Extraordinary fieldnotes from the remotest fringes of the reindeer economy.
Ethnographer Vitebsky (Scott Polar Research Institute/Univ. of Cambridge) has long journeyed into the northeastern Siberian homeland of the Eveny people, who, he writes, “sensed that they were clinging to the face of the earth for a fleeting moment and wanted my book to be a record, warts and all, of who they had been and how they had lived.” The foreboding is understandable, and the book repays their confidence. Whereas the Russians of old had merely tried to exchange booze and Christianity for furs and reindeer meat, their Soviet successors had tried to destroy traditional nomadic society, imprisoning and killing the shamans who mediated between the human and spirit worlds, forcing the Eveny into permanent settlements, driving a wedge between elders, with their “1,500 specialized words for expressing human relations with reindeer,” and the young. State support for the Eveny, on which they were economically and psychologically dependent, is a thing of the past; the elders now fear that the young could not live in the taiga even if they had to. Vitebsky travels with old-timers along ancient reindeer migratory routes, marveling at the sophistication of those between-two-worlds people—many of whom had served in the Red Army and knew a thing or two about things like radios and tanks, others of whom were so well known across the vast reaches of Siberia that he likens one to Odysseus, “present even through his absence.” The Eveny world is changing indeed, Vitebsky writes, just as the world has changed for all reindeer people, preeminently the Sami, who show a way toward a kind of “reindeer globalism” that might enable the Eveny to sell reindeer meat as a delicacy to distant markets, export reindeer hide and fur and retain some of the old ways.
A worthy companion to V. K. Arseniev’s Dersu the Trapper, Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams and other landmark books of the Far North.