Book Reviews

The Reindeer People by Piers Vitebsky

Houghton Mifflin

The Reindeer People immerses the reader into the lives of a fascinating people and their culture during a period of catastrophic changes to their way of life. For several thousand years, the Eveny people of Siberia lived a nomadic life completely dependent on reindeer herding. Reindeer provided transportation and the warm clothing, meat, and milk without which human life cannot be sustained in a climate so extreme that winter temperatures can fall to -96 Fahrenheit. Kept warm by sleeping bags and boots of double reindeer fur in stove-warmed tents, hunters followed the green plant and lichen-eating herds, living in an "interplay between ice and fire."

In the 1920s, Soviet authorities intervened to industrialize nomadism, increase reindeer production, and otherwise fully incorporate the herders into the grand plans of the empire. Children were sent to boarding schools. With the exception of camp cooks, women entered village life and became nurses, teachers, or clerks. Most men became salaried herders beholden to state farm edicts and quotas.

Seven decades later with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Eveny were instructed to privatize their herds and pay for needed supplies and services. Economic uncertainty and extreme poverty became the new reality for many families. Domesticated reindeer counts, for a time inflated by the factory model of herding, plummeted to levels that can no longer sustain the population. Alcoholism, violence and suicide are rampant, and it is not uncommon for young men to die on their birthdays from such causes.

Piers Vitebsky first received permission to study the Eveny in 1988 and has lived with them on and off in their herding groups and their remote village of Sebyan ever since. With exquisite sensitivity and lyrical grace he describes the lives of individuals and families, the fascinating details of physical survival in a harsh climate, and the cultural and spiritual beliefs of the Eveny. He relates with remarkable clarity how a small, essentially tribal society has managed to exist on the margins of a turbulent, rapidly changing larger civilization that constantly threatens to overwhelm it. The whiplash effect of forced collectivization followed by government indifference leaves the tribe’s prospects now in serious doubt.

One cultural survival technique he documents is the Eveny sense of humor. With a worldliness gained at great cost through Soviet education, herders wisecrack ironically about a Pushkin poem from 1836 that references the wildness of their tribe. They wryly name a promiscuous reindeer Bill Clinton, a domineering one Margaret Thatcher.

Vitebsky brings his own wife and children to join him for a summer migration, when some Eveny women and children leave the village to spend time with their herding husbands. He gains a better understanding of the difficult choices faced by modern Eveny women when he sees their situation through the eyes of his wife and daughter. "The boys here are gorgeous," his 10-year-old daughter observes, "but I’m not going to marry one, because I don’t want to spend the rest of my life washing up in a tent."

Through a willingness to fully participate in tribal life, to document and to feel deeply about the Eveny, Piers Vitebsky has created an account that will stand tall among the modern classics of anthropology.

Reviewed by Laura Lent