2. Siberian Literature: Indigenous Authors

The Way of Kinship: An Anthology of Native Siberian Literature

Translated and Edited by Alexander Vaschenko and Claude Clayton Smith, with a forward by N. Scott Momaday. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis. 2010.

Authors and Artists

Yeremei Alpin (Khanty) was born in the native village of Varyogan in West Siberia in 1948
Nadezda Taligina (Khanty) was born in 1953 lives in Saldkhard on the Arctic Circle.
Yuri Vaella (Taiga Nenets) was born in the village of Varyogan in West Siberia in 1948.
Galina Keptuke (Evenk) was born in the village of Kukushka in Amur Oblast (East Siberia) in 1951.
Gennady Dyachkov (Yukagir) was born in East Siberia and lived from 1945-1983.
Vladimir Sangi (Nivkh) was born in 1935 in the Nabil camp on the east coast of Sakhalin Island.
Maria Vagatova (Khanty) was born in 1936 in a taiga forest village near the Kazym River.
Gennady Raishev (Khanty) was born in 1933.
Jansi Kimonko (Udegeh) lived from 1905-1949. Her people live near the Amur River around the present city of Khabarovsk.
Anna Nerkagi (Nenets) is from the Yamal Penninula in the Far North of West Siberia.
Leonty Taragupta (Khanty) was born in 1945 in the village of Poslovy in the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Region.
Yuri Rytkheu (Chuckchee) lived from 1930-2008 and was born in the village of Uelen on the Chukotka Peninsula.
Map of historic territories of Indigenous Peoples of Siberia

This is from Dr. Mikkelson's review of the anthology for Ethnobiology Letters:

The Way of Kinship: An Anthology of Native Siberian Literatures, translated and edited by Alexander Vaschenko and Claude Clayton Smith, forward by N. Scott Momaday Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.

 Apart from living there for an extended period, there is perhaps no better way to familiarize oneself with the distinctive features of a foreign land and people than reading the works of its most talented and dedicated creative writers, and viewing its visual depiction by gifted artists. Students and general readers interested in Siberia finally have a volume that enables us to accomplish this task. As someone who has taught courses on Siberia for several decades without such a book, I have already ordered it for my class to be taught in the spring 2012 semester at the University of Kansas. 

The Way of Kinship includes prose stories, poems, and a one-act play, written by ten native Siberian writers, representing seven of the region’s indigenous peoples (Khanty, Evenk, Nenets, Chukchee, Nivh, Yudagir, and Udegeh) from all across this vast land, from the Ob’ River valley and Yamal Peninsula to the Pacific Ocean, plus the ethnic drawings of two Khanty artists.  The oldest of these writers, Yuri Rytkheu (Chukchee, 1930-2008) and Jansi Kimonko (Udegeh, 1905-1949) were the founders of their respective written literatures, for which alphabets and scripts did not even exist before Soviet times. The youngest writers in this collection, Yeremei Aipin (Khanty, b. 1948), Yuri Vaella (taiga Nenets, b. 1948), and Anna Nerkagi (tundra Nenets, b. 1952), beginning with perestroika in the mid-1980s and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, have been active in local and all-Russian politics on behalf of the rights of native people and the saving of their homeland from despoliation by the massive oil and natural gas extraction industries in west Siberia.

All of the writers and artists represented here combine their artistic pursuits with efforts to preserve the cultures of their peoples, by establishing museums, nature preserves, and social programs to teach their respective languages, and, for example, restore the making and playing of native musical instruments. For example, Yeremei Aipin’s work with the Native Heritage Park in Khanty-Mansiisk, a museum and memorial sacred place known as Torum Maa (Place of the Gods).   

All the writers in this anthology, even those who tried early in their careers, like Yuri Rytkheu, to adapt to the norms of Soviet literature and to become assimilated in the larger Soviet society, are steeped in the folklore, oral literature, and other traditions of their specific indigenous people. In most cases, their works, of poetry, prose, and drama are literary adaptations of folk legends and oral tales.  They reflect the symbols, world view, and system of values of their own native cultures. 

Many of the works in this volume bear titles naming one or another Siberia river whose watershed was the author’s homeland. For example, the excerpt from Evenk writer Galina Keptuke’s novel On the Banks of the Jeltula, a tributary of the Amur River in southeast Siberia, or Udegeh writer Jansi Kimonko’s stories from Where the Sukpai Rushes Along, where he calls the Sukpai River basin “the native land of my father and grandfathers.” In such stories we learn the utmost importance that fishing, hunting, and reindeer herding had for Siberian native peoples throughout their history.

Indigenous sensibilities and modes of behavior are often depicted against the background of a rapacious ecological footprint in the tundra or taiga boreal forests of Siberia left by the Russian colonial masters of the region whose arrival is described as an “invasion” and whose interests are strictly exploitative. First and foremost, this means the gas and oil industries, which provide Russian Federation’s government and oligarch billionaires with their principal source of revenue.

For example, Nenets writer Yuri Vaella’s story of Old Man Ustya who falls victim along with his reindeer-drawn sledge when they fall through the ice into what seemed to be simply a lake, but actually was so polluted by oil wastes that animals and humans could not survive immersion in it. Or Khanty writer Yuri Aipin, who in his powerful work And So My Clan Dies makes the following statements: “A drilling station appeared on the sacred hill and desecrated the area with filth and refuse. And the state clear-cutting agency felled trees at the clan cemetery, devastating our eternal resting place.  The land of our ancestors is gone. The clan died from a sense of hopelessness, a sense of doom. Man no longer belongs to his land, to his clan, or to himself. It will be a pity if the Pin Khanty die out, with their unique folklore, folk art, and language. World culture will be poorer without them.”  

Thus, at the heart of this volume, The Way of Kinship: An Anthology of Native Siberian Literature, lies a profound and tragic irony.  On the one hand, these works of literature and visual art acquaint us with some the ways of the indigenous Siberian peoples, such as the almost universal Bear Festival and bear worship, the vital role of shamans, the exclusive importance of maintaining native skills in fishing, hunting, canoe making, the vital link between the reindeer and the native economies and societies, and the primacy of the native languages, be they Uralic (like Khanty or Nenets), Altaic (like Evenk), or Paleo-Siberian (like Yukagir, Nivkh, or Chukchee). On the other hand, all the above skills, traditions, and other distinguishing features of Siberia’s indigenous peoples are in serious threat of extinction. 

In a further irony, the written literatures of native Siberians, which began less than 100 years ago, and are so brilliantly exemplified by the writers represented in this book, may not survive another generation.

We are grateful that the University of Minnesota Press has made available for us this book, The Way of Kinship, without which it would be nearly impossible for English-language readers to have such a close brush with the Siberian environment, the way of life of its indigenous people, and with the horrendous obstacles they both face to survive in the twenty-first century.

                                                                                                                  Gerald E. Mikkelson, University of Kansas     

Drs. Jerry Mikkelson and Ray Pierotti provided an overview and led a discussion on the works compiled in the anthology:

Many Indigenous languages in Siberia did not have a written language for most of their history. Written languages had to be created during the Soviet period, which could be considered  a cultural achievement of the Soviet Union. Before this time there was oral literature, and the verbal cultural legacies were transmitted between generations. During the Soviet period it only took a few generations until many of the Indigenous peoples were given a written script. Russian was always required in the Soviet Union regardless of your native tongue. Because of this the writers in our anthology are at least bilingual, and some write in both Russian and their native language. Until this year we did not have an English language text that we could use.

We have already expanded our class from Siberia proper to include Beringia in our discussion with our Alaskan colleagues. We will now expand a bit more to include a discussion of both Indigenous Siberian and Native American literature.

When we look at a comparison of oral vs written traditions we have to keep in mind that written language has specific uses, and so does the oral tradition. Written languages were created for them, not by them. When you have an oral tradition you have a focus on correct pronunciation but not on correct spelling, so there may be a variety of ways to spell a given name. The phonics are still being worked out in most cases since the written languages are so recent.

With Indigenous writers, one of the big issues is who is the target audience (your own people, or people outside of your culture). For example, there is an African writer who only writes in his native language even though before colonization there was no written script for his language. This means that there is only a small audience for his work, although it would appear that this is a more true representation of the culture.

Native Americans were quite often upset because their language and knowledge were not taken seriously by the dominant culture. This caused tensions, and what you see is that since Native science, philosophy etc. were not acknowledged, writers who were tribal members were the only ones who had a voice in the larger society. Writers were often of mixed blood and may be seen as trying to explain their experiences to two different cultures. Many writers wrote fiction, but their writing may actually be considered as philosophical novels since they were presenting a specific worldview within their fiction. When a group feels ignored or oppressed the writers and artists are able to express themselves because it is acceptable to other cultures to have "primitive" cultures represent themselves through art and literature, but not through science or other fields. Being an artist is one of the better ways to navigate the interface.

A good example of this is the writings of the Sicangu Lakota writer, Joseph Marshall. He is a Native American writer who, among other writings,  has reinterpreted the battle of Little Bighorn from an Indigenous perspective to show the different interpretations of the same event that are possible for writers of different cultures.

As we see in this anthology of Indigenous Siberian writers, Native Americans also teach using riddles, teach using stories.
Wait, I see something: It sounds like a lullaby is being sung to children in the other world.
Answer: The sound of a swiftly moving current
(Jones 1976 quoted in Make Prayers to the Raven; A Koyukon View of the Northern Forest. Richard Nelson, 1983, The University of Chicago Press)

Indigenous stories are the equivalent of models used in Western science, and are used as heuristic devices allowing you to think about an issue even if you don't have detailed knowledge. They provide a framework within which acquired knowledge can be placed to allow you to see a larger picture. These stories are used to teach general principles to young people while they go out and learn detailed specific knowledge. For more on this topic click here

When reading this anthology several themes are presented that are also prominent in Native American literature. For example, Simon Ortiz (Fight Back; Our Homeland, A National Sacrifice Area. Pages 337-365 in Woven Stone. The University of Arizona Press, Tucson, 1992)  defines national sacrifice areas as places that the government thinks have so little importance that incredible levels of pollution can be tolerated there. The most obvious recent example is the national nuclear waste dump in Nevada (Yucca Mountain-impact on Native Americans, recent news). The Four Corners area in the American southwest was designated as a national sacrifice area during the Second World War when it was used as a nuclear testing zone. There is currently discussion about whether some areas of Alaska are being used as a national sacrifice area.

The stories written by Indigenous peoples are stories of who they are and why they still exist. It is a big deal to make the point that their cultures still exist, and that they are not just a thing of the past. These writers want their stories to be heard, want their language to be preserved, and want to be recognized and acknowledged.

The following is a contribution from our students who were asked to describe what they considered the most significant things they read in the anthology:

Song of the Reindeer Breeder (Yuri Vaella page 85)
I would like to be a raindrop
and adorn your eyelashes.

This poem has apparent romantic overtones, it seems happy. In that poem the refrain (Nga-die) is in the native language and it isn't explained or translated. It reiterates the idea of a snowflake on a fur collar, and in so doing it reinforces imagery that comes from the author's life experiences.

Old Man Moon (Yeremei Aipin page 5)
The copper-red face of the moon floated slowly out of the pines. Everything-- the spring snows, the evening clouds, the houses and peoples-- reflected the same purple, copper-red color. When I saw the enormous round face of the moon, I asked my mother:
"Who is that over there?"
My mother answered:
"That is Old Man Moon."
Stunned by its vivid complexion and flaming enormity, I pointed my finger at it, and my mother rebuked me strictly..."

It tells a story of his people. This reminded some of Aesop's fables, which were also meant to teach a lesson. Stories are used to help children understand the complexities of the world. It is unfortunate that the terms fable and myth have become pejorative, they should actually be terms used to describe something profound.

One student was impressed by the following poem:
At the Bus Stop (Yuri Vaella page 80)
I am standing by the booth
at the bus stop
reading scraps of newspaper ads:
"Urgent exchange..."
"Needed: 3-room apartment
with balcony facing South..."

The juxtaposition of the Russian want ads with the speculation of possible future Taiga Nenets want ads (One day where the reindeer paths cross; my clansmen; will implore) is very moving. The student described all of Vaella's writings as gorgeous, reminding her of e.e. cummings. For example, in Morning at the Lake (page 90) the two mists talk to each other in a beautifully poetic fashion even though neither can see the physical existence of the other.

The writings in this anthology are very nature based, they express feelings of loss about the natural world and about the loss of cultural traditions linked to that world. Urban culture is a theme in many stories; separation from nature and relocation to urban settings; impact of ethnic Russian point of view on Indigenous peoples.

Another student commented on An Old Anthill (Maria Vagatova page 185). He found that the author gave positive attributes to ants. She compared the abandoned anthill to a lost village and saw positive comparisons whereas some might view comparing humans to ants as pejorative. Metaphors differ between cultures, and whereas she saw it as a positive thing to compare her people to ants, we might see it differently.

The loss of cultural traditions-- abandonment-- is an important theme in many of these stories.

The Hunter's Son: A One-Act Play (Gennady Dychkov page 156)
The Hunter's Son: What do you want, Father? They (referring to his sisters) have a profession. They're teachers!
The Hunter: And what can they teach, if they can't clean a duck or men boots?
The Hunter's Son: They know everything about their own profession.
The Hunter: (looking at the river) Look how Nicholas handles the canoe! He can do anything, and he's only twelve. I'll teach him everything he needs to know.

In this play the playwright showed how the old ways were lost within a single generation, but might be recovered as long as the holders of these traditions remain alive. This is an example of using written stories as an attempt to keep stories alive. It is a story of moving away-- changing lifestyle creates a break between cultures.

My Word, My Tongue (Maria Vagatova page 177)
If I couldn't hear my own words,
if I didn't know my own language:
who would listen?
It seems to be somewhat of a contradiction that this was written in Russian, but is about losing your native language. Points to one of the great conundrums of Indigenous writers-- can I express myself adequately if I do it in the language of the colonizer? In contrast, writing in your own language can be powerful, but it is limited to your own people and does not address the larger society. There are two targets for all of these stories-- their own people, but also Russians/English speakers. Writing for multiple audiences is difficult, but it is important to navigate between the cultures.

It is interesting to consider what you should do if there are no words in a language for the concepts you want to get across.

If you only write in your own language are you limiting your audience and defeating the purpose of communicating across cultures.

Little America (Galina Keptuke page 126)
She hadn't been back to her native grounds for a long time. And now she was returning for good...With every passing year she'd been drawn more and more to her own homeland...

This story goes into a lot of depth about the problems facing contemporary communities. But remember that there are positive aspects to the story, like the people the narrator meets in the airport, they portrayed a much more hopeful alternative. They were still helpful, and communal, which made them important figures that gave her a possible resolution to her dilemma. Even though at the end of the story the narrator drowns, she didn't drown in the river to which she had offered prayers, but in Lake Baikal, to which she had made no offerings, so the old traditions still held: she did the proper ceremonies to ask for safety in the river, but not in the lake. Think of the way the stories are structured-- how would you write a story yourself to explain your traditions to people who have never met you?

On Things Eternal (Yuri Vaella page 83)
You are your native country
you are your native country's eyes
and mind
and conscience
and heart
and so there's no excuse...

 This is from a poetic cycle that talks about how, in your native country, when there is a lack of action it can cause it to go away and you are left with nothing. This is a theme that runs through a number of the stories in this anthology. They describe lifestyles that are not easy to follow-- you have to know a lot and you have to work hard. But it is important that they continue and you not allow them to die out.

Selections from Morning Twilight: A Novel of the Khanty (Yeremei Aipin page 15)
...There came the morning to ascend.
And the Man, slowly turning toward the sun with a long glance at the earth, where he had been born and lived to this very day, pulled at the bridle. And the reindeer at the head of the pack took his first step into the sky...

This is a story about how everyone is related to some degree and there are languages that are interrelated and how we cannot violate the rules by which nature operates. Deep connectedness was an important theme.

The Earth's Pain (Yeremei Aipin page 9)
Whenever by accident my mother touched the earth with an ax, she would quickly level the cut, covering it with woodchips and fir needles. My father would do the same, whenever his ax slipped from a tree and sliced the earth. I once asked my mother the meaning of this.
"It makes a wound on the Earth's body," my mother said. "By no means should you leave Her wounds unattended. It hurts Her!"

On page 10 Alpin talks about the Root (capitalized) which is the symbolic root of their people. If they cut the earth of my mother that pain is alive in me.