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This week I want to talk a bit about a new book by my dear colleague Selcen Küçüküstel. Küçüküstel is a social anthropologist with a background in photo journalism. So, not only does she have amazing stories to tell as an anthropologist, she also takes breath taking photos of the places and people with whom she lives and learns. Her newest book is called “Embracing Landscape: Living with Reindeer and Hunting among Spirits in South Siberia.” It’s based on her fieldwork with Dukha reindeer herding families in Mongolia. And if you have followed my own work in Siberia, you will know Dukhas reside just south of the Soiot homeland (Oka) in the Buryat Republic of Russia. It is fitting then, that her book appears as #3 in Berghahn’s “Multispecies Encounters” series. My own book, “Beyond Wild and Tame” being #2, and our colleagues Skogen, Krange, and Figari’s “Wolf Conflicts” being #1.
I have been fortunate to follow Küçüküstel’s work since her initial graduate work with Dukhas, which resulted in a beautiful Masters thesis a few years ago. She has since gone back, to spend a lot more time with her herding and hunting Dukha friends as part of her doctoral research, which served as the impetus to this exciting new book. Dukhas of Mongolia have deep ancestral roots into the Republic of Tyva on the Russian side, where their relatives are known as Tozhus. Although separated by an international boundary today, social, ancestral, and spiritual ties continue to exist between the two groups. Küçüküstel’s mother tongue is Turkish, giving her a unique advantage when it comes to learning the Dukha language, which is an ancient Turkic variant.
Dukhas have been in the international spotlight for a while now, with various media companies having made documentaries about their unique (and in some ways “archaic”), and always very picturesque way of life. Photographers and ecotourists from around the world have flocked to Dukha mobile encampments to witness shamanic seances, and to romanticize about a quasi-pre-contact Indigenous way of life. With all this hyper produced, fast-paced tourism and media attention, it is easy to loose the deeper story, and especially to loose local voices. I am very happy, for that reason, to see several anthropologists conduct long-term ethnographic work with Dukha community members to provide much deeper, richer, and more nuanced accounts of contemporary Dukha life. Like myself, Küçüküstel focuses on human relations with animals, the landscape, and spirits — which, of course, is where the title of the book comes from.
But, I have been especially interested in her work as a woman in a society that has been studied primarily by men. As a man myself, I am easily drawn to the hunting and herding activities of other men, which then results in interesting, albeit very gender-biased data. Many a time have I wondered what are the goings on in an encampment, when the men have left to hunt in the forest for extended periods of time. What do their wives and mothers, their sisters and daughters, talk about in their absence? What are they doing when they are amongst each other? For me this is the highlight of Küçüküstel’s work in this book, even if she focuses on this topic only in one section, called “hunting from the perspective of women.” As it turns out — and this doesn’t come as a surprise — Dukha encampments exhibit a very different spirit the minute the last man disappears into the woods.
I will read an excerpt from Küçüküstel’s book (2021: 297): “The women of the taiga get the chance to spend a lot of time on their own when the men go out on long hunting trips. Being left necessitates that the women can survive independently of the men and this in turn allows strong bonds to form between the women just as it does with the men on hunting trips. In my own observations I saw that when the men left on a hunting trip, the young women all of a sudden turned into teenagers. They hardly spent any time in the tent, laughed more, they visited other families and made use of the demand sharing so as to eat in other tents. The more time I spent among the Dukha, especially in winter, I came to realize that these moments of “men-free” time in the camp are not rare and at one point, there were almost no males in the camp for a week.”
She goes on, “They have provided a lasting impression on me, I cannot forget those intimate moments spent among the women. Through this week I watched as younger girls braided their grandmother’s hair with beads, which provided great entertainment for all of the women in the camp. Women from different households would cook together whilst the younger girls gathered together in one of the tents to watch Korean television. It is also these moments that enable you to appreciate how the women are capable of surviving in this harsh geography alone. There are no tasks in the running of the camp that the women do not do themselves, they carry and chop wood, repair anything that is broken or gather the reindeer when they go walking which sometimes takes them to faraway valleys and keeps them out overnight in freezing temperatures.”
These days Küçüküstel seems to be traveling all kinds of places, working on documentaries and other exciting projects. But I am deeply thankful to her for having shared with us her intimate time — as a woman — with these Dukha families through her new book. Although she does not describe women engaging in hunting practices themselves — which is another topic I hope to explore in future — Küçüküstel’s voice as an ethnographer is highly insightful, peeking into areas I rarely have access to as a man. Reading her book you feel like you’re riding on a deer alongside her. If anything, I’d like to advocate for more women to conduct research into hunting and herding societies to help us balance the overwhelming male-bias in the history of the Siberian ethnographic record.
Selcen’s website: https://www.selcenkucukustel.com/
Selcen’s book: https://www.berghahnbooks.com/title/KucukustelEmbracing