The Reindeer People

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.

4 thoughts on “The Reindeer People

  1. In the spirit of my last blog post, I have to take issue with the way you use the words “advance” and progress.” The Eveny didn’t develop in the same way the West did because they are not the West. I very much disagree with a lot of Diamond’s argument, this being one aspect of it. I don’t think his theory can or should be applied to every group of people. The reasons you list near the end of your post are plausible reasons why the Eveny did not change in the same way as groups of people in the West, but I think it is incorrect to say they are reasons why the Eveny did not “advance.” As I said in my last blog post, I think we need to be careful about how we use value laden terms like “progress.”

  2. OK, here’s some criticism, as requested: central to Diamond’s theory, I believe, is the idea that not only have successful societies domesticated animals, but they have also developed complex agriculture systems. Siberia isn’t really an ideal location for plant-based agriculture. However, I agree with you, I’d be really interested to hear what Diamond thinks of the Eveny, because the Eveny appear to have domesticated reindeer without complex plant-based agriculture.

    I also wondered about the development of the beliefs that reindeer fly. If they don’t actually fly (which, obviously, they don’t) the Eveny must have held them in very regard to have come up with that belief.

  3. Diamonds theory on Animal domestication explains that geography and the type of animals available for human interaction will determine the ultimate “progress” of society. Camilla points to the lack of plant agriculture central to diamonds theory. It is due, as discussed, partially to the harsh environment that the Envey people remained grounded in their traditions. It may be the culture and tradition that influenced more how reindeer eventually did not change the “progress” of the Envey society.

    Although reindeer are domesticated animals bound by ecological constraints to exponential growth, their symbolism and value to culture still persists and I think is the reason they never became modern domestic animals.

  4. I found the information on reindeer and flying interesting as well. Out of ignorance I had just assumed reindeer flight abilities came from the story of Santa Claus and I never imagined that the story of Santa Claus adapted other cultural ideals. I remember the quote you cited in the reading and it made me wonder why after 500 years were reindeer more revered? And is there a cause behind the obvious association between reindeer and birds evident in paintings and myths.
    To some extent I believe the Eveny have proved Diamond wrong because they are more than a simple hunter and gatherer society despite their hostel location. The fact that the domestication of the reindeer contributed to this success proves Diamond wrong in my opinion but then again it is obvious that the Eveny people are not a post-domestic society. In the readings we even learn of their resistance to post-domestic society and how it doesn’t suit they’re life style. This is obviously because of their culture so one could argue that this culture stemmed from their location and inability to completely shed the constraints of hunting and gathering. The domestication of the reindeer is unique in all aspects and this is probably why our other readings only mention it in passing.
    The most interesting part of the book for me was wondering if the author truly believed the ceremonies and myths he was exposed to. As a modern western culture we can clearly see the lack of reason and science in some of their beliefs. Other beliefs, however, may not site science as a source even when it is. For example in the readings they talk about how it is bad for flies to only be at your tent and no other. To me this could indicate rotting flesh or an infected wound that would cause this, but the Eveny people only use their culture and superstitions to explain such things.

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