Piers Vitebsky and Roza Laptander are going to give an interesting example on how to de-provincialise Arctic social sciences. This time on a topic that could hardly be more timely: they refer to their elaborate ethnographies of indigenous Siberians’ communications with the fire spirit to explain why apps to track the corona virus may fail.
They hold their talk virtually on May 4, 2021, 4.30-6.00 PM (London time) in the University of Cambridge MIASU seminar series. The link was sent to the email list of MIASU only. If you want to listen to their talk, please contact one of the authors ask them if they can share the link with you directly. The event is announced at the MIASU website here
Below is their abstract. I have read a draft paper and can only recommend it. It’s thought provoking for its link of two so contrasting settings, and for its reflections on theories of subjectivity, privacy, anonymity and – of course – spiritual encounters.
Abstract: “We contrast how the UK’s Covid-19 track and trace system gives warnings about exposure to infection, with how the domestic fire in a nomadic reindeer herder’s tent crackles warning about dangers of the Siberian landscape. This is an issue less of epistemology than of signalling, trust and coherence. We locate differing configurations of trust and suspicion in social and political context. The technocratic Covid app de-personalizes tracing, as individualism and concerns about privacy block channels of knowing and narrativity, and encourage non-compliance and conspiracy theories. In its sociality and acute attention to the environment, the nomad’s fire evokes not the epidemiological model of the besieged bounded body but a divinatory openness to space, time and event which ironically resembles an alternative model of the viral encounter.”
This time Markku continues his loyalty to us in the North and comes on Friday 30 October to Rovaniemi for screening his most recent film, “ANERCA-, BREATH OF LIFE“. The screening itself is in the Rovaniemi cinema BioRex at 16:30. But before that we have the honour to meet with Markku and his colleague, Juha Elomäki, for an hour, at 15:00, in the Thule room in the Arctic Centre. Due to covid-19 we cannot invite everybody, but a limited number of people to this event. If you want to come and you are not a member of the anthropology team in Rovaniemi, please write a short note that you intend to come, to fstammle(at)ulapland.fi , so we can keep track of the numbers of people (also for cooking enough coffee:))
Here some background about the film, which is a co-production between father and son – Markku and Johannes Lehmuskallio:
ANERCA-, BREATH OF LIFE (Finland 2020) 86 min, JURY PRIZE RÉGION DE NYON (CHF 10’000): MOST INNOVATIVE FEATURE FILM
A history of conquests and land exploitation we never heard of. A film where ethnography is looking for a new mesmerizing language, giving us the complexity of reality.
A narrative film about the world of people living in the Arctic, their situation as it is right now.
The film progresses through the power of music, dance, performance and depiction of everyday life. Gaining your daily sibsistence, the ordinary life is the central source for music and other kinds of selfexpression. It is life itself breathing.
Markku Lehmuskallio has devoted the majority of his films to the indigenous people of the Arctic Circle, co-directed with Anastasia Lapsui, his Nenets partner. In Anerca, Breath of Life co-created with his son Johannes, the Finnish filmmakers set off to discover, among others, the Chukchi, Inuit, and Sami peoples, who have had to learn to live, from Russia to Alaska, on territories whose borders are redefined by white conquerors in the name of a deadly ideology of progress. Bringing together testimonies, archives, sung or danced performances caught on camera, the two directors are not exploring the traditional lifestyles of these nomad communities—in the manner of Flaherty and the seminal Nanook of the North—mistreated by predatory policies that have sought to deny their irreducible difference, but what they call a “vital breath”. Their poetic and contemporary ethnography focuses much more on the inner world of these peoples, inseparable from forms of existence shaped over time, like so many seeds in a shared imagination that continues to animate bodies and spirits. (Text by Emmanuel Chicon)
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.
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.
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.
The University of Lapland’s Arctic Centre, Rovaniemi, Finland, is pleased to announce confirmation of a 2 day International Shamanism Seminar which will be held on 27th – 28th of November 2014. The key speaker is Mihaly Hoppal from Hungary who is the President of the International Institute for Shamanistic Research.
A list of the speakers and titles of their presentations as well as registration details can be found on the seminar website.
On behalf of The Staff at Arctic Centre, we welcome you to Lapland – Best wishes – Francis Joy.
The film by Christian Vagt features three important indigenous leaders and story tellers from the Khanty and Forest Nenets communities of Western Siberia – Josif Kechimov, Yuri Vella and Agrafena Pesikova. It is a short documentary filmed in 2007 in the West Siberian Taiga about indigenous concepts of their relationship with ghosts and the danger of inappropriate behaviour towards them.
Josif Kechimov talks about the relationship to the dead and the tragic consequences of encounters with unburied deceased relatives. Against the background of oil development, forced resettlements and the spread of Christian missionizing among his people – and his feelings of danger for the forest live of Khanty reindeer herders and decline of traditions grow.
Juri Vella tells a Forest Nenets tale about the encounter with a supernatural and threatening inhabitant of an abandoned human settlement. Hunter‘s stories have never a single message or meaning. Yuri Vella leaves it to the listeners to make their conclusions. What to do though if an understanding of the cultural context is missing?
Agrafena Pesikova sends a clear message addressed to the people intruding into the life of the indigenous reindeer herders and hunters. The interests and interpretations of these people are based on their European and Christian preconceptions. They are not able to understand without careful and respectful interaction with local people. The lesson outsiders can learn from indigenous ghost stories is that distance, silence, and restraint from direct interaction should be part of respectful behaviour. Only if they are able to listen the right way though might they be able to grasp the message.
The film confirms my hypothesis that the indigenous Khanty and Nenets ways of dealing with supernatural beings, the deceased, and animals shape the way of interaction with other strangers be it bureaucrats, anthropologists, oil companies or tourists. The behaviour that is expected from outsiders, the respectful distance needed to avoid conflict and the tragic consequences of inappropriate contact are similar. In the face of the experience of difference, ghost stories teach what respect and disrespect mean.
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.
The Arctic Centre at the University of Lapland will organize an international conference on indigenous sacred sites in the Arctic. The conference “Protecting the sacred: Recognition of Sacred Sites of Indigenous Peoples for Sustaining Nature and Culture in Northern and Arctic Regions” will be held in Rovaniemi and Pyhätunturi, Finland, on September 11–13.
The conference gathers for the first time in Finland sacred sites custodians, scientists, indigenous people’s organizations, policy makers and other interested people, to talk and better recognize, legally protect, conserve and manage Sacred Sites and Sanctuaries of Indigenous Peoples in Northern and Arctic regions. Participants will come and speak related to the entire circumpolar area.
Besides academic and practitioner discussions, the conference also aims to produce recommendations for policy-making related to Sacred Sites and Sanctuaries in the Arctic as well as start a participatory educational research project to advance the transmission of spiritually relevant culturally embedded knowledge and practices related to sacred sites to younger generations. The aim is to make also a publication on the protection of the Sacred Sites and Sanctuaries in Northern and Arctic regions.