In our past reading, Goat Song, we explored the cultural and societal impacts of the pastoral raising of herd animals like goats, cows, and sheep. The current reading, The Reindeer People, dives into the same topics with a different subject, the nomadic herders of reindeer. There is a huge cultural difference between these two societies, possibly stemming from the differences between their domesticates.
Pastoral societies developed monotheistic religions, with one all-powerful god ruling over his people, possibly mirroring the relationship between a shepherd and his flock. In contrast, the native religions of Siberia focus more on spirits inhabiting people, animals, and places. While reindeer are domesticated, they have changed very little in appearance, and don’t immediately convey a sense of human dependence like pigs and cow do. What this means is that animals are seen more as independent entities to be bargained with, rather than exploited. When an animal is killed there are necessary rituals to complete, just as when a person dies. Rather than harnessing animals’ power like in pastoral cultures, shamans merged with animals to gain their abilities. While most animals were deserving of some amount of respect within the reindeer herders’ cultures, there was one animal deserving of scorn, the wolf. Wolves are competitors and thieves, stealing ones work and killing without any respect.
An interesting mental quirk is described in The Reindeer People, demonstrating how humans can compartmentalize their beliefs. While hunting game or predators, the animals are only seen as instances of their species, “a wolf” or “an elk.” By contrast, domesticated animals are more often given names and seen as individuals. This same phenomenon can be seen in the modern world applied to out post-domestic society. We are taught that cows go moo and pigs go oink, but otherwise don’t generally develop any personal attachment to them. These animals domesticated for food are rarely given individual names and are instead seen as individual instances of the species as a whole. We do, however, form deep attachments to our pets and animals domesticated for companionship. It’s interesting to see a similar disparity in attitudes in a society involved with its domesticates.
11 thoughts on “Pastoralism vs Arctic Nomads”
I like your comments about the difference between all encompassing and homogenous “cows” and unique and personalized “our dog Rover.” I think it’s a function of how close we are to something, be it animal or person. We’re very close to pets, so we automatically assume other people’s dogs (or cats, though come on… dogs > cats) are as unique as ours and usually attribute them a specific name rather than just a bland mark of “dog.” Do you think that could be a factor in interactions between people (like racism)? For instance: I know nothing about this person other than the fact he/she is black/yellow/red/white/brown. Because I’m not close to them, they mean nothing to me and can thus be described by the color of their skin. As soon as we interact with people on a more individual and meaningful level, we realize a broad stroke can’t describe them and assign them a “higher status” in our order of thinking?
That comment makes a lot of sense in my head but if you don’t understand it please forgive me, it’s been a long weekend and my brain is fried on Biochemistry…
Kelly I think you’re right in applying that logic to racism. There are a bunch of studies in psychology and sociology that show that “cooperative contact” between racial groups (or other types of groups) can often reduce conflict and lead to improved relations. An example might be something called “jigsaw classrooms” where children are given pieces of information, and that information must be combined cooperatively to complete an assignment. It forces interracial students to cooperate and their relations improve afterwards.
Though I’m interested in the discussion that compares your comments to racism among humans, I’m more intrigued by your connection to pastoral societies and nomadic societies and the dictation on their religion. I think you’ve picked up on something here, especially in that pastoral societies have developed a religion that mirrors their relationship with God as their shepherd. Furthermore, God granted Adam dominion over animals, which I think has had a lasting impression on the relationship with animals in a Christian society, in which humans are viewed as the most important beings and all other creatures are at our mercy. This is different from the society of the reindeer people in which all living things have souls and a consciousness just like humans do. This could have a very lasting impression on how each of those societies treat their domesticated animals.
” God granted Adam dominion over animals, which I think has had a lasting impression on the relationship with animals in a Christian society, in which humans are viewed as the most important beings and all other creatures are at our mercy. This is different from the society of the reindeer people in which all living things have souls and a consciousness just like humans do.” This really gets to the heart of a fundamental difference in cosmologies and we should all probably reflect on that as we think about how we (in the 21st-century West) makes sense of domestication and our relationships with other animals.
Another quick thought re: nomads and pastoralists — they are not mutually exclusive modalities. The Eveni, for example, are both….
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