This post will be little different than previous ones. Rather than rant about a single point made throughout the reading, I’ll be jumping around between smaller pieces of the reading I’d like to write about, as I’m having trouble finding a large enough theme that I can really write passionately (read: angrily) about.
I was rather excited to learn that the link between reindeers and flying has its roots in history, and goes beyond the trappings of Santa-Claus-Western-Commercialization. I’d like to make a note on an almost passing remark by Vitebsky, “On earlier stones the image of the reindeer is simple, but some 500 years later it has become more ornate.” So the Eveny experienced relatively little cultural change for at least 500 years? I’m always astounded by how long indigenous and native peoples can maintain a way of life. Now, the author goes into more depth about how the Eveny have survived thousands of years with the reindeer, but I thought I’d use this quote as it’s the first real mention of their exceptionally long time span that I’ve seen.
Now on to my point: does the Eveny’s existence contradict Diamond’s theory of geography, particularly animal domestication, playing the most pivotal role in societal and technological development? Certainly these people have made advancements, such as transitioning from nomadic to domestic livelihoods, and they’ve certainly had a degree of success surviving for thousands of years in Siberia. But I would have expected these people to achieve a more ‘Westernized’ society by now. I generally agree with Diamond’s hypothesis, but hasn’t this society shown that reindeer are a major domestic species? Are they not used for thigns that other European domestic animals are, such as food, transportation, work, and ceremony? While the reindeer is certainly unique compared to the traditional banal animals domesticated by Europe, like the cow, pig, and horse, it appears to fulfill many of the same functions that Diamond touts as the keys to societal abundance and domination. I’d ultimately like to see Diamond’s paradigm remain accurate, so any criticisms as to why my question is flawed are very welcome.
Let’s talk about the deeply religious role the reindeer plays in Eveny society. Vitebsky goes into great breadth and depth describing the ceremonies of the shamans, and the more I read, the more I’m confused as to how it was all accepted by the people. Flying reindeer? Really? The shamans clearly couldn’t fly, so how did they convince themselves and the onlookers that such a thing actually happened? Vitebsky even writes “I do not understand how the old Eveny acted out the experience of flying through the air, but they would mime their return to Earth by sitting on their reindeer as if they were arriving from a long journey, expressing tiredness, unsaddling their mount, pitching a tent, and lighting a fire.” I suppose my confusion, in some ways, reflects my expectations of Diamond’s theory. I don’t understand how a people with a potentially domestic relationship (at the time these ceremonies were being performed) were so unenlightened on reason and science (I think my arrogant Westernism might be showing). Everything I’ve read about these people makes me suspect they’re some form of anomaly, something beyond Diamond’s theories that never ‘advanced’ in the same manner that Western cultures did as a result of domestication. I can think of a number of reasons why: religious ceremonies that never allowed the Eveny to view their animals as property, extremely harsh environments that prohibit technological advancement regardless of society, the reindeer being too poor of a domesticate to properly increase ‘progress’.
I’ve searched online for summaries of this book, and it seems that Vitebsky focuses the Eveny throughout the book more than their reindeer counterparts. I’m not entirely sure where this is all going and how I can fit it into the larger ‘domestication worldview’ I’ve developed so far through this course. We’ll see how it goes, but I’m a little wary about this. Not in the same way I view Bulliet, I just haven’t found out how to approach reading this book.