The Khanty Bear Feast revisited

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The honored bear’s head (Photo Antti Tenetz)

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.

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Reindeer sacrifice at the beginning of the Bear Feast (Photo Antti Tenetz)

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.

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Awakening of the bear (photo Antti Tenetz)

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.

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Antti Tenetz, Stephan Dudeck, Lyudmila Kayukova, Zsófia Schön (from left to right)

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.

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Performance with mask (photo Antti Tenetz)

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.

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Sergei Sopochin with Narkisyukh and Jakov Rynkov with the ritual stick for marking the performances (photo Antti Tenetz)

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.

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Performance with mask (photo Antti Tenetz)

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.

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Semjon Rynkov singing (centre), Danil Pokachev and Andrei Ernykhov backing (photo Antti Tenetz)

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.

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Sergei Kechimov singing (photo Antti Tenetz)

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.

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Sergei Kechimov singing (photo Antti Tenetz)

Supporting Visual Anthropology, Tromsø

Dear readers,

some of you may remember the film on Khanty fishing in the Yamal-Nenets Okrug, Siberia, Russia by an Estonian graduate, Janno Simm. That film “Autumn on Ob River” came out in 2004 as a masters work at the Tromso visual anthropology programme. Now it seems that this programme is under threat of being closed down altogether. I have signed a petition urging the administration to rethink that closure. It has been a really cool programme, and I think it would be a loss to see it discontinued.

Here is the call for support text:

Save Visual Anthropology (VCS) at the University of Tromsø!

The paradoxical reason, given that it is located in one of the wealthiest countries on earth and attracts students from all over the world, is financial difficulties.

• Over half of VCS students in Tromsø are from developing countries.
• Most of these students would have had no chance of obtaining a degree without the programme.

• Many of them are now using their skills and qualifications to develop research and ethnographic film/documentary networks in their own countries, a good example being former students in Cameroon and Mali.

Visual Anthropology in general, and the VCS programme at UiTromsø in particular, have shown how humanistic and filmmaking skills in parts of the world prone to conflicts and political instability are helping to nurse the emergence of a civil society that can safeguard human rights locally, regionally, and internationally.

And this is why we’re signing this petition here.

Please also post your picture to the VISUAL PETITION at Save Visual Anthropology on Facebook.

Anastasia Lapsui and Markku Lehmusskallio – guests of the team in Rovaniemi

We all know and admire the films by Markku Lehmuskallio and Anastasia Lapsui about the life and history of the Nenets people. On the 30th August 2012 they came to the Arcrtic Centre in Rovaniemi for a preview of their latest film “Eleven human images” (Yksitoista ihmisen kuvaa). This film reflects the worldview of Markku and Anastasia and mix their philosophical ideas, ancient rock art and indigenous culture with avant-garde art and music.

Anastasia Lapsui and Markku Lehmuskallio discuss their new film “Eleven human images” with the public at the Arktikum. Floran Stammler is translating.

It’s a major oevre on the history of humankind using rock drawings and carvings from a time range of 50 000 years ago up to 1964. The film was shot in locations all over the world. The authors say that it’s a very personal interpretation of those paintings and how they connect to our present understanding of who we are. It was striking that all of the drawings depicted human-animal relations. The fact that this theme is so overarching tells us a lot how paramount these relations have been for our existence as species on this planet both in pragmatic and spiritual terms. We were left like pondering about these deeply philosophical issues of how much has changed in our relationship with the animals. That’s something that we have been thinking about for a long time when several of us were working on a volume that focused precisely on this theme. Until recently, these relations have continued to be crucial and in their position for us relatively unchanged, but then neoliberalism alienated us more and more from this relation, an aspect that is at the heart of Hugo Reinert’s work. Anastasia Lapsui emphasized in the discussion how she has been pondering about her own origin and the origin of her people, the Nenets as part of universal humankind since early childhood; so this film is also a powerful statement on her search for her own roots.

Roza Laptnader and Anastasia Lapsui

For the anthropological research team of the Arctic Centre it was a unique possibility to discuss with Anastasia and Markku the collaboration with Nenets reindeer herders and our project of collecting oral history in the North (ORHELIA).We had a lively discussion on how to transport anthropological messages to a visual audience. We were not surprised, that Anastasia’s main interest in our work considered the practical application of scientific research and how the outcome of our project could be useful for the reindeer herders themselves.

During our discussion we had a very tasty degustation of raw reindeer liver (in the Nenets way), which Florian Stammler bought from a Sámi reindeer herder from Enontekiö here in Northern Finland – so thanks to him also!

Anna Stammler-Gossmann Anastasia Lapsui and Markku Lehmuskallio tasting some reindeer liver
Stephan Dudeck, Florian Stammler & Nuccio Mazzullo

Gas and reindeer herders at the source of the heat for Europe

I just watched a two part programme by the english language Tv channel of Russia, Russia Today. It has some very good footage and visual impression of the situation at the place where most of our European Gas comes from (which is also my number one field site since the mid 1990s). Lots has changed since then. Most of the industrial installations filmed there were not there when I first arrived there. Consequently, herders have come to experience industrial development really differently. This TV programme is focusing a lot on what Gazprom all does for compensating and not harming reindeer herding, but towards the end Dmitry Puiko, who goes through the Bovanenkovo deposit every year is quoted with some quite critical remarks too. I think this sort of material should be interesting for the public as it shows a bit what’s going on the ground where our gas comes from. Not that this is the whole picture, but it’s the picture you can get if you don’t go there yourself, or if you go there on a guided tour. For more analysis, the Yamal case has been increasingly well studied, also because Nenets  reindeer nomadism is so emblematic as a vital Arctic livelihood. We have  started partnering with one community on Yamal called “Ilebts” and try to implement research results and a declaration (www.arcticcentre.org/declaration) from our work as now the giant South Tambey deposit is going to be developed. Some other colleagues have published great stuff on Yamal in Russian, e.g. Novikova’s and others recent social impact assessment book. At this point I can also highlight that we have an Arctic extractive industries working group EIWG (www.arcticcentre.org/eiwg) at IASSA, and if you do research on this topic, you are welcome to join. Just drop us a line.