Are Tribal Peoples Going Global? The Case of the Tundra Tribes of Northern Siberia
By John P. Ziker
With the dismantling of socialism in Russia and at a time when most indigenous peoples around the world are becoming increasingly involved with the global economy and international politics, the situation of the "small-numbering peoples" of the Siberian Arctic is a striking contrast.
Native peoples in Siberia are among the most marginal in the Russian Federation, living in remote and climatically severe regions and border zones. Native Siberians were vigorously incorporated into the Soviet agro-industrial complex, which developed capital-intensive methods of producing wild and domestic animal products, depended on budget subsidies from the central government, and settled indigenous groups into compact settlements requiring large external inputs. With the transition to the market economy in Russia, state-sponsored production in indigenous Arctic communities has failed, employment has diminished, and transportation to and from rural indigenous settlements has become prohibitively expensive. The result has been a decreased reliance on Russian and international goods and services and increased reliance on traditions of sharing and subsistence foraging.
In order to investigate the post-Socialist transition from the point of view of the indigenous population, I conducted extended ethnographic fieldwork in the Taimyr Autonomous Region, Krasnoyarskii Krai (territory). The focal community for my research was Ust' Avam in Dudinka County, located at North longitude 71 degrees 06 minutes, East latitude 92 degrees 49 minutes in the heart of the Central Taimyr Lowlands. Two native groups live there, the Dolgan (Tehlar) and Nganasan (Nya), along with a minority of non-natives. To date, I have spent total of eighteen months in the Taimyr Region and twelve months in Ust' Avam. My last trip to the region ended in October 1997.
Decades of capital-intensive development by the Soviets had the goal of involving native reindeer herders and hunter/fishers into economies of scale. As workers in the largest Arctic hunting industry in the world, the standard of living was relatively high. State-owned enterprises, regional government, and trade unions provided housing, jobs, education, and some vacation travel expense. Air travel to and from the regional capital, Dudinka, and the industrial town of Norilsk was inexpensive and was offered more than once a week. Native workers in Ust Avam produced traditional bush products, such as caribou meat, whitefish, fine furs, and crafts to the state, and also worked in technical support positions in the diesel generating station, warehouse, and tractor service.
The post-Socialist economic situation in Ust Avam is bleak. Native workers are being laid off from the government hunting enterprise, and no new jobs are being created. Air transport has diminished in frequency and significantly increased in cost relative to salaries and pensions. Most households have at least one member that participates in the local hunting, fishing and trapping economy. Producing households share meat and fish to relatives, friends, singe mothers, pensioners, and other people who ask; so no one is starving. In the words of one hunter, "Bihigi eredebenebit [We are surviving]."
Since 1991, exchange with the state has diminished. For example, imported protein was consumed in 4 percent of the meals I observed in 1993/94 and only four tenths of 1 percent in 1996/97. The remnants of the state enterprise, as well as private traders and speculators from Norilsk, where the world's most northerly and third largest nickel mining and metallurgy combine is located, do not supply fuel, groceries, and building materials in quantities previously supplied. In Dudinka and Norilsk, it has been more economical for consumers to purchase lamb imported from New Zealand and beef from Austria, than reindeer meat from their own native villages. This collapse in domestic production is widespread across the native communities of the Taimyr and reflects processes of differentiation occurring in Russia as a whole.
Since 1992, the government hunting enterprise Taimyrskii has eliminated brigade plans, stopped capital investments, and often delayed salaries for months. During the winter of 1997, two months payments were frozen -- the enterprise made no promises to pay the few hunters that turned in for bush products at that time. Although many had not received salaries for years, on paper Taimyrskii still employed half of Ust Avam's working population (146 adults) in 1997.
Several families in the Avam area have taken advantage of a 1992 Russian presidential decree allowing native Siberians to create family/clan holdings on lands their ancestors historically occupied. At the end of this research, most families in Ust Avam did not see any advantage in creating a family/clan holding and continued to "work" for the government hunting enterprise. Because they rarely get paid, the advantages of continuing to work were subtle. The Taimyrskii enterprise did provide equitable access to the dwindling supplies and equipment for all staff hunters/fishers as well as the promise of full credit for retirement. The supplies were used in subsistence foraging and minimal supply of bush products to the enterprise.
Indigenous political action peaked in the early 1990s with the lobbying efforts behind the 1992 decree. While supporting the United Nations International Decade of the World's Indigenous People (1995-2004), Russia's current policy toward its own indigenous groups appears somewhat ambiguous. The decree President Yeltsin issued in 1992 to protect indigenous Siberian territory and traditional economic activity was never accepted by the Russian Parliament as law. Following the 1992 decree, regional administrations allowed native families and clans to make land claims out of state-enterprise land holdings. Very few family/clan holdings have been formed in the Taimyr Region, and most of those that have been established are headed by the urban native elite in relatively close proximity to the regional capital, Dudinka, or the region's industrial center, Norilsk.
There currently is a program of socioeconomic development of the small-numbering peoples of Siberia, the Far North, and Far East through the year 2000, administered by the Government Committee of the North. The people I spoke to in remote native settlements are not seeing any benefit to the program, since most families have increasingly less access to government services or information. President Yeltsin twice rejected a Duma draft law on the fundamentals of legal status for native Siberians in 1996. Some natives of the Ust Avam community view Russian government policy as one of: "Live as you like" (Zhite, kak khotite). For years, the Soviet government micro-managed the daily lives of these people. Now, they feel abandoned.