Traditional Forager Culture, Assimilation, and the Cash Economy in Northern Siberia

The existence of pristine foragers has generated considerable debate and a latent controversy remains associated with this notional category of human subsistence life-ways. Scholars of traditional Siberian forager culture and Russian government officials have not yet reached a consensus for a singular definition to describe these groups. This is a taxonomic task that must be resolved for the benefit of the “numerically small peoples of the North” as they are currently defined by the Russian government and known to scholars who participated in the 1993 Seventh International Conference of Hunting and Gathering Societies. Indigenous peoples’ rights, livelihoods, environment, and physical and cultural survival are all dependent on a proper understanding of the term “traditional foragers.” The fact that this descriptive category has been politicized leads inexorably to the conclusion by more powerful entities that for some vague rationale these peoples should be viewed as inferior; and that this devaluation is justified because the foraging spectrum is considered to be at or near the bottom of the socio-economic ladder.

This view is highly prejudicial and at the same time unwarranted. A much more balanced view of the foraging spectrum is provided by anthropologist Marshall Sahlins in his seminal work, The Original Affluent Society. The foraging spectrum is not merely a primordial survivor of prehistory, but a modern human adaptation for coping with natural environments just as agriculturally-based civilized societies are today. The indigenous peoples of Northern Siberia have maintained a traditional nomadic or semi-nomadic foraging subsistence life-way centered on hunting, fishing, gathering, and reindeer-herding. They subsist by utilizing largely wild animal and wild plant resources which lie “outside the cash sector of the economy.” The “numerically small peoples of the North” may thus be properly defined as “pristine forager-herders” when unmolested by the duress imposed on them by government or corporate activities.

According to anthropologists Peter Schweitzer, Megan Biesele, and Richard Hitchcock, it is a truism that very few groups fall into this “pristine” category in the modern world because historical, social, political, and economic forces have created a situation in which most of the affected peoples now engage in a mixed economy of foraging and cash-generating activities. In order to preserve their traditional forager-herder life-ways, a solution will have to be devised which permits the self-determination of the northern Siberian indigenous peoples and the concomitant self-sufficiency this implies.

The most promising development in this area is the establishment of internationally recognized ethno-ecological refuges free from internal interference by the nation-states within which they are created and their protection from economic exploitation by large corporate concerns. A vitally important task then, in the realization of these refuge environments, is to legally and ethno-culturally identify which groups fall into the category “pristine forager-herders” in the Siberian North and the home territories to which they belong. The demographic composition of the pristine forager-herders necessarily will have to make provision for the non-assimilation of these peoples into the larger general Russian population. Assimilation is one of the factors for the decline in numbers of the native peoples of the area and represents a major threat to their continued existence over the long-term. This is a continuing problem and must be addressed by a systematic method which will reverse a long-standing demographic trend and stabilize the number of indigenous peoples to sustainable levels.

One state policy facilitating assimilation of indigenous peoples is the settling of outsiders on native territories. The subsequent collapse of state-run industries in the post-Soviet Siberian North has left economically dispossessed non-indigenous people on native territory with no way of making a living for themselves. As a result, these people have resorted to more traditional ways of subsistence at the expense of the natives and lay claim to the former indigenous territory that they have inhabited in excess of some two decades or more. In addition, state policy aimed at assimilating indigenous peoples involved their forced collectivization into state-run reindeer-herding farms. Survival International reports that these “brigades” must supply the Russian government with reindeer meat as part of their compensation for “working” as reindeer-herders, rather than subsisting in their adapted environments as traditional forager-herders. Thus, the state has tethered the traditional forager-herder to its economic machinery.

Other methods of assimilation include state-sponsored indigenous hunting and trapping, or the more insidious intrusion of “frontier capitalism” into the Siberian North such as mammoth tusk collection and their sale to foreign buyers. This economic tethering to the state and cash-generation is exacerbating assimilation through mixed marriage arrangements of indigenous women outside their tribal affiliations as they become more educated, and the native men remain in more traditional pursuits by working in the reindeer-herding brigades and the state farm collectives.  Educated native women prefer the more educated men of the urban environment leaving the native men in their semi-traditional subsistence modes.

Damage to the land by industrialization and the removal of the younger generation to boarding schools from their former home territories has further eroded indigenous population numbers. Anthropologist Dmitri Bogoiavlenski indicates that compounding the problem is the generally low population numbers inherent in forager-herder communities being unfavorably impacted by the state-run industries, large corporations, and local non-indigenous peoples. Economic development of indigenous territories remains largely unregulated and is contributing to the decline in native numbers through their forced acculturation into the cash economy and “education,” the change to agricultural methods, and the resulting loss of fishing and hunting grounds and reindeer pasturage. The related low birth rates and high mortality also affect indigenous populations. These factors are converging to place the indigenous peoples of the Siberian North in unfavorable conditions that put their cultural survival, natural habitats, and traditional life-ways at risk.

The impact of the cash economy on indigenous peoples in northern Siberia manifests in alarmingly visible changes to traditional subsistence modes and environmental degradation of non-renewable sources. Survival International reports that in Siberia’s Yamal Peninsula, the indigenous Nenets’ forager-herder life-ways are threatened by petroleum extraction and incursions into traditional pasture lands by large government-owned corporations such as Russian gas giant Gazprom. The Nenets are being impeded from realizing their nomadic lifestyle by the accoutrements of the oil and gas pipeline industry and their interconnected series of roads that block or alter traditional migration routes and reduce the area necessary for their campsites. Pasturage is being degraded and the reindeer herds are forced to not only change migratory patterns but also face the loss of their grazing territories.

Survival International reports the Nenets themselves state that “the land is very important to us” and the reindeer are their “lives and their futures.” One unambiguous response to assimilation and economic development has been the evasion by Nenets of the Russian system altogether. In 1997, Norwegian anthropologist Ivar Bjorklund reported that he had “rediscovered a forgotten tribe of nomads in the Siberian tundra, where they have gone undetected for generations.”

These were, apparently, a group of approximately 200 Nenets who had evaded the Russian authorities when the latter attempted to collectivize them and send the indigenous youngsters to boarding schools. They had lived off the land without recourse to any attachments to the outside agro-industrial world around them. In other words, this group of Nenets met the definition of “pristine forager-herders” and confirmed their existence as more than a notional category. Bjorklund stated that “these are a proud people who are aware that they command a lifestyle that is completely unique” and that this lifestyle is “very vulnerable.”

Though potentially a functional strategy in the large wilderness reaches of the Siberian tundra and taiga environments, it seems unlikely such maneuvering will continue to be effective in the face of continuing industrialization of the Siberian north by the Russian government, Gazprom, and international economic entities. The Nenets “unique” lifestyle as small-group traditional forager-herders thus has been recognized as necessitating action for its preservation. It is unlikely that indigenous peoples such as this group of unassimilated Nenets can survive unaided in the long-term.  Clearly, some form of international intervention is required to prevent the eventual extermination of this traditional society that got along quite well for a long time without outside interference.

As blatant an intrusion into traditional life-ways and the environment though this was, yet another and perhaps more insidious form of cash economics has arisen in the Sakha Republic and the New Siberian Islands with indigenous Yakuts and Yukagirs further to the east of the Yamal Peninsula within the last decade. A recent issue of National Geographic indicated that here, both indigenous groups and dispossessed Russian industrial workers take part in the legal, though poorly regulated mammoth tusk hunting trade. This is a five-month spring and summer “hunting” season wherein the natives forsake their traditional lifestyles to collect the ever more valuable mammoth tusk ivory. When the season is over, the tusk hunters use the ice-fishing season to transport the ivory up the Yana River to the regional capital in Yakutsk where prices are generally higher than in the local villages. From here, they make their way to the lucrative Chinese market where prices increase still further.

National Geographic has reported that Chinese demand for ivory is insatiable; to the detriment of both the Sakha Republic’s nonrenewable mammoth resources and African elephant populations vulnerable to poaching. Although elephant ivory is illegal, Chinese ivory-carving shops do not distinguish between the legal mammoth ivory and illegal elephant ivory which both command equivalent prices. The result has been both the growth of mammoth tusk hunting activities and an increase in the poaching of African elephants to fuel China’s ivory market. The cash economy is therefore adversely impacting the non-renewable resources in the Sakha Republic and African elephant populations and at the same time fracturing traditional Yakut and Yukagir traditional subsistence life-ways by introducing a mixed market and subsistence economy. Not everyone is successful at collecting the mammoth tusks, which leaves people short on the very cash they need to help them get through the season. Moreover, even the natives are wondering how long this non-renewable resource will last.

Another unforeseen impact of development in the Sakha Republic is the loss of local fauna reported in the New York Times as part of the Russian government’s public eradication policy of wolf populations. Here, they are seen as pests and not as apex predators within the larger biome they inhabit. Villages are “luring” hungry wolves with domesticated livestock when their population of natural prey items, rabbits, falls in some seasons. Reduced prey availability normally results in a natural adjustment of predator levels, but in the Sakha Republic wolves are surviving by attacking sedentary livestock herds, including reindeer. The Russian government’s response is to authorize the slaughter of the wolf populations without regard to their numbers. The Russian government does not seem to be concerned about eventual wolf extinction even though they must be aware of the North American paradigm of slaughter without consequences. Surely, if the indigenous peoples remained nomadic (i.e., abandoning the farming collectives and monetized reindeer “brigades,”) they would husband smaller and more mobile herds of reindeer which would remain largely out of harm’s way and the natural balance of wolf-rabbit populations would regulate itself within its usual biorhythms.

Such unnatural perturbations of northern Siberia’s indigenous peoples, their environments, and faunas are also being affected by the opening of the Northeast Passage to commercial Russian and Chinese seaborne traffic in 2011-2012 due to global warming. The Northeast Passage connects northern Europe and Asia for approximately four months via a shorter, more economical pathway than the old routes through the Suez or Panama Canals. The New York Times reported that Gazprom recently completed a natural gas cargo delivery and that Danish and Japanese seaborne traffic have been using this route since 2010. Chinese shipping giant Cosco used the Northeast Passage in 2013 to transport cargo to the Netherlands.

This Arctic highway has been increasingly utilized by maritime powers and the trend is likely to continue or expand as the Passage remains open for longer periods. Ominous signs for the well-being of northern Siberia’s indigenous peoples are appearing through Gazprom’s continued development of the region, China’s statements about the viability of resource use in the area, and the associated increased use of the Northeast Passage to transport commodities from, through, and near northern Siberia. With the threat of increased interference by Russia, China, and other maritime powers, the outlook for northern Siberia’s forager-herders does not look promising. A legal entity or mechanism needs to be realized to protect indigenous peoples’ habitats and their cultural survival. If governmental and international will-power can restrain unchecked economic growth, development, and exploitation in certain regions, it may be possible to preserve indigenous life-ways and the territories they inhabit. Fortunately, such a vehicle has been unveiled by the international community, even if it has not yet been actualized.

In the 1990s, Russian anthropologist Olga Murashko introduced the “Concept of an International Ethno-ecological Refuge” as part of the Seventh Conference on Hunter-Gatherer Studies convened in Moscow. This concept was designed to encompass the preservation of indigenous peoples’ traditional societies and the larger territory and complete biome within which they exist. Unlike the North American native reservations or national park system, the international ethno-ecological refuge would not merely resettle indigenous peoples in undesirable locations not of their own choosing or solely serve as habitat protection for the enjoyment of visitors. It would, instead, be a “total package” for the conservation and preservation of the complete northern Siberian forager-herder nomadic territory, all its natural resources (to be accessed only by the natives,) and overall habitat, its flora and fauna, and the unmolested practice of traditional culture and life-ways of the indigenous peoples. The state and international community would have custodial responsibility for the well-being and proper management of the ethno-ecological refuge and all its constituent parts. Outside intervention or interference would be kept to a minimum to allow the complete self-determination, self-sufficiency, and self-preservation of the indigenous peoples within the preserve. The preserve territory would be outlined by the indigenous peoples to encompass all habitats and ranges for their nomadic lifestyles to remain unimpeded by outside interference, whether it be economic development, socio-cultural reconstruction, park-land creation, resettlement efforts of traditional territories, resource extraction, the use of trade-routes, or the destruction of faunas.

The instrument for the effective realization of the refuges is the International Convention of Independent Countries on Indigenous Peoples (Convention 169.) The wherewithal to implement Convention 169 on the state, regional, and local levels is within the purview of the 26 signatories to the declaration. Whether or not they act on this or similar legislation will directly affect the future of indigenous peoples and their cultural survival as independent entities. Ethno-ecological refuges should be, in effect, microcosms of humanity’s environment of evolutionary adaptation in and around habitat mosaics. In the case of the Siberian North, this would include the essential tundra, taiga, and river valley “edge environments.” Evolutionary ecologist Clive Finlayson has stated that “edge environments or habitat mosaics” are the loci of the human “innovators” who have survived local extinction events in the past and have preserved both themselves and their adaptive cultural skills for future generations.

In today’s world, these traditional innovative peoples need the preservation efforts and advocacy of outside agencies to survive on a shrinking planet of nation-states and environmental degradation. Ethno-ecological preservation of edge environments would thus serve as human and ecological “life-boats” in the stormy seas of cumulative technological change and the future uncertainties it represents. It is incumbent on all responsible individuals to comprehend the big picture; and ensure the physical and cultural survival of humanity here on Earth in real terms by implementing pre-existing international regulatory vehicles rather than placing faith in, and waiting for, some nebulous future technological utopia that may or may not come to pass. It may be more heuristically and tangibly useful to consider what anthropologist Robin Fox terms the “paleotopia” of the ethno-ecological refuge when exploring “the search for society” and implementing its potential for realization.

George is a former archaeologist and anthropologist in cultural resources management where his mission was the preservation and curation of prehistoric Native American sites and artifacts. He graduated from The American University with a Master of Arts degree in Anthropology in 2004. Current areas of interest include advocacy for Indigenous peoples and issues and rights of contemporary hunter-gatherer societies. Read other articles by George, or visit George's website.