New publication: Nomadic and Indigenous Spaces. Productions and Cognitions

Nomadic and Indigenous Spaces. Productions and Cognitions. Edited by Judith Miggelbrink, Joachim Otto Habeck, Nuccio Mazzullo and Peter Koch (2013). Surrey: Ashgate.

With contributions from the editors, Denis Wood, Denis Retaillé, Gail Fondahl, Brian Donahoe, Joseph J Long, Kirill V Istomin, Florian Stammler, Claudio Aporta, and Tim Ingold (epilogue)

Nomadic-&-Indigenous-Spaces

How is space produced and how is it perceived? Looking at nomadic and indigenous peoples, we investigated this question between 2008 and 2012 in a collaborative research project between the Arctic Centre, University of Lapland and the Leibniz-Institute in Leipzig, Germany. A conference we organised in 2010 brought together international scholars to discuss experiences from different fields.  During the conference, it quickly became clear that cognitivist and phenomenologist paradigms come to very different interpretations of nomadic and indigenous spaces. This book continues that debate and invites readers to further engage with the topic, since the main contestations have not been resolved, as Tim Ingold notes in his epilogue. Continue reading “New publication: Nomadic and Indigenous Spaces. Productions and Cognitions”

“Before the Snow” – A documentary about Siberian people published online

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.

Before_the_Snow_Poster

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.

A German version can be found here:

In Memory of a Great Teacher

Yuri Vella left this world on the 12th of September 2013

Yuri Vella
Yuri Vella

Almost exactly 20 years ago three German students of anthropology get off a helicopter in the middle of the Western Siberian forest tundra, over 100 km from the next settlement. They see a little wooden hut and a couple with two small kids is approaching them. Nobody told this people that they will have guests and the guests did not met the hosts before.  In the village the students were told the day before that the poet and reindeer herder Yuri Vella lives far away and there is neither road nor transport to his campsite. They decided already to give up their plan to visit Yuri Vella when out of a sudden a helicopter appeared.

I was one of these students. This was the moment when I met for the first time the men who should become my most influential teacher of anthropology and whose forest camp became for me a second home.

Reflections of Yuri and me in his well
Reflections of Yuri and me in his well.

Recently a friend asked me what I learned from him in the first place and while thinking about an answer I discovered that it is really hard to say. The reason is that it reached from the most practical things like how to light a fire in the in the forest to the most theoretical ones like how to understand human-animal relationships.

Yuri Vella was born at the 12th of March 1948 in the nomad camp of Kyli Aivaseda not far from the village of Varyogan. The village was the place the nomadic reindeer herders from the Agan river basin were supposed to settle down. Here he went to school, here he was appointed as the head of the village administration for a short period, and here he established the open air museum, where he saved traditional buildings and objects from the forest settlements destroyed by the oil industry.

At his 60
At his 60th Birthday

The forest lifestyle of the Nenets and Khanty fishermen, hunters and reindeer herders, which was under thread by the ruthless oil-development became his most important issue from the perestroika times on. He worked himself as a hunter in the area his grandfather used to hunt on and later he decided to establish a reindeer herd and to live permanently on the territory where I met him in 1993.

At the beginning of the 90ies he organised demonstrations of the local people against the ruthless actions of the oil companies that destroyed not only the settlements, the sacred places and cemeteries of the Khanty and Forest Nenets but poisoned the river and swamps with oil and contaminated the air with the gas they burned. At this time he also understood that there is more that get lost than just the environment. The language, the knowledge, the values of a lifestyle that is based on a respectful relationship between animals, people, and forces that are more powerful than humans started to disappear. He decided to make his own live and his own settlement in the forest a place where people could learn about these things. He made himself a living example, which could teach not only his family members and relatives but also all people interested, be it school children from the oil-town or foreign anthropologists.

Yuri Vella
Yuri Vella

I think this congruence of words and deeds was the most impressive feature of Yuri Vella. False politeness and strategic submissiveness were completely foreign to him. I was impressed by the degree of autonomy he claimed not only in his thinking but also for his lifestyle. He seemed to be free from all the conventions of modern live and social prestige and decided himself about the values he accepted from the traditions of his Nenets ancestors and of European cultural heritage.

I had the luck to be introduced by him to some of the elders that where still deeply rooted in the values and traditions of the forest life – Oleg Aivaseda, Valjoma Aivaseda, Oisia Iusi and Egor Kazamkin. Nowadays, when I work with Nenets elders I often feel that it is due to Yuri Vella that I learned to listen, to be patient, to provide the feeling that their knowledge will be in competent and respectful hands.

1993
1993

Here I think I learned as well the most important theoretical lesson in a very practical way. While building the winter hut or the reindeer fence he would mix very practical teaching with reflections about spiritual forces and political circumstances. He told about the threat of the oil industry for the reindeer, about the spiritual landscape of ancestral tradition and about the ways how to orientate oneself without compass and map in the landscape in almost one sentence. My well build hierarchies of knowledge were tumbling down. I understood that there are no authorities the legitimacy of knowledge is based on. His mixture of pragmatism, firmness in principles, and personal experience skipped all hierarchies of scientific, empirical, indigenous, and spiritual knowledge. His writings and his poetry are a proof of his disregard towards established knowledge forms. They mix poetry and prose, science and the traditional spirituality with always a social and political agenda and are not afraid of very personal statements about love and human relationships. To write a poem, to build a wooden sledge or a block house, to organise a protest against an oil-company or to establish a forest school for reindeer herders children this were all not separated projects but rooted in one live that centred around the coexistence of men, forest and reindeer.

I could tell what I learned about indigenous storytelling, about the role of reindeer in Nenets and Khanty culture, about indigenous spirituality, about gender relations and the differences between Nenets and Khanty people. To elaborate on it would go far beyond the frame of an internet blog and some of it, like the ways to deal with forces more powerful than men, I cannot share with an anonymous public.

I will just tell a little bit what I learned about politics, about the possibility to influence the actions of much more powerful institutions and discourses that influence ones live. His political thinking developed in the conflict between indigenous people and oil companies. He saw its deeper historical roots in different relationships to the land and its resources between state bureaucrats, oil-workers and reindeer herders. His way of political engagement was again a very personal one. Instead of searching for a place in established political institutions he chooses to defend his own small ancestral territory from the destructive development by the oil company LUKOIL. He tried to be the David against Goliath and to use the weapons of the weak. He was very much aware of his lack of power in terms of economic weight. Oil companies were able within a growing nationalistic discourse to present their interest in profit at any cost as a national interest of Russia. The only chance in this situation was to use all means of symbolic politics, to make politics not with money and influence but with words, pictures, and art. Without building up broad alliances with media, scientists, social and ecological organisations even over cultural and political differences he would have not been able to fight this uneven struggle. It required certain skills to navigate between principles and compromises and often he was calling himself the “clever Nenets” if he again found a way out of what seemed to be a dead end. He refused to give up his reindeer pastures for payments by the oil companies and managed to stay uncorrupted in contrast to a lot of other indigenous politicians which could not stand the pressure of the oil-lobby or powerful political parties. He was able to keep his own sovereignty, the inner freedom. He gave me the certainty that if one builds up a respectful relationship with nature and other humans one can skip all social conventions and should be not afraid of power, politicians, oil companies or other somehow influential people. I learned from him the meaning of respect, the meaning of silence, what it means to see.

“If research doesn’t surprise you, it’s not worth the research” Julie Cruikshank

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?

Informal get-together with Julie Cruikshank after the meeting and ice swimming and barbecue at the Kemijoki river.
Informal get-together with Julie Cruikshank after the meeting and ice swimming and barbecue at the Kemijoki river.

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 cradle of fly-in/fly-out reindeer herding in Europe: greetings from Khongurei

In many works on reindeer herding Komi people are considered as innovators who made reindeer herding not only a way of life but a profitable economy. One innovation that they did in the small village of Khongurei (see my fieldwork blog stephandudeck.wordpress.com) Nenets Autonomous Okrug, European Russian North, turned out to be rather counter-productive in the end:

When the first Komi settlers arrived to establish the village, the reindeer herders of the Nenets Kolkhoz “Naryana Ty” (red reindeer) led a fully nomadic life with their families out in the tundra. Their children went to school in the Russian village of Kotkino and came home only for the school holidays in the summer.

View on the village of Khongurei from the River Pechora

Continue reading “The cradle of fly-in/fly-out reindeer herding in Europe: greetings from Khongurei”

Terhi Vuojala-Magga and Stephan Dudeck breaching the image of the North as a home and as a field

Stephan Dudeck visited Terhi Vuojala-Magga in the Inari region of Finnish Sápmi (Sámi home area) two times during this year.  The first visit was in January in Kuttura – a Sami reindeer herders´ forest village of six houses in the upper stream of Ivalo River – and the second visit was at the beginning of April, both in Ivalo and Kuttura.

Terhi:
I met Stephan for the first time last autumn at Arctic Centre when I was talking about my work in MISTRA project of The Arctic Lessons for Sweden. During our discussions we decided that Stephan will come to visit me in the Far North.

Spring is the high ice fishing season in Lapland. Here Terhi on the Ivalo River.

During his first visit we had some interesting talks about anthropology and we did some polar night ice fishing of burbot with a spring hook fish trap. It was rather cold, but still Stephan wanted to test his clothing for his journey to the Nenets region in Russia and he did stay on ice doing some ice-fishing too. I noticed that he is not afraid of being in the cold.

An artist performing for Sámi children at the new Sajos in Inari

Stephans’s second visit was in the middle of the best spring time here in the north. It was on occasion of the conference “Tales from the North” in the new build Sajos building in Ivalo, which also hosts the Sámi Parliament. Our main motivation to go there was the marvelous and inspiring presentation of Prof. Tim Ingold  from Aberdeen. Afterwards we had a nice dinner at home in Ivalo with him and his wife Anna Ingold.  Afterwards we socialized with the locals in our local pub with dance and karaoke.  Though Stephan did not sing any karaoke songs, even we all wanted to hear it, he did learn to dance Finnish tango. And he did this so well that people liked it (as I heard about it afterwards).  I myself learned to drink wine instead of beer or koskenkorva (Vodka). On Saturday we took part in an ice fishing competition in Riutula together with my friends. The competition was a success in the nice warm sunshine and we all got some fish though not enough to win the competition.

Ice fishing competition in Riutula 14th of April 2012. Grilled sausages are an obligatory companion at such events in Finnish Lapland.

Once back in Kuttura, which was Stephan’s second visit to this forest village, we dived into intensive discussions about anthropology, places and people.  We were talking about intimacy and privacy – in two ways.  I was able to understand what it means when an anthropologist lives with the people – as Stephan did in my home (though I’m an anthropologist too).

Terhi Voula-Magga's home in Kuttura

However, this is not a one sided issue.  Anthropologists have their own privacy and intimacy too.  In both ways there are options and limits and I suppose these dimensions have to be found out each time once people meet. It’s a question how much you reveal of yourself and how much people learn to trust you.

The second discussion was about our emotions and sensitivity – a quite important topic. We agreed that most people here are very sensitive; we share the quietness – that is very common for northerners. It means that the tacit communication in the environment with the people or even in absence of the people has meanings and messages. An important point during our discussions was: never louse your sense of humor – whatever happens we should not stop to laugh at ourselves.

Stephan did skiing on the frozen Ivalo River. It was an extraordinary sensory experience while communicating with the northern landscape.

In short we learned that the eyes can see until there is nothing to see, and the ears can hear even there is nothing to listen to, and we can understand when we cease to understand at all.

Circumpolar Book publication

Ziker, John & Florian Stammler (eds) 2011. Histories from the North. Environments, Movements and Narratives. Proceedings of the Final BOREAS Conference Rovaniemi, Finland, October 29-31, 2009. Boise (ID): Department of Anthropology, Boise State University in conjunction with Arctic Centre, University of Lapland, Finland

for copies please contact one of the editors, Stammler for Europe and Russia, Ziker for the rest of the world

Continue reading “Circumpolar Book publication”