I have visited the Western Siberian Khanty in the vicinity of the oil towns in the Surgut region for twenty years now. Never could I have imagined I would see a performance of the famous Khanty Bear Ceremony documented thirty years ago by the Estonian intellectual and film director Lennar Meri in his film ”The Sons of Torum”. I was certain that the practice of organising a several days long ritual after a successful bear hunt had become extinct among the Khanty at the Tromyogan, Pim, and Agan Rivers north of the middle Ob River in Western Siberia.
A generation after Lennart Meri had filmed the Surgut Khanty, I thought the time was due to revisit the remaining participants of “The Sons of Torum”. I wanted to learn how they remembered the bear festival and why it had ceased being performed. I set out with multimedia artist Antti Tenetz to the Tromyogan River in November 2015 to visit Iosif, the son of the main protagonist of the film, the shaman Ivan Stepanovich Sopochin. We showed him Meri’s film and promised to repatriate copies of the recordings made in 1988. At the end of our journey, we received the surprising invitation to attend a new attempt to perform the ceremony. Up to the very last moment when I arrived in March 2016 with Antti at the Tromyogan River, we were not sure if we would really have the possibility to participate in the ceremony and whether we would be allowed to make the recordings we had intended.
We learned upon arrival that the official initiator of the event, the Khanty folklorist Timofei Moldanov of the Torum-Maa Museum was counting on our recording devices in order to document the whole ritual. Three linguists, Lyudmila Kayukova, Agrafena Sopochina and Zsófia Schön suggested to collaborate on the documentation of the ritual and we met two long-time friends, Olga Kornienko, a film maker from Surgut, and Aleksei Rud’, a PhD student from Ekaterinburg. The main local performer and organiser of the ritual, Sergei Vasilievich Kechimov, was also very keen on documenting the whole ritual and allowed us to film virtually everything.
The ritual started with a reindeer sacrifice near the Tromyogan River in the presence of the remains of the hunted bear. A ritual entrance into the house of ceremony and a divination ritual followed. The symbolic five days of the feast, containing theatrical performances, dances and songs were fit into three days from the morning of 21st March to the morning of 24th March 2016. We learned about the clear distinction between shamanic rituals and the bear feast, which explicitly excludes every shamanic practice. It’s another strict taboo to argue and take offence during the days of the feast filled with laughter at even the most coarse jokes.
Curious TV journalists showed up and left us with mixed feelings as they showed no interest in the meaning of the ritual and its ethics among the Khanty. They all left bored by the long repetitive songs on the second day. The first days consisted of eleven hours of performances while the last day and night the performers didn’t stop singing, acting and dancing for 23 hours. I recognised with pleasure all generations and quite a number of young Khanty were present.
The future will show what direction the research of the performance will take. It will have to start from the interest of the Khanty to repatriate the collected and archived materials and to revitalise the bear ceremonial. A priority will be to make the recordings available to potential singers. I am still amazed by what I have witnessed and have already discovered a lot of details not yet mentioned in the existing literature on the Surgut Khanty bear feast.
In contrast to the well researched bear feast of the northern Khanty and the Mansi, descriptions of the ceremony among the Khanty along the middle Ob remain rare. At the beginning of the 20th century, two researchers were able to visit a Surgut Khanty bear festival, Kustaa Fredrik Karjalainen on 10th January 1901 near Surgut, and Raisa Pavlovna Mitusova on 3rd September 1924 in the settlement Yaur-yaun-pugol by the Agan River.
The main research questions have yet to be determined but some general directions have already become clear. The research will have to reach beyond the common discourse of victimisation and endangerment to explore the complexity of cultural revitalisation in the form of killing and reincarnation. My starting point is the insight that the ritual as well as ethnographic film deal with the relationship of difference and affinity and with death and return. The bear ritual encounters the bear as a significant other. It stresses the difference and affinity of the bear to the human community and transforms the dead bear into a cultural hero and implements a long lasting relationship between the hunter and the prey as well as the human with the non-human spiritual being. To be part of this process and to start to understand such a unique cultural performance is what makes anthropology one of the most exciting professions in the world.
In August 1985 and 1988, Lennart Meri recorded the bear festival at the settlement Vat’-Yaun-Pugol at the invitation of the Khanty writer Yeremei Aipin, who left a short description of the ritual in one of his novels. The musicologists Jarkko Niemi and Katalin Lázár and the Hungarian linguist Márta Csepregi recorded some bear songs with the Surgut Khanty in the 1990s which have remained unpublished until today. Parts of bear songs collected by Jarkko Niemi were published in 2001 on the CD ”The Great Awakening”. Olga Balalaeva and Andrew Wiget have recorded bear feast performances at the neighbouring Yugan River.