Feeling the Magic of Reindeer?

Never before had I thought to consider ancient or current civilizations who live(ed) in the quite large geographic regions home to reindeer. Maybe it’s something about the deep cold or seasonal changes seemingly different than my own. Nevertheless, I am astonished by the meanings of their traditions and the pervasiveness of the reindeer in the human cultures which thrived there and around the globe.

The reindeer process of domestication at the beginning seems to be an impossible puzzle. How could no word from the language be able to encompass both domesticated and wild reindeer? How could there be no evidence of successfully domesticating reindeer in the present? The author presents two theories. (1) Domestication may have happened further south in conjunction with other animals or (2) could have occurred with the Tungus people living east of lake Baikal. The only other time I’ve heard of Lake Baikal was watching the movie, “The Way Back” with the characterization of Siberia and the area there as the only true prison. It was reindeer that allowed thousands of miles to be colonized. Does having a partner in nature help humans survive in that nature through unconscious increased trust?

In previous blog posts about milk I have been dismissing the idea that the domestication of animals could have been for other uses than food. What else is a more basic need than a reliable food supply as an argument for domestication emergence? No reindeer were kept on a large scale for eating until after 1600 but were domesticated 3,000 years ago.

The trip the author made to Sebyan pained an interesting picture of a different culture paradigm founded on the surrounding nature. It was not the mileage but the, “capriciousness of these mountains that made Sebyan so inaccessible.” Despite the harsh landscape, the village was made and life within it was rich and complex. By using the materials in the harsh landscape the people respected the harshness and could then happily exist within it. To what degree are our ideas changed when humans completely alter their landscapes to an unrecognizable human utility form? Or is it just a consequence of the landscape being too harsh to completely control? Can it be said that the reindeer is a unique domesticated animal because of its environment?

“The species wavers between timidity and curiosity, poised paradoxically either to flee or explore.”

To think possible that the stay in a remote Russian log-cabin village in the middle of the arctic tundra would feel like a metropolis is to rethink how our relationship with nature may dictate how we live our lives and how we form relationships with the animals in them.

It’s sadly logical to understand why Russian policies would have tried to prevent the perpetual migration of human settlements following reindeer since it was seen as a “backward” idea. Altering this fundamental relationship of responding to the environment though nomadism or migrating together in annual cycles is still a central problem to reindeer herders today.

A beginning section concluded beautifully in the hopes that his children one day may have reindeer of their own. This possibility so remote due to the structure of communist society but, was not too much for Vitebsky to make clear his feeling that human partnership with reindeer should be part of life. It began easier to understand why such culture, tradition and religion surrounded the reindeer.  The more I read the more I believed they were a little bit magical.

This photo I found here with the caption, “No child of the tundra Yukaghirs ever falls out of these saddles. Reindeer are entrusted even with cradles containing young babies.”

I could consider how the domestication of reindeer at first seems to be somewhat different than other animals due to the spiritual connection. Was this made possible by my own cultural heritage of magical reindeer of Christmas? Could it be true that other domesticated animals were understood at this deep spiritual level too? And, perhaps, has that has allowed for their successful domestication? If so, could it explain why we cannot achieve such a result (the domestication process) with a focus on genetic traits and evolutionary science void of human connection to the individual animal itself?

Perhaps we may never know.

For now all I can say is this spiritual connection and trust reminds me of Christmas nights spent as a child in the snowy Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.

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