Getting Lucky With Donatas Brandišauskas

3.3 min. read (or watch the video)

Today I bring to you my dear colleague Donatas Brandišauskas, associate professor of Anthropology at Vilnius University in Lithuania. In 2017 Donatas came out with his flagship ethnography, “Leaving Footprints in the Taiga.” It’s a great book about his ethnographic research with Siberian Orochen reindeer herders and hunters east of Lake Baikal. This is a region not too far from where I conducted my own doctoral research in Siberia, which was west of Lake Baikal. Donatas manages to pack a lot of ideas into his book. At the core of it lies his understanding of Orochen approaches to luck, spirits, and the concept of ambivalence. He defines luck as “restoring lost relationships with spirits who are responsible for humans’ success and wellbeing” (2017:2).

Something that stood out to me, and which I continue to use in my own teaching on environmental anthropology, is the relationship between luck and attentiveness. It’s on the topic of interconnection — or the idea that the seasonal calendar is communicated to us not only by weather changes. One of Donata’s Orochen informants sums it up by saying: “Everything in the taiga depends on one another” (Vase v taige zavisit drug ot druga) (2017:186). “Vladimir Torgonov, a speaker for the Baunt Orochen community, [said] the elders believed that the sun hides in the chum [or the conical tent] accumulating warmth during the winter, then spreads much of this warmth in spring” setting into motion reindeer migration.

As the cold season comes to a close, the loud noise of the capercaillie marks the end of fur hunting (2017:180). Crows are now returning from the south, hanging around humans, foretelling them of the luck that is to come. As respected messengers, they are known to signal the coming of reindeer calving. Snow is now melting on the hill sides, and the whole period is named in the crows’ honour (turan). At the closing of turan, larch needles are turning green and bushes are beginning to blossom (2017:186). Next, the call of the first cuckoo ushers in warm weather. Reindeer are now nursing their newborn, and smudge fires are lit to fend off mosquitoes and later warble flies. As herders begin to clean lice larvae from the velvety antlers of their deer, “birds are teaching their fledglings to fly” (ibid.).

Not only do the songs of birds tell people what is to happen next. Orochen elders recognize, that like human hunters, animals act in ways to maximize their own luck. Many avoid wind because they cannot detect others when their scent is obscured. And hunting luck everywhere depends on one’s ability to assess changing weather, based on changes observed in the movement of other beings. What we learn then, from the wisdom of Orochen hunters, is that human wisdom (and luck) is always interlinked with the wisdom (and luck) of other beings. Our success is maximized by attuning our senses to the needs of others in a changing environment.

By alexoehler

I am an environmental anthropologist at the University of Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada.