The Reindeer People

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Since the last Ice Age, the reindeer's extraordinary adaptation to cold has sustained human life over vast tracts of the earth's surface, providing meat, fur, and transport. Images carved into rocks and tattooed on the skin of mummies hint at ancient ideas about the reindeer's magical ability to carry the human soul on flights to the sun. These images pose one of the great mysteries of prehistory: the "reindeer revolution," in which Siberian native peoples tamed and saddled a species they had previously hunted.

Drawing on nearly twenty years of field work among the Eveny in northeast Siberia, Piers Vitebsky shows how Eveny social relations are formed through an intense partnership with these extraordinary animals as they migrate over the swamps, ice sheets, and mountain peaks of what in winter is the coldest inhabited region in the world. He reveals how indigenous ways of knowing involve a symbiotic ecology of mood between humans and reindeer, and he opens up an unprecedented understanding of nomadic movement, place, memory, habit, and innovation.

The Soviets' attempts to settle the nomads in villages undermined their self-reliance and mutual support. In an account both harrowing and funny, Vitebsky shows the Eveny's ambivalence toward productivity plans and medals and their subversion of political meetings designed to control them. The narrative gives a detailed and tender picture of how reindeer can act out or transform a person's destiny and of how prophetic dreaming about reindeer fills a gap left by the failed assurances of the state.

Vitebsky explores the Eveny experience of the cruelty of history through the unfolding and intertwining of their personal lives. The interplay of domestic life and power politics is both intimate and epic, as the reader follows the diverging fate of three charismatic but very different herding families through dangerous political and economic reforms. The book's gallery of unforgettable personalities includes shamans, psychics, wolves, bears, dogs, Communist Party bosses, daredevil aviators, fire and river spirits, and buried ancestors. The Reindeer People is a vivid and moving testimony to a Siberian native people's endurance and humor at the ecological limits of human existence.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Globalization has not yet conquered the Eveny. In fact, it has hardly yet touched down: Recent visitor Piers Vitebsky was the first Westerner to live with this nomadic Siberian reindeer-herding tribe since the Russian Revolution. Anthropologist author Vitebsky makes a persuasive case that the Eveny have more integral links to reindeer culture than to the human outsiders who threaten them with pollution and other forms of environmental destruction. To prove his point, he notes that the Even language devotes more than 1,500 words to reindeer body parts, diseases, eating habits, and moods. The Reindeer People offers an ultimately optimistic portrait of a rugged people who have outlived an oppressive empire and now hope for a better day.
From the Publisher
"This immersion in the lives of some of the world's toughest and most resilient people is a powerfully lovely book."—Bill McKibben

"Remarkable." The Financial Times of London

"Like all the finest anthropology, this book entertains readers with descriptions of an alien culture, only to imbue them with a deeper sense of common humanity." The Times of London

"A wild and vividly described journey to Siberia."—New Scientist

"Extraordinary fieldnotes from the remotest fringes of the reindeer economy . . . A Worthy companion to Arctic Dreams and other landmark books." Kirkus Reviews, Starred

"With grace, courage and sensitivity, Vitebsky reveals an extraordinary world, spinning a tale to warm any winter's night." Publishers Weekly, Starred
"This immersion in the lives of some of the world's toughest and most resilient people is a powerfully lovely book. It is also a kind of triple anthropology—of these ancient people, and of their relations with the Soviet and post-Soviet worlds."—Bill McKibben

"If you read one book this year... read [The] Reindeer People. This book will grip and enlighten anyone... Like the reindeer themselves, this book takes wing."—Daily Telegraph

"A wondrous, complex story...and Vitebsky tells it beautifully...Vitebsky's fascination with his subject and joyful attention to detail are what make this book stand out."—Guardian

"Vitebsky is both an excellent scholar and a gifted writer, with a feeling for landscape and character and a knack for metaphor and allusion... Like all the finest anthropology, this book entertains readers with descriptions of an alien culture, only to imbue them with a deeper sense of common humanity."—The Times

"A wild and vividly described journey to Siberia...Vitebsky draws us into a world where people, land, animals, and the seasons are part of a hard but also deeply spiritual existence."—New Scientist

"A tender and highly personal piece of anthropology."—Daily Mail

"So intimate, so revealing, and so moving...This book is required reading."—Moscow Times

"The author captivates the reader with his delicate sense of human relations and sure grasp of the realities of Eveny liife at an extraordinary moment in history. The power of the narrative and the exquisite evocation of place make this book a masterpiece of anthropological writing."—Professor Jean Briggs, Memorial University of Newfoundland, author of Never in Anger and Inuit Morality Play

William Grimes
Mr. Vitebsky's happiest pages are devoted to the reindeer, the harsh beauty of the taiga and the intimate bond between the Eveny and their animals. Each person has a reindeer guardian angel, and on the trail, wrapped in multiple layers of reindeer-skin clothing, the herders look a little like reindeer themselves. Reindeer hair, which is hollow and traps body heat, has nearly magical insulating powers, which is a good thing, because a herder who leaves his tent without a coat on can freeze to death in minutes.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
In northeast Siberia, temperatures can drop to 96 degrees below zero. Boiling water flung from a teacup will freeze before reaching the ground. In these unimaginable conditions, the Eveny nomads have lived and thrived for thousands of years. Vitebsky, who teaches anthropology and Russian studies at Cambridge University, has spent much of the last 20 years among these people and their herds of reindeer. No dry anthropological study, his story teems with strong personalities, perilous adventures and time-honored folkways. Wearing thick reindeer coats and boots, Vitebsky accompanies the tribesmen across Siberia seeking small animals to trap and sell. He meets hunters who live alone for a year at a time, Russian bureaucrats whose only concern is making quotas set by their comrades in Moscow, and the extended families whose ties bind them through month-long blizzards and the simple stuff of daily life. At the story's center are the reindeer, providing meat, clothing and income. While the Eveny's ancestors followed the reindeer, migrating from Upper Mongolia to northern Siberia, present-day Eveny now tame, cultivate and survive with them in almost perfect balance. With grace, courage and sensitivity, Vitebsky reveals an extraordinary world, spinning a tale to warm any winter's night. Photos. Agent, Kathleen Anderson. (Dec. 8) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
KLIATT - Nola Theiss
Vitebsky is a British anthropologist who lived with the nomadic people of Siberia, the Eveny, and he explores their culture and the world of the reindeer in a beautifully written story about a part of the world few people have visited. In a vast landscape with temperatures that range from —96 to +65 degrees Fahrenheit, ice is a constant condition. The Eveny have learned to live in this climate through their partnership with the reindeer, and in spite of the efforts of the Soviets and the decline in number of the reindeer herds they have maintained their spirit and their spirits. Vitebsky tells about these people with facts and figures, maps and illustrations, but primarily by telling their stories, as indicated by his early listing of "dramatis personae" with the names of the people who lived in the different camps he describes, which is rather reminiscent of reading a Dostoyevsky novel. Like a novel or a play, he divides his story into a Prologue followed by Four Parts with an Interlude and an Epilogue, beginning with prehistoric times and continuing to recent history, the fall of the culture and the spirit of the land. The book is long, with extensive notes, but since it contains the history of an entire people, species, region, and a political history of this part of the Soviet empire, and because it is so well written, it is worth the investment of time.
Library Journal
For most Western readers, the thought of reindeer brings memories of Christmas trees and gifts. For the Eveny tribe of northeastern Siberia, this creature is much more: it is the source of their food, clothing, and transportation, the impetus for lengthy treks across inhospitable terrain, and a spiritual bridge between this world and the next. Vitebsky (anthropology, Russian northern studies, Univ. of Cambridge; The Shaman: Voyages of the Soul Trance, Ecstasy and Healing, from Siberia to the Amazon) has visited these herders every year for almost 20 years, witnessing their struggles not only with a brutal environment but also with the interference of pre- and post-Communist bureaucracies. Here he highlights his visits to the camps of the Eveny and his travels with them on their migrations, portraying their resilience as they cope with blizzards, wolves, government corruption, international market forces, and isolation. As he observes the complex and interdependent relationship between the Eveny and their reindeer, Vitebsky realizes that it is not necessarily so easy to determine who are the herders and who the herded. While anthropological literature has given us many studies of this region, this narrative is as richly detailed and compelling as it is instructive. Recommended for public and undergraduate libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 8/05.]-Dan Harms, SUNY at Cortland Lib. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Extraordinary fieldnotes from the remotest fringes of the reindeer economy. Ethnographer Vitebsky (Scott Polar Research Institute/Univ. of Cambridge) has long journeyed into the northeastern Siberian homeland of the Eveny people, who, he writes, "sensed that they were clinging to the face of the earth for a fleeting moment and wanted my book to be a record, warts and all, of who they had been and how they had lived." The foreboding is understandable, and the book repays their confidence. Whereas the Russians of old had merely tried to exchange booze and Christianity for furs and reindeer meat, their Soviet successors had tried to destroy traditional nomadic society, imprisoning and killing the shamans who mediated between the human and spirit worlds, forcing the Eveny into permanent settlements, driving a wedge between elders, with their "1,500 specialized words for expressing human relations with reindeer," and the young. State support for the Eveny, on which they were economically and psychologically dependent, is a thing of the past; the elders now fear that the young could not live in the taiga even if they had to. Vitebsky travels with old-timers along ancient reindeer migratory routes, marveling at the sophistication of those between-two-worlds people-many of whom had served in the Red Army and knew a thing or two about things like radios and tanks, others of whom were so well known across the vast reaches of Siberia that he likens one to Odysseus, "present even through his absence." The Eveny world is changing indeed, Vitebsky writes, just as the world has changed for all reindeer people, preeminently the Sami, who show a way toward a kind of "reindeer globalism" that might enablethe Eveny to sell reindeer meat as a delicacy to distant markets, export reindeer hide and fur and retain some of the old ways. A worthy companion to V. K. Arseniev's Dersu the Trapper, Barry Lopez's Arctic Dreams and other landmark books of the Far North.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780618773572
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 12/1/2006
  • Edition description: None
  • Pages: 498
  • Sales rank: 811,110
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.11 (d)

Meet the Author

PIERS VITEBSKY is the head of anthropology and Russian northern studies at the Scott Polar Research Institute at the University of Cambridge. His previous books include Shamanism and Dialogues with the Dead: The Discussion of Mortality Among the Sora of Eastern India. The Reindeer People has been selected as a finalist for the 2006 Kiriyama Prize in nonfiction.

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Read an Excerpt


Soul-flight to the Sun

In the Verkhoyansk Mountains of northeast Siberia, Eveny nomads are on the move*. Teams of reindeer pull caravans of sledges down the steep slide of a frozen mountain river. Bells tinkle on the lead reindeer while dogs on short leashes dive closely alongside through the snow like dolphins beside a boat. One man sits on the lead sledge of each caravan, his right foot stretched out in front of him and his left foot resting on the runner ready to fend off hidden rocks and snagging roots. Passengers or cargo sit on the sledges behind. The passage of each caravan is visible from afar by a cloud of frozen reindeer breath.
This is the coldest inhabited place on earth, with winter temperatures falling to −96°F (−71°C). The ice is a condition of the water for eight months of the year and by January it is 6 feet thick. Throughout the winter, warm springs continue to break through the surface of rivers, where they erupt as frozen turquoise upwellings, like igneous intrusions in rock, and freeze into jagged obstructions. Caravan after caravan jolts over the last ridge of river ice and skims across a great frozen lake in an epic sweep stretching almost from shore to shore. Deep lakes provide a more level surface and the ice that forms from their still water glows black, marbled with milky white veins snaking into the depths. The sudden speed and the spray of ice crystals flung into our faces behind the hypnotic flash of the reindeer’s skidding hooves make it easy to feel that we are about to take off and fly into the air.

Thousands of years before the tsarist empire taxed them and the Soviet Union relocated them into State Farms, the ancestors of today’s Eveny and of their cousins the Evenki had moved out from their previous homeland in northeast China and spread for thousands of miles across forests and tundras, swamps and mountain ranges, from Mongolia to the Arctic Ocean, from the Pacific almost to the Urals, making them the most widely spread indigenous people on any landmass. Even today, elders can tell stories of journeys that make young people, tied to their villages and dependent on aircraft, smile with disbelief. The old people achieved this mobility by training reindeer to carry them on their backs and pull them on sledges. The endless succession of short migrations* from one camp site to the next, which they have shared with me, gives no more than a glimpse of the power of reindeer transport and of the way in which this creature has opened up vast swathes of the earth’s surface for human habitation.
The association between reindeer and flying is very ancient – much, much older than European or American ideas about Santa Claus*. Scattered across the deserts and steppes of western Mongolia and stretching into the Altai Mountains in the west and up to the border of Manchuria in the east, stand ancient 'reindeer stones’ dating from the Bronze Age* some 3,000 years ago. These upright standing stones are set above graves or surrounded by the remains of fires and sacrificed sheep and horses. They are carved with various animals, but most often with reindeer. On the earlier stones the image of the reindeer is simple, but some 500 years later it has become more ornate. On these stones, the reindeer is depicted with its neck outstretched and its legs flung out fore and aft, as if not merely galloping but leaping through the air. The antlers have grown fantastically till they reach right back to the tail, and sometimes hold the disc of the sun or a human figure with the sun as its head. The flung-out hooves seem to represent more than just a leap: it is as if the artist has caught the reindeer in the act of flying through the sky in an association with a deity of the sun.
It seems the climate of Mongolia dried out towards the end of the first millennium bc, coming closer to today’s desert conditions in which reindeer can no longer live, except in one small, cool mountain region. But other evidence suggests that even where it had disappeared, the reindeer persisted in the imagination like a mythic or archetypal creature. At Pazyryk in the nearby Altai Mountains, the burial mounds of chiefs from around 500– 400 BC contain food as well as fine clothing, gold ornaments, harps, combs, and mirrors, decorated with a range of animals including reindeer. By the second century ad, one of the horses sacrificed in a grave wears a face-mask made of leather, felt, and fur and adorned with life-size antlers, clearly dressed up to imitate a reindeer*. It seems a reindeer was still better than a horse for riding in the afterlife. Some 1,500 years later, in the seventeenth century, at a battle between the Oirot Monggols and the Manchus 60 miles from Ulaan Baatar, a Mongolian chronicle tells us that the wife of the Khan Daldyn Bashig Tu rode into batttle on 'aaaa reindeer with branching antlers’*. Since real reindeer had been absent from this region for 2,000 years, this probably indicates a continuation of the custom of dressing a horse in a reindeer mask.
The reindeer appears in an even more intimate association with the Pazyryk people – in tattoos on their bodies. After death they were eviscerated, sewn up and mummified*, as if they would be needing their flesh as well as their provisions for whatever afterlife or rebirth they were expecting. Even so, these bodies might not have survived had it not been for the water that flowed into the graves*, sometimes through the breaches left by grave robbers. This water then froze around the mummified bodies. Three of the bodies found so far bear tattoos, and have been preserved so perfectly that we can see the designs clearly. Here on the shoulders are depicted the same reindeer as on the standing stones, with their hooves flung out and their exaggerated antlers. But in the tattoos the imagery of flight is made even more explicit. The branching of the reindeers’ antlers sometimes looks like the feathering of birds’ wings, and on some of them each tine of the antler ends in a tiny bird’s head.
When I first read about these tattoos as a child I did not imagine that the association of reindeer with flight had been carried by migrating populations to lands where reindeer still existed far to the north, still less that I would one day live among people who in their own childhood had taken a ritual voyage to the sun on the back of a flying reindeer. I reached this northern region in the late 1980s, and learned about this rite from my first Eveny friend, Tolya, during some of our travels together. Small but muscular, a former wrestling champion with an impish sense of humour, he was already feeling the call to abandon his role as an official in the Soviet administration and to reach back through the veils of boarding school and the Soviet Navy to rediscover the ancient traditions of his ancestors. As we rode from camp to camp, this ritual was one of Tolya’s discoveries*. We crouched around darkened stoves at night, while I listened to Tolya talking intently to nomadic elders, who included his own mother, in a native language I could not yet understand. I did not know that in front of me precious words were being spoken by people who might have been the last left alive on earth capable of saying them. These words revealed a continuity of ideas, carried over thousands of miles and thousands of years, with the birds on the tips of the reindeer antlers tattooed on the shoulders of the mummies in the Altai and the carvings in Mongolia of reindeer holding the sun aloft in their antlers.
These elders told Tolya that reindeer were created by the sky god Ho¨ vki, not only to provide food and transport on earth, but also to lift the human soul up to the sun. From their childhood seventy, eighty, or more years before, they remembered a ritual that was carried out each year on Midsummer’s Day, symbolizing the ascent of each person on the back of a winged reindeer. During the white night of the Arctic summer, a rope was stretched between two larch trees to represent a gateway to the sky. As the sun rose high above the horizon in the early dawn, this gateway was filled with the purifying smoke of the aromatic mountain rhododendron, which drifted over the area from two separate bonfires. Each person passed around the first fire anticlockwise, against the direction of the sun, to symbolize the death of the old year and to burn away its illnesses. They then moved around the second fire in a clockwise direction, following the sun’s own motion, to symbolize the birth of the new year.
It was at this moment, while elders prayed to the sun for success in hunting, an increase in reindeer, strong sons and beautiful daughters, that each person was said to be borne aloft on the back of a reindeer which carried its human passenger towards a land of happiness and plenty near the sun. There they received a blessing, salvation, and renewal. At the highest point, the reindeer turned for a while into a crane, a bird of extreme sacredness.
I still 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 own reindeer as if they were arriving from a long journey, expressing tiredness, unsaddling their mount, pitching a tent and lighting a fire. This rite was followed by a hedje, a circle dance in the direction of the sun, and a feast of plenty.
The annual soul-voyage made by the elders whom I met with Tolya was a small-scale echo of the voyages made by shamans, men and women whose souls can leave their bodies while they are in a state of trance and fly to other realms of a cosmos which is believed to have many layers. Whereas laypersons could only fly on the back of a reindeer, shamans could turn into a flying reindeer. The word shama´n or hama´n comes to us from the language of the Eveny and the Evenki, two closely related peoples of the Tungus language family. All Arctic peoples have comparable figures, known by various names, as do other peoples in many parts of the world. The role of the shaman is closely linked to hunting as a way of life. Before the development of agriculture around 10,000 years ago, all humans depended on hunting to survive, and it is hard to imagine that any other kind of religion could have existed. Shamans develop the ordinary hunter’s skills and intuitions by flying over the landscape to monitor the movements of migratory animals and by performing rites to stimulate the vitality of animals and humans alike.
In Siberia, shamans combine a distinctive imagery of reindeer and of bird-flight. Their costumes sometimes include imitation reindeer antlers, occasionally tipped with wings or feathers, placed on the headdress or attached to the shoulders at the very point where reindeer are tattooed on the Pazyryk mummies. Like the participants in the Eveny midsummer ritual, shamans may ride to the sky on a bird or a reindeer. But their relationship with these animals goes far beyond mere riding. One shaman is suckled by a white reindeer during his initiatory vision as he incubates in a bird’s nest on a branch high in the tree that links earth and sky*. Another becomes a reindeer himself by wearing its hide, while hunters with miniature bows and arrows surround him and mime the act of killing. The hide is then stretched across the broad, flat drum that the shaman will beat as accompaniment to his trance. Another shaman, seeking to consecrate his reindeer-skin drum, is guided by spirits as he combs through the forest to find the location where the reindeer was born and traces every place it has ever visited over the course of its life, right up to the point where it was killed. As he picks his way through bogs and over fallen branches, he picks up the scattered material traces of its existence – snapped twigs, dried dung – to gather together every possible part of its being, and then moulds them into a small effigy of the reindeer. When he sprinkles the effigy with a magical 'water of life’, the drum comes to life. Like a reindeer itself but with enhanced power, it is now capable of bearing the shaman aloft with its throbbing beat to nine, twelve, or more levels of the heavens.

Copyright © 2005 by Piers Vitebsky. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

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Table of Contents

Prologue : soul-flight to the sun 3
1 The prehistoric reindeer revolution 17
2 Civilizing the nomads 40
3 The massacre of Granny's 2,000 reindeer, camp 7 63
4 Granny's herd restored : late summer site, 1-2 August 78
5 Migrating into autumn, 3-8 August 106
6 Kostya's mushroom crisis, camp 10 129
Interlude : solitude and silence : Vladimir Nikolayevich's winter hunt 151
7 Frightened children and disdainful women 183
8 Men fulfilled and men in despair, camp 8 196
9 Landscape with Gulag : brushed by white man's madness 212
10 Killing the shaman and internalizing betrayal 231
11 Animal souls and human destiny 259
12 Dreams of love and death 285
13 Sacrificing at a nomad's grave 311
14 Bringing my family 331
15 How to summon a helicopter 351
Epilogue : outliving the end of empire 369
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