East of Dreaming
Born and raised high in the French Alps, the anthropologist Nastassja Martin has always been happiest at great heights, where the demands of steepness, mountains, and weather cannot be ignored. Her first field of study was among the indigenous Gwich’in people of Alaska, under the supervision of Philippe Descola; out of this research, she wrote her first book, Les Âmes sauvages: face à l’Occident, la résistance d’un peuple d’Alaska (Savage Souls: an Alaskan people’s resistance to the West), published in France in 2016. Martin sought to discover how much and in what ways the Gwich’in culture had been inflected by their existence within the wider jurisdiction of the United States. She also developed a deep interest in animism and its survival into contemporary culture.
Martin then wanted to study and compare the same questions in a similarly indigenous culture that had been subject to very different pressures, one that had been subsumed within a very different state structure. She switched focus to the other side of the Bering Strait, to live among the Even people of Kamchatka, and became intrigued by the story of a particular Even family. In the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse, their matriarch Daria had led her people out of their enforced urban lives and returned to a remote and tiny settlement deep in the Kamchatka forests to resume lives reliant on hunting and salmon fishing. After several years of research, Martin wrote her third book focusing on these people—particularly on their attention to their dreams and the upkeep of their spiritual lives. À L’Est des rêves: réponses Even aux crises systémiques (In the Dreaming East: the Evens’ reactions to systemic crises) was published in 2022. What follows is the first part of this book to be translated into English.
—Sophie R. Lewis
The daily life of an anthropologist is mostly small talk, and whoever tells you otherwise is not telling the whole truth. What’s worse, your experience often starts out with your hosts attempting to indict you, almost in spite of themselves, for they cannot decently leave you to die of frostbite or starvation. What have you come here for, all the way from that other world, the one that has so damaged them?
The first time I had a sustained conversation with Ivan, I told him about my work in Alaska with the Gwich’in people. Bad move! If, professionally, I was coming from the United States, then I must surely be here to spy on them. Was I attached to some French intelligence agency working with the United States? Why would I be interested in their lives here in Kamchatka when, little over a decade ago, this territory was closed to foreigners? Was I taking advantage of the region’s recent reopening to tourists and scientists, with my Even research as alibi, in order to pursue something else entirely?
These accusations were painful reminders of my earliest fieldwork in the Gwich’in territory of Arctic Village, Alaska. Once more I saw myself sitting with that couple in their fifties, in their cabin, with the television on and the pan sizzling in the -40 degrees Celsius outside. The husband had taken me aside for a one-on-one chat on the tattered fuchsia sofa: “Wounded Knee mean anything to you? It was your race put my people through that. Are you here to make honorable amends? To repent?” I remember trying to explain that it was absolutely unfair to force such a burden upon me: I was only twenty-two, then; I was French, not American, and none of my forebears had been at Wounded Knee; not to mention that, from my point of view, 1890 felt like a long time ago. Moreover, his people were not Lakota, nor was South Dakota a mere hop next door for the Gwich’in of that time. Of course, my rational arguments carried no weight. I had to resort to silence, and I cried all through that night because, somewhere deep down, I understood why he was turning on me: I was right there, under his nose, an exemplar of that other world. And he was attacking me by way of stereotypes which enabled him to file me away in a neatly labeled box—and I could not blame him for that. In the space of an hour, I had been reduced to the white Other, the colonizer, the uninvited interloper who shows up bearing the history of a massacre perpetrated by her people, even if that “people” meant nothing to me in real terms.
I was horrified to find I could be assimilated into the process of North American colonization even though I was there to study ways of life among the Gwich’in. This was just one flagrant instance of my vast naivety back then: a person never arrives anywhere “alone”; she brings with her a collective—her own world of human and non-human relationships—and a history, trailing behind her thousands of stories which she will not acknowledge and would fend off but which persist no matter what she claims. The fact that the historical collective evoked by her arrival is not precisely hers doesn’t matter at all. What is at issue, in a first encounter, is how to reposition an “us” in relation to a “them,” which almost instantly turns into a “you,” for it’s much easier to speak to a flesh-and-blood person than to demons of the past, of historical colonialism which can still be mortifyingly painful.
That day in the yurt with Ivan, I relived the primordial scene of the culpable foreigner, only this time from a new angle. No longer the direct descendent of butchers, I had become living proof of an American conspiracy whose tentacles extended all the way to Kamchatka’s Icha forest, and nothing I could say during the weeks that followed could alter my condition or the Evens’ suspicions. I would have to wait several months for them to see me learn, think, and talk on a daily basis before this original misunderstanding could dissipate. And it continued to resurface frequently over the course of my seven years of fieldwork, in one guise or another, especially when we disagreed on questions of politics.
“No way!” Ivan rebukes me, when I say that the people I worked with in Alaska are a little like him, in the sense that they use the same kinds of nets in the same kinds of rivers in order to catch the same kinds of fish. “We have nothing in common with the Americans, believe me. The only thing we share is that all the world’s fishermen are like all the world’s spiders: sitting amid their nets on the lookout for prey. But the world of the Gwich’in in Alaska has nothing to do with our lives here.” And he goes on, adopting a patriotic line I find hard to stomach, especially considering our location on the river at Tvayan, hundreds of miles from Russia’s surveillance, or so it seems to me at first. “Russia does not wage war like America does. We defend ourselves—that’s all. If the Gwich’in had stayed Russian, they would be living better, as we are.”
Ivan is taking up a recurrent theme of our discussions, about hunting and fishing regulations on this side of the Bering Strait. At this point in our chats, he persists in playing down their impact, to show me that they are patently more draconian in Alaska, thanks to America’s governance of that part of the world. “Why are the Americans everywhere, Nastya, even here, coming on their holidays to hunt the wild sheep and fish for the salmon? Because they are the colonizers, not the Russians. And Nastya, no question, if war was declared on Russia and I was called up, I would go and fight.” I almost choke on the piece of smoked salmon that I’m chewing and keep my eyes firmly on the river. “Ahem!” I say, clearing my throat. “Then can you explain why you are here and not in Esso with all the others? Can you explain why you decided to leave the army, when you could be at the training camp in Klyuchi, or in Vilyuchinsk with your sister and her soldier husband? What are you doing here with your mother and brother if Russia is so great and so peace-loving? If there are so many opportunities beyond the forest?” Ivan scowls. “I wasn’t talking about opportunities,” he answers. “I was talking about my government’s history.” “Oh—history! Then let’s talk about that. Do you remember that time before you were born when you and your people were herded into Kolkhozes to work? Remember all those reindeer they took from you and the language they banned you from speaking?” Oddly, Ivan brightens up now, at last. “There you’re quite right, they could never keep us all squashed in together till the end of time, since we’re here, as you can see.” “Ah,” I exclaim once more. “See how contradictory you are. You say you’re a patriot, and yet look at you now, the proud deserter. What do you say to that?” Ivan chucks a canvas bag at me and laughs. “Come on, we can’t let them squirm to death right here,” and he gathers his net full of thrashing salmon.
Ivan is almost the same age as me. When I did my first field research in Icha, we were both in our late twenties. He’s a man of few words; you might almost imagine they got stuck somewhere in his throat in adolescence, when he made the decision that turned him into an outsider to his classmates at the time, as it did to Russia, forever after. He was three months old in 1989 when Daria took him, her last-born child, to live in the forest with his brothers and sisters. He then stayed in Tvayan until he was seven, when the local authorities sent him back to the village to start school. It was a chaotic schooling, interrupted by the months spent back in the forest with his mother for every holiday. In Esso, he lived with his two sisters, Julia and Ina. Julia is three years older than him and it was she who looked after him in the early years of school, for Ina, ten years his senior, swung between working as a cook and phases of severe alcoholism. When he was fifteen, Ivan dropped out of school. He told me how, when he was sixteen, he spent the whole year without once being sober. Then came the time to “be a man” as he put it; in other words, the stage of compulsory military service for eighteen-year-olds. He was just biding his time until they came to fetch him. A week before his birthday, he went on foot to the military camp at the end of the peninsula to let the soldiers save him from himself.
Ever since he was small, Ivan has been a huntsman at heart. At ten, he was as experienced as his elder siblings, and everyone knew it. At Tvayan in the summer, they took him everywhere, he went on every hunt. He was five when he killed his first wild goose; eleven when he brought down his first bear. In the context of this life, the army, the gun at his shoulder, seemed the most obvious way out to him, if he were forced to live his maturity in—and in the service of—Russia. They picked him up from beside the potholed road that leads to Ust-Kamchatsk, he was driven to Klyuchi, and he stayed there for the year. His head was shaved, he was given fatigues and a gun. He threw himself into the training, he was one of the toughest in his battalion, and the patriotic talk all around washed easily over him. He says he felt at last that he belonged to something bigger, he was part of a country that needed to draw on his personal resources. He says, too, that his family was broken up and scattered, that he also felt dislocated, and perhaps the army would be able to put him back together.
He was making himself useful and at first that was enough—enough to give meaning to his life. But over that year, as the time went by and the days one after another, each the same as the last, a sadness rose in him. He was missing the forest, missing the river, missing the animals. Ivan had thought of signing up formally once he’d finished the compulsory service, but he changed his mind. On his return to Esso, and after six months’ wandering which took the form of incessant brooding mediated by daily infusions of vodka, he decided to leave and rejoin his family in Tvayan.
At twenty, Ivan did not become the Russian soldier he had thought he wanted to be, but an Even huntsman in Tvayan. He would never return to the village, and he eliminated that from his sheet of options; later on, he would spend the briefest of moments there at key times of the year, in order to sell produce from the forest and to obtain other products: flour, sugar, tea, petrol, boat and snowmobile parts, and tobacco, in the main. When I ask him (on several occasions and using different formulations) what he is doing living here in Icha, instead of in the village with people his age, doing a normal job, with a wife and children (for example), he always gives the same kind of sober and irrefutable reply: “I’m working to give us a good life in the forest. I am free here. I’m living on my boat, living by the fire, living when I follow animal spores. In the village I spend my time drinking and watching television, there’s no work and nothing for me to do, nothing. In Tvayan, my family needs me, and I can help them to live with dignity. To live, full stop. The rest is unimportant.”
Despite these notions—expressed always in hints and halftones—Ivan staunchly refuses to tackle the question of his country’s colonial violence with me, nor the aspects intrinsic to the military service system which prompted him not to extend his stint within it. We argue several times a day and it’s not a problem: these arguments shape our daily routine over many months. There’s a simple reason for our petty tussles: I am struggling to let go of my critical attitude toward the state institutions taking their toll on the history and the daily lives of this family clan in the forest. And the family itself resists me all the way: it proves next to impossible to get young Even people, even living deep in the forest, to express a word of dissent on the subject of the government that rules them. Russia’s all-encompassing power is felt constantly in the way that even those at the greatest distance from the centers of authority speak of their government and president with a degree of admiration and submission that at first sight seems quite unshakeable. Or rather, at first words, for their practices and their lives in general belie the certainties of their discourse or—more accurately— defuse these certainties. This borderline between discourse and practice is established early, even for young Ivan, and is a reiteration of his mother, Daria’s, approach. It was she who brought them all here precisely when the way of life formed within and by Russia’s colonial discourse no longer held sway in the forms granted to her thus far.
“He was such a giggly boy . . . when he was small; he used to chatter all the time,” Daria says to me one morning about her son, whom we watch silently stub his cigarette against the bench outside the cooking yurt, seize his gun, and set off into the forest with a steady step. “One day, he fell silent,” and Daria sighs again. “He did come back, but he didn’t have the words to talk with me. He came back, but he would never answer me in Even again.”