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Harriman Expedition Retraced


expedition log



David Koester

Apparition in the Mirror: Soviet and Post-Soviet Life in Northern Native Communities across the Bering Sea

The sometimes predictable, often unexpected encounters that arise on voyages leave room for misinterpretation and misunderstanding. In the unfamiliarity of a novel situation at a new landing, a gesture, a minute facial expression, a tone unmeasured and controlled, or a question taken out of context may offend when it was meant to engage. As a professional ethnographer deeply schooled in the traditions of long-term fieldwork, I felt ambivalent about the prospect of the short-term visit that a cruising ship would provide. What can one learn or understand of a place and the people who live there in a matter of hours?

Yet as we disembarked from the Odyssey to head for the island of St. George in the Pribilof Islands, I was intensely curious about the current situation of its Aleut population. I knew something of the history of their resettlement there by Russians as a labor force to harvest fur seals. I had heard only vague accounts of the forced evacuations during World War II. My understanding was that there were still a significant number of speakers of the Aleut language. I wondered about the parallels to the histories I knew of Itelmens and other Native communities in Russia. Indigenous peoples in the Soviet Union were forced to resettle beginning in the 1950s, and the evacuations from villages contributed greatly to the feeling of cultural loss.

Waiting for us as we arrived on shore in our flotilla of Zodiacs was a set of cars waiting to take us to various destinations. Among the drivers were researchers and government employees recently arrived on the island, others were born and raised there. One of the locals had introduced himself to a group and was talking to them about life on the island as I approached. I listened for a while as he talked about cars and weather, eager to hear more about local cultural and political aspirations. During a pause, as some of the listeners walked away, I asked, "Are there any speakers of Aleut on the island?" He looked at me with a disdainful expression and, it seemed, a touch of exasperation, as if my question were politically naïve, and one that had often been asked before. If he hesitated, it was only momentary, and he responded with sincere pride: "Aang."

I was caught off guard, clumsily trying to parse the sound I had started to interpret as English and a little unsure to know how to react to the offense, however slight, he had taken to my question. I thought I perceived his cultural political interpretation. The politics of cultural legitimacy in the United States, as in Russia and elsewhere in the indigenous North, is often very closely tied to the cultural status of language. He might have taken my question as a judgment of cultural denial, as negatively implying that there was little left of Aleut culture and, therefore, of Aleut political status, because the language was dying or gone. Not knowing immediately how to counter this interpretation, I stumbled on, with an overeager question that only dug me in deeper: "Oh...are you a speaker?"

His reply came almost as if he had expected and set up my response: "Aang." Hoping to explain that the my question's intent was just the opposite of what he might think, I said that I had been working with Itelmens in Kamchatka and had recently been helping with preparation of language preservation materials. I wanted him to know that I at least thought I knew about the meaning of language politics and the implications for local identity politics. He then told me, yes, there were a number of speakers; he was one of the younger ones. He added wistfully that young people today are not really learning the language. His pride in knowing the language seemed closely tied to his lament that it was not being learned.

Simple answers to simple questions. In retrospect, I might well wonder whether my interpretation of the exchange was correct. I was sensitive to the issues of language and identity because they can have important economic significance in Russia today. Many Russians who have settled in Kamchatka, for example, think of the Itelmen people as either dissolved into the Russian community or without a language of their own and hence fully assimilated. Assimilation, by the logic of empire, means lack of distinct political standing. In Kamchatka, as elsewhere in the indigenous world, distinct political standing bears directly on rights to natural resources. In the early 1990s, Native peoples were given the opportunity to establish kin communes (rodovye obshchiny) that would permit them to engage in economic activities involving the use of traditional resources for both subsistence and commercial purposes. Those who did not have Native status did not have this opportunity.

More recently, the politics of indigenous survival in the Russian Far East has become related as well to environmental conservation. Local, long-term residents are seen to be the best guarantors and protectors of healthy ecosystems. Survival of indigenous groups has been shown to be not only analogous to, but closely interrelated with survival of ecosystems and species. Both linguistic and cultural loss correlate highly with losses in the natural environment, with declines in biodiversity and damage to natural environments (Maffi 2001).

Environmental, economic, and cultural politics have been intertwined with the lives of indigenous peoples of the North Pacific since at least 1899. George Bird Grinnell noted the destructive effects that the Gold Rush land-grab would have on the Eskimo peoples the Harriman expedition members met:

The outlook for the immediate future for these Eskimo is gloomy. Hitherto they have been well cut off from civilization, meeting only the whalers, who are few in number and are under a certain rude discipline. But a change has come for the Eskimo and this year of 1900 has already witnessed a melancholy alteration in their condition. The rush to the coast gold fields has brought to them a horde of miners, who, thinking only of themselves, are devoid of all feeling for others of their kind. There is no law or government in the land, the commanders of the few revenue cutters along the coast being the fountainheads of authority and having extensive areas of sea and land under their jurisdiction. White men, uncontrolled and uncontrollable, already swarm over the Alaska coast, and are overwhelming the Eskimo. They have taken away their women, and debauched their men with liquor; they have brought them strange new diseases that they never knew before, and in a very short time they will ruin and disperse the wholesome, hearty, merry people whom we saw at Port Clarence and at Plover Bay (p. 183).

When the original Harriman Expedition went up the coast of Alaska, the Native peoples and cultures were threatened by land seizure, violence, disease, and alcohol. Since the time of the Harriman expedition, the greatest political-economic contrast between the Russian Far East and Alaska has been in the nature of human relationships to the land. The Gold Rush was a social and political event premised on ideas of private land ownership and individual rights to extracted wealth and upheld by a government dedicated to both of those ideas.

For the people of Plover Bay who encountered the Harriman expedition, the Soviet government was still more than a quarter-century away. When Soviet power did arrive, it came with an ideological focus entirely contrary to the individualist wealth seeking of gold rush Alaska. The destructive forces impinging on the lives of the Native populations of Alaska, if checked occasionally by humanitarian interventions, were haphazard and not centrally planned. Soviet interventions, on the other hand, were carried out with the grand humanitarian ideology of socialist reform, which transformed in stages into the turning screw of Soviet domination.

Industrialization came to both sides of the Pacific with the particular characteristics of the capitalist and anti-capitalist, modernist governmental structures under which they were created. Soviet industrialization at first aimed at rationally organizing traditional production. Sea mammal hunting and the catching of fish went from production and distribution systems centered around families and neighbors to "artels" and brigades that established bureaucratic accounting and distribution procedures. A Native Kamchatkan elder once recounted to me that at the age of 12 he was tapped for work because of the math skills he had demonstrated in school. He was assigned the task of keeping the books for the fishing brigade that his father headed. When he delivered the books to the regional center at the end of each season, indigenous economic activity could numerically be encompassed in the bureaucratic hierarchy of the total Soviet economic system.

The U.S. government, in contrast, did not dictate Alaskan economic development from a nationwide plan. Industrial order came from the patterned logic of factory-organized wage labor. Alaska's parallel to Soviet industrialization, the introduction of canneries, brought increased flow of money and consumer goods and increasing dependency on wage-labor jobs. The northern Pacific coast of the Far East was spared the massive industrial development of other areas of Siberia and in turn spared many of the environmentally destructive effects. The more significant impacts were forced migration and immigration. If ideas of private property were critical to American-style colonization in Alaska, on the Soviet side, the great influx of outsiders took place following a plan for public industrialization and bureaucratized settlement of the Soviet North. The government provided substantial wage and benefit incentives to attract the labor force from all over the Soviet Union. As the example of the Kamchatkan elder demonstrates, the rationalization of productive activities penetrated to even in the smallest communities. Work incentives were created around the quantitative assessment of production quotas and bonuses that kolkhozes (collective "farms") and local offices provided to workers.

Both sides of the Pacific suffered the loss of what was valued as traditional culture. The expanding nations saw it as their obligation to "civilize" the Native populations by formal education. In the early days, U.S. Native education sought to force children into an English-speaking world. Soviet attempts to befriend the local populations brought foreign ideas, but, at least at first, in the local language. Then the Soviet Union too banned teaching in many local languages and insisted that students learn Russian. Both countries established boarding schools that took children away from their families for long periods of time, breaking their ties with the culture of their parents and the familiar surroundings in which they were raised (Pika, Dahl, and Larsen 1996:100).

Although these and other features of transition in the twentieth century are familiar in Alaska, little is known outside of Russia of the experiences of the tiny communities that were brought into the sphere of a tremendous, if temporary, world power. My aim in this chapter is to provide a small window onto the experiences of that vast social experiment that was the Soviet Union. In environments and small Native communities much like their counterparts in Alaska, the peoples of the Russian Far East have faced very different political circumstances with profound consequences.

Native Life Inside the Soviet Union

Grinnell reported that the settlement they saw at Plover Bay consisted of about 12 topeks (summer houses) and a series of dismantled winter houses then in use for storage. The settlement had approximately 30 inhabitants - not an unusual size for an Eskimo settlement. How different would Grinnell's descriptions have been had they landed at the vast Eskimo site that we saw at Naukan, where once up to 600 people are thought to have lived. It was the center of the Naukan language of the Siberian Yupik family. The nutrient-rich currents of the Bering Sea pass by in front of Naukan, enjoyed by seals, walruses, sea birds and followed by migrating whales. Clearly it was a favorable place for humans who knew how to live off this bounty. Stone-lined house pits and smaller meat caches stretch for over a kilometer across the sloping faces of hills locally known as Nasik and K'ina'. It is easy to imagine that what Grinnell described in Plover Bay once was present here on a much larger scale: summer huts with roofs of reindeer skins, loosely attached on top to allow smoke to escape; interior sleeping apartments with green walrus hide to keep out the rain; skins hanging and drying everywhere; harpoons, spears, paddles standing or hanging by houses. None of this remained, however, because this once bustling center of Eskimo life had been closed down for more than forty years.

In the period between the Harriman Expedition and its retracing, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics had come into being, become one of the two world superpowers, and dissolved into historical ignominy. Today, the evidence of contrasting Eskimo and Soviet cultures is spread across Naukan. Collapsing Soviet administration buildings stand out in the landscape. Near what once was the school, an exposed, rusting set of uneven bars speaks to the tremendous reach of the idea of Soviet culture. From participation by Soviet gymnasts in the Olympics to gymnastics programs in the most remote of Eskimo villages, the Soviet government replicated its vision of what it was to be a Soviet citizen in the modern world.

By what means did the Soviet government come to plant itself in these regions? How did changes take place, and what were the experiences in the territories opposite Alaska (Chukotka and Kamchatka)? What effect did the importation of a political-economic system defined by its opposition to capitalism have in this land of sea mammal-hunting, berry gathering and reindeer herding?

The village of Chaplino was just up the coast from where the Harriman Expedition stopped and a little south of our landing points in 2001. In Chaplino they spoke the same language as their Alaskan relatives and neighbors on St. Lawrence Island, Chaplinsky Siberian Yupik. When the representatives of the early Soviet government arrived, their message was one of befriending and aiding the Native peoples of the North and Far East. They sought to show these most distant members of the empire how their lives under the tsarist regime were deficient or bad and to offer improvement. At that time, fur and fish (in Kamchatka) were the only resources in which the government showed significant interest. Government policy focused on human resources and the reorganization of social life and productive activities.

The tale of political intervention of the Soviet government began in this area of Chukotka in 1927. The following account of the arrival of Soviet representatives was written by Georgi Menovshchikov, a Soviet linguist who did extensive research with Siberian Yupiit (Asiatic Eskimos) in the 1950s - 1970s. His narrative of the early days in the village stressed the democratic ideal of local elections and the cultural-political grounds on which the Soviet government would assert political authority. According to a schema to be replicated across the Soviet North, local people would take up the cause of socialist reform and assure more equitable distribution of natural resources.

In the fall of 1927, two bearded Russians arrived from Uelen [north coast of Chukotka]. They were emissaries of the young Soviet government who were to organize Native Councils in the larger population centers along the coast of Chukotka. It was rare that strangers came to the old village. However, the coastal inhabitants knew that Soviet power had been established and that the people themselves were to elect local governments.

" Who is your elder (leader)?" asked one of the bearded ones turning to the hunters.

& A stocky hunter with a cataract on his left eye stepped forward and in broken Russian translated what was said.

& [After translating the man introduced himself.] "My name is Matliu. I know a little Russian. I traveled as dogsled driver with the Russian administrators. Earlier I worked with the chaplinsky priest. I know a little English. I worked as a harpooner on an American hunting schooner, I was a translator from Chukchi and Eskimo languages when American and Russian traders came. I traveled a lot in Chukotka, I've seen a lot. I was a delegate at the First Congress of the Native Populations of the Far East.


A meeting was held on the second day in the empty warehouse of the production post (faktoria). Matliu was named the first candidate to the Council. The hunters spoke admiringly of him, about his wise advice for the village in all affairs. Matliu was elected president of the village Native Council.

A persistent and difficult struggle for better ways of life, for equitable distribution of the hunting catch among hunters, a struggle with superstition and shamanism took place at this time. The young Soviet government was still weak economically and could not guarantee distant northern regions all necessary goods, materials and hunting equipment. One had to know how to explain this to people and find a solution to the difficult situation.


Matliu obtained long-term credit for every family so that all of his fellow villagers had necessary hunting equipment and as well clothing, tobacco, sugar, and tea. The village Council, under Matliu-direction used all means to extract from whaleboat owners a fair distribution of the hunt. If before, the owner of a whaleboat could take for himself the lion's share of the whale baleen, walrus tusks, and sea mammal hides, now the catch was divided among the hunters according to the role of each: shooters and harpooners received the majority, rowers received less (Menovshchikov 1977:57).

Menovshchikov's narrative is the story of local Soviet institutionalization and heroism, a tale of a disabled man who saw opportunities in the promised Soviet way of life and became a local leader. It shows Matliu working against local "backward" beliefs and against the exploiters who held to them. Reproducing in native microcosm the grand Marxist myth of the overthrow of capitalism by the proletariat, this heroic narrative applied here even to whale hunting.

The Soviet government thus proceeded by recruiting local people to participate in construction of the new state. The political-economic challenge was to convince local populations that its system of organized (administrable) work brigades would serve them better than the traditional system of family-based production and distribution. The transformation came about in Chaplino in the wake of a tremendous local tragedy.

In the spring of 1931 the Chaplino hunters decided to organize a production artel. The government...gave artels credit for obtaining motors and other production equipment. Motorized whaleboats lightened the work of hunters greatly and allowed for hunting sea mammals at greater distance than was possible by rowing.

There had been discussions of forming an artel earlier but the actual decision was prompted by an event that shook Chaplino villagers and other surrounding communities. In February 1931, nineteen of Chaplino's better hunters were carried off on a piece of ice that broke away. At that early time in the Chukotkan north, there was no aviation, and people carried off by the sea usually died. Not one of the hunters returned to shore. Everywhere along the coast there were shortages of meat. Chaplino residents and hunters from other villages were forced to go out on thick ice in the harsher winter months with the hope of killing a seal to feed their families.&

At that time the shamans from Chaplino and Yanrakinot spread the rumor that Matliu, by his agitation for organization of the artel, his speaking out against the shamans and the observance of Soviet laws, had offended the "sea god" who, as a punishment to Chapliners, killed their better hunters. Many inhabitants of Chaplino believed the shamans' slander and wouldn't agree to join the artel. But young hunters who had studied under the anti-illiteracy (likbez) program came to Matliu's aid. They had heard much interesting about the Soviet people and the greater world.


Simultaneously with the organization of collective sea mammal production by the artel, a sewing factory was opened for the making of fur clothing, footwear, and fur bedcovers. Women were the first to be attracted to collective useful work. The artel quickly gathered economic strength.
The spring hunt turned out to be successful. All member families of the artel were supplied with meat. With the profits from fuel oil, hides and sewing products, the artel paid off its debts to the government store.
There were many applications from hunters to become part of the artel. (Menovshchikov 1977:58-60)

The story of the Soviet period was the story of the increasing organization of the productive aspects of people's lives. Men were organized into hunting brigades, and their catch was measured and distributed according to a numerical scheme. Rationalized labor entered the lives of women as they too became sewing factory workers. On the Alaskan side, in contrast, a parallel rationalization and administration of traditional Native subsistence practices took place only in fishing. Alaskan traditional subsistence remained consciously outside the sphere of industrial development and became an increasingly significant marker of Native identity (Hensel 1996). The legacy of subsistence practices is an important component of today's Native rights controversy in Alaska.

The transformation of people's lives in eastern Chukotka took place in stages. In the 1940s, the government organized the earlier mentioned kolkhozy (singular., kolkhoz), or "collective farms." In Chukotka and Kamchatka these were, of course, not for the most part farms but increasingly segmented and specialized versions of traditional harvesting activities: reindeer-herding, sea mammal-hunting, and fishing. Eventually, the government also industrialized animal-processing. Some of the people in Plover Bay who were young when the Harriman expedition visited could have witnessed the construction of the Plover sea mammal-processing plant in 1948. It produced sea mammal meat, hide, tusk, fat, and fish products from the catch provided by the local kolkhoz (Piliasov 1998:59).

Reindeer-herding was similarly collectivized, with the more profound effect of settling the formerly nomadic herding populations. Perhaps the greatest disruption to the lives of the indigenous peoples of the Russian North Pacific region came not with collectivization, but with resettlement. The disruption came in part because the new villages were not sited for their capacity to sustain traditional subsistence practices. The kolkhozy that had been profitable when they were located near procurement territories soon showed losses as transportation costs increased (Piliasov 1998:60).

The Cold War also played a role in the lives of Eskimos near the coast. The government closed villages and created multiethnic towns with the intention of interrupting historical ties with related villages in America (Piliasov 1998:60). The government also sought to introduce new, bureaucratized productive activities and curtail "risky" subsistence practices. Reindeer herding was considered more profitable (and closer to the agricultural model on which the kolkhozes were built nationwide) and support for sea mammal subsistence decreased. In the early 1960s, there were nearly 700 hunters in 96 brigades involved in sea mammal hunting; by the end of the 1960s there were only 357 sea mammal hunters in 63 brigades (Murashko 2000).

The sovkhoz era, a new phase in both political and economic development, brought more changes. The government introduced livestock-, fur-, and chicken-farming, and with this new economic infrastructure came a huge influx of settlers. The aim was to create a total industrial-agricultural economy combining local and imported activities. The positive side, temporarily at least, was that government services followed, including medical and consumer services, communications, and transportation. Unfortunately, this development also made villagers highly dependent on the government for communications and supplies of food, fuel, and animal feed.

The Post-Soviet Era

After the Soviet regime collapsed in the early nineties, many communities found themselves in difficulties, living in homes that use electricity for cooking, and oil, gas, or firewood for heat and relying on state stores for staple foods-resources no longer available to them. The flow of medical supplies nearly stopped; the rate of alcoholism, a problem across much of Russia, increased as high-profit activities associated with sale and production of alcohol thrived. Some villages have tried with difficulty to return to traditional subsistence. The distance between the villages and subsistence harvest areas that was brought about by the earlier resettlements made that problematic. Fuel for transportation (not to mention heating and cooking) had quickly become difficult to obtain. The only communities that are doing well are ones that can produce necessary food for themselves, thanks to sufficiently diversified economic opportunities and access to resources.

As we approached the village of Lorino, one of the border guards on our ship told me that it was, among all the villages of the region, the only one that was doing reasonably well. He did not say why, but our conversations with villagers indicated that it was the diversity of their economic activities that was fueling the local economy. Lorino had sea mammal-hunting, fishing, reindeer-herding, fur-hunting, and a still-functioning fox farm. The first three provide food, and all can provide raw materials for marketable products.

Perhaps the enduring positive legacy of the Soviet Union could be seen in the festive performances that we witnessed on the beach in Lorino and in the grassy field below Yanrakinot. They were both Soviet and post-Soviet in character. The Soviet Union had put significant effort into providing indigenous groups with channeled outlets for cultural expression. Local people were trained in the organization of public festivities that included Native dance and song, speeches, and sports competition. The formal group dances that we saw on the white sand of the Lorino beach were a combined product of traditional dance forms and Soviet cultural performance training.

Such dancing is post-Soviet in that performance groups have taken on a life of their own with new meaning in the new era. Although some groups still receive support from the government, the main goals of these new groups are in most cases ethnic self-identification and presentation. People are now proud of their ancestral heritage, and the dancing has become a way to express that pride. In this, Soviet culture stimulated a cross-culturally recognizable form of expression with which indigenous identity can now be publicly maintained. While it is likely that some of the languages of the region will disappear over the next century, this public form of presentation can serve to counter the negative politics of language loss. As the people of Russia's Far East struggle to survive in the harsh economic situation of the post-Soviet era, they are counting on their rights to the diverse range of local natural resources. Respect of indigenous cultural heritage and a commitment to economic development that preserved the diversity of their resource environment seem likely to be keys to a healthful post-Soviet transition.

Hensel, Chase, 1996. Telling our selves : ethnicity and discourse in Southwestern Alaska. New York: Oxford University Press.

Maffi, Luisa, 2001. On biocultural diversity: linking language, knowledge and the environment. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Menovshchikov, Georgii Alekseevich, 1977. Na chukotskoi zemle. Magadan: Magadanskoe knizhnoe izdatel'stvo.

Murashko, Ol'ga, 2000. Chukotka: proshloe, nastoiashchee i budushchee okhotnikov na morskogo zveria. Zhivaia Arktika 2:55-57.

Pika, Alexander, Jens Dahl, and Inge Larsen, 1996. Anxious North: Indigenous peoples in Soviet and post-Soviet Russia. Selected documents, letters, and articles. In IWGIA Document. Vol. 82. Copenhagen: IWGIA.

Piliasov, A. N, 1998. Ot paternalizma k partnerstvu: stroitel'stvo novykhy otnoshenii narodov severa i gosudarstva. Magadan.




For information on the Harriman Retraced Expedition e-mail: harriman2001@science.smith.edu

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