A young Danish anthropologist’s valiant attempt to organize the sable hunters of northeastern Siberia.
Willerslev’s (Anthropology/Univ. of Oslo; Soul Hunters: Hunting, Animism, and Personhood among the Siberian Yukaghirs, 2007) accessibly translated account stretches back to the mid-1990s, when during his field research to Yakutia, he and a friend resolved to help the indigenous hunters organize a fur-selling cooperative that would guard against exploitation by the state and allow them more autonomy and badly needed wealth. Having lived among the sable and moose hunters, Willerslev relished the bitter conditions, spoke Russian, loved to hunt, and recognized the simple needs and terrible poverty among the hunters and their families. They had grown to rely on the state enterprise called the Sakhabult, which bought their furs at a fixed low price, allowing them then to purchase low-priced basics such as food, ammunition, vodka and gasoline. However, the impoverished hunters never saw the huge profits the monopoly garnered at international auction. Willerslev’s idea was to cut out the mafia middlemen: First, he and his partner in the Danish-Yakaghir Fur Project, Uffe Christensen, enlisted the seasoned hunting patriarch Kolya Shalugin, who was caught selling the commune’s vehicles and fixtures, before petering out into alcoholism. Then Slava Shadrin, a teacher, assumed the leadership of the commune and took his grievances against the Sakhabult monopoly directly to President Putin, to limited effect. Resentment of the Danes’ interference inflamed the mafia, naturally, and Willerslev had to hide out in the harsh winter taiga for many months, living by his hunting, wits and the kindness of his fellow hunters. His account is a fascinating study of this remote pocket of ethnic Yakuts, who adhere tenaciously to an ancient language and livelihood despite the existential challenges.
A lively anthropological study encompassing the total belief system of these rare, hardy Arctic hunters.