets us from his fieldsite in the European Nenets Autonomous Okrug, North West Russia. He is there for starting the ORHELIA project life history work. He has put some great impressions and a very nice first round of oral history work on his own blog. Congratulations! Just quickly two things: I remember that I met the baptist guy on the boat from Nel’min Nos to Naryan Mar, and he was showing me photographs of the Yamb-to Nenets reindeer nomads burning sacred sledges. I’ll never forget the feeling of shock that I had when I saw that, and an almost paralysed mental condition when I heard his answer on my question if they the baptists told them to burn their own religious heritage. His answer was “no, we don’t force them to do that, they come themselves and ask us ‘what should we do with our idols and sledges now that we have your new religion?’ and we said if they want to be safe and not fall victim to the old devils then they should get rid of them, but it’s their choice”. Can you imagine? As an anthropologist interested in studying and experiencing religious diversity on our planet, I only thought how on earth could that be stopped. Even more happy I am to hear from you Stephan that the baptists are not very successful in the malozemel’skaya tundra. When I was there around 2005 there weren’t either.
The other thing about oral history, and old women in Naryan-Mar and Nel’min Nos. You were saying you were going to find out ‘how much truth’ is in the nostalgia that they have for the bygone days in the malozmel’skaya tundra. I was wondering where do we as anthropologists take the justification to determine what the truth is? Isn’t it particularly important for us in life history fieldwork to take what people say at face-value and honour their perception of their lifeline? Of course I agree that it is important to cross check events and find out how they were perceived by others, and how did official history present them. It is particularly interesting to find out how knowledge possibly ‘nostalgifies’ as it is passed down the generations, for example when these babushki tell their stories to their grandchildren. But can we say that one perception is more true than the other?

Sajos, Sámi Cultural Centre, Inari.

Anthropology Research Team guest and Fulbright Grantee to Finland Paul R. Burgess writes an update from Inari.

Sajos is the newly opened Sámi cultural centre and home to the Finnish Sámi Parliament Hall (Solju). Construction was completed in January, and the first Parliamentary session was held last Wednesday. Official opening ceremonies will take place in April. Sajos is an interesting step for Sámi self-governance, culture, and development in Inari.

Sajos Building

Sajos was designed with much more in mind than housing the Finnish Sámi Parliament. The growth of population and infrastructure and the creation of jobs for skilled workers are part master plan of development for Inari. Continue reading “Sajos, Sámi Cultural Centre, Inari.”

Sámi-Ainu Cultural Exchange in Hokkaido, Japan

In January I travelled to Hokkaido Japan with Masumi Tanaka as my interpreter to meet Ainu people and learn more about the Ainu culture and heritage. It was my first trip to Japan, and it truly fascinated me with the beauty of the land and people: the landscape, kind smiling people, hot springs, traditional japanese sword smithy, museums, and no matter what, their delicious and healthy food can’t be left  without a mention. It was very interesting and unforgettable trip, and it left me thinking how isolated indigenous group Ainu people are, and what could we do to make the world to know more about this valuable people and their magnificent culture. The least I can do is to tell you about my experience.

Masumi, Minka and the Pacific Ocean

Continue reading “Sámi-Ainu Cultural Exchange in Hokkaido, Japan”

Conference on religious studies 2012

Rudolf Havelka, who is working on religion, ecology and spirituality among the Forest Nenets hunters and herders, brings the following to our attention:

Dear colleagues,

I would like to draw your attention to this upcoming EASR (European Association of the Study of Religions) conference held at Södertörn University, Stockholm on 23-26 August, 2012. The general topic of the conference is “End and Beginnings”. So far, there are two possible panels for us: Anthropology of Religions and Religious Minorities in the Soviet Union. For your inspiration, I shall join the first one with paper “Is the indigenous religion of the Forest Nenets finished?”

The deadline for submitting the abstracts is April 30th.

Please visit their website for more information. Looking forward to some interesting discussions there.

Rudolf Havelka

Gas and reindeer herders at the source of the heat for Europe

I just watched a two part programme by the english language Tv channel of Russia, Russia Today. It has some very good footage and visual impression of the situation at the place where most of our European Gas comes from (which is also my number one field site since the mid 1990s). Lots has changed since then. Most of the industrial installations filmed there were not there when I first arrived there. Consequently, herders have come to experience industrial development really differently. This TV programme is focusing a lot on what Gazprom all does for compensating and not harming reindeer herding, but towards the end Dmitry Puiko, who goes through the Bovanenkovo deposit every year is quoted with some quite critical remarks too. I think this sort of material should be interesting for the public as it shows a bit what’s going on the ground where our gas comes from. Not that this is the whole picture, but it’s the picture you can get if you don’t go there yourself, or if you go there on a guided tour. For more analysis, the Yamal case has been increasingly well studied, also because Nenets  reindeer nomadism is so emblematic as a vital Arctic livelihood. We have  started partnering with one community on Yamal called “Ilebts” and try to implement research results and a declaration ( from our work as now the giant South Tambey deposit is going to be developed. Some other colleagues have published great stuff on Yamal in Russian, e.g. Novikova’s and others recent social impact assessment book. At this point I can also highlight that we have an Arctic extractive industries working group EIWG ( at IASSA, and if you do research on this topic, you are welcome to join. Just drop us a line.

Jokkmokk Winter Market and Conference

Anthropology Research Team guest and Fulbright Grantee to Finland Paul R. Burgess tells about his experience at the Jokkmokk Winter Conference and Winter Market, Jokkmokk, Sweden.

Welcome to Jokkmokk; in Sweden’s northernmost county, a wonderful village, with under 3,000 people, at any time other than the first week of February. This is when the village surges with up to 40,000 people. Why? All to experience a 407 year long tradition; the Jokkmokks marknad.

The market has been preceded by a ‘Winter Conference’ for the past five years, focusing on social and scientific issues in the Arctic. The conference aims to provide a forum to discuss issues in the far-north, and a platform to influence decision makers. This year various government and industry officials were present to watch research presentations, and hear the voices of the people.

Performance venue and night-time bar.

Visitors come to the market to buy a wide range of goods: from wool sweaters, fur pelts, hand-made knives, Sami duodji, to goods not otherwise easily available in an isolated village the rest of the year: cables and wire, an array of kitchen utensils, other mass manufactured items, Cambodian cuisine, German sausage, doughnuts, and more. This may surprise some visitors, but the reality is the market does not all but bend to a tourist’s wish. There are local people here who use, need, or appreciate these products. Hand-made leather or plant-fiber ropes are often practical; but their practicality and durability seem to only go so far.


I found very interesting at the conference discussions of ‘Sami identity’, and the opportunity to speak with Sami youth. As tourists are making up a larger and larger portion of visitors, the goods that they buy come into question. As many Sami handicrafts, traditional and modern, are for sale, one wonders what is appropriate to buy and wear? The gakti (main tunic-like clothing, covering chest and arms), hats, shoes, jewelry…? Opinions of course differ, as one cannot expect an identical Sami voice. The sale of handicraft, or duodji, has high economic value, and makes a livelihood for many. The Sami Education Center had exhibition and stall space for current and prior students. One stall sold woolen felt by the meter for those wishing to sew their own designs, others ranged from traditional products of leather, wood, and reindeer bone, to modern interpretations of the pea-coat and sport jacket; examples of global influence and style preference. A sense of pride in tradition (and evolving tradition) and craftsmanship was certainly felt from the vendors.

Some have put forward an idea of the Sami community as ‘imagined or created’, as the Sami are a group of people native to four current nations, who will not necessarily ever interact with or know each other in their lifetime. (B. Anderson) The validity of this argument is debated, but events like this conference and market, bringing many Sami together from near and far, certainly serve to unite.

Field Work in Western Siberia, Roza Laptander

Starting to the tundra from Aksarka’s central square

Young generation of reindeer herders from Yamal

As a member of the Oral History Anthropology Research Team I am now doing do my field work in Western Siberia, in a little village not far from the capital city of Yamal-Nenets autonomous district.

To readers of the Arctic anthropology blog it should be interesting that the people here are quite surprised by the strange weather in Yamal. It was quite warm here at the beginning of January just – 15°C and was a bit cold at the end of the month approximately – 30 – 33°C and now it is – 22°C again.

Most of the reindeer herders are located close to settlements, and they visit their relatives in villages quite often. They also come by snowmobile to privately sell reindeer meat, making money to buy food and petrol.

Some older people come to the village to visit doctors; some of them at a hospital. Before my trip to the tundra, I already met some of these older people, and got an introduction to the topics of their life and family history.

Roza Laptander

Forest Nenets Fishing – report by Rudolf Havelka

Anthropology Research Team phD student Rudolf Havelka is a little bit more than half way through with his fieldwork among the Forest Nentsy in West Siberia. As Rudolf is an enthusiastic fisherman himself, it wasn’t hard for him to get in tune with this part of Forest Nenets life.

Rudolf with a nice ice-fish harvest

Consequently, after 5 months in the field a very nice popular article that he produced has a short but concise ethnography of fishing there in the various seasons and using various technologies. Particularly for those who can read Czech, it’s worth reading and illustrated with nice photographs. Rudolf is soon going to go back for another field season there and look at contemporary enactments of animist practices in a landscape rugged by oil extraction over the last four decades.

More nice photos you can see at Bryan Alexander’s great home page here . Estonian-French anthropologist and linguist Eva Toulouse has worked a  lot with Forest Nenets and is also very active in networking with them and popularising their cases, particular with the famous writer, activist and reindeer herder Yuri Vella, with whom Rudolf also stayed.