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SPRI Review 1995: SPRI Review 1995

SPRI Review 1995

Research Overviews

Social Sciences and Russian Northern Studies Group

Dr P. Vitebsky, Assistant Director of Research
J. Tichotsky, P. Fryer, M. Badger, M. Whittles, B. Seligman, D. Anderson, T. Argounova, M. Gridina, M. Curran

The group continued to expand, with an increasing number of long-term Visiting Scholars and complex joint projects with institutions overseas. Dr Mark Nuttall, Dr Igor Krupnik, and Dr Nikolai Vakhtin spent time at the Institute as ESRC-funded Research Associates, while Ben Seligman joined as a Research Student and Marion Curran as Secretary. Having long worked with Russian scholars, the Group welcomed its first students from Russia, Marina Gridina and Tatiana Argounova. They completed the MPhil course and Argounova will stay on for a PhD. She is the first Sakha (Yakut) person to study at Cambridge.

Members of the group carried out fieldwork-based research in several sites in Russia: Chukotka, Yakutsk, Nyeryungri, Taimyr, Verkhoyansk Mountains, Kazym, Syktyvkar, Yamal Peninsula, Norilsk, Lake Baikal, and Vaigach Island. In Alaska they worked in Barrow, Fairbanks, Nome, Bethel, and Indian Valley and elsewhere in the Arctic in Inuvik, Banks Island, Varanger Fjord, Sisimiut, Karesuando, and Karasjok.

A major theme has been the importance of indigenous knowledge in making sustainable development realistic. The project on 'Environmental change and indigenous knowledge in Siberia and Alaska,' funded by the ESRC and directed by Dr Vitebsky, compares the uses of indigenous knowledge by local people in each of these regions in their response to environmental change.

Under this project, Dr Mark Nuttall (Research Associate) studied the conflicting uses made of indigenous knowledge by government agencies and native groups in Alaska. He showed how an advanced legal system and the use of databases are making this knowledge into a commodity, which is feeding back into the educational curriculum and affecting the perceptions of native peoples themselves.

His counterparts in Siberia, Dr Nikolai Vakhtin and Dr Igor Krupnik (Research Associates), studied indigenous ideas about human relations with animals and their shared use of space in Chukotka. They established that indigenous knowledge is now becoming a matter of individual choice as a politicial statement. However, this attempt at revival is not backed up by a corresponding development of laws and infrastructure.

One lesson of this project is that rapid changes in the social environment are proving as disruptive as those in the natural environment. In the Sakha Republic (Yakutia), Dr Vitebsky and Sally Wolfe (Phoenix Counselling Practice) studied family dynamics, gender, and kinship in the transmission of knowledge. Ms Wolfe studied gender relations and psychotherapeutic problems associated with rapid social change. Dr Vitebsky studied the impact of the skewed 'market economy' on reindeer herders and their land and the unofficial ways in which people are regrouping themselves and activating dormant kinship links in order to utilise resources. Arnt-Øve Eikeland (Visiting Scholar) studied the recent outbreak of suicide among young Saami in Karasjok in order to place it in a comparative circumpolar perspective.

Dr Vitebsky and John Tichotsky (Research Student) spent a month in Barrow, Alaska, working with the North Slope Borough's Department of Wildlife to support two indigenous organizations in Chukotka documenting the behaviour of whales. The project also involved Academy of Sciences institutes in Moscow and Vladivostok and has empowered 50 Siberian indigenous leaders to intervene as experts in resource management issues at the local and national levels.

Dr Vitebsky also worked on shamanism, the religious heart of traditional Arctic cultures. He published The shaman, a worldwide survey that relates the forms of shamanism in Siberia and the rest of the Arctic to other forms throughout the world. With Dr Anatoly Alekseyev of Yakutsk State University (Visiting Scholar), he studied the ritual of a 107-year old Evenk shamaness in Siberia.

Another prominent theme was ethnicity. Dr Vitebsky hosted five delegates from the new European University of St Petersburg for a month's study of teaching and administration methods under the progamme on 'Establishing ethnic research in Russia,' funded under the EU's TEMPUS-TACIS scheme. Paul Fryer (Research Student) spent six months in the Komi Republic studying the social implications of a new university course on Komi language, history, and culture with which it is intended to train a new generation of administrators. David Anderson (Research Student) completed his thesis on emerging ideas of ethnicity among the Dolgan and Evenk of the Taimyr peninsula, showing the progression from the local multivariate identity to a state-induced univariate identity. Martin Whittles (Research Student) continued his research on the Inuvialuit of Banks Island in Canada.

A further theme has been relating local sustainable needs to economic development on the regional level, by finding common ground between mineral resource development and local pastoral or subsistence activities. Dr Vitebsky and Tichotsky served as staff members of the Sakha-American Business Centre in Yakutsk, where they facilitated a research and training programme in reindeer meat marketing that enabled 20 indigenous people to train in Alaska in meat processing and marketing and encouraged the Sakha Republic to use hard-currency diamond earnings to purchase meat processing equipment. Working with the University of Alaska, Tichotsky also organised a programme on oil and gas capital market training, which sent 30 Sakha participants to Alaskan petroleum facilities to study market-oriented project design.

Tichotsky also continued work on his PhD thesis on the regional economy of the Sakha Republic, the chief diamond-producing region in Russia. He visited Alaska, Chukotka, and the Sakha Republic to collect economic data. Tatiana Argounova (MPhil Student) studied the legal basis of the federal relationship between the Sakha Republic (Yakutia) and the Russian Federation in the negotiation of autonomy and sovereignty.

A further focus of the group's work was in environmental impact and pollution control. Marina Gridina (MPhil Student) studied Nordic initiatives to control pollution in Norilsk and the Kol'skiy Poluostrov. Ben Seligman (Research Student) studied the evolution of Russian Arctic gas pipeline design, construction, and operation, paying special attention to environmental issues, such as pipeline-permafrost interactions and the causes and consequences of pipeline deformation and displacement.

Members of the group also studied a number of other topics. Mark Badger (PhD student) continued his comparison of participatory indigenous film-making among the Koyukon in Alaska and the Khanty in western Siberia. Johnny-Leo Ludviksen (Visiting Scholar) studied relations between reindeer herders and the oil industry in the Nenets Autonomous Okrug. Profesor Wendy Arundale studied historical sites and worked on an oral life history of a Koyukon elder in Alaska. Dr Anna Sirina, of the Regional Museum in Irkutsk, worked as a British Academy Fellow on traditional environmental knowledge among the peoples around Lake Baikal.