Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Reindeer People, Piers Vitebsky

From the beauties of summer to the desolate tundra of Siberia -- I have just finished reading a fascinating, wonderfully written book by anthropologist Piers Vitebsky who lived in Siberia among the Eveny people off and on for several years. He writes like a novelist, the reindeer herders become individuals -- and to them, each reindeer is a individual, whether the semi-domesticated "uchakhs", the gelded ones trained to be ridden and to pull sledges, or the even less domesticated ones in their private herds.

In the course of the book the picture of how the Soviet Union set out to destroy this ancient nomadic society and turn reindeer herding into a meat growing industry, and what has happened to the people since Communism folded and became consumerism is heart breaking from the beginning. Every native culture I have read about has been attacked by bigger forces and most have fared very, very badly and sadly. This is very true for the several tribes of reindeer herders in the Arctic circle. Their shamans were systematically killed [just as the monesetaries of Tibet and Mongolia and western China were destroyed]. Priceless knowledge has been lost forever, most of it knowledge that passed only by word of mouth from shaman to apprentice over many years.

The reindeer itself is a marvel, it can withstand winter temperatures that drop to -95 degrees, that the people find a way to withstand the same is even more amazing. It is easy to sink into narrow contemplation of one's own life and even try to ignore newspaper headlines, but I think it is also necessary to educate ourselves as best we can about the many other peoples who share the earth. A narrow view makes us narrow people. The wider view often makes us deeply sad, I don't think that's a bad thing.


folkways notebooks said...

June, Your book review of the reindeer people sounds fascinating. I am going to order it at the library. The indigenous people of the world are having a difficult time retaining their cultures. This is upsetting as we are losing a rich knowledge of plants and ways that could be beneficial to the world as a whole. Thanks for the excellent review. -- barbara

willow said...

Fascinating. Reindeer are handsome creatures. -95 degrees? Amazing.