Trust Versus Paranoia: Can the Siberian fire spirit explain the spectacular failure of the UK Covid track and trace app?

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.”

Innovations and Traditions of Arctic Reindeer Herding

Members of the ORHELIA Team Nuccio Mazzullo and Stephan Dudeck took part in the seminar ”Innovations and Traditions of Arctic Reindeer Herding” in the Sámi Education Institute on 20.1.2012 in Inari.

It was a great opportunity for us to meet people involved in reindeer husbandry from Nenets Autonomous Okrug, Komi Republic, Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Okrug, Taimyr area and Sakha Republic in Russia and from Finnish Lapland.

The participants of the seminar discussed the state of reindeer herding in general throughout the herding areas, reindeer pastures, reindeer meat and leather production and their marketing. Overarching topics were the management of the natural enemies of domesticated reindeer, the predators, and the influence of factors like traffic or the mining industry on reindeer herding.

Growing touristic interest in reindeer husbandry and the connected cultures develops albeit in different ways in almost all reindeer herding regions in the North and causes new possibilities for local economies.

Europe and especially Scandinavia is more and more involved in the reindeer herding business in Russia. Russian reindeer meat is reaching the European market and European investment is engaged in meat processing. Well organized slaughtering and meat processing is a crucial point for the development of reindeer meat production. But reindeer husbandry is more than a business; it is an inextricable part of indigenous lifestyles that developed over centuries.

It is not jet decided if reindeer herder profit or get more and more dependent by developments in technology, international economy and bureaucracy. A recent technological innovation are for instance reindeer tracking methods using new radio technologies like GPS or mobile phone networks (ultracom.fi; tracker.fi)

But the question remains how self-management and autonomy of reindeer husbandry as one of the main motivations of reindeer herding can be secured.

Stephan Dudeck gave a short paper about private reindeer herding among the Khanty people in Western Siberia at the seminar.

Khanty reindeer herder
Khanty reindeer herder

Nuccio Mazzullo was visiting after the Seminar the course “Skolt Sámi culture across borders” in Svanvik (Norwegia)

The course there is part of a cooperation project between three countries: Finland, Norway and Russia. The overall aim is to contribute to a strengthening and revitalization of Skolt Sámi culture, language and identity.

Stephan visited a colleague from the Arctic Centre in the small Sámi village of Kuttura. Terhi Vuojala-Magga is doing fieldwork with reindeer herders being herself part of a reindeer herding family. Stephan got his first real life experiences from the life in Sápmi and discovered even common Siberian friends with Terhi.