In the film Frozen, ice-hauler Kristoff is best friends with his pet reindeer Sven, and prefers the company of Sven to any human. He even sings a little song:
“Reindeers are better than people/Sven, don’t you think that’s true?”
I couldn’t help but be reminded of Kristoff and Sven while reading Piers Vitebsky’s account of the Eveny nomads in The Reindeer People. While it doesn’t seem like most reindeer usually embody the dog-like relationship with their owners that Sven does, the level of interaction and codependency between the reindeer and nomadic tribes of Russia was amazing. I’ve never been one for history, but I couldn’t believe the richness of the history surrounding the domestication of the reindeer. Domesticating this animal made it usable in so many ways that I wonder why it never really caught on in North America. They are almost the perfect animal for domestication: they’re meat, but can also be used as beasts of burden and transportation. I’d always been taught in my biology classes that the only difference between reindeer and caribou (taxonomically speaking) was that reindeer were the domesticated version and caribou were the wild version of the same species; however Vitebsky presents them as being divided almost by where they live (caribou in Canada, reindeer in Russia- maybe it was just the alliteration?). In any case, they are the same animal, so theoretically they would provide the same advantages to Northern American natives that they did to the nomadic tribes of Russia. Vitebsky even states that the migration of reindeer into North America from Russia was likely due to their close relationship with migrating people, so why didn’t that relationship stick in the same way it has in Russia for thousands of years?
Another part of The Reindeer People that really struck me was the parallel between the happenings of Soviet politics and the process of reindeer domestication. The chapter “Civilizing the Nomads” really brings the metaphor into light- the “more civilized” people of the Soviet Union were domesticating the nomadic people in the same way we domesticate animals, and eventually made it impossible for them to live completely independently, as they had for generations. They took their sons and daughters under the promise of giving them a better education, and while they may have done so, they also turned them into the equivalent of the reindeer decoys; this better educated generation was their way to spread their politics and control back to the previously “wild” people of the north. It was much easier in this way to ensure that they soon became dependent (on some level) on higher civilization. I’m not saying that the reindeer people will start carrying around iPhones, however the Soviet interference forced them to begin to need the biplanes, helicopters, and hospitals that they provided.
It is admirable, however, that the reindeer people have maintained as similar a lifestyle to their ancestors as possible in this day and age, and have passed down their language and religion so successfully through the centuries. It reminds me a bit of the Amish in the US- while they occasionally use conveniences such as hospitals, they have pretty much lived the same way for hundreds of years, and have kept their beliefs strong all this time.
I’ve gotten a little off the topic of domestication, but I guess that reindeer have become such an integral part of Eveny history that it wouldn’t be possible for them to live the way they do today without them, even with modern society imposing itself on them more and more. I’m not sure if I agree with Kristoff entirely (I’m more inclined to agree with the second verse of his song, “/people smell better than reindeers/”), however The Reindeer People was definitely a great example of how the lives of humans and a domesticated species can become so intertwined that they are close to indistinguishable, and being a part of that culture would be really fascinating.
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March 31, 2014 @ 9:39 pm
Apparently there have been projects to introduce reindeer herding in Alaska as early as the 1890s, between 20 and 30 years after it was purchased from Russia. (http://www.foresthistory.org/fellowships/willis.pdf) That reminded me of another similar project, introducing camels to the mid-west. Unfortunately they didn’t work well alongside horses and couldn’t deal with rocky terrain. (http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2011/01/03/the-military-camels-of-the-north-american-west/)
March 31, 2014 @ 8:19 pm
I’m glad Kara hasn’t seen Frozen because I was worried I was the only person around who had missed it! There are so many good ideas in this post. I agree that the caribou / reindeer /domestication triad is really interesting. The piece that intrigues me the most is the presence of both wild and domestic reindeer in the same place and the liminality of domestication in this context. I’ve read this book several times, and still can’t quite get my head around the Eveni’s use of domestic reindeer to hunt wild reindeer. BTW, Sven needs to get a handle on the plural of reindeer.
Kara Van Scoyoc
March 30, 2014 @ 2:51 pm
I also liked the parallel between the Soviet era and the method of domestication. Most of the other excerpts we have read have been the capitalist system and how this has altered the domestication process but the Communist perspective was an interesting change. I have yet to see Frozen so I don’t understand the reference but from reading the novel I agree that reindeer seem like the perfect animal for domestication and don’t see why it didn’t catch on in other areas as well.
March 30, 2014 @ 1:35 pm
First of all, excellent Frozen reference.
I like the way you examined Soviet interference as a method of domesticating the native peoples. It makes sense in a way, but can we ever really say that humans have been/could be domesticated by other humans? If domestication is dependent on dependence, I don’t see how that would be accomplished. Let’s say one group of people becomes dependent on another, and then are suddenly abandoned. I think that after a generation (or perhaps even sooner) most would grow to be independent and self sufficient. Perhaps a better word might be tame?
March 31, 2014 @ 9:47 pm
The idea of domesticated people makes me think of The Time Machine, where humanity had diverged into two groups, a society of effeminate idle people, and the cannibalistic under-dwellers who feed on them and provide them with material goods. Except in such an extreme sense I can’t see “domesticated people” being applicable in the sense you’re using it.