Reindeer rejuiced

This week’s readings on Vitbsky’s The Reindeer People had some very interesting things to say. The book as a whole was much unlike what we’ve been reading, as this was more of a story than a non-fiction, yet it was both, and made for an interesting read. The story is along the lines of this: A scholar is interested in the domesticated reindeer, and the people that came about it. He then visits, and ends up staying in a remote village, where literally the entire economy is centered around reindeer. Everyone who’s anyone works with the reindeer, or indirectly with the people that do.

The book starts off with some touching, essential details giving background information on the Eveny people, or these people that live in Siberia. He tells about the stories of the first following herds of wild reindeer, as well as domesticating them. The reindeer were so important to the Eveny people, as they had many stories on them, tattooed images of powerful reindeer on their bodies, and even dressed up horses as reindeer for sacrificial events. This comes to my first question I’ll be asking, as a co-leader of this week’s discussion: 1)What do you think made the reindeer so… immediate in the Eveny lifestyles?

As thousands of years and life progressed onward, we come to a time (in the book, that is) of communism in these lands. The Eveny ways are being “liberated” from Russian lifestyle, as they deemed these people as “backward” citizens. The even went as far as  arrest Vitebsky for reading a book on Shamanism! They literally took over the herding of the reindeer, and conformed it to meet the needs of the controlling government, leaving very little to the inhabitants of the land (except for the able-bodied who worked on hearding these reindeer, they were offered decent pay, vacations, etc). It almost seemed, no, it DID seem that the government was almost forcing the entire labor force of that area to partake in herding the reindeer, strictly for the benefits.

Reading this striked up a few questions, which I would encourage anyone to comment on now, but we will be going over in class as well (since I am a discussion leader):

  1. Already said, but here I will expand: 1)What do you think made the reindeer so… immediate in the Eveny lifestyles? Could it have been another animal, should reindeer have never existed? Do you think the sacredness  came before or after the domestication of the reindeer?
  2. What were some of the reasons the communist party wanted to rid the nomad way of life? Did classifying reindeer herding as strictly an “economic activity” have anything to do with this?
  3. What is the difference between the Eveny and the Sakha? (I honestly don’t know, so that’s why I’m asking, not as much as a discussion question, more for my benefit)
  4. Why do you think the Soviets were investing so much into reindeer herding in these areas? Why would they give benefits to these workers they deemed backwards, and gave prizes, cash, vacations, etc. to them?
  5. Could anyone explain the reasoning behind why the Eveny believe the animals were spiritually and psychologically more complex? What changes their views on reindeer to bears, birds, or other animals, including…
  6. Wolves!?! The Eveny own dogs, love and cherish them, as they do most animals, but when it comes to wolves, they have little to no sympathy. Why? Is it because of their ancestors who literally made it seem that wolves were competing with humans for meat?
  7. More about wolves: Many wolf metaphors came about this previously stated topic. One being the wolf who profits on you drinking their vodka, fighting, and doing dumb things. Who are the “wolves” of today’s world, more importantly, of our culture?
  8. Give me insights on the Bayanay, and how the Eveny people viewed him. Everything from accidental kill, to hunting, to killing for protection, what do you think the Eveny believe about his presence in all these situations?
  9. Dreams and animals seem to go hand in hand with this culture. What kind of ties with a person’s subconscious dream world about animals and their outside lives can you think of? I guess it’s all about how sacred the animals are in their culture, but would you go far enough to say that animals have domesticated these people as well, by basing their religion and culture around them?

There are plenty of things to talk about here, and I’m sure my co-leader will have many other points to bring up as well in class.

25 thoughts on “Reindeer rejuiced

  1. On your 4th question, the Soviets cared so much about the reindeer herders because they wanted to “modernize” them and turn them into another part of the Soviet system. The benefits the workers received were meant to integrate them into the Soviet system and turn them into proper Soviet citizens. It was partly because they were “backward” that the Soviets invested so much into them. Reindeer meat also proved to be an important commodity as well.

    I think the Eveny disliked wolves so much because wolves did compete with them for meat. Every reindeer a wolf killed was food that the Eveny did not have anymore. It seems easy to hate something that is stealing the food out of your mouth.

  2. I agree with Ben’s comments about the wolves above. It is very hard to view any person or animal that steals directly from you in a positive light. I thought it was interesting that the wolves were such a large problem for the Eveny people, yet in most of the other readings we have done wolves and humans typically have a very mutualistic relationship. Why didn’t the Eveny people and the wolves develop the mutual hunting relationship we have come to associate with their domestication as dogs? Does it have to do with the lack of resources and harsh environment of Siberia? Maybe there just wasn’t enough food to go around to sustain both the wolves and the Eveny people (who also used extra meat to supply the Russians with food when they came in and took control) which forced them into competition. Or maybe it is something else altogether. I don’t really know. If we have extra time on Tuesday maybe we could discuss this!

  3. I think an interesting topic is the symbolism of alcohol on the Envy people representing the negative effects of the Russian Government on them.

  4. My attempt at answering Question 1):

    I would bet the reindeer became some sort of religious symbol far before they were domesticated. I’m reminded of two things: the Native Americans that hunted and relied on the bison of the great plains, and Bulliet’s attempt at explaining an order to how domestication began in deep history. My theory: Native people in deep history initially began using, and relying on a few select resources. In some environments, this meant relying on a single species as a source of sustenance for virtually every aspect of life. Such an extreme dependency combined with a lack of scientific knowledge about the world creates a religious importance surrounding said animal. And who can blame these people? The abundance and availability of the species literally determines a people’s survival. The closer this relationship became, the more ‘domesticated’ humanity and their animal were to each other. Such a close relationship sometimes resulted in total domestication, depending on the genetic potential in the species for such a thing. In our example, the Bison were not domesticated by the Native Americans (although certain members of surviving tribes have gotten around to doing that, probably with Western influence). While reading, I didn’t understand whether the Eveny domesticated reindeer before or after the demand of the Soviets. Regardless, I conclude that both the plains Indians’ and Eveny’s ability to domesticate their respective animals was the main determinate in their survival. If the Eveny did not domesticate their reindeer until forced to by the Soviets, then we may simply amend our conclusion to say that the Eveny adapted to the foreign idea of domestication, while the North American Indian did not.

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