The Verkhoyansk Mountains in northeast Siberia are the coldest inhabited place on Earth, where temperatures in winter can drop to...
“The Reindeer People: Living with Animals
and Spirits in Siberia”
by Piers Vitebsky
Houghton Mifflin, 464 pp., $28
“The Sami People: Traditions in Transition”
by Veli-Pekka Lehtola, translated by Linna Weber Muller-Wille
University of Alaska Press, 144 pp., $27.95
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The Verkhoyansk Mountains in northeast Siberia are the coldest inhabited place on Earth, where temperatures in winter can drop to minus 96 degrees Fahrenheit. The mountains lie within the Sakha Republic, an area as large as India, with far fewer inhabitants.
Of the million or so people who live there, indigenous groups make up about a third. A minority within that minority are the reindeer-herding Eveny, a nomadic people who number a few hundred, and who still follow the reindeer on yearly migrations.
Piers Vitebsky, a British anthropologist and expert in Russian northern studies, is one of the few Westerners to have traveled in the lands of the Eveny. He first came to his interest in the reindeer people from a curiosity about those who live in the hinterlands of imperial civilizations.
But his many returns to the Sakha Republic over a 20-year period were based on a growing attachment to the austere landscape of Siberia and friendships with members of different herding camps.
Vitebsky renders both people and landscape vividly in “The Reindeer People,” a remarkable book which covers the history and biology of reindeer, nomadism, Shamanism, community in its various political forms, the breakup of the Soviet Union and its consequences for those who live at the margins.
Vitebsky is an engaged anthropologist, whose lucid style adds immeasurably to his story of the Eveny. We feel the varieties of chill: “After yesterday’s cold, so sharp that it seemed painful to touch the air, the haze of ice crystals suspended around us today felt balmy.” This during a winter he spends living in a tent with the reindeer herders. (“It was the first time in my life I had been alone in an environment where I was incapable of surviving on my own.”)
He describes the Eveny’s way of dividing place names into past, present and future sites, and their way of departing one place for another, “inconspicuous and gradual, so there was no moment of sundering.” They never look back. Always on the move, the Eveny use their reindeer not only as pack animals; they ride them.
Vitebsky’s curiosity is enormous and his canvas broad; he is as intrigued by the physiology of reindeer, with their flexible joints and broad hooves that allow them to run across scree or snow, as he is by the murderous bureaucracy of the former empire.
One of the many strengths of this book is to show how quickly the former Soviet Union seemed to crumble, and how the old ways — tribalism, family, ethnic pride — have asserted themselves once again.
Another reindeer-herding people, the Sami, are Europe’s last remaining indigenous population. Until recently the Sami of Scandinavia and Russia’s Kola Peninsula were little known outside the northern regions where they’ve lived for millennia.
But through their own efforts at sharing their culture and through making common cause with other indigenous peoples around the world, they’ve taken a more visible role on the world stage.
Veli-Pekka Lehtola’s “The Sami People” is an excellent primer for anyone interested in the Sami’s long history and vibrant current cultural trends. Although many Sami traditions are based on nomadism, only about 10 percent of the Sami now engage in reindeer husbandry. The renaissance of Sami culture is more likely to be expressed in music, art, crafts and theater.
Although this book, translated from the Finnish, lacks the warmth of Vitebsky’s, it has the merit of being written by a Sami scholar, who is as knowledgeable about Sami joiking (a form of singing) as about the complex land-use and legal issues confronting the Sami in their four countries.