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The Arctic is a region that is commonly associated with animals. It is typical for people in the south to imagine (sub)arctic inhabitants living together with polar bears and reindeer (if not with penguins). Indeed, for thousands of years, human life in the boreal regions has been dependent on animals, probably more than anywhere else in the world. As a result, human-animal relations vary from domestication to avoidance, from socialization to demonization, and from symbolization to ignoring.
In the Arctic Workshop, we propose discussing these different qualities of human-animal relationship through the notions of symbiosis and symbolic value. In biology, symbiosis (from the Greek “living together”) refers to the interaction between two organisms that are in a mutualistic, commensalistic or parasitic relationship. We believe these different aspects deserve a closer look as heuristic conceptual tools for social scientists when discussing domestication, consumption, cohabitation, transportation, diseases, and pet ownership in the Arctic.
This workshop will focus on different aspects and interpretations of the human-animal relationship in the Arctic. Our goal is to assemble a truly interdisciplinary collection of presentations that will focus on the cultural and social side of the topic, contributing to a better understanding of the economic, political or ecological aspects in general.
Programme with the abstracts
Anna Mossolova (Tallinn University)
Co-authors of the paper:
Dr. Edouard Masson MacLean and Dr. Richard Knecht (University of Aberdeen)
Dr. Claire Houmard (National Museum of Denmark)
The pre-contact way of life of Yup’ik people in southwest Alaska was little known until the 2009–2018 excavations at the Nunalleq site near the village of Quinhagak. Until recently, the site dating from around AD 1400–1670 had been locked in permafrost that secured the extraordinary preservation of organic artefacts and faunal materials.
As in many other hunter-gatherers' communities across the Arctic, animals were economically and culturally central to the lives of Nunalleq residents. Our multidisciplinary study combines the zooarchaeological analysis of faunal remains, previously published isotopic studies and the ethnographic study of artefacts unearthed from Nunalleq to better understand the economic, social and symbolic value of different terrestrial, marine and riverine animals in the life of pre-contact Yup'ik community.
What animals are predominant in the faunal assemblages from the site? What fish and game played an important role in the subsistence activities of Nunalleq residents? And foremost – how pre-contact Yup'ik human-animal relationships were manifested in their material culture, particularly in the iconopgraphy of ceremonial objects such as masks and mask attachments?
Early ethnographic records and collections suggest that complex in its structure and imagery, almost every hooped Yup'ik mask can be viewed as a model of a multi-layered universe in miniature. It represents the way humans and animals are related and reciprocally linked in the Yupiit's worldview. By taking this approach, our paper aims to demonstrate what could be learnt about the ecologies, social life and cosmology of Nunalleq residents when studying masks and mask adornments recovered from the site.
Nikolai Vakhtin (European University at St. Petersburg)
In the 1940s, a collection of Yupik Eskimo folklore texts was recorded by Ekaterina Rubtsova (1888–1970). Part of the collection was published in 1954; the remaining texts stayed forgotten on the shelves of the Northern Languages Department of the Linguistic Institute in St Petersburg. In 2009 I re-discovered the dusty files and started to prepare the texts for publication.
In the course of this work, I came across three texts united by a common plot. All three were recorded between December 1940 and Spring 1941; all three were in the Ungazighmiit language; the story-tellers of two are known: Nalugyaq (1888–1942), and Tatko (ca. 1875 – ca. 1944); the third is anonymous. All three tell the same story.
A man abandons his older wife and two sons for his younger wife, taking away the herd and apparently leaving the old family to die. They survive; the boys grow up, start hunting, learn a lot from their mother, and finally come across a herd of wild deer grazing nearby. They start taming the herd, training it not to be afraid of humans, not to be afraid of fire and smoke, to get accustomed to new smells, and so on. Finally, they fully domesticate the herd and, driving the her with them, set out on a journey in search of their father. On their way, they pass other camps where people immediately see that the deer are wild, and are surprised that a wild herd behaves like a tamed one. (Eventually they find their father, but this is irrelevant for this talk.)
In this talk, I will deal with the following questions:
The three texts in question provide a lot of details that allow us to answer those questions.
Eeva Kuikka (Tampere University)
In my presentation, I look at the prose works of a Chukchi author called Yuri Rytkheu. I analyze how he describes the influence of the Soviet colonization of the Far North on the relationship between indigenous people and the nonhuman animals of the area. I argue, that this question reflects indigenous people's balancing of their traditional worldview with the modern one promoted by the Russian colonizers. As the indigenous people's traditional livelihoods depended upon Arctic animals, they had developed their own, cultural ways of dealing with the animals and understanding their relationship with them. The Soviet authorities, however, replaced the cultural worldview and epistemologies concerning the relationship between humans and animals with modern understanding based on materialism and natural sciences. I approach this question through Gayatri Spivak's concept of epistemic violoence, as I explore the replacement of the indigenous tradition with the values of the hegemonic culture as an act of such violoence. I also pay attention to the different ways in which Rytkheu treats this issue during different periods of time by comparing two of his short novels, The Harpooner, published in 1969, and Under the constellation of grief published in 2007 after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Aimar Ventsel (University of Tartu)
In my talk I look at the use of natural resources in a fifteen years time span in a Dolgan settlement not far from the coast of the Arctic Ocean. The community I will tell about is a reindeer hunter, fishers’ and reindeer herder community. I also draw on comparative material from Nivkhi village in the North Sakhalin. My accent will be on how human-animal relationship is shaped by the development of the telecommunication and transport technology and laws defining ‘traditional indigenous economy’ in the Russian Federation. My argument is that the ‘indigenous tradition’ in modern times can be seen as a foraging and marketing strategy combined with the market economy shaped by the state laws. The regulations of land use and new tax laws are in fact impacting human-animal relationship in a very specific way forcing people to give up or adopt different hunting and fishing strategies. The mobile phone and changes in use of snowmobiles affect hunters’ and fishers’ mobility that also affects the intensivity of hunting, reindeer herding or fishing.
Donatas Brandišauskas (Vilnius University)
In the presentation I aim to reveal how the wolf is featured in the daily lives of indigenous people in dynamically changing Siberian socio-environmental contexts. I will explore indigenous people’s interactive dimensions, contextualized knowledge and discourses surrounding the human mutual interactions with wolves. My presentation will aim to answer the following questions. How people relate to wolves in the context when herders and hunters as well as villagers live in close proximity with predators also sharing their common environment and resources? How such long-term human and predators’ coexistence shape the way humans think about wolves and how they interact with them on a daily basis? How people perceive wolves on personal and communal levels and how they integrate their experiences of interactions with wolves in the changing environment and sociopolitical context?
Maria Momzikova (University of Tartu)
In 1927 tundra dweller and reindeer herder from the Taimyr Peninsula Sundampte Chunanchar told to the enumerator of the First Soviet Polar Census Alexandr Lekarenko the tale about the cow who lived in the tundra in the tent chum with the eagle and was supposed to be eaten by wild animals such as the wolf, the bear, the fox, the wolverine, living together in the second chum. At the end of the tale, the eagle moved the cow away from the tundra to the empty Russian house izba. Then the Russian man came there and took the cow with him. Since that time the cow started living with Russians.
As we can see the tale has the etiological ending. The whole plot about pursuing the cow by predators in the tundra becomes a reason for domestication the cow by Russians. In tales told by Nganasan indigenous people as well as in mythological narratives about the life of supernatural beings and reasons of appearing different phenomenon in the world, the ‘Russian’ space with houses izbas, cows, horses, peasants, soldiers, Russian tzar, Russian God, usually opposed to the tundra space with its tents chums, sledges nartas, reindeer, bears, other predators, nomadic indigenous peoples, indigenous supernatural beings. Besides this spatial separation, they are always in connection with each other.
I want to put the tale about the cow in wider context of relationships both between humans and animals and between different ethnic groups, in this case between Nganasans and Russians, and to show how animals can be used by informants for the representation of relationships between ethnic groups dividing or uniting them at least in the space created by tales and mythological narratives. I will use published and archival materials of folklore texts recorded from Nganasans mostly during the twentieth century.
Lidia Rakhmanova (National Research Tomsk State University)
The process of hunting, its tools, tricks, methods are directly related to the way of justification of admissibility to hunt the animal and kill it. This system of justification includes not only the choice of ‘humane traps’, but the hunter’s transport, way of stalking, and hunting season. In the lifeworld of the hunter's family, this system, reflexive and, in its own way, ethical, is included in the culture of everyday life so tightly that to justify the right to kill, is practically not necessary, and is to take a step from the ‘home’ culture to the outside.
So what should the anthropologist do when they are handed a gun by informants? And if the researcher refuses to make a striking shot, how far does the included observation remain true? Is the trust and support of informants a worthy goal to justify a shot during the hunt? How does the justification of killing, borrowed from the researcher’ world, combine with the interpretations of the informants themselves? How can the ethical issues of anthropological research be harmonized with the local hunting unspoken code of ethics?
Finally, when it comes to the participation of a woman-anthropologist in hunting, isn't this a form of double marginalization in societies where the practice of female hunting itself can question men's hunting luck? And what does it mean when you’re permitted to participate in the hunt along with the men? May the association of a woman anthropologist with the killing-process break social connections with local women? Does this mean the public disruption and a collapse of researchers’ identity, including gender and cultural identity?
I would like to consider the moment of a woman’s participation in hunting, her position regarding wild animals and status relative to other hunters, as well as the difficult choice between whether to participate but intentionally miss the target to maintain trust and friendship, or to participate and hit the target to earn the ghostly respect that perhaps further marginalizes the woman researcher even more.
Victoria Peemot (University of Helsinki)
South Tyvan herders, who live on the border of the boreal forest and Inner Asian steppes, conceptualize own identity as the nomadic pastoralists through their relationships with domesticated animals and, the most important, with the horse: "Without the horse, there wouldn’t be Tyvan people in history, our homes wouldn’t be built. Home, the first houses in the Tes-Khem district have been built with the horse’s help. Horses have brought logs down here from the taiga. Without the horse, there is nothing in life. The horse is necessary" (Peemot 2017: 135-6). The defining features of human-horse relationships – an autonomy and symbolic value of equines – can be studied through an emplacement of relationships. This study proposes that the horse’s dominance in the hierarchical and gendered space of the yurt, a herders’ mobile dwelling, is equal to its high symbolic value. The herders’ respect for the autonomy of the horse reflects their categorization of domesticated animals into the ‘livestock of the kodan’ (cows, sheep, and goats) and ‘livestock of the land’ (horses and yaks). The study defines the key terms that are important for understanding the multispecies sociality and landscape perception of South Tyvan herders – aal, kodan, and khonash. While all of them are inherently human-present landscapes, their meanings are distinct, and that distinction sits at the core of the herders’ perception of the landscapes where they live with nonhumans, reflect and affect their relationships with horses.
Jyrki Pöysä (University of Eastern Finland)
In Finnish agrarian folklore, cockroaches, bedbugs and lice are usually described as inevitable companions of a poor man's life – at logging camps, in the army or with cheap accommodation in local hostels. Folklore about such vermin are rich, with stories about practical jokes and imaginary tales about arranged running competitions between trained cockroaches. The overall tone is never scary: the vermin is there to stay in the poor man's life, only sauna is able to give the poor man some short term release. The stories and the attitudes behind them could be interpreted as the culture of poverty, where release from hardship is brought about with the help of folklore and the sociability of joking about the inevitable realities of life. The contrast with current forest fears about diseases the ticks are spreading (borreliosis, brain fever) is striking. Is there any basis to regard this new forest fear as socially divisive or is it a sign of new equality in front of the inevitabilities of nature? A sign of a growing distance from the nature touching everyone? A new breakdown of symbiosis between contemporary humans and animals? In my paper I am trying to analyse the supposed breakdown of symbiosis in light of older relationships between humans and vermin and as a contrast to more aestheticizing approaches to nature then and now.
Semen Makarov (A. M. Gorky Institute of World Literature of the Russian Academy of Science)
The presentation will aim to consider the symbolic contexts in which the image of a cat operates in the oral tradition of the Yakuts. In addition to the coverage of the named fragment of Yakut mythology as such, practically not touched by the scholarly depiction, the analysis of this topic allows us to come closer to clarifying the characteristic features of the images that represent the latest increments to the autochthonous mythological worldview.
Domestic cats were not known to the Yakuts until the emergence of contact with the Russian tradition. Once in the territory of Yakutia, presumably in the first third of the 17th century, cats quickly spread and became loved as companion animals. At the same time, like any pets, they began to accumulate a variety of mythological information.
In the symbolic ‘profile’ of a cat, upon closer examination, significant features of otherness are found. Understanding the concept joining the traditional worldview of the Yakuts as it continues to hold associations with the foreign culture: for cats, adopted words from Russia are used – kuoska, maaska (from Russian Mashka), and in some respects the cat itself acts as a symbol of the Russian person (see proverb: Kuoska khaana khaalbat / ‘The blood of the cat doesn’t disappear’ – disapprovingly about the long-term results of Russian-Yakut crossbreeding).
In addition: if a cat gets sick with ‘Yakut disease’ (in traditional nosology a disease of internal organs of unknown etiology) it must die. In children’s speech formulas, any mythological punishment for a rash or knowingly wrong doings is translated into a cat. Finally, the signs of ‘alienity’ are expressed in attributing to the animal potentially dangerous witchcraft abilities. Up to today, in the Yakut tradition we can fix ideas about the cat as an animal that can foresee the future and an animal-curser.
In this case, it draws attention that some traditional genres of Yakut folklore are not susceptible to the image of the cat: fairy tale, epic, verbal components of the rites. It seems that these features, taken together, can serve as a more or less reliable criteria for establishing the ‘later’ character of some mythological tradition.
Zoia Tarasova (University of Cambridge)
Over the past couple of decades some representatives of Sakha (Yakut) intelligentsia have been increasingly engaged in a discourse on preserving and multiplying of an indigenous (Sakha) cattle breed of which a few hundred were left in a remote northern district during the Soviet reform of cattle Simmentalisation / industrialisation. These cattle are kept in special conservation farms located either in unpopulated settlements in isolation from other – 'Russian' (nuuccha), 'foreign' (omuk), 'incoming' (kelii) – breeds, or in the middle of villages which had previously bred non-Sakha cattle but are now undergoing all-village back-crossing to the Sakha breed by castrating their non-Sakha bulls and banning their import. Outside of these villages, some private farmers, too, are switching to the native breed thereby contributing to a gradual albeit not unobjected 'Sakhaisation' (sakhatytyy) of cattle in the region. Sakha stud bulls are praised for having greater sexual prowess as well as for having ‘thicker’ and ‘more motile’ sperm compared to other breeds. Conversely, their cows are valued for being sexually choosy and especially loyal to their own breed to the extent that a few people reported to ‘have never heard of a Simmental calf being born by a Sakha cow’. Drawing on a fifteen-month-long PhD fieldwork among both urban and rural Sakha in 2017-2018, I shall explore the symbolism underlying this discourse. What current anxieties and imaginations of these people might this discourse speak to? Is this another form of the human-animal oneness known to us from anthropological literature? And finally how can tackling these questions help us better understand the nature of such a relationship?.
Laur Vallikivi (University of Tartu)
The relationship between humans and reindeer is complex and multi-layered among nomadic Nenets. Throughout history, living in the treeless inland tundra has only been possible thanks to reindeer, either wild or domestic. Even today, almost any aspect of everyday life is related to reindeer as a crucial resource for living as they provide food, transport, clothing, dwelling and define many aspects of social relations with human and nonhuman others. The significance of reindeer is rendered by the Nenets terms for wild reindeer ilebts and the guardian spirit of reindeer ilebyam pertya which are etymologically related to the word ile, i.e. ‘to live’. Since the emergence of large-scale reindeer herding around 300 years ago, domestic reindeer (ty) have given the Nenets a greater control over reindeer as a material resource. However, unlike state economists and administrators, Nenets do not regard herding only as instrumental resource management: rather their half-tame reindeer in the herd are seen as agentive persons who are co-managed by the spirits who take part in the herding. Furthermore, reindeer reflect the qualities of their human owners, for instance, their skills or character. Animals in a herd are thus refractions of not only spirits but also of their human owners in the moments when certain events make these connections visible. I discuss a few such events and how these relate to the notions of owning, guarding and exchanging among Nenets reindeer herders. This research is based on my fieldwork in the Great Land Tundra and the Polar Ural Mountains over the last twenty years.
Art Leete (University of Tartu)
In traditional ethnographies, scholars treat animals among other material objects. Animals were included into descriptions and analyses mostly representative of the culture (they influence design of agricultural tools, organisation of food production). Similarly, ethnographies that explore hunting among the Komi people consist of only marginal notes on the dog-hunter relationship. Ethnographers acknowledge the extraordinary importance of the hunting dog but in addition to this notion there is scarce published data concerning the Komi hunters’ understanding of their dogs. I have conducted fieldwork among the Komi annually since 1996. Gradually I have become acquainted with the Komi hunters’ attitudes towards their dogs. I have recorded numerous stories that reveal hunters’ ideas concerning characteristics that determine good and bad dogs, and rules for proper treatment of a dog by a hunter. In addition, scholars discuss some details of communication peculiarities between a dog and a hunter. Data concerning dog-related mythological beliefs (dogs participating in the Creation of the World) can be found randomly in the texts of a few Komi researchers. I attempt to discuss, how, and to what extent the few vernacular religious ideas appear in actual hunting practices of the modern Komi.
Nikolay Goncharov (Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography (Kunstkamera))
My paper describes the features of the relationship between humans and animals and the specific perception of animals by humans. It was written on the basis of the field material collected by the author during the expeditionary activity in the village of Zhigansk in the Sakha Republic (Yakutia). The choice of animals and the volume of the content devoted to them are directly related to the nature of the material that I have. I studied such narratives according to dog, bear, fish, birds, and also mammoths that have an indirect effect (through the extraction of tusks) on the economic and cultural life of the village today. As a result, I reveal some features of how the concept of domestic/wild, groups the animals and make an attempt to analyze the specifics of interaction with different groups, based on the collected material. Everyone in Zhigansk does connect with different species of animals during his/her life: both in the habitualized space (dogs in the village) and in unhabitualized spaces (bears, reindeers in a forest; fishes in rivers, and so on). These aspects reflect the impossibility of people’s separation from animals in the context of their lifestyle. In my report I am going to show some peculiarities which are coming from the perception of animals by humans and which are forming attractive ‘topology’ on the people’s mental spaces created by the comprehension of animals.
Stephan Dudeck (European University at St. Petersburg / University of Lapland)
The paper advances from the notion of interspecies symbiotic adaptation to a comparison of social relations based on distancing practices in the Arctic. It looks at several case studies from the Russian Arctic in order to identify how sustainable and mutually beneficial relations are built involving distancing, non-interaction, silence and ignorance. Special attention is paid to the way these relations oscillate in time and space involving seasonality and mobility. Under conditions of high mobility and the trade of goods and services between sedentary populations and nomadic reindeer herders, domestic animals were selected in order to occupy a variety of functional niches in the local economy. Recently new forms of governmentality put restraints on these interethnic and interspecies interactions, which is met by local reindeer, horse and cattle breeders with new strategies in order to safeguard the local socio-ecological system. The paper concentrates on these new evolving practices in different communities in the Northern part of European Russia and Western Siberia.
Eva Toulouze (University of Tartu / INALCO) and Liivo Niglas (University of Tartu)
Yuri Vella (1948-2013), until he was circa 40, was a sable hunter and rather a good one. Then, he felt that he had killed enough animals and that it was time to fulfil his dream to live with reindeer. He resigned from his work as a hunter in a state 'artel', bought ten reindeer and started building a life for himself and for his family in the forest. His dream became true: through learning and suffering, he became a reindeer herder and lived with his herd until hid demise in 2013.
What did reindeer mean to his life? Reindeer were undoubtedly his childhood dream. But they became the very axis around which his life revolved. They determined his timetable, daily, monthly. They represented his identity as a native. But more deeply yet, they were the keepers of his grand-children and they connected him with his human environment, with his friends and acquaintances, with the life of his country.
We shall dwell on this last aspect of Yuri Vella's relationship with his reindeer by focusing on one quite well-known and publicised episode in his life: how he presented Russia’s president with one of his female reindeer, asserting that through this reindeer and her offspring he could monitor how the president fared and whether the president’s policy was agreeable or not to the Gods.
Elena A. Davydova (Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography (Kunstkamera))
Reindeer killing is the crucial moment for turning the living being into dead food among reindeer herders’ communities. This research investigates the interrelation between slaughtering practices and taste of the produced venison that exists in the Amguma village and tundra in the northeastern Chukotka. I will argue that the relation to an animal at the time of killing defines the taste of the meat. To reveal this, I will compare the practices of reindeer killing in the slaughterhouse and the tundra. Today there is a slaughterhouse near Amguama village and many local people work there during the period of commercial herd’s slaughtering that usually happens in September-November. This meat mostly goes to Anadyr and is also partly for local consumption. Local people emphasize that venison produced in the slaughterhouse is tasteless and smelly, while the contrary tundra meat is considered to be tasty and fragrant. I will show that the differences in perception of food occurs due to distinctions in relation to a beast that exist in these two contexts. In the tundra a reindeer herder refers to an animal as a person that has an agency and the act of killing is a communication between two personalities. People have to eliminate the personality or subjectness of a living being and turn it to a material object to produce food (Kohn 2013). The actions of people during a slaughter and carcass cutting gradually depersonalize an animal. On the contrary in the slaughterhouse, living reindeer are treated as if they were already objects. Such ‘improper’ relation leads to ‘abnormal’ food production.
Vladimir N. Davydov (Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography (Kunstkamera))
Architecture embodies political decisions; it may serve as a manifestation of a political regime. At the same time, one cannot neglect its practical functions in the building of a certain kind of human-animal relations. Political changes in Russia during the last century brought changes to domestication regimes. The Soviet innovations were based on the ideology of control: human animal relationship involved such operations as counting, measuring, supervision and veterinary care. In many respects, the state introduced infrastructure which intended to rationalize work in the taiga. During the Soviet period Evenkis of the Olekma River Basin started to build long enclosures, which were spread over tens of kilometres. However, the fences Evenki reindeer herders use are not always very strong, or strict structures, to prevent reindeer movements. Animals can break the structures if they do not want to stay inside. These enclosures can potentially allow animals to manifest their own agency. It means that not just people decide for how long reindeer should stay enclosed. As soon as people see that reindeer start breaking a fence they move with the herd to another place. In this sense, Evenki fences help humans to recognize the agency of animals and can potentially give them a choice to stay or to move. Building of a new corral by Evenki reindeer herders is not a blind following of tradition or state ideology, but a reflection of the animals’ behaviour, environmental conditions and the landscape. Therefore, Evenki enclosures are not rigid structures as it can be assumed. Rather they are flexible to changes both in political sphere and natural environment.
Information: Aimar Ventsel, aimar.ventsel [ät] ut.ee
Workshop organiser: Department of Ethnology, University of Tartu