As a part of our advanced course on the anthropological study of resources in the North we screen a rare film tomorrow
Thursday, 18 April at 16:30 in the Arctic Centre in Rovaniemi, in the POLARIUM room.
Kultajoki – Gold River is a careful portrait of several individual characters who found their dedication in small scale private gold washing in Finnish Lapland. Most of the mining publicity is usually about big projects, multinational companies and enourmous social and environmental impacts. But in fact worldwide there is also a lot of small scale resource development. I remember that from earlier anthropological talks about gold diggers in West Africa , and of course Julie Cruikshank’s formidable work on the Klondike Gold Rush narratives, which is chapter four in “The Social Life of Stories” .
The film Kultajoki has not unlike Julie’s work a life history approach for exploring the relations of particular people to gold and the river, as resources in northern Finland. We find out how the relation between people and their environment among small scale gold washers is so intimate that the resource and its occurance in nature determines not only a particular way of life and engaging with the environment, but also shapes these people’s personalities profoundly. The film was shot during long term field trips with the main
characters on a zero-budget basis, and therefore does not have to conform to the usual commercial cinema or TV adventure requirements that media companies nowadays have. Everybody is welcome to joint if you happen to be in or want to come to Rovaniemi at that time. Bernd Bartusevics, the director of the film, will be present himself and be happy to answer your questions as well.
I would like to share with you some of the things we learned from Julie Cruikshank and other elders from the Yukon Territory to better understand oral history from the North. To search for surprising insights, to be open to challenges to our conventional perceptions, that was Julie’s most important advice to us.
Her talk centred on stories about glaciers that challenge the nature versus culture dichotomy science is so preoccupied with. Why did she invite us to dismiss this divide? Does it not serve us well at least to keep the humanities and social sciences distinct from the natural sciences?
We know from our own fieldwork experiences that people who live in close connection with the local environment don’t draw a clear line between nature and culture. They interact with natural phenomena in a very social way and they know very well that the beings we call nature display the ability to communicate and to interact with humans and human society.
Julie said she expected that the elders she wanted to record life stories with would talk about historical events like the gold rush and the construction of the Alaska Highway that had such a huge impact on the life of their communities. Surprisingly they insisted on telling different stories about encounters with phenomena we consider to be part of nature like glaciers and animals. The stories were about establishing relationships with different beings and about knowledge transfer and Julie could understand them as related to her own work that is based exactly on these things – the relationship with her partners in the field and the knowledge shared across social and cultural differences. These stories provided the basis for interpretation and as Claude Lévi-Strauss would say are “good to think with”.
If we skip our objectifying perception of nature we become able to listen to the message contained in stories about glaciers that hear and smell and take revenge. It will be easy then to link these stories of the risk of inappropriate behaviour in the face of powerful beings to stories about colonial encounters in life histories but a purely metaphorical interpretation of these encounters with speaking animals and listening glaciers would get the elders that tell these stories wrong.
The idea of Amerindian perspectivism developed by the anthropologist Eduardo Vivieros de Castro invites us to take the perception of non-human actors seriously. It suggests that different beings perceive the world in similar ways but from different angles and that indigenous stories reveal a sensibility to see and acknowledge these different perspectives. The idea that parts of what we call nature like animals and plants, mountains, rivers and glaciers but also invisible beings like spirits, gods and the deceased and non-animated objects like cars or oil companies have the same abilities as humans to comprehend the world but have their own perspectives, sometimes diametrically opposed to ours, is something we all experience in ethnographic fieldwork in the Arctic.
There are some important consequences of this idea we can learn from the stories that tell about the interaction of different categories of beings in a social way.
First: Humans are able to imagine the different perspectives. We can interact with different beings and visit their worlds. We are not fixed to a standpoint in accordance to our place in the world. Interaction and mobility allow for epistemological moves that enable us to understand others. That is an idea developed in an article by Terhi Vuojala-Magga in “Knowing, training, learning: the importance of reindeer character and temperament for individuals and communities of humans and animals.” It is a question of respectful behaviour to be able to avoid conflict, violence and failure in the process of interaction. We have to develop ways to deal respectfully with different perspectives, appropriate ways to keep distance and to transgress boundaries.
Second: Important are the differences in agency allocated to different beings but agency is not a property to possess. Different places and contexts reveal different power relationships. There are situations when the powerless can become powerful and vice versa. Stories tell about these encounters, failures in the perception of power, and the inversions of power relations. They tell about the possibility of respectful acknowledgement of difference and about the possibilities and inabilities to learn from each other without erasing these differences.
Third: The knowledge that beings develop out of their diverse perspectives possess different power. People we collaborate with in the Arctic experience the hegemony of certain forms of knowledge brought in by colonial institutions like science, religions and the state. Hegemonic knowledge is opposed to the ideas of perspectivism and claims it would be normal to have only one moral, one god, one identity, one truth, and one language for every human and only for humans. Forms of interaction like languages and value systems informed by traditional religion and ethics are delegitimised and sometimes even lost in the process of loss of access to land and social capital and the enforcement of capitalist economy, scientific positivism and the implementation of Christian universalism.
The difference between knowledge production in the academic world and in local communities can give us a first hint on the power differences and the process of hegemony of one and deligitimization of the other knowledge but if we get stuck in the dichotomy between scientific and indigenous knowledge we will end up in a vicious circle. With careful ethnographic work we reveal that there is more than one form of indigenous knowledge and digging in our own scientific traditions will reveal that there are strands in European scientific thought that differ from the hegemonic naturalist or objectifying perspective.
If we’ll link local and scientific traditions of perspectivism, we will become able to see how stories – oral as well as written – can contain a polyphony of voices that have agency in our society and in our interactions with different beings as well. They have the power to transform the listener, to make him/her wonder, to call the authoritative discourse into question and to facilitate understanding.
For those interested, the Russian Indigenous Peoples Association (RAIPON) got a new president a week ago, at a very important time in the organisation’s biography, because it had been closed down for formal reasons by Russian authorities late last year.
Now elections for the presidency had been held in Salekhard, the capital of my prime fieldsite Yamal-Nenets Okrug, which always has been very loyal to the Russian government. It is remarkable that almost all the RAIPON presidents so far, since Perestroika, came from West Siberia’s oil and gas extracting provinces: Eremei Aipin (Khanty writer), Sergei Khariutschi (Nenets Politician), and now Grigori Ledkov (Nenets born in Europe but politically acting on behalf of Yamal). I think this shows how much indigenous empowerment in general is connected to extractive industries and development on indigenous lands.
I have known the new president, Grigori Ledkov, since 1999, and found that he can also wear a quite critical hat (well, Khariutschi, the former RAIPON president, did that too sometimes). Last time I experienced that when Ledkov openly argued against oil and gas drilling in the Ob-Taz Bay offshore, in a programme that I organized for BBC World news and Radio 4 and that got apparently many many million viewers. Maybe after all it just wasn’t realistic that at this precarious moment in RAIPON’s biography there would be a leader that is too outspokenly critical of the government…
Ledkov so far was always very supportive of Arctic anthropology and our efforts to link insights from the Russian North with those from the rest of the world, and last December he promised to come to Rovaniemi for a visit. Let’s see if his new position allows for that.
I am an anthropology student from Hamburg, Germany, and I just finished my two month internship at the Arctic Center in Rovaniemi. I had a great time with a lot of new experiences. The Anthropology Research team welcomed me warmly into their team and everybody was willing to share their research experiences. Soon I also got to know researchers from other disciplines and I enjoyed staying in such a multidisciplinary and international place as the Arctic Center. I helped collecting information for the researchers, created posters and announcements for lectures and took charge of the bulletin board which contains publications and pictures of the different fieldwork experiences of anthropologists. I also assisted in research application processes and created a list of relevant anthropological journals and their different ranking positions. I had my own working place and computer where I could also proceed with my own research. I decided to write my master thesis about the impact of climate change on winter tourism and already did a survey with tourists who visited the exhibition of the Arctic Center (thanks to Anna for her help). In my free time I experienced cross country skiing for the first time, took part on a reindeer safari (thanks to Susanna for this great experience),
went snowboarding at Ounasvaara and experienced ice-swimming (which cost me some effort and a lot of convincing from Florian, but was a good experience in the end). After a while I started liking Rovaniemi a lot. It is a cute town with amazing people. I enjoyed getting to know people from the Arctic Centre and from the University and to also meet them in the evening at Kauppayhtiö, a great place to hang out in Rovaniemi. I am happy that I had the opportunity to do an internship at the Arctic Centre and to have an insight in the lives and work of researchers. I felt comfortable working in a friendly and relaxed atmosphere and I am looking forward to visiting Rovaniemi again. I am really curious how this place looks like during the summer!
We are honoured and pleased to have Julie Cruikshank for the better part of the first week of April with us here in Rovaniemi. It won’t pay enough respect to her fame to introduce her here briefly. There is enough good praise for her work in the net, most recently through the 2012 Clio award for her lifetime achievement . She will participate in the ARKTIS graduate school annual seminar, but also spend time to talk to us about oral history theory and practice, epistemologies, and other fascinating topics on
Saturday 06 April at 12:00, in the Borealis lecture room, Arctic Centre,
After the session, the ORHELIA project welcomes all participants to a discussion and an ‘Arctic grilling’ at a laavu. Everybody with an interest in these topics is welcome!
Abstract: The concept we now call ‘indigenous ecological knowledge’ continues to undergo transformations with real-world consequences. Systematic use of this term appeared in Canada during the early 1990s, when its potential contributions to understanding the natural world became a topic of discussion among researchers working in arctic and subarctic regions. Concepts, however, travel. They carry and accumulate meanings that may have unexpected consequences. In the twenty-first century, the terms indigenous and knowledge have each become contested, internationally and locally. My questions are: What is not recognized as knowledge in dominant regimes? What is lost when local knowledge in Canada is trimmed and transformed to fit the requirements of science, policy and governance? Strikingly, ethnographies from northern Canada that give weight to ontology, values, social relations and meaning are taken up and developed theoretically and in public and political forums in South America (Viveiros de Castro, Blaser, de la Cadena) with implications for subarctic regions.
Please see a full poster on our lectures & events page, more questions to Anna Stammler-Gossmann or here in the comments of this blog entry.