After market reforms in the late 1990s, the traditional, historical patterns of reindeer herding underwent local differentiation across Russia. The common notion was that the cessation of state support for reindeer herding led to a general reduction over most of Siberia. However, in certain regions regional domestic reindeer stock shows a steady tendency for growth (e.g., the Nenets tundra reindeer herding area in northwest Siberia). There are also regions where reindeer stock was sharply reduced at first but has started growing again in recent years (e.g., the north of Iakutia and Chukotka).
Processes influencing reindeer stock changes are more multifarious than market reforms alone, as shown by stock reduction in the taiga region of Siberia beginning in the 1960s. This process was connected to the reduction of the demand for riding and pack animals stemming from technical developments in mechanized transportation. In the 1990s reindeer stock reduction intensified, and a formerly continuous area of taiga reindeer herding fell into separate loci (Klokov 2011b, 2012).
Ten years ago, the question of whether “Siberian reindeer herding is in crisis” was discussed in the issue of Nomadic People (2006) dedicated to modern reindeer herding in Eurasia (Anderson 2006). More to the point, the result of David Anderson’s (2006) analysis allows us to state that the notion of “crisis” here is applicable only to reindeer herding as an industry. It showed that the quantity of reindeer stock cannot be the principal criterion of the condition of reindeer herding as a whole. The quality of relations between humans and reindeer is more important. These relations, on the contrary, showed flexibility and high adaptability. Rather, the changes of social, political, and economic contexts have led Siberian reindeer herders to developing new strategies of reindeer herding.
In view of the close connection between reindeer herders and domesticated reindeer, several authors (Beach and Stammler 2006: 8; Istomin and Dwyer 2010; Stépanoff 2012b) have suggested that Eurasian reindeer herding should be regarded as a form of symbiosis. This assertion was largely based on the development of reindeer domestication, where people and domestic reindeer co-adapted to severe taiga and tundra natural environment due to mutually advantageous symbiotic relations (mutualism).
The term “mutualism” means that both humans and reindeer are considered as parts of a natural landscape ecosystem. At the same time, the landscape includes both natural and social contexts. Therefore, the rapid changes in social, political, and economic conditions during the twenty-first century demand that human/reindeer communities must rapidly adapt to new social environments. In this perspective two new questions arise, both of which are address in this article: Does the human/reindeer relationship retain the qualities of mutualism for quickly changing social environments? How do reindeer and humans help each other to survive in the quickly changing economic and socio-political conditions in modern Siberian taiga regions?
The research for this article was based on comparison of local herders’ communities in different parts of the Siberia studied from 2007 to 2014. It was mainly focused in taiga regions on five herding and hunting communities, having only a few hundred reindeer (nomadic Evenks of Patom Plateau in Bodaibo district, Tofalars of Alygzher village in Tofalaria, Evenks of Surinda village in Evenkia and Tiania village in southern Iakutia, and Uil’ta on Sakhalin Island). In addition, data collected by the author in areas of tundra large-stock reindeer herding by the Nenets (Kanin Peninsula, Kolguev Island, and Yamal Peninsula), provides points for comparison to better understand the modern condition of reindeer herding communities in taiga regions.
It should be noted that similar issues have already been considered with regard to tundra reindeer herding in Western Siberia. Forbes (2006, 2013) concluded that traditional Nenets reindeer herding is highly resilient, which is clearly shown in the conditions of industrial development. The same capacity of Nenets reindeer herding was observed by Golovnev (1995, 2014) during the course of its adaptation to Soviet reforms in the twenty-frst century. Does reindeer herding in the Siberian taiga have the same resilience? There are reasons to presume that taiga hunters-herders’ communities resilience mechanisms differ from those of tundra reindeer herders.
While tundra reindeer herding has large stock number that give significant volumes of salable produce and bring profit under market conditions, reindeer herding in taiga for meat and skins requires too much labor input to become a self-funding, sustainable industry (Klokov 2007: 762–763). This is why taiga reindeer herding should have some other economic output. Formerly, this was income from transportation services via reindeer sledge and pack for which there is no current demand. Answers to the question of why indigenous people in Siberian taiga still keep reindeer is must look to reasons other than direct sales in the market.
To what extent can changes in the number of reindeer head be considered a valid criterion of the condition of reindeer herding as a whole? Post-Soviet changes may be explained in different ways. Thus, we may presume that a result of Soviet administration policy mandating growth in all kinds of products, was that reindeer stock increased above its “normal” level, formed in different regions, natural conditions, and local traditions. After the fall of the Soviet system reindeer stock might simply be returning to its “normal” level.
Reindeer herding conditions themselves had changed within the 70 years of Soviet power. We cannot exclude the possibility that stock numbers under the “new normal” are now quite different than in the past. Contemporary conditions in the Siberian taiga may not be suitable for a purely traditional reindeer herding strategy.
For example, there were only 1,300 reindeer on Sakhalin in 1927 (before the formation of kolkhozes)1—that is, just the number needed by indigenous population for sustaining traditional livelihoods at that time (Missonova 2006: 146–148). During the Soviet period, when reindeer herders were united in kolkhozes and sovkhozes, reindeer stock in Sakhalin increased to 16,000 by 1974. Reindeer herding produced a marketable (salable) product, which contradicted local traditions without a Soviet economic infrastructure. By the mid-1990s, when the Soviet state-controlled economy terminated, reindeer stock in Sakhalin. decreased to 3,000, and now, reindeer number fewer than 150.
A similar dynamics for reindeer stock was observed in Iakutia. In 1927 there were 118,000 reindeer, from 1965 to 1991 the stock number reached between 360,000 and 380,000 head. Currently, there are 165,300 (as of January 1, 2015). In Evenkia in 1927 there were 49,000 reindeer, in 1965—63,800, and in 1991—30,000. Presently, there are fewer than 3,000 in Evenkia.2 In Tofalaria reindeer stock has never been too numerous. According to the data available, in 1914 they were 2,600, and 1,170 in 1925. In the Soviet period, the stock of reindeer was about 2,000. In 1993 there were 2,092 reindeer registered, and in 1997—969. After 1997 regular stock counts ceased in Tofalaria (Rassadin 2000: 195). Reindeer herders there assess the reindeer stock at about 300–400 head.3
The broad questions for this research is: Are the reductions in reindeer stock in the Siberian taiga an adjustment of the traditional reindeer herding to modern conditions? Or is it the last attempt of reindeer herders to retain the tradition via their flexibility and adaptation capability mentioned above?
In order to answer these questions, it is useful to evaluate the pluses (advantages) and minuses (expenditures, inconveniences) of taiga reindeer herding in five examined local communities depending on different conditions. However, it is impossible to do so correctly as there is no common scale of values: pluses from the standpoint of a reindeer herder may be minuses from the point of view of Siberian villagers or administrators who never deal with reindeer herding.
The importance of plus and minus factors depends on the ethno-cultural perspective within which they are considered, whether from outside (i.e., etic approach, from the standpoint of the dominating society) or from inside (i.e., emic approach, from the standpoint of the representatives of traditional culture); their points of view may differ greatly. There is an example of a young Nenets reindeer herder from Kanin peninsula who was asked if he wants to be rich to be able to buy many useful things for his household. The herder answered that he did not want to have many things as additional sledges would be needed and it would make nomadism difficult (Klokov et al. 2013: 184). Thus, the Nenets evaluate the quality of material wealth in regard to its suitability for nomadic reindeer herding in tundra conditions. The measure of wealth is not money but reindeer stock. Reindeer herders’ communities in taiga have different values on desirable herd size. The optimal stock size for the Evenk hunters-herders does not surpass 50 reindeer, as a bigger stock prevents their master from his primary occupation—hunting (Turov 1990: 85–86).
Every reindeer herders’ community may have its own criteria depending both on the natural landscape and on the social environment they occur in, and on the community’s history. To survive the reindeer herders’ community should fit in with both the natural landscape and economic, social, and political life of the dominating society. The complex of all the conditions in which it occurs may be denoted as a “context.”
A context is a term adopted from linguistics. It is widely used in cultural studies for the analysis of both texts and culturally important facts, as their meanings significantly differ depending on the cultural tradition they are considered in. In archeology the word context denotes both the place of artefacts discovery and a complex of chronological and space connections with the help of which its meaning is interpreted.
In human ecology and especially in political ecology the contexts analysis is used in the approach labeled by Andrew Vayda (1983) as a progressive contextualization, which was developed to study the problem of deforestation in the Indonesian province of East Kalimantan on the island of Borneo. According to Vayda, in using this approach, researchers do not need to make assumption that the interactions which are in the focus of the research are necessarily the components or expressions of some previously defined system.
Instead, we are free to gain understanding by proceeding empirically to put the interactions in question into context—sometimes by going far beyond the boundaries of a nation-state or island (e.g., in looking at the movement of forest products from the interior of Kalimantan to buyers in Hong Kong, Japan, North America, and Western Europe), sometimes by being satisfied without going beyond even the boundaries of a single Dayak village and its land (e.g., in looking at the villagers’ collection of forest products for local use in building, cooking, and medicine).(Vayda 1983: 267–268)
More than that, the methodology does not require making any assumptions about performance, stability, or resilience of ethnic groups, economic units, or ecosystems (Vayda 1983: 269). Depending on the aims of the investigation one may speak about different contexts, for example environmental, economic, social, cultural, political contexts. Several contexts can be perceived as parts of a more general one (“wider or denser contexts”; Vayda 1983: 265).
Thus, progressive contextualization appears as an alternative approach to system thinking. Its further development resulted in formation of the event ecology approach as opposed to the methodology of “theory-driven research” that tests theories and hypotheses previously established and tending to dismiss empirical and problem-oriented approaches (Vayda and Walters 1999; Walters and Vayda 2009). These authors’ views were harshly criticized. Critics of event ecology and progressive contextualization argue that the methodology does little to unveil the deepest roots of problems and should be combined with a priori and “built-in” frames of perception. “The best one can achieve is to put him/herself in other people’s shoes for a while (an emic approach), which requires a large dose of intellectual humbleness to set aside previous academic training and life experience” (Penna-Firme 2013: 201).
In my investigation I proceed from the definition of a context as an informational construct which determines the form and peculiarities of the surrounding world perception by a member of ethnic community, and stereotypes of his or her behavior (Klokov et al. 2013: 184). Such definition allows to use all the advantages of the context analysis, and at the same time does not restrict the researcher’s ability to offer and test hypotheses. Thus, emic and etic approaches may be combined in one methodology.
As the contexts are connected with culture and history, the time when they were formed were taken into account. Thus, the changes in Siberian reindeer herding for the last decades were represented as the evolution of the three main types of contexts differing as to the period of their formation:
- traditional ones, pre-existed the Soviet system,
- formed in the Soviet time,
- created by Post-Soviet reforms.
Cross-Site Comparison and Analysis
We should single out several common features present at all of the five investigated reindeer herder communities in Eastern Siberia taiga:
- Life outside settlements are characterized by the absence of communication and social infrastructure;
- Access to scattered biological resources (reindeer pastures and wildlife resources) is good;
- Participation in market relations generally as deliverers of as raw materials;
- A nomadic frame of mind occurring without aspirations to own the land;
- Perception of reindeer as a cultural symbol and important condition of traditional life.
Alongside with the mentioned above, a number of other conditions differed greatly:
- living in a pristine environment (Surinda) vs. in a landscape completely changed by industrial activities (Bodaibo district);
- being integrated in official economic structures and receiving a maximum of protection from authorities (Surinda and Tiania) versus mostly independent with a maximum of freedom using resources for fishing, hunting, reindeer grazing, and so on without any licenses (Bodaibo district and Tofalaria);
- being in close contact with the settled population and depending primarily on imported goods (Sakhalin and Tofalaria) versus visiting settlements rarely and depending on a subsistence-based economy (Surinda and Tiania);
- having a few thousand reindeer in several separate herds (Surinda and Tiania) vs. only a few hundred of reindeer in one place (Sakhalin and Tofalaria).
The context of traditional lifeways formed before the Soviet transformations of reindeer herding included hunting, reindeer herding, fishing, gathering and trade among Evenks, Evens, Tofalars, and other indigenous Siberian peoples. Traditional reindeer herding required local knowledge about the landscape, behavior of wild species anddomestic reindeer, terminology, and other relevant information; skills that included taming reindeer, looking after reindeer calves, milking reindeer females, protecting reindeer from insects, wild animals and illnesses, training them to work under saddle and pulling sleds; and artifacts (tools, household buildings, nomad housing, equipment, clothes, etc.). The selective breeding and training of reindeer over the centuries is also an important component of the traditional context.
Furthermore, a context of riding a reindeer includes the skill to mark and fix a saddle and a load correctly, to set reindeer in a certain order; locality and the peculiarities of the animals’ behavior knowledge; the paths and routes laid by reindeer herders-hunters; saddles, harness, skills for their making, and so on. The context of reindeer protection from insects includes local ecological knowledge about the places of mosquitoes, gnats or mosque swarming, adequate for local conditions methods of making smoky fires (what kind of wood to choose for the fire to burn long and produce a lot of smoke, and how to fence the fire from reindeer).
Currently, reindeer herding activities that could be classified as traditional, or only slightly modified, are seldom. Several years ago I noted two very traditional skills in Evenk reindeer herders’ camps in Patom Plateau taiga: the stripping of larch bark (traditional material for roofs) and the milking of reindeer (Figures 1 and 2).
Herders commonly modify traditional skills according to modern life conditions. Most often herders use new materials. For example, herders use many plastic and iron items instead of reindeer antler to make reindeer harness and sledges. David Anderson has commented on such modifications:
They are used to assembling wooden lean-tos (balagan) quickly or often setting a circular conical frame over which they stretch large plastic sheets. Although these temporary structures may at first glance seem to be a sign that traditions are fading, it is difficult not to admire the skill and speed at which resources at-hand are employed to make accommodation.(2006: 92)
Herders adopt other kinds of skills from non-indigenous populations and modify them to nomadic ways of life and local conditions. Baking bread in the tundra and the taiga is an example of a loan-skill adapted by herders to nomadic life, and where this has become tradition. There are many regional sophisticated methods of bread baking in nomadic camps in tundra or taiga (Figures 3 and 4). Other examples include local ways of using novel modern equipment. In some areas modern equipment is used in an unusual way. For example, reindeer herders on Kolguev Island use snowmobiles during the summer instead of reindeer-driven sledges which are the traditional Nenets means of transportation during snow-less time. Reindeer herders in Chukotka and northern Iakutia use four-wheeled carts towed by tractor in tundra without roads in summer time. Mobile power stations and satellite dishes are installed in main herders’ camps. Use of mobile satellite phones and GPS navigators is becoming more widely available and modified for use in reindeer herding communities.
Another example is even more remarkable as it combines a modification of traditional nomadic dwellings with a number of skills borrowed from dominant society. Several families of nomadic reindeer herders on Kanin peninsula (Komi-Izhems and Nenets) have changed the type of a nomadic dwelling. Instead of formerly traditional conic chum (the Siberian variation of tepee), they now construct a frame rectangular tent (palatka). It is a kind of a chum but not of conical but of rectangular form. Its wooden structure is made of light planks connected with joint hinges. The structure is covered with two layers of tarpaulin and in winter a layer of woolen cloth is added. The Kanin palatka can be constructed or deconstructed in twenty minutes, i.e., much more quickly than a traditional chum. The only place where one can see such a new type of mobile dwelling is Kanin Peninsula (Figures 5–8). The transition from life in a conic chum to life in rectangular tent resulted in other significant changes in some aspects of the herders’ life. In a tent they use light furniture, sit on chairs, and eat at a usual high table.
Thus, we may notify three widespread kinds of nascent traditions connected with changes of the contexts (Klokov 2011a):
- modification of traditional contexts (for example, use of modern materials, appliances, technological procedures for manufacturing traditional items),
- borrowing a context from another culture with its further adaptation to local conditions (for example, the use of electronic equipment in nomadic camps),
- combination of both cases mentioned above.
The development of reindeer herding during the Soviet time was connected with Soviet administrative and bureaucratic contexts. These were formed through kolkhozes and sovkhozes and defined the attitude of the administration and employees having received special education. The goal was to integrate reindeer herding into a general socialist model of agricultural production. In this context state financing allotted for the development of reindeer herding collective and state farms was distributed and their infrastructure was created (warehouses, sheds, corrals, slaughtering houses, electric power stations, etc.). Bureaucratic contexts, as opposed to the traditional ones, involved a number of planning and reporting documents, instructions, guidance papers, and so on.
According to Charles Stepanoff (2012a: 146), in the Soviet system reindeer were devoid of initiative, mind, and even trainability: they were only regarded as creatures directed by behavioral reflexes. Similarly, the Soviet system regarded reindeer herders as devoid of humanity and their own interests; they were work power and human resources. Additionally, technology and labor in the forms of equipment, veterinary and livestock experts, labor organization, forced out or replaced traditional practices, knowledge, and traditional migration patterns.
The history of the bureaucratic impact on reindeer herding is of significant interest and may be a subject of special investigation. Here, I mention only some of its characteristic features. This was implemented by borrowing bureaucratic contexts from other branches of agricultural economy and applying it to reindeer herding, particularly the large reindeer herding kolkhozes and sovkhozes of the North of the European part of Russia. As a result, many Nenets words entered official terminology, for example khor (male reindeer) and vazhenka (female reindeer). These words are spread all over the Russian North, sometimes having replaced local ones indigenous to other languages. Large herds under permanent human control were regarded as the best reindeer management pattern, which also shows that bureaucratic ideals had been imported from Nenets and Komi-Izhemets tradition and then extrapolated over all Russian North.
When Soviet period began, administrative and bureaucratic policies and personnel aimed to increase numbers of reindeer and reduce the costs of labor, putting the bureaucratic context into opposition to the traditional strategies of reindeer herding. In a number of tundra regions this resulted in the overgrazing and degradation of pastures. In the taiga, the directives to increase stock size led to a gradual decrease in the level of domestication, as the attention people could pay to animals decreased in proportion to the increase of the number of reindeer per herder. However, from the bureaucratic point of view this result was considered as an achievement: the growth of labor productivity and household efficiency.
The collision of bureaucratic and traditional contexts continues into the present. An example is from a discussion of the future of the Uil’ta traditional reindeer herding in Sakhalin.4 Reindeer herding is in danger here because of a decline in reindeer herders and reindeer stock numbers. In autumn of 2014 there were only 146 animals. The remaining reindeer herders—Uil’ta and Sakhalin Evenks—saw the solution to the problem in the improvement of stock age and sex structure, exchange of breeding animals from another reindeer population, and taking more care of reindeer. Representatives of the local municipal and regional authorities suggested the registration of reindeer farms as incorporated producers of agricultural goods or unincorporated entrepreneurs, along with the registration of land-use rights. Thinking within the administrative context, the authorities expressed the intention to support reindeer herders. On the contrary, from the point of view of herders registration and bureaucratic procedures were perceived as a barrier blocking the opportunity to receive real support from the local administration. Administration representatives wondered why reindeer herders did not register their farms, while herders did not understand why they should deal with bureaucratic foot-dragging instead of putting every effort to securing the reindeer.
In the post-Soviet era new socio-political contexts developed in the life of indigenous communities. Reindeer herding and reindeer themselves became symbols of the ethnic brand (marker) and ethnic culture. Domesticated reindeer ownership became a confirmation of herders-hunters local communities right for economic autonomy, including special rights for land usage, access to wildlife resources, as well as special state programs intended to support the economies of indigenous peoples. Reindeer herders’ status also became important in the relations between indigenous communities and industrial companies. There we can see the connection with the international political contexts of the indigenous peoples’ rights and of large business’s social responsibility.
Thus, the influence of the dominant society over the lives of reindeer herders in Siberia may be considered as the interaction of several traditional and non-traditional contexts. The centralized model of agricultural management in the Soviet period was imposed over the entirety of the reindeer husbandry of Russia, including taiga regions. These practices did not match well to natural environment and often contradicted ethnic traditions. However, spreading over the northern regions, centralized management was partly matched to local conditions and reindeer husbandry benefited.
The tendency of the bureaucratic system to increase production and to reduce costs became apparent in several experimental efforts. For example, in Tofalaria the administration attempted to forbid keeping reindeer fawns on a rope. This resulted in the rewildening of animals, and further experimentation was stopped.5
A larger scale economic experiment was the implementation of a so-called “fenced pasturage system” of reindeer husbandry. Many sovkhozes in Evenkia and Iakutia under administrative orders conducted this experiment from the 1960s to the 1980s. The goal was to reduce herder’s labor input and to change their nomadic mode of life and bring it closer to the living standards of a sedentary population. According to this idea, herders were to stop migrating and live in specially constructed houses in the taiga, while their reindeer were in fenced sections of pastures.
In fact, the expenses for reindeer pasturage did not decrease, because it took a lot of labor input on the part of settlement inhabitants who annually constructed and repaired fences. The construction of fences made the search for reindeer easier as they could not walk far away, but did not relieve herders of other work: making smoky fires, reindeer treatment, and defending them against predators. At the same time the degree of reindeer domestication decreased with the new system. Thus, in Evenkia reindeer put inside fences became more easily startled. Once outside of fences their wild traits became more pronounced, and they did not come back to the herders’ camp or habitual places, though previously they knew the places quite well and moved round their annual route themselves. Inside the fenced sections reindeer walked tensely along the perimeter, trampling the pastures (Klokov and Khruschev 2004: 112).
The efforts to implement “the fenced pasturage system” in taiga reindeer herding continued for more than 30 years but did not become wide spread, to the administrative specialists’ astonishment. D.I. Syrovatskii (2000) considered the reindeer herders’ breaking of instructions to be the main reason for the failures. First, they broke the rules about pasturage turnover periods, according to which each herd must have two or three fenced grounds used in turn in a year or in two years (Syrovatskii 2000: 112). Actually, the fenced sections were used for several years until the pasturage became exhausted, sometimes for four to five years. Second, reindeer herders often did not make fences fully closed, also in violation of the rules.
However, the reasons for such failures become evident when comparing the contexts in which administrative managers and reindeer herders consider reindeer husbandry. The first group thinks that land use must occur in strict space and time boundaries. Pasture territories should be divided into sections, and the sections must be used according to the plan in pre-determined time. Activity outside the preplanned territory and scheme of usage does not fit the standards of the administrative context. Besides, in market economy conditions monetary income growth is very important, and fencing pasture sections is supposed to give the opportunity to increase the number of animals and to reduce reindeer losses.
For traditional reindeer herding in taiga there is no need to increase the number of reindeer living inside fences and not trained to be saddled or loaded. More than that, it is harmful, as it diverts effort from their principal activity: hunting. In the traditional pattern of reindeer herding, people do not worry if some reindeer walk far away from corrals, as they are sure that the animals will sooner or later come back to one of the camps—either to theirs, or to the neighboring, and they will be able to take reindeer back (Turov 1990). Neither Evenks nor Tofalars strive to have more reindeer than they need for hunting. Fixed boundaries and plans for the future in the European understanding of rational land use are perceived as obstacles in the context of traditional husbandry. However, the boundaries here are not absolute. The Evenks’ traditional construction of fences across the mountain valley, or at the foot of a peninsula coming to the lake only continues and compliments the existing natural boundaries, reinforcing the natural space structure of the landscape. Thus, fences decrease the mobility of reindeer without isolating them from other territories completely.
The ideal relations between humans and reindeer include their mutual acclimatization and cooperation in labor. Beyond the number of reindeer, the degree of their taming is of high importance. Currently, the Tofalars’ reindeer herd in Alygzher is close to this ideal. For most of the year the reindeer herders live in a village while their reindeer pasture freely in the taiga. In the second half of September, before the hunting season, people find their reindeer, catch them, and use them for riding during winter hunting. At the end of winter, reindeer are released and they pasture freely until fawning in the spring. Only two people live constantly in the pasture area controlling the most important events in the life of reindeer. In winter, both reindeer herders are busy with hunting and at the same time watching females and young reindeer not saddled or yet loaded. The degree of tameness is rather high, which is why Alygzherians do not use neither fences, nor lariat. According to them, they use lariat only for catching wild reindeer having joined their herd by chance.6
The ideal variant of taiga reindeer herding within the technological and bureaucratic contexts has never been implemented in any taiga region of Eastern Siberia despite all the efforts of the administration. To decrease the contradictions with local traditions the most authoritative reindeer herding manuals developed hybrid variants of reindeer pasture organization (Kuriluk 1969; Mukhachev 2008; Syrovatskii 2000). The recommendations in these official manuals proscribed a minimally impacted version of traditional reindeer herding existing inside the bureaucratic system. Thus, a kind of a “buffer” context was created combining both traditional and non-traditional components and illustrating the possibility of mutual adaptation.
Further, some strange models of herding appeared, contradicting the logic of traditional husbandry at first sight. The fenced reindeer pasture in Surinda may serve an example of such strange organization.7 Here, fence construction still plays an important role in the local economy; not for reindeer herding, but for provisioning employment in indigenous settlements. Fence construction and repair work is paid for by state programs. This work has become an important source of money for the indigenous population, as reindeer herding does not bring any money income. Thus, in Surinda about 30 people or about 15 percent of able-bodied population of the village, take part in the construction and repairing of fences, although they are officially registered as unemployed. In the winter these individuals engage in hunting, and in autumn they work as fence-constructors. The money earn in fence construction gives them an opportunity to buy necessary equipment and food to go fur animal hunting and trapping in winter. If there were no work on fences construction then they would not be able to hunt.8
Thus, in this modern administrative and bureaucratic context work at fence construction has acquired an important social function as a kind of public job, decreasing unemployment. The construction of fences enters in two different contexts with two different functions—one of which refers to traditional taiga reindeer herding, and the other to the post-Soviet bureaucratic support of indigenous communities of the people of the North.
Reindeer herders’ communities in Siberia can be perceived as small units incorporated in and co-evolving across a number of social and economic contexts. The more reindeer herders adopt materials, skills, and strategies from the dominant society, the higher is the level of its adaptation. The sustainability of reindeer herding, thus depends on the balance between two opposite tendencies: integration into and segregation from the dominant society. The adaptive strategies of herders’ communities demonstrate a large variety of reactions to the dramatic changes in social life and natural environment caused by post-Soviet reforms and industrial development. Within diverse contexts the interpretation of the problem situation and the strategy choice turn out differently. Thus, the analysis of reindeer herding from the perspective of overlapping contexts, allows a wider look at the divide between Western and non-Western (traditional indigenous) modes of thinking which are reflected in the perception of environment and patterns of reindeer herding.
Scholars have emphasized the difference of these modes of thinking. The dominant approach is based on positivism and is a kind of “a machine theory” with the help of which a computer model may be built (Dudgeon and Berkes 2003: 88). The second one, on the contrary, personifies nature and includes “ethical and belief component” (Berkes 2008: 253). However case studies of indigenous communities traditional economy have shown that Western and non-Western knowledge patterns are historically inter-mingled and the linkages are more compelling than the divide (Dove et al. 2003: 38–39). This analysis of taiga reindeer herding provides an opportunity to follow the evolution of both traditional and non-traditional contexts and their intersection. Some trends are identified below.
Traditional contexts change slowly. Methods of pasturing, training, and usage of reindeer, as well as appliances used in reindeer herding (lasso, saddles, sledge, etc.) are almost the same as they were dozens of years ago. However, while keeping their old form, new materials are often used for their manufacturing (for example, plastic and metal items instead of antlers ones, and textile instead of skins). Borrowing of technical means—radio sets, snowmobiles, and petrol saws—have to a great extent combined with traditional means. Computer, Internet, and cell phones spread is still in the initial stages. The gradual updating of traditional contexts provides for their sustainability.
In ecological contexts relations in which each of the parties gets benefit (mutualism) or one of the parties gets benefit without any noticeable harm for the other party (commensalism) are called symbiotic. Symbiosis refers only to close and often long-term interactions. We see such relations when a nomadic family lives together with domestic reindeer and moves within one landscape during a year to provide better conditions for the reindeer. In the Nenets tundra reindeer herding this behavior is common, while in the taiga today such communities are few. On the contrary, when families move into a settlement, as for example, in Tofalaria or on Sakhalin, their interactions with reindeer cease corresponding to the symbiosis criteria mentioned above. The benefits people get from reindeer herding show themselves in other contexts: social, political, or economic. In contrast to the situation in the tundra, the strict sense of symbiosis between humans and reindeer in the Siberian taiga is on the wane.
In general, the disappearance of symbiotic relations (interactions) is not necessarily a result of reindeer stock reduction. Declining reindeer numbers may be considered an index of reindeer herding welfare in other contexts: bureaucratic and economic. However, the economic role of reindeer as the means of transportation in the taiga is diminishing. Even in Alygzher, where Tofalar hunters earn well gaming sable and musk deer, many of them hunt without reindeer. Three fourths of the territory here may be used for hunting with horses and snowmobiles, and only some hunting lots located far in the mountains are reachable only with riding reindeer. In Surinda and Tiania hunters ride reindeer where it is easy to get on snowmobiles, and they only save a little on fuel.
In the future reindeer herders may get income using reindeer in the tourist business. However, surprising as it may seem, none of reindeer herders in the five studied communities wanted to enter into tourism. We may say that taiga reindeer herding in Eastern Siberia is not yet adapted into this context.
At the same time, the role of reindeer herding is increasing in social, cultural, and political contexts. The adaptation of reindeer herding to such contexts depends little on the reindeer numbers. In the social aspect its direct state program financial support that is important. In the political context the status of reindeer herding as a traditional form of indigenous husbandry is important. However, the adjustments of traditional lifeways to best fit modern society are forming very slowly. Such adjustments are based on the bureaucratic procedures of indigenous peoples’ state support and the establishment of federal and regional laws protecting the rights and interests of the indigenous population. Partnership relations with large industrial companies have started to form in the regions with oil, gas, and gold extraction, which corresponds to international standards of the large-scale business’s social responsibility. This special attention to indigenous peoples shows the impact of international contexts.
The slow formation of “buffer” social contexts makes the taiga reindeer herding communities’ condition vulnerable. They are adapting to the market in different ways in different regions of Siberia. Within such divergent contexts, it may be expected that a proportion of the indigenous reindeer herding communities will stop dealing with reindeer herding.
This article is mainly based on research supported by European Research Council Advanced Grant, 2012–2017, “Arctic Domus. Humans and Animals across the North.” The field data on reindeer herders communities were collected in numerous expeditions to various regions of the Russian North and Siberia supported by a number of granting agencies.
Here and on the data on reindeer stock number are taken from two sources (Klokov and Khrushchev 2006: 17) and Federal State Statistics Service website (www.gks.ru).
Author’s field interview data, Surinda in Evenkiia, 2014.
Author’s field interview data, Tofalariia, 2014.
Author’s field interview data, Nogliksky district of Sakhalin area, 2014.
Author’s field interview data, Tofalariia, 2013.
Author’s field interview data, Tofalariia, 2013.
Author’s field interview data, Surinda in Evenkiia, 2014.
Formerly, when fur animal hunting was supported by the state, hunters got special advance money to buy everything for winter hunting.
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