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The Reindeer People: Living with Animals and Spirits in Siberiaby Piers Vitebsky
Synopses & Reviews
Since the last Ice Age, the reindeer's extraordinary adaptation to cold has sustained human life over vast tracts of the earth's surface, providing meat, fur, and transport. Images carved into rocks and tattooed on the skin of mummies hint at ancient ideas about the reindeer's magical ability to carry the human soul on flights to the sun. These images pose one of the great mysteries of prehistory: the "reindeer revolution," in which Siberian native peoples tamed and saddled a species they had previously hunted.
Drawing on nearly twenty years of field work among the Eveny in northeast Siberia, Piers Vitebsky shows how Eveny social relations are formed through an intense partnership with these extraordinary animals as they migrate over the swamps, ice sheets, and mountain peaks of what in winter is the coldest inhabited region in the world. He reveals how indigenous ways of knowing involve a symbiotic ecology of mood between humans and reindeer, and he opens up an unprecedented understanding of nomadic movement, place, memory, habit, and innovation.
The Soviets' attempts to settle the nomads in villages undermined their self-reliance and mutual support. In an account both harrowing and funny, Vitebsky shows the Eveny's ambivalence toward productivity plans and medals and their subversion of political meetings designed to control them. The narrative gives a detailed and tender picture of how reindeer can act out or transform a person's destiny and of how prophetic dreaming about reindeer fills a gap left by the failed assurances of the state.
Vitebsky explores the Eveny experience of the cruelty of history through the unfolding and intertwining of their personal lives. The interplay of domestic life and power politics is both intimate and epic, as the reader follows the diverging fate of three charismatic but very different herding families through dangerous political and economic reforms. The book's gallery of unforgettable personalities includes shamans, psychics, wolves, bears, dogs, Communist Party bosses, daredevil aviators, fire and river spirits, and buried ancestors. The Reindeer People is a vivid and moving testimony to a Siberian native people's endurance and humor at the ecological limits of human existence.
"In northeast Siberia, temperatures can drop to 96 degrees below zero. Boiling water flung from a teacup will freeze before reaching the ground. In these unimaginable conditions, the Eveny nomads have lived and thrived for thousands of years. Vitebsky, who teaches anthropology and Russian studies at Cambridge University, has spent much of the last 20 years among these people and their herds of reindeer. No dry anthropological study, his story teems with strong personalities, perilous adventures and time-honored folkways. Wearing thick reindeer coats and boots, Vitebsky accompanies the tribesmen across Siberia seeking small animals to trap and sell. He meets hunters who live alone for a year at a time, Russian bureaucrats whose only concern is making quotas set by their comrades in Moscow, and the extended families whose ties bind them through month-long blizzards and the simple stuff of daily life. At the story's center are the reindeer, providing meat, clothing and income. While the Eveny's ancestors followed the reindeer, migrating from Upper Mongolia to northern Siberia, present-day Eveny now tame, cultivate and survive with them in almost perfect balance. With grace, courage and sensitivity, Vitebsky reveals an extraordinary world, spinning a tale to warm any winter's night. Photos. Agent, Kathleen Anderson. (Dec. 8)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
In this acclaimed work, the anthropologist Piers Vitebsky offers a unique account of the Eveny, nomads who live in intimate partnership with an extraordinary animal. For centuries reindeer have provided the Eveny with food, fur, transport, and spiritual sustenance, enabling them to survive in the world's coldest inhabited region, the Siberian taiga, where winter ice freezes six feet thick and the temperature drops to ninety-six degrees below zero.
The book presents a gallery of unforgettable personalities, including shamans, psychics, wolves, bears, dogs, Communist Party bosses, daredevil aviators, and the spirits of fires and rivers. Based on nearly two decades of fieldwork, The Reindeer People is an enthralling and moving testimony to a Siberian native people's humor and endurance at the ecological limits of human existence.
Long before Santa Claus, the Eveny of Siberia knew that reindeer could fly. Elders still tell of deer-borne flights, while young people smile in disbelief. The Eveny, whose lives have revolved around reindeer for thousands of years, inhabit one of the most inhospitable places on Earth. In the long winter, ice freezes six feet thick and the temperature drops to ninety-six below; in the brief summer it rises to ninety above, and the clouds of mosquitoes are as dark as thunderheads. Yet the Eveny love their nomadic way of life and quietly resisted Soviet efforts to destroy it.
For two decades now Piers Vitebsky, often joined by his wife and children, has lived among the Eveny for a good part of every year. In The Reindeer People he tells their amazing story of survival against all odds.
About the Author
PIERS VITEBSKY is the head of anthropology and Russian northern studies at the Scott Polar Research Institute at the University of Cambridge. His previous books include Shamanism and Dialogues with the Dead: The Discussion of Mortality Among the Sora of Eastern India. The Reindeer People has been selected as a finalist for the 2006 Kiriyama Prize in nonfiction.
Table of Contents
Preface and Acknowledgements vii Maps, Figures and Illustrations xi Dramatis Personae xiii
PROLOGUE Soul-flight to the sun 3
PART I THE PARTNERSHIP OF REINDEER AND HUMANS 1 The prehistoric reindeer revolution 17 2 Civilizing the nomads 40
PART II A TALE OF TWO HERDS 3 The massacre of Grannyand#8217;s 2,000 reindeer, camp 7 63 4 Grannyand#8217;s herd restored: late summer site, 1and#150;2 August 78 5 Migrating into autumn, 3and#150;8 August 106 6 Kostyaand#8217;s mushroom crisis, camp 10 129
INTERLUDE: SOLITUDE AND SILENCE Vladimir Nikolayevichand#8217;s winter hunt 151
PART III BEADS FOR THE NATIVES 7 Frightened children and disdainful women 183 8 Men fulfilled and men in despair, camp 196 9 Landscape with Gulag: brushed by White Manand#8217;s Madness 212 10 Killing the shaman and internalizing betrayal 231
PART IV SPIRITS OF THE LAND 11 Animal souls and human destiny 259 12 Dreams of love and death 285 13 Sacrificing at a nomadand#8217;s grave 311 14 Bringing my family 331 15 How to summon a helicopter 351
EPILOGUE Outliving the end of empire 369
Notes (indicated by asterisk in text) 399 Bibliography 437 Index 449
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