|2005-03-27 - The Chukchi
27 Mar, 05 - 23:22
GPS-pos: N68°43´ | E158°42´ | Alt: 9 M
-13°F today in this little village of Kolymskaya. It is Sunday the 27th of March, Easter Sunday, which obviously isn´t celebrated here in this Pagan country. It´s grey, foggy and a bit windy. Another concert is arranged in our honour today. I look forward to it and eager to see what will happen. We were also told yesterday that they´ve arranged a Goodbye party in our honour two days before we leave, enough to give us one day of rest. I do worry a bit what that will turn out to be, since the intoxication of alcoholic beverages is visible in the village.
´´We´re moving about all the time´´ ,Nikolai explains slowly, ´´and therefore we never suffer from the cold. Well, except during the nights, I guess, when we´re inside the yurangi (a cot like tent made from reindeer skins), but we have an additional small tent for everyone inside the yurangi. That´s warm enough. Anyhow, today we have wood stove´s, which we didn´t have when I was young.´´
Nikolai is one of many retired reindeer herders in Kolymskaya, who´s made a lot of effort to come an visit us in the apartment and explain the workings of the life of Chukchi reindeer herders. They´re meticulous and touch all aspects of a life. It hasn´t changed dramatically the last 100 years, when it comes to the handling aspect of the reindeer. Except the important arrival of the snowmobile. Which we realized the day after arrival in Kolymskaya, when we joined a reindeer brigade at the exact moment when they moved their 1400 big herd from the taiga to the tundra. The brigade consisted of 5 Chukchis, where everyone except one, used snowmobiles to push the herd northwards. That lone Chukchi walked ahead of all the rest, with a line of reindeers pulling sledges behind him. Sledges which carried all their belongings and pretty much everything the herders needed to survive for a few months on the vast tundra.
´´Eat!´´ , Nikolai said, ´´You have to put on a lot of weight before you leave. It´s a long way to Ambarchik. As you know, the Russian explorer Cherskii (1845-92) died here before reaching Ambarchik. So eat!´´
The first Russian and Westerners exploring Siberia which came in contact with the Chukchi considered them the most primitive and backward natives of all Siberian tribes. However, their narrow mindedness taken into account, they all got struck by, and appreciated, how generous, kind and welcoming the Chukchis were. Still, sadly, the Russians in the west, or the east as well by the way, demote the Chukchis with jokes which make them look stupid and primitive. Nothing could be more wrong. Since I do have a wide experience of so called aboriginal natives from all over the world, e.g. people living close to the rhythm of nature, I recognize the very spontaneous behaviour of the Chukchi as well, a natural manner which thick minded, dim-witted and bigoted people misunderstand. The Chukchis are not only witty and clever, they´re also, as everyone else along the Kolyma, very hospitable. We´ve got a daily stream of visitors who all bring food. Our refrigerator and our stomachs are overloaded! I have never come across anything like this regarding generosity! Definitely a very good lesson in humanity and a high-light in my life. But, since we´ve only been in contact with Chukchis for a couple of weeks it is still to early to point out any major differences between them and the Evens, Yakuts and Yugahirs (and the Kolyma Russians), when it comes to specific behaviour, but there´s no doubt that they´re very straight on and honest, curious and interested and they´re very open. The Chukchis are very uncomplicated and easy to get along with. The Chukchi were the last native tribe to succumb to the Russian colonial expansion during the 16th Century. They have never themselves engaged in wars to conquer other tribes.
Which says a lot about their sense of compassion. Obviously, they are animists and listen carefully to what the spirits of nature tell them.
´´This business of selling and buying have never been easy for us Chukchi´´ , Nikolai explains, ´´and still day, at least we elderly feel that it is almost shameful to ask people for payment. That´s another reason why it was easier during the Soviet era for us reindeer farmers.´´
The Chukchi are widespread over a vast area beginning almost here in the west and all the way to the Bering Strait in the East. There´s really two types of Chukchi, with vastly different dialects and, even, culture. The Chukchis in this region are reindeer farmers, but the major part are hunters who live along the coastline. They´re both animists, though, which is important for them. And for us and the future of Kolyma. And Siberia. We have noticed something very important -and alarming- during our trip along the Kolyma, when it comes to the trappers and their ethical way to work their trade. The Russians -many of them Ukrainians looking for a better life in a capitalistic sense- they hunt and fish to collect as much as they possibly can and they don´t worry a bit if they unsettle the laws governing the nature. Even though they´re very nice folks, they are over fishing and over hunting. They´re looking for profit. In comparison to the native tribes of the area, the Evens, the Yugahirs and the Chukchi. They never take more from nature than they need to survive. The Yakuts, not being 100% natives of Siberia, they´re somewhere in between.
´´The difference today for us reindeer farmers, in comparison with the Soviet time´´ , Nikolai explains, ´´well, that is that 30-40% of the reindeers are privately owned here in Kolymskaya. During the Soviet era, a mere percent were privately owned. This is a good thing with the changes after perestroika.´´
Almost all of the elderly herders we´ve talked to consider themselves as communists. Some of them even defend Stalin´s gulags. However, most of them show great surprise when I give them a perspective from the Swedish side. The eternal threat we felt, their isolation and closed borders and the harassment and persecution of people with opposite thoughts. I guess this is a clear sign that the Soviet propaganda worked very well here. In a way we haven´t come across until now. There´s no doubt, nonetheless, that most people along the Kolyma genuinely thought it was better during the Soviet era. But most people do not defend the atrocities and awful mistakes by either Stalin or the other Soviet dictators.
´´Of course I miss the freedom of the tundra (they say sendukha here)´´ , Nikolai declares and finishes off with these words: ´´But I go there as often as I can, I do have a snowmobile, but I ain´t like the proper Chukchi farmers, who cannot stay more than an hour indoors in a house, before they have to get back on the tundra.´´
Rima, the local head here in Kolymskaya, will take us to the tundra tomorrow. 160 km:s return by snowmobile over the day, to the last day of splitting up the calves. We´ll visit of the 6 brigades roaming the area. An area so big that the Swedish Sámi would feel angst! The local Chukchi here often mistake us for Sámi (why else would we be so interested in their lives?) and they ask us a lot of questions about how the Swedish Sámi handle their reindeer. Luckily I know a bit, since I have good Sámi friends and live in a reindeer region in Sweden. So I tell them the little I know and they enjoy it a lot, but disagree with many things, especially the choice of modern equipment. And I tell them about the permanent conflict between the Sámi and the local owners of forest back home, an argument over the use of land, and that makes them laugh:
´´They can all come here´´ ,they say, ´´we can make all of you at home and still don´t see you in a life time!´´