Notes From the Field: Life in a Reindeer Collective (part 2)

This is the second in a two-part series. Read part one here

The Evenki children I met were agile, happy, and rarely disciplined. They were left on their own to learn that knives are sharp and pots are hot. Toddlers, however, are tethered with a sliding cord to a horizontal rope tied between two trees, giving them free running space, but keeping them from entering the center of the herd where threat of trampling is high.

Evenki toddlers at play. The Evenki allow children to run free much of the time.

At night the families gather together, swim in the river, play games such as dodge ball and hide-and-go-seek, or share scary stories around the fire. Interestingly, such stories differed from the usual ghosts and ghouls of western campfires. Some Evenki stories are designed to teach respect for Evenki traditions. Children are taught not to disrespect the seveni—wooden idols in the woods representing the protecting spirits of the family hunting grounds. Though few of these figures are carved for religious purposes today, those made by the children’s grandparents remain standing and are still treated with reverence. Children who vandalize these figures in the stories frequently starve.

Many Evenki campfire stories have a pedagogical aspect for surviving in the Taiga. Other stories warn against wandering alone into the Taiga. Children who wander off into the woods are tricked by malicious spirits who rearrange the trees in order to disorient the child. By far the most fearsome and reverent of the stories, however, spoke of the “god of the Taiga,” – the bear.

Stories of bear hunts and man-eating bears are passed down from one generation to the next. Variations of a popular fictional tale describe an enormous, red-eyed bear that stalks a party of hunters or an army squad, methodically picking off and devouring the last men of the line. Other stories are told as true accounts of actual hunts. One of the more memorable accounts detailed the winter bear hunt of one herder’s father. Having located the snow-covered den of a hibernating bear, the herder’s father made a long spear from a tree branch using his hatchet. He then drove the spear through the snow and into the burrow, arousing the bear from its hibernation. This is a typical procedure for winter bear hunts. Once awoken the bear exits the den and is shot by the waiting hunter. On this particular hunt, however, the gun misfired and the angered bear attacked. Nevertheless, armed with only his hatchet, the herder’s father succeeded in killing the incensed animal.

Above,the bear trap attached to the underside of the labaz. Below, the labaz, used for storing food supplies by the Evenki.

Bears are a very real threat to the reindeer herders. Bears, attracted to the dense concentration of reindeer, are often sighted very near the camp. I recall one week in which a large number of the deer had returned to the camp wounded and mauled. We had spotted tracks and droppings but not the bear itself. Then we discovered that the labaz—a stilted storage unit for food and seasonal supplies—had been clawed open. Inside, the food supply had been ravaged. While my tent-mate Oleg was repairing the labaz, he spotted the adult male brown bear sneaking twenty yards behind him. Not having his rifle at that moment, he ran back to the camp and told me to leash the dogs and follow him. The dogs caught the scent but lost it two hours later.

We set a trap for the bear at the labaz. The trap was a spring-gun made by placing a shotgun shell into the back of a small pipe with a trigger pin set against the rim of the shell, lined up with the primer. This trigger pin was powered by a compression spring locked in place with a separate lock-release pin. The trap was fastened unto the underside of the labaz, near the telltale claw-marks of the bear. A long string bound the release pin to the bait—a bag of fish intestines. This string was then carefully balanced over a nail that functioned as the axle of a simple fixed pulley. The bait was carefully hung in front of the loaded barrel. When the bear stood up to pull the bag down from the labaz, the pin would be released and the spring gun would discharge into the bear’s head or chest. Having set the trap, we returned to camp.

The processed bear hide, hung to dry.

The shot awoke us at roughly three in the morning. The men immediately loaded their rifles and ran into the woods. Far behind them, I leashed four of the dogs and headed toward the labaz. Soon I could hear the heavy grunting of the wounded bear and saw the Evenki hunters positioned silently behind some nearby trees. They motioned to unleash the dogs. The dogs were anxious, frozen in focused stares pointed toward the darkness where the wounded bear was struggling. Immediately after untying the knots, each dog lunged into the shadows, jumping at the throat of the injured animal. Five minutes later, with no rifles fired or dogs wounded, the bear was dead.

Russian Far EastConsidered the most powerful spirit in the Taiga, the processing of a killed bear is much ritualized. To trap the anger of the bear, his mouth is tied shut with his own intestines until the hide is completely removed from the body. The claws, penis, and head are then removed. A platform is built high in a tree far from the camp and these parts, believed to contain much of the bear’s power, are then placed on the platform and covered with branches. The Evenki believe that should these parts be carried back to the camp, the reindeer would become sick and die.

Though I was informed during the butchering of the bear that a special ceremony accompanies the placement of these parts onto the platform, I was not privy to the specific details. The eldest in the camp carried out the ceremony in secret while I was away fishing with the younger herders. I found—upon my return—that they were secretive when questioned on the matter. In fact, I only discovered the location of the sepulchral platform by chance days later while photographing chipmunks. I am therefore uncertain as to any symbolic significance of the platform. One utilitarian reason, however, may be to keep the dogs from later dragging these feared remains into the camp.

Two men work on a fence.

A group picture of the camp. Joshua is fourth from the right in the back row.

A woman tends a child sitting on a reindeer.

The bear’s hide is kept and the remainder of the bear is eaten. The paws are an especial delicacy and were indeed deliciously tender. The gall bladder was dried and saved for sale to the Chinese as a traditional medicine. These transactions would occur in Blagoveshensk during the annual fur auctions. (Reindeer penis and antlers are also sold for use in Chinese medicines.) The bear’s fur was kindly given to me. Being a summer coat, the fur was not as thick or valuable as that of a bear skinned in the winter. For the same reason, sables are only hunted during the winter months. I was nevertheless honored. I was taught how to clean it, process it, and soften it, only to have it later confiscated by the Russian customs officer at the Khabarovsk airport.

To own a bear hide legally in Russia, one must have all the necessary veterinary certificates and hunting licenses. I had gone through the lengthy process of getting these, but I was informed by the customs officer that one needs an additional “international hunter’s” permit to remove a fur from Russia.

As my fieldwork came to an end, the family gave me several other gifts. I was given a hat, coat, and boots made from reindeer fur. Another herder presented me with a set of wooden reindeer toys that he had carved the night before. The set included two figures of packing reindeer that would carry tents and supplies during migrations and one personal riding reindeer used for carrying people. Each is recognizable by the structure of the saddle on its back. The riding reindeer figure he jokingly said was my personal riding reindeer, whom I had named “Fairweather.”

Each of the herders has a personal riding reindeer that they raise and ride from the time it is full-grown until its death (approx. an 8-year life span). I was given a personal riding reindeer of my own, to watch after and ride for the duration of my stay. I named him Fairweather due to the “fair-weather” nature of our relationship—both figuratively and literally. In hot, sunny weather, he would trudge grudgingly along, stubbornly ignoring my commands and even bucking me. However, in cold, dark weather, he would respond vigorously to my commands with quick obedience, galloping at breakneck speeds.

Joshua Blackwelder atop “Fairweather,” his riding reindeer.

Though I began the trip in the north of the Amur Oblast, I had, after several long migrations to the north, traveled deep into the Sakha Republic. The trip home was therefore much longer than the initial trip to the camp, and quite eventful. I was accompanied for the first leg of the journey by a small group of Evenki hunters who navigated our way back down through the mountains. Though a heavy storm of slushy hail and rain thoroughly soaked us all and limited our visibility, it also limited the number of blood-sucking insects and kept Fairweather in his better element, galloping sprightly and strong. The low rivers we had crossed on earlier migrations were now violent torrents. The water rushed over Fairweather’s back and up to my stomach. I held my digital camera high above my head and focused on maintaining my balance. In the water in front of me Fairweather’s neck, head and antlers bobbed like some unusual sea monster. Reaching the high bank on the opposite side, Fairweather leapt magnificently from the current with a loud explosion of water, nearly throwing me backward into the river. I dove forward bear-hugging Fairweather’s neck for support. Once on top of the embankment he broke into a brisk sprint across the meadow, heading toward the sludgy pits of the Plamya 2 gold mines. Watching the Evenki hunters to my right and left deftly maneuvering these awe-inspiring animals through the inclement weather and shivering with cold, adrenaline, and apprehension, I was struck by the magnificent, beautiful, frightening, and rare experience that had been these last few months. I was riding one last time with Evenki hunters deep in the undeveloped Siberian Taiga; it was unforgettable.

A young Evenki man dressed in Russian army fatigues.

We eventually came across a gasoline truck returning from Plamya 2 and persuaded the driver to give me a ride to the river in exchange for a large cut of reindeer meat. I loaded my pack of gear and water-warped field notes onto the truck and bid a final farewell to my hosts. I reached the Nyukzha River that night. With no boats in sight, I expected to sleep in the sand. I wandered down some train tracks looking for a flat place to camp. Luckily, for ten dollars, a worker at a nearby train-yard gave me a bed for the night in a passenger car that was being repaired. I spent much of the following day trying to flag down passing fishermen on the river and eventually found a ride downriver to Ust-Nyukzha village, costing only a few hours of good conversation.

That night I stayed in the home of one of the herder’s parents. On my arrival months ago, I had made arrangements that I would stay there on my return trip. The exact date was never specified—nor could it have been, given the unforeseen complications presented by Taiga life. We had radioed in advance however, using the radio at the camp. They knew then that I would be arriving sometime within a four-day period. They welcomed me warmly with a good meal—Russian cucumber salad and boiled reindeer meat—a few shots of vodka, a trip to the garden banya and—for the first time in months—a soft bed.

The next day I was back on a logging train to Tynda, and from there I boarded a passenger train to Khabarovsk. After a week-long reunion with my classmates from the university, I finally boarded the plane to the United States, one bear skin poorer, but far richer in friends, research experience, and cultural knowledge of the little-known though deeply fascinating reindeer-herding Evenki of the Siberian Far-East.

The author of these field notes, Joshua Blackwelder, spent the 2005-2006 school year with SRAS, studying Russian at St. Petersburg State University, then transferring to Khabarovsk State Pedagogical Institute, and using this to launch a two and a half month field research project living and working with a group of Evenki reindeer herders. Below is the second half of his two-part report.

About the Author

SRAS Students
SRAS students come from around the world to study, intern, or research in Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine, Poland, Georgia, or Russia. They often write while abroad - to complete class or scholarship requirements, or sometimes just because they are inspired to do so. This account will be used to publish exceptional examples of this student writing. Note that when SRAS students is indicated as the author, more specific author info will be made available at the end of the entry or article.