From the Gold Road to the Golden River of Ivalo and its People (June 2013)

(text by Terhi Vuojala-Magga, photos Stephan Dudeck)

Visiting Terhi in Kuttura was an adventure, once again – and meeting Stephan was a joy, once again (or Steppa, as we call him, in a more familiar way). We don‘t know how much anthropology plays a role in our lives, or the other way around, are we such people that everything taking place in our everyday life seems to bring out new curios questions and interests? Maybe we anthropologist are allowed to be children of naïve curiosity. Sometimes research interests and our professional and personal encounters just mingle together, spontaneously. While meeting new friends and having new talks common questions suddenly rise up. In our case, we went to meet Terhi´s husband’s brother on the other side of the river. Stephan sees this tall wooden female figure made by one gold digger. At this blood stunning moment – a story starts taking us around the gold lands of Sámi people and gold diggers that are called ‘migrating birds’ according to a song of Souvarit.


The Two Gold Diggers’ Place

In a few days’ time we dived in the world of encounters of the local Sámi and gold diggers – altogether nice and friendly people. We started from a place of two different gold diggers in the forest. It was not a gold claim in its traditional way – Terhi’s husband took us to the abandoned place that revealed the story of two different men.


Terhi and her Husband at the Place

This place is on the private land of one Kuttura man, but we learned that friendship is more than land. It offered a place for an old gold digger to settle down nearby the village next to the people who would be close to him in case he needs help. He had known the people of Kuttura for decades. At the beginning his claim was 10 km away from Kuttura but finally he ended up in this place of physical closeness to villagers. How did we feel? One of the most touching impressions was that this place keeps up the memory of these two men – a home in the wilderness.


Wooden Art by Runoränni

The second day was a beautiful day with a lot of sunshine and our story carries on. Funny to remember afterwards – when the best things happen, and you live them, there is no camera. We went to the gold diggers´ cafeteria – in the middle of nowhere on a crossroads in the forest – but it is a place crowded with gold people during the summer months. Having an hour or two we had talks with some people from the forest. How small is the world: from the very first people to talked with we heard quite many stories about the two people whose place we visited the previous day.


Terhi with the Gold Diggers Pans

The other couple we met did not have those happy stories to tell, just because they were facing serious problems with the Sami Parliament. Their application to use machinery digging was refused, and the case was appointed to the high court of Vaasa. However, they were happy enough to be allowed to do the shovel work – and they were good friends with some of the local reindeer herders of Kuttura. Their argument was based on a trustful relationship with the locals. According to them, they would not do anything, which could harm the reindeer husbandry of the local people.


Gold Digger’s Old Car

In the nearby ski resort of Saariselkä there is a pub called Panimo, which is the other meeting point of gold men, and women. The discussions were spreading all around different issues – from the sailor’s international language to the life of rich Finns living in Palm Beach of Florida. Once again, the people with whom we talked were gold diggers. Some of them had already found their permanent place in Saariselkä and they lived in the north for the year around. An old gold digger told a story of Jaakko. “Jaakko lived most of his life in the wilderness, in a stave cabin. There was a simple fire place made out of stones. Throughout the year, he wore frieze clothes. When the temperature was below -50°C he stated: “Yes, I had to warm the cabin a bit more often”. When he was over 80 years old and had a sore leg, social workers had to force him to the old people´s nursery home. Otherwise that cold winter would have been his destiny.”


Bridge over the Ivalo River near Kuttura

Before returning back to Kuttura, we visited one of the claims. We had a nice talk about life itself in the wilderness. No more talks about gold, but wild life. These people had have three cats; some years ago a white one disappeared for good, last year the other one disappeared for one week, and the owner had stayed one week longer, just to wait for the cat to come, and eventually she had appeared. People had encounters with white elks (moose), with bears and foxes. One of the foxes had been so tamed that it had come to eat from the hand.

Kuttura Road

Kuttura Road

This land of Lapland – it is so rich with its people and animals. Winters are full of reindeer work, winter animals – but summers, with day and night sun shine, are those times of new encounters of peoples and birds from the south. It would be interesting to study more stories of gold people and locals – for our ears and eyes some of the conflicts we read from newspapers or academic works become less important, at least on a local level.

Posted in All, Extractive Industries, Fennoscandia, Sámi | Tagged ,

Finnish, Lithuanian and local resettlers in the 1940s to the Lena Delta

Today I continue fieldwork reports from the ORHELIA fieldwork in the Lena Delta in cooperation with Yakutsk University (NEFU).

During our first walk through the village of Bykov Mys we found out about the great proud but also sad history in Soviet times. Completely unexpected for us was the news of extensive Finnish resettlement to this far northern corner in the 1940s.

Fieldwork partner Ulyana Prokopievna Koloddeznikova investigating old photographs from the glorious and sad past at Bykov Mys

Fieldwork partner Ulyana Prokopievna Koloddeznikova investigating old photographs from the glorious and sad past at Bykov Mys

Just after the Finnish-Russian war, many Finnish people from the Leningrade and Karelia area were deported to the Lena Delta area. The other dominant resettler nation was Lithuanians. Both groups endured huge suffererings on their way to the North and were dropped off without any preparation on the cold Arctic shore. There they had to fish without any equipment and even footwear, so they stood barefoot in the icy water. As they did not have reindeer skins or other warm clothes, eye-witnesses tell they even put newspaper around their feet for protection against the cold. Continue reading

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Bykov Mys, fuzzy ethnic identities at the edge of an eroding Peninsula in the Arctic Ocean

From Tiksi you go another 50 km by motor boat to the village of Cape Bykov (Bykov Mys), where 500 people engage at 72 degrees northern latitude and harsh climate engage in coastal fishing all over the Lena River Delta.

Bykov Mys, fishing village at the mouth of the Lena River at the Laptev Sea

Bykov Mys, fishing village at the mouth of the Lena River at the Laptev Sea

Continue reading

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New field site in East Siberia, Lena Delta and Tiksi

Until last year it used to be very easy to get to this fieldsite in the Lena River Delta, because direct flights from Moscow brought you to Tiksi in 6 hours. But last year the Russian army who used to run the airbase in Tiksi closed it, and shipped out all the security equipment, so planes were not allowed to land anymore. Now the airport has reopened under civilian administration, but planes go only from Yakutsk, which means 1000 eur more airfare, complicated schedules and a lot of paperwork with border guards. Tiksi is an amazingly wild place. Our field partners there remember the golden times from the 1960s up to Perestroika, where only the very best people had the privilege to get to Tiksi, where the supply with food was excellent, the conditions of life very close to those in Moscow, salaries high, and working there in the harbour, high ocean shipping or aviation earned besides money also a lot of prestige.

Tiksi central square. Soviet past and fresh paint in a wild frontier town in the Arctic

Tiksi central square. Soviet past and fresh paint in a wild frontier town in the Arctic

Now the settlement runs still a special permit regime as a border region. But while the main town experiences a slow but steady consolidation (healthy shrinking), the former army base Tiksi three close to the airport looks just like after a heavy bombing. But this atmosphere of living among ruins and broken homes creates a flavour of frontier and freedom that is somehow fascinating.
Lidia Kudrivalova remembers that when she moved to Tiksi in 1978 from the small village of Taymylyr, there were hardly any non-European inhabitants there. On a ship along the northern Sea route that moved between Khatanga and Providenia, she was the only Asian looking person and had to endure what we would call today sexual harrassment. So she settled in town and worked for the sewing workshop. Unlike in the other villages in the Lena Delta, Perestroika time felt very tough in Tiksi: the port and the northern sea route administration there closed down completely, and the army bases were heavily downsized. So 10 000 of the 15 000 inhabitants left.  Apartments were cheap and gradually Sakha, Eveny and Evenki people from the surrounding villages came in and bought up the housing. Nowadays the majority of Tiksi’s population is Sakha, Eveny or Evenki, although Russian is still the dominant language in town.

Prices in town immediately surprise. You have to pay the equivalent of 4 EUR for a litre of sterilised milk, or 5 EUR for a kilo of potatoes. So it’s cheaper to buy precious fish, e.g. Nel’ma, for the same kilo price. The basic salary of a kindergarten teacher is for example 300 EUR, so you can imagine that it’s better to get used to locally available cheap or free food, such as fish, hunted duck or goose, and wild reindeer meat.

Posted in All, Fieldwork, Indigenous Peoples, oral history, Russian North | Tagged , ,

Oral History of the Arctic – along the shores of the ocean

The Orhelia researchers in the anthropology research team are having an intensive fieldwork season. We collect material that allows us to compare how the inhabitants of Eurasia’s Arctic shoreline were affected by and respond to different state policies designed in capital cities by governments that are very far from the centres of life of our fieldwork friends.

fieldsites ORHELIA project with new extension to Sakha Yakutia in summer 2013

fieldsites ORHELIA project with new extension to Sakha Yakutia in summer 2013

Fieldwork is ongoing in sites in northernmost Finland among the Skolt Sámi (reearcher Nuccio Mazzullo), among the Sámi of Murmansk Oblast (researchers Nina Meschtyb and Lukas Allemann), in the Nenets Autonomous Okrug among Nenets and Komi (researcher Stephan Dudeck), among the Nenets of Yamal (Western Siberia (researchers Roza Laptander and Nina Meschtyb). I hope we will find out on this blog about the fieldwork of our colleagues.
In addition to these established regions, we are extending our geographical project catchment areas further east thanks to the cooperation with our partners at the North Eastern Federal University of Russia in Yakutsk. They are interested enough in our approach to finance our fieldwork in their area of Eastern Siberia and the Russian Far East. Anna Stammler-Gossmann went to work with Sakha agropastoralists in the Churapchi municipality of Yakutia, and Florian Stammler went to the northernmost village in the giant Lena River Delta to work with fishermen. In the following blog entries we will share some impressions from that work.

Posted in All, Fieldwork, Indigenous Peoples, oral history, Russian North, Sámi | Tagged

“Drinking and Driving is so much Fun” – Arctic Workshop at the University of Tartu in Estonia May 31 – June 1, 2013

“Drinking and driving is so much fun” is an unusual title for an anthropological workshop. It was just the right provocation to induce serious reflections on something that anthropologists usually reserve for the famous “corridor talk” during conferences, when they discuss ambivalent fieldwork experiences difficult to integrate into the success stories of anthropological research.

The drunken native is such a powerful stereotype in the Russian North serving mostly disrespect and marginalisation that it is quite a risky endeavour for outsiders to discuss drinking in Siberia. The theme is such a blind spot in the anthropology of Siberia that it is high time to skip the superficial and stereotypical images and develop some deeper understanding of the manifold aspects linked to alcohol.

Alcohol the Еnemy of Reason - from Russia with irony

Alcohol the Еnemy of Reason – from Russia with irony (photo by Laura Siragusa)

The presentations of the workshop took up the task of challenging these stereotypes by careful ethnographic description and analysis, but also to understand the powerful role stereotypes play in the public discourse. Art Leete traced them back to antiquity where the northern barbarian neighbours of the Greeks where already believed to be heavy drinkers of undiluted wine. He followed this image of drinking northerners through Montesquieu up to the ethnographic literature of the 19th and early 20th century. Explanations for this north-south distinction in drinking changed over time but were always linked to some kind of “nature” of the North or the northerners. The nowadays most popular and widespread of these “natural” reasons of deviant drinking habits of northern people was taken up by Aimar Ventsel. His presentation shed light on the belief that the lack of an enzyme or gene dooms the indigenous peoples of Siberia to suffer from serious alcohol problems. He was not the only one during the workshop who made the important point, that stereotypes are not only used to marginalise indigenous groups. They serve as well the arguments of ethnic movements that criticise alcohol by declaring it to be foreign to their groups and an instrument of colonial domination. Genes that influence the ability to metabolise alcohol were mentioned also in the keynote speech of Jaanus Harro. He revealed that in certain populations in Asia the percentage of people having a genetically determined lack of particular enzymes is higher than in Europe. This slows down metabolising and let these people feel the effects of alcohol stronger. Substances that block the same enzymes are used in therapies of alcohol addiction to cause an aversion effect. One could therefore conclude quite opposite to the public belief that people genetically lacking the described enzymes are naturally protected from the long-time effects of excessive drinking.

Anna Stammler Gossmann investigated the role of stereotypes in national self-stylisation. She used the term “alcoholity” to describe how self-images but also state regulations are determining different conventions linked to alcohol consume in nation states. One of the main insights of anthropology in the human consumption of alcohol is that even the most uncontrolled and deviant drunken behaviour is framed by expectations and conventions in the respecting social environment. The “alcoholities” of nations like the Russians or the Finns are setting the reference point that the drinking habits of minority groups are judged from.

Most of the presented research centred either on the Khanty and Nenets of Western Siberia and the Northern Russian tundra or on cases from the Republic of Sakha/Yakutia. Ina Schröder, Karina Lukin, Kirill Istomin, Laur Vallikivi and I described drinking cultures from the first mentioned region. It became obvious that practices reaching from excessive or almost self-destructive drinking (described by Ina, Karina, Kirill and myself) to temperance of women (described by myself) or protestant converts (described by Laur) structure the internal distinctions of gender-, age-, and local groups as well as the differences to the mainstream society. They determine even settlement geography and movements of the nomadic reindeer herders as Kirill Istomin exemplified. Drunkenness enables dangerous contacts with the dead and is a source of humour as Ina Schröder reported. It produces persistent negative images that influenced seriously ethnographic fieldwork in the case of Karina Lukin. I focussed on the impact of transgressive behaviour that aims at the joint losing of face.

Norman Prell, Tatiana Argunova-Low, Otto Habeck and Yuri Zhegusov

Norman Prell, Tatiana Argunova-Low, Otto Habeck and Yuri Zhegusov (photo by Laura Siragusa)

For Yakutia Tatiana Argunova-Low and Yuri Zhegusov used sociological and anthropological methods to describe the ethnic differences in drinking and how concepts of agency and responsibility for alcohol related problems are influenced by the dominant therapy of alcoholism in the Russian Federation called “coding”.  Norman Prell and Eleanor Peers described very different social contexts in which alcohol and the absence of alcohol play an important role. Norman Prell discussed communities of migrant workers on a construction site and Russian settlers on the road from Yakutsk to Magadan. Eleanor focussed on the role of drinking in the main Sakha ritual, the Yhyakh festival, and how the nationalist revival promoted an alcohol ban during the festival.

Only Laura Siragusa presented an exclusion of these two regional foci with her talk about the Veps minority of the Russian North. Drinking problems are often considered to be the result of assimilation processes. Laura’s future research will test this hypothesis by exploring the link of language and alcohol in a broader sense going beyond the focus on language shift and the negative consequences of heavy drinking.

Otto Habeck's presentation - from the US with irony

Otto Habeck’s presentation – from the US with irony (photo by Laura Siragusa)

Joachim Otto Habeck’s presentation touched again an overarching but often neglected theme connected with drinking practices – hangover. Like Jaanus Harro he provided important insides from medical research that provide the background for a better understanding of the rich folklore and popular practices how to evaluate and treat the hangover. Hangover is probably also connected to a very specific drinking pattern called “zapoi” in Russian. The periodic and episodic drinking formerly associated with the medical concept of dipsomania was mentioned several times as a common and even accepted drinking phenomenon. Another current theme was the link of feelings of guilt, inferiority, and shame associated with drinking but also appearing with the hangover. Shame as a guardian of behavioural borders linked to social reputation and respect is often involved in drinking that transgresses these borders. The phrase “Do you respect me?” as a mean to force ones vis-à-vis to keep up with drinking is well known to all (male) researchers in Russia. It prevents the invited person to induce a shameful situation of unequal drunkenness. I observed this pressure to join excessive drinking mostly among young males that suffer from the feeling of status insecurity that rises while consuming alcohol. Shame serves also to keep information about drinking practices and the practices itself hidden inside narrow social groups. This way it helps to maintain the borders of the drinking groups as collectives of complicity and enables the ritual inclusion of outsiders by drinking into these collectives.

Does alcohol as a potent drink have itself agency? And if so what kind of agency? This was another important question raised during the discussion. Alcohol has obviously the ability to influence the possibilities and responsibilities of human action severely. My impression is that the allocation of power to alcohol itself is only obscuring the agency of social relationships that are at work when people engage in drinking. I would consider alcohol only the catalyst for these relationships to reinforce their power or deprive other social relationships of their agency. In the same way in which agency attributed to money hides the power of economic relationships that define the monetary system, social relationships are hiding behind the agency of alcohol or of the treatment of alcoholism. It will be the future task of anthropological research in Siberia to investigate the correlation of alcohol and agency more deeply.

The discussion revealed a lot of other themes that where not or only superficially touched in the papers and would deserve to be discussed in detail in a following workshop. Such peculiar places for drinking parties as the Russian sweat bath “bania” as well as the summerhouse “datcha” where not discussed. Characteristic drinking traditions like the practice of otmyvat’ (wash) achievements and acquisitions and the episodic “zapoi” where touched only shortly in the discussion. The eminent influence of the drinking habits of settlers and migrant workers, which is so influential for the local drinking cultures in Siberia, was only touched in Norman Prell’s paper. Aimar Ventsel discussed shortly the present changes in gendered drinking practices, the on-going switch from vodka to beer, and the diversification process in drinking habits. Tatiana Argunova-Low pointed on the methodological difficulties that research and writing about alcohol constitute for anthropologist working in Siberia. Stereotypes about marginalised social groups and the morally charged discourse about alcohol make it difficult to write about drinking. The physical and social effects of alcohol and personal security make it difficult to engage in participant observation of drinking.

The Russian restaurant Vassilissa in the heart of Tartu

The Russian restaurant Vassilissa in the heart of Tartu (photo by Laura Siragusa)

There is a lot to do in the research on drinking in Siberia and I hope that the ambivalence of fun and hangover and the moral taboos will not prevent anthropologists to focus on this topic. The workshop in Tartu was a wonderful opportunity to get an impression how huge and unexplored is the field of alcohol studies in Siberia. The anthropology of drinking in Siberia was taken out of its niche of „corridor talk“, but Tartu was also the perfect place to discuss very personal experiences of Siberian fieldwork with good friends under the influence of the one or the other glass of vodka or alcohol free beverages in the evenings. As the majority of participants I am very much looking for a follow up of “Drinking and Driving is so much Fun”!

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Anthropology of polar bears

“Polar bear, polar bear what do you see?   I see an anthropologist fearing of me.”

polar bear safe areas on the settlement map

polar bear safe areas on the settlement map

The city map of Longyearbyen is colored according to the secure areas without polar bear protection – the darker the color, the safer is to walk around. The house where I am located is one of the last houses, between the Sukkertoppen hill (371 m) and the shore (last dark brownish house in the middle row on the map). It is an area, colored in light pink, between intensive ‘secure’ pink (down town, around 1 km) and almost white, ‘unsecure’ color. Continue reading

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