This weeks reading from Vitebsky’s The Reindeer People falls into a slightly different category from the other pieces we have covered so far this semester. It wasn’t a compilation of research and studies that were constructed into a foundation for some overarching idea about the origins and definition of domestication like we saw with Diamond and Bulliet. It was simply a story. Vitebsky discovered a group of extraordinary people who were so unique from the everyday masses, and he set out to tell their tale. He definitely has his own opinions and theories weaved into the web that is the reindeer people’s life, but for the most part he allows his experiences to speak for themselves. As a result, I found it very easy to just sit back and enjoy myself while I read about the Eveny and their exceptional way of life.
There were a plethora of intriguing ideas throughout the portions of this book that we covered, but, for the sake of a post that is shorter than the work itself, I decided to focus on just one of these topics. I thought it was fascinating how the Eveny people placed so much value and faith in the actions of animals, both wild and domestic. The concept of Bayanay and of the close spiritual connection of the people and the animals and the land and even possessions like knives and guns seemed like such a foreign idea to me at first glance. However, as I continued reading I began to see many parallels between the Eveny’s cultural ideas and our own. This may seem like a strange connection at first but I will do my best to explain myself.
The first interesting overlap that hit me was in connection to our modern cinema. The whole idea of Bayanay and ever-present spirits is very similar to the views of the Na’vi people of Pandora in the movie Avatar. I thought this was a very interesting connection because in the movie the idea of our “connected-ness” to nature was portrayed a strange and foreign, yet the Eveny people are an example of human beings who have extremely similar views on nature. As I compared the movie and the book, I began to see so many similarities between the two that I started to wonder if maybe Vitebsky and James Cameron had gotten together at some point wrote the movie together haha. I won’t go into too much detail about it all because I feel like I am straying off topic, but just to provide some examples; the mining of unobtainium on Pandora vs. the mining of precious metals by Russian miners in the Eveny territories of Siberia, the close ties of people to animals which is taken so far as to be a literal connection between the Na’vi and the species of Pandora when they intertwine their braids with the animals the are riding, and the pressures of invading individuals on maintaining an established culture (communist Russians for the Eveny and humans for the Na’vi).
Another interesting thought I had had to do with the Eveny use of reading into animal symbols to see the future. There were many examples throughout the text of Eveny people seeing strange behaviors of animals as omens for things to come. For example, Kesha tells a story of a swan landing on a lake in front of him when he was out hunting one day which he later took to symbolize that he would meet his wife Lyuda. At the time, there was no way that Kesha could have known what the strange swan sighting was meant to symbolize, if anything at all, but it so happened that an event in the future (the meeting of his future wife Lyuda) made the symbolism of the swan evident. I couldn’t help but think of a fortune cookie when I read this story. A fortune cookie is a seemingly meaningless phrase at first, but as the future unfolds, an event often occurs that seems to validate the fortune. For example, you might get a fortune that says “A pleasant surprise is in store for you” which makes no sense until your old friend from grade school surprises you with a visit a couple weeks later. This struck me because it shows a sort of similarity between our culture and that of the Eveny people, when on the surface there doesn’t seem to be anything even remotely similar between the two groups lifestyles. I continued to think about this concept and a thought provoking question hit me. Do these animal signs and fortunes that we come across in everyday life cause us to act different subconsciously as a means of fulfilling whatever it is that we think the sign represents? Or to word it another way, do we make different choices than we might normally have because we have a lingering feeling in the back of our heads from the strange swan we saw or open-ended fortune we read last week? In relation to the book, there is a story about a girl, I can’t remember her name at the moment, who finds an Eveny knife and is told by those around her that she has actually found a husband because the knife often symbolizes this. It turns out that she does end up marrying an Eveny man in the future. To tie this into my question, does the fact that she found an Eveny knife make her more likely to give Eveny men more of a chance in the future, while at the same time blocking out attempts by Russian or Sakha men? I suppose this wasn’t really the type of question Vitebsky was trying to get us to ask but I thought it might be an interesting discussion all the same.
The last two parallels that I thought of between us and the Eveny peoples had to do with their ability to see the future in dreams and their lack of telling people about a good omen in a dream for fear that it won’t come true. In relation to the first parallel, I think that the ability to see the future in a very ambiguous form, like in Varya’s story about how she dreamt that she was walking next to a river in a strange place with her sister-in-law making a garland of flowers which ended up coming true when she was brought to see her dead brother, could be described in our society as déjà vu. The idea that you have already experienced the present at some point in the past happens to many people, and this may be what Varya is describing here. Maybe we all have some deep connection with nature and the Eveny people have just realized it to a larger extent than others which has led them to their different way of life. Finally, my second parallel about the fear of spoiling a good omen seems to relate to the idea we have about not “jinxing” things. In a conversation Vitebsky had with one of his many Eveny friends, the idea of keeping a good omen secret until it comes to pass is brought up. Vitebsky is told that telling someone else of a good omen will cause it not to come true. This is similar to when someone today predicts a positive outcome and is told “Don’t jinx it!” No matter whether you live in a cabin in Siberia or an apartment in Blacksburg, there is a natural fear of spoiling a good thing by voicing it too early. Are we all subconsciously worried that we will offend Bayanay if we get too cocky?
Well, I may have gotten a little carried away there and I apologize if I swayed off of the domestication topic, but I think we have all come to realize that nothing is really too far off the mark in this class, haha. To summarize the meanderings above, I just think that maybe at heart, we really aren’t all that different from the Eveny people, we just have a different way of explaining natures phenomena.