Language, silence and climate in Yamal

In spring we were proud to host the world’s first anthropological PhD defence in english by a Nenets colleague, Roza Laptander. Now we are happy that she got her first postdoc employment in the big EU Charter project that looks at biodiversity changes, reindeer herding and the climate. We continue working with Roza in work package three of that project, and in this function she shared thoughts on socio-linguistic research, the Yamal Nenets and her work on silence and stories in a video, which you can watch here.

The Experience of Displacement and Social Engineering in Kola Saami Oral Histories

Public defence of the doctoral dissertation by blog contributor Lukas Allemann on 15 Oct 2020

Our team member and periodic blog contributor Lukas Allemann examines in his thesis people’s experiences of Soviet-time, state-initiated displacement and (re)emplacement on the Kola Peninsula as well as the consequences of these developments. Sources show that Saami communities bore the brunt of these processes. The work seeks to draw – for the first time – a holistic picture of the social transformation among the Kola Saami, while nevertheless respecting the reality of mixed and multiple ethnic belongings as well as other categories of identity in the region.

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Covid-19 arrived in the Yamal tundra

It was probably a matter of time, but I thought until today ‘how great that the tundra is still free of infections’. The reindeer herders strategy of avoiding dangerous places had worked pretty well since March. Using flexibly nomadic movements to avoid dangerous places has been a strategy among the Nenets for centuries, which has worked well to mitigate impacts of all kinds of diseases and disasters of any sort. But now apparently some student brought the virus in, from a dormitory. The person travelled on a helicopter that was bringing Nenets students back to their home nomadic camps for the summer holiday. This means that the other almost 20 passengers of that helicopter have also been in contact.

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Arctic view on Russia’s changed constitution

The population of Russia officially supported the suggested changes in the world’s largest country’s constitution, with almost 78% of those who voted. Half of the circumpolar Arctic, including most of its indigenous peoples, will be governed by a different constitution from now on. Looking at the results of the vote, it is, however, noticeable how certain regions in the Arctic deferred from the general voting pattern.

Mayor Avsentyeva of Yakutsk during voting – the photo with the cross in the “yes” box was faked later – her office announced that she voted against! photo Алексей Толстяков/facebook.com
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Ysyakh 2020 – solstice festival online

Midsummer, solstice on the 21 June is for many northern peoples and cultures an important holiday. In Finland it’s called Juhannus and a state holiday. In Yakutia, where I am now, it’s called Ysyakh, and considered the Sakha people’s new year day. The 2020 celebrations obviously come in a very different format in comparison to any previous festivities, for a number of reasons including but not limited to the corona virus.

The president of Yakutia ‘Il Darkhan’ Aysen Nikolaev congratulating for the Ysyakh 2020 on regional TV. Note his Sakha festive clothes, the Sakha horse on his left, the sacred horse pole Serge behind him, and the few participants in the ritual with covid-19 masks
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Permafrost thaw responsible for Norilsk oil spill, impacting indigenous fishing?

Talking to a friend in Se Yakha, at the shore of the Ob Bay close to the Kara Sea, I realised how far the consequences of the recent Norilsk oil spill could go: the recent New York Times article about the oil spill cite environmentalists and even a Russian minister saying that the consequences of the spill could last for a decade. This is echoed by our friends from the Yamal Peninsula, who might be again among the most vulnerable victims.
The concern is that the spilled oil will eventually end up in the Kara Sea. And if that happens, it will contaminate the water along of the migration route of fish, on which the indigenous population along the shores rely for their subsistence and livelihood.

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Record early river-thaw in Siberia

The warm weather in Siberia seems to have led to an exceptionally early ice-thawing on Siberia’s major rivers. The specific of the river geography here is that all the major rivers flow from south to north, into the Arctic Ocean. This means the ice melts in the south first, and then the water pushes into the existing ice downstream northwards, leading to ice-jams. Sometimes this is visually quite impressive. This year this happens earlier than usual all over the Russian Arctic, read the following info west to east:

Sometimes the ice chunks pushed one over another by the river water can be quite high. In Yamal this is all carefully monitored by search and rescue services (12 May 2020, Salekhard, photo K. Ochepkov)
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Nenets mothers’ education: another PhD defense

After recently having celebrated the world’s first Nenets PhD defense, now we can witness another one, in three days time, 14 May 11.15 Norwegian time! Zoya Vylka Ravna shall defend her thesis with the very technical name “The Inter-Generational Transmission of Indigenous Knowledge By Nenets Women: Viewed in the context of the state educational system of Russia.” Surely this is going to be an interesting look by a European Nenets woman who studied trajectories of child upbringing in both the European and the Yamal part of the Nenets tundras. At the end of her popular summary to her thesis, she is very critical about the contemporary boarding school system, arguing that it “undermines the ability of nomadic Nenets communities to maintain their traditional and unique Arctic nomadic culture”.

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Sacred Site worshipping for good health in Corona times

Yamal has a legally protected sacred sites inventory: here, Angalskiy Mys

Today in the morning I was just about to brew my breakfast coffee, when my friend Mikhail Okotetto called and told me “we need to go and feed the sacred site here, come along, right now”. I had 5 minutes to grab my stuff and jump to a taxi, and drove out to the land close to Angal’skiy Mys between Salekhard and Labytnangi, where Mikhail and Vasiliy were waiting for me. They were in touch with one of the very few shamans on the Yamal Peninsula, Alexey Okotetto from Synei Sale, who had advised them that it is time to feed the land and pay respect to the spirits, now that we need their protection from diseases more than ever.

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Successful doctoral Dissertation Defense: When we got reindeer, we moved to live to the tundra – The spoken and Silenced History of the Yamal Nenets

Roza Laptander’s public dissertation defense took place online on the 29th of  April 2020 at 10 a.m. Finnish time.

“In Christianity, at the beginning was the word – in Nenets, at the beginning was silence” (Andrey Golovnev during Roza’s defense).

How beautifully put by Andrey Golovnev! The director of the Kunstkamera acted as opponent in this first ever western PhD defense by a Nenets scholar. We are proud that our team and the University of Lapland were the host of this long and successful dissertation process. Roza delivered an excellent speech, and the discussion with the opponent was on highest scholarly expert level about the meaning of silence in Nenets cultures and beyond. In his questions Golovnev went into great detail, using his own decades-long expertise in Nenets scholarship.

For example, he explored with Roza how we can interpret the fact that Nenets epic songs such as Yarabtsy” or Sydbabtsy” can start with silence instead of speech. So, as Golovnev masterfully put it: “in christianity, at the beginning was the word – in Nenets, at the beginning was silence”.

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