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Not Animal, Not Not-Animal: Hunting, Imitation and Empathetic Knowledge Among the Siberian Yukaghirs

Rane Willerslev discusses the world and worldview of Yukaghir hunters in this excerpt from a longer paper of the same title. Notions of what animals are and what people are–and can do in relation to other animals–differ significantly in this tradition compared to Western, Euro-American metaphysics.



Rane Willerslev in Siberian hunter/trapper clothing.



Originally published in:
(2004) The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 10(3): 629-652

It is a commonly held assumption in the West that attributes of personhood, with all that this entails in terms of language, intentionality, reasoning, and moral awareness, belong exclusively to human beings. Animals are understood to be wholly natural kinds of being, and their behaviour is usually explained as automatic and instinctual. However, among the Yukaghirs a different assumption prevails. In their world, persons can take on a variety of forms, of which human beings are only one. They can appear in the shape of rivers, trees, and spirits, but it is, above all, mammals that Yukaghirs commonly see as ‘other-than-human persons’ (Hallowell 1960: 36). Moreover, humans and animals can move in and out of different species’ perspectives by temporarily taking on alien kinds of bodies. Indeed, among the Yukaghirs, as I show below, this capacity to take on the appearance and viewpoint of another species is one of the key aspects of being a person.

In this article, I examine Yukaghir conceptions of animals as persons. My approach consists of a merging of two kinds of theories: the proposition of ‘Amerindian perspectivism’ (Viveiros de Castro 1998) and notions of ‘mimesis’ (Taussig 1993). The first theory provides a framework for understanding the ontological principles on which Yukaghir ideas about non-human personhood are based. Viveiros de Castro (1998) proposes that, for cultures which subscribe to what he calls ‘perspectivist notions’, different subjects or persons, humans and non-humans, inhabit the world. Each of these has a point of view or perspective which provides it with a ‘humanness’, such that it sees itself as humans see themselves; animals and spirits thus live in households and kin groups similar to those of humans. However, an evil spirit or a predatory animal will see a human as prey, to the same extent that prey animals will see humans as evil spirits or predators. The point is that different species see things in similar or identical ways to humans, but what they see is different and depends on the body they have. However, bodies and the particular perspectives which they facilitate are exchangeable, because behind them lie subjectivities in the form of souls, which are formally identical in human and non-human persons. Thus, Viveiros de Castro argues, humans and animals can traverse the ordinary Self/Other divide but remain essentially the same.

I argue that, although Viveiros de Castro’s outline of perspectivism explains the conception of the body and its relation to the dynamics of identity and alterity among the Yukaghirs, it remains an abstract model, detached from the real experiences of people in a life-world. While Yukaghirs do take on the bodies of animals when they go hunting, it is not something that can be done easily, because it involves the risk of losing one’s original species adherence and undergoing an irreversible metamorphosis. Therefore, what Yukaghirs strive for when transforming their bodies into the image of prey is not to take on its perspective in any absolute sense, which would mean literally becoming the animal. Rather, they attempt to assume the point of view of the animal, while in some profound sense remaining the same. Mimetic practice, I argue, provides this ability to be like, yet also different from, the animal impersonated; it grants the hunter a ‘double perspective’ whereby he can assume the animal’s point of view but still remain a human hunter who chases and kills the prey. In fact, I will go so far as to argue that it is through mimetic practice that the symbolic world of perspectivism is made possible. Without mimesis, perspectivism as represented in myths and other types of narratives would bear no resemblance to the world of lived experience. Indeed, it would be nothing but a cosmological abstraction. Thus, my point is not to challenge perspectivism as outlined by Viveiros de Castro. Rather, my argument is against undue abstraction in ethnographical analysis and I see perspectivism, as it stands, as too abstract for ethnographic application. Mimesis, I suggest, may strengthen the ‘ethno-perspectivist’ literature in that it reveals that there is a practical side to perspectival thinking, which registers both sameness and difference, of being Self and Other.

However, let me start out by providing a brief overview of the Yukaghirs, their geographical location, demography, and history, as well as describing the fieldwork context in which my research was conducted.

The Yukaghirs

The Yukaghirs are a small indigenous population living in the basin of the Kolyma River, in the northeastern part of the Russian Republic of Sakha (Yakutia). Roughly speaking, they consist nowadays of two groups who speak mutually incomprehensible dialects of the Yukaghir language: the Upper Kolyma group, whose main settlement is the village of Nelemnoye in Verhnekolymsk Ulus; and the Lower Kolyma group, who live in Niznekolymsk Ulus. It is the former group with whom I have worked, and it is they who are the focus of this article. The most remarkable difference between the two groups is that while the Lower Kolyma group lives mainly from reindeer-herding (which they are thought to have adopted in relatively recent times from the Evenki, a local herding population), members of the Upper Kolyma group have remained hunters and fishermen, and the dog is even today their only domesticated animal.

At the time of the Russian conquest of northeastern Siberia in the midseventeenth century,Yukaghir-speaking groups are estimated to have numbered a total of about 5,000 people (Zukova, Nikolaeva & Demina 1993) occupying a vast territory (about 1.5 million km2), covering most of northeastern Siberia. However, during the first three centuries of Russian rule the Yukaghirs underwent the most rapid decline ever recorded among northern Siberian peoples. Thus, the 1859 census found no more than 2,500 Yukaghirs, the 1897 census 1,500, and the 1927 census only 443. Wars with invading neighbouring reindeer-breeding peoples, including the Evenki, Evens, Koryaks, Chukchi, and Sakha (horse- and cattle-breeders), greatly reduced the population.[i] The introduction of European diseases also had a disastrous impact, with very large numbers of Yukaghirs dying out in epidemics of smallpox and measles. Changing ethnic membership to avoid paying fur tribute (iasak) may also have contributed to the steady decline in numbers of Yukaghirs (Morin & Saladin d’Anglure 1997: 168). According to the 1989 census, there are a total of 1,112 Yukaghirs, of whom approximately half belong to the Upper Kolyma group. However, many people with different ethnic backgrounds register themselves as ‘Yukaghir’ in order to qualify for a variety of welfare entitlements for which only Yukaghirs are eligible (Derlicki 2003: 123). Thus, the official data tell us very little about the actual demographic situation.

During the Soviet period, Nelemnoye’s hunters were subject to the region’s official planning regimens; they were set target figures for the number of sable skins they were required to deliver to the local sovkhoz (state farm), in return for which they received cash payments. Subsistence hunting remained a major element of their livelihood until the mid-1960s. Thereafter, however, the village was increasingly incorporated into the Soviet state economy, which entailed waged employment and centralized consumer goods deliveries, and hunting came to constitute a supplementary livelihood. Yet following the collapse of the collective farm system and the economic crises which accompanied the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, the region’s hunters have returned to a predominantly subsistence-based lifestyle. Virtually no wages have been paid since 1993, while the prices of essentials have risen by several hundred per cent. Consequently, most of the population of Nelemnoye are now totally dependent on hunting and fishing for their survival, and apart from bread, tea, and tobacco, no imported food products are consumed on a day-to-day basis. Old people, women, and children set nets for fish (white fish, trout, pike, and turbot), gather berries (cloudberries, great bilberries, and red bilberries), and set hoop snares for white grouse and hares near the village, while the men travel deep into the forest, where they spend eight or more months of the year hunting for big game, especially elk.

The Yukaghir language belongs to the so-called ‘Palaeo-Asiatic’ group, resembling no other spoken language. However, it has been under strong pressure from Russian, which began to eclipse Yukaghir in the late 1960s and is now almost completely ascendant. Today, only the oldest generation is competent in the indigenous language. For everybody under 60, the primary language is Russian or Sakha, although the mother tongue of many is Yukaghir (Vakhtin 1991). Not until the mid-1980s did Nelemnoye get its own village school (during Soviet times, the children were studying at a boarding school), and only in 1986/87 did the Yukaghir language become part of the compulsory curriculum of the school. This was part of a larger attempt of ethnic revival, set in motion by a handful of Yukaghir intellectuals. However, from my own experience, the local children hardly ever speak Yukaghir among themselves or with their parents, switching rather to Russian the moment they leave the classroom. [ii]

Although I have been doing fieldwork among Yukaghir hunters since 1993, it was not until 1999-2000, when I spent a full year in the region undertaking research for my Ph.D., that I began to engage in the activities of a fulltime hunter, and much of the material presented in this article derives from this period of fieldwork. Thus, I cannot claim to represent all the Yukaghirs, or even all the Yukaghirs of Nelemnoye. Therefore, when I use the terms ‘Yukaghir’, or ‘the Yukaghir people’, I am resorting to ethnographic shorthand for those individuals among the Yukaghir population ‘whom I know the best’ (cf. Atkinson 1989: 5). These are predominantly hunters, but include various members of the older generation. However, because I spent most of my time in the forest, I did not come to know the village-based population very well: teachers, administrators, and the younger generation of Yukaghir women. My work reflects that fact: for better or worse, this article is written mainly from a male hunter’s perspective.

The Category of the Person

In the world of Yukaghir hunters, everything—human, animal, or object—is said to have an ayibii, or what we would call a ‘soul’ or ‘life essence’. For them, the whole world is thus animated by living souls. While everything is understood to be alive, people do nevertheless differentiate between conscious and unconscious beings. On a conceptual level, their distinction corresponds, at least roughly, to our categories of the animate and inanimate. An elderly Yukaghir hunter told me that animals, trees, and rivers are ‘people like us’ (Russian: lyudi kak my) because they are ‘moving’, ‘growing’, and ‘breathing’, but distinct from inanimate objects such as stones, skis, and food products, which, he claimed, were alive but ‘immovable’.[iii] He continued his argument by saying that things that are static are not people because they have only one soul, the ‘shadow-ayibii’, whereas things that are active are considered to be people because they have two more souls in addition to their ‘shadows’: the ‘heart-dyifon’, which makes them ‘move'[iv] and ‘grow’, and the ‘head-ayibii , which makes them ‘breathe’. He ended by saying: ‘Only things that can move come to us [in dreams] and give us presents’, thereby implying that hunters only engage in social relationships of exchange with animate entities that they consider to be persons.

It is important to realize, however, that the hunter’s categorical distinction between those things that are ‘alive’, and those which are both ‘alive’ and also ‘persons’, is far from rigid. While the category of person recognized by hunters is by no means limited to humans (in that it includes various animate beings), there are nevertheless certain points at which this continuum of personhood breaks down (Descola 1996: 324). First, the status of person is not ascribed to all animate beings. Hunters generally seem to reserve this classification for the principal species of prey – the elk and reindeer – and also the predatory mammals, including the bear, wolf, wolverine, and fox. Certain species of birds may also be thought of as persons, most notably the raven. Other kinds of animate beings, including insects, fish, and plants, are hardly ever spoken of as conscious beings with powers of language and intentionality, and are in general seen to lead a mechanical, inconsiderable existence (Descola 1996: 325).Therefore ‘nature’, as we understand it, may indeed exist for the Yukaghirs, but instead of being perceived as a unified realm, it is a randomly occurring series of ruptures to be encountered here and there within an otherwise highly personified world (Pedersen 2001: 416).

Moreover, while some animals are considered to be persons, there is nevertheless a difference between the ways in which human and animal personhood are conceived. As Ingold has pointed out, whereas northern hunters tend to refer to humans by their proper name, conferring upon them a unique identity, the animal is regarded more as a type of its species than as an individual, and ‘it is the type rather than its manifestations that is personified’ (1986: 247, his emphasis). With regard to the Yukaghirs, we see this revealed in their mythology, in which animals tend to bear the names of their species, sometimes with the suffix ‘man’ or ‘woman’, such as ‘bear-man’, ‘hare-man’, and ‘fox-woman’, in contrast to mythical human characters, who tend to have individual names. Ingold has suggested that this implies that northern hunting peoples do not regard the animals themselves as persons, but only their higher ranked spiritual owners, who represent the beasts of its kind (1986: 247). His argument, however, does not hold good for the Yukaghirs. Although hunters do not usually distinguish between an animal and its associated spiritual being, whenever I asked hunters, they frequently insisted that animals do not simply derive their personhood from their master-spirits, but that both are persons in their own right. In his classical study of the Yukaghirs, Jochelson also seems to have observed this. He writes:

[I]n the opinion of the Yukaghir, a lucky hunt depends on the good-will ofthe animals guardian-spirit but also on that of the animal itself. Thus they say: ‘tolo’w xanice e’rietum el kude’deti’ – that is: ‘if the reindeer does not like the hunter, he will not be able to kill it’ (1926: 146).

Therefore, it is not simply that the animals personhood is an extension of its master-spirit’s personhood. Rather, animals are themselves persons. I suggest below that this particular Yukaghir conception of the animal’s personhood—as a type for its species rather than as an individual attribute—derives in large part from the particular manner in which hunters tend to engage with their prey through mimetic practice.

Human-Animal Transformations

While Yukaghirs are quite clear in their minds about which body belongs to any given person, they do regard it as possible for someone to take on the body of a being from another species. The process of body transformation implies changes in the person, which must inevitably entail the assumption of an altogether alien perspective comprising a radically unfamiliar linguistic, social, and moral code. Taking on the body of another species can, therefore, only be done for short periods of time and is risky. It is possible that temporarily belonging to an alien species’ body can result in the loss of one’s own original species identity. When this happens, a true metamorphosis occurs. A transformed individual thus becomes an ‘Other’ and his memories of past experiences are lost. An elderly Yukaghir hunter powerfully evoked an instance in which he was gradually alienated from ‘humankind’:

I had been following a herd of reindeer for some long time, about six hours, I believe. As I searched the track, I had a strange feeling I was being watched. I looked up and saw an old man, about twenty metres ahead of me. He smiled at me. I asked him who he was, but he did not answer me. Instead, he gestured with his hand, showing me that I should follow him. I thought he had a cabin close by and some food, so I did so. All the time he did not speak. I noticed his footprints were those of a reindeer. ‘Strange’, I thought, because the man was wearing kamus (skin-covered) skis. But then I thought I was just hallucinating because I was tired and hungry. We walked up a hill and behind it was a huge camp. There were people of all ages, children playing, old men sitting smoking, and women cooking. The old man took me to his tent. He spoke to his wife by grunting just like a reindeer, and she grunted back. I did not understand. ‘Who are these people?’ I thought. The woman served me food, and I saw it was not meat, but moss. I ate it and it was not too bad. As time passed and we sat there in the tent, I started forgetting things. I thought, for instance, about my wife, who was waiting for me back home, but I realized I had forgotten her name. Then we went to sleep. I dreamt that I was surrounded by reindeer. Someone said to me, ‘You do not belong here, go away’. I do not know who spoke. I woke up and thought I had to get away. I sneaked out of the tent and started walking home. In the village, people were very surprised to see me. They said they thought I had died. ‘What do you mean?’ I asked them, ‘I have only been away for a week’. ‘No,’ they said. ‘We have not seen you for more than a month’. It seems that the people I met were reindeer, and I should have killed them, but at the time I did not know.[v]

From this, we see how the hunter experienced prey, in this case reindeer, as human beings, which is how reindeer and other non-human persons are said to see themselves. Similarly, the reindeer saw the hunter not as a predator or cannibalistic spirit, but as one of their own kind. ‘In normal conditions, [Yukaghirs] do not see animals as people, and vice versa, because [their] respective bodies (and the perspectives that they allow) are different’ (Viveiros de Castro 1998: 478). Perhaps what underlies the story is the fact that hunters, when approaching reindeer or elk, attempt to deceive an animal by taking on its bodily appearance, movement, and smell. However, here the hunter himself was tricked, so that he started seeing the world from the perspective of his prey. He was thus on the verge of undergoing an actual metamorphosis.

I recorded yet another experience of transformation while hunting sable with a young Sakha man from Nelemnoye. He used to work as an electrician in the village, but had turned to hunting out of financial necessity. We worked very hard setting traps and were surprisingly fortunate in taking sables. In time, we became increasingly obsessed with accumulating furs. We hardly took any time to rest, eat, or collect firewood, but left our one-room cabin before dawn to set traps and did not return until after dark. We always fell asleep in a cold cabin, exhausted and hungry. Then one evening, when we were lying side by side on our plank bed, my companion said: ‘Can’t you feel it?’ ‘Feel what?’ I asked. ‘How we are turning into greedy predators, just like wolves. We have this need to kill more and more. Even if we had two hundred sables we wouldn’t feel satisfied, would we? Just like the devil, you see’. He paused for a while. Then he added, ‘I suggest we calm down (Russian: uspokoitsya) and stop hunting for a week or so’.

Unlike elk- and reindeer-hunting, which involve imitating these animals by moving, smelling, and sounding like them, trapping does not require such bodily transformations. Instead, ‘skilful trappers’ (Russian: sobolyatniki) talk about the need to ‘think like a sable’. However, this involves not only the skill of imaginatively internalizing the animals viewpoint, but also the equally important skill of avoiding the loss of one’s sense of human personhood in the process. Thus, hunters claim that sable and other predators, such as the wolf, wolverine, and fox, are creatures of insatiable greed and blood-lust. If given the chance, they will kill any form of prey which they encounter. Hunters therefore call these predators gryaznyi (‘dirty’, in the sense of being ‘sinful’). They also say that they are ‘children of the devil’ (chyortevy deti). Similarly, a human person who kills recklessly is called ‘a son of the devil’ (chyortovsyn). The devil’s character is said to be that of carelessness. He has no sense of either past or future, but lives only in the moment of the present, and he is therefore incapable of feeling any sense of responsibility for his actions.This was what my hunting mate was referring to when he became overcome with anxiety, saying that we were becoming devil-like and should seek to calm ourselves in the cabin for a while before going out to hunt again.

I did not encounter any other first-hand experiences of transformations, but the notion of different species taking on each others appearance and perspective is found in many Yukaghir myths. Thus, one finds a whole series of stories in which members of the giant cannibal tribe, cou’liye (Mystical-Old-People),[6] turn themselves into nice-looking lads to seduce Yukaghir women and eat them. These cannibalistic non-humans call their intended human victims their ‘elk’ or ‘reindeer’ (Jochelson 1900: 31; 1926: 302-3; Spiridonov 1996 [1930]), so they address and experience human beings as animal prey, just as the human hunter does his prey. However, we also find stories in which the giant cannibals abandon their own communities to live among their new host species. Jochelson (1926) recorded one such story, in which a giant cannibal boy marries a Yukaghir girl and lives with her human kinsmen. However, the transformed cannibal cannot entirely forget about his desire for human flesh, and once, while lying in bed with his wife, he touches her breasts and says, ‘My late father used to feed me with such things’ (1926: 304). The wife gets worried and tells the rest of the camp about the episode. The people agree that the former cannibal is not entirely transformed and so they kill him. However, since they have in fact killed one of their own, i.e. a relative, they have committed an immense sin. As a result, the ‘Sun deity’ punishes them by taking away their fire, and they all freeze to death.

The implications of transformation are also strikingly revealed in another story recorded by Jochelson (1900: 24-5). It was about two girls who set out to take revenge on an old man called Lower Jaw, who had killed their parents. Simply by moving on their hands and knees like wolves, the girls turned into these predators. After they had killed the old man and his son, they ate the flesh of their victims. Cannibalism is normally seen by Yukaghirs as a terrible sin that leads to punishment from either God or the Sun deity (Jochelson 1926: 304). But in this case it was apparently acceptable, on the grounds that the girls were in a transformed state of being and thus subscribed to the moral code of wolves rather than that of humans. The story ends with the girls taking on their human shapes and living ordinary human lives again.

I suggest that these and similar stories support my earlier point about the way in which so-called ‘perspectival’ notions form an essential part of Yukaghir animism. In his paper on Amerindian perspectivism, Viveiros de Castro argues that it is an ontology which converts Western ideas about ‘uni-naturalism’ and ‘multi-culturalism’ into very non-Western ones of ‘uniculturalism’ and ‘multi-naturalism’ (1998: 470). While Western ontology is founded on a belief in ‘the unity of nature and the plurality of cultures’, perspectivism is founded on a ‘spiritual unity and a corporeal diversity’ (1998: 470): ‘The ability to adopt a point of view is undoubtedly a power of the soul … but the differences between viewpoints … is given in the specificity of bodies … Animals see in the same way as we do different things because their bodies are different from ours’ (1998: 478, his emphasis). Thus, he claims, species persons, human as well as non-human, can travel to and from bodies, but remain essentially the same. This is precisely because the ‘point of view’ that one adopts is a function of the particular body in which one has taken abode and not of a particular life essence or soul, which is understood to be the same for human and non-human persons alike (1998: 478).

Although Viveiros de Castro succeeds in conceptually identifying perspectivism, on an initial basis, as a particular type of ontological way-of-being-in-the-world, it remains an abstract model, detached from the real experiences of people in a life-world.[vii] This is not to deny that people may think abstractly, but even the most abstract domain, our imagination, has its basis in our bodily being-in-the-world – that is, the world in which we exist and act before we begin to theorize about it in order to explain our experience and the forms it takes. What I am arguing, in other words, is that we need to go beyond our anthropological preference for abstract representations to their roots in the concreteness of everyday perceptual experience. This is not least true with regard to Yukaghir hunters, who have a clear preference for the concrete and experiential (doings) over the abstract and theoretical (sayings). Hence, their perspectivist representations, as we find them expressed in myths and other types of discourse, are not just intellectual constructs, but are in a significant sense practical, inseparably bound up with the hunting activity in which they are engaged. The challenge, it seems to me, is therefore to bring perspectivism ‘down to earth’, as it were, and re-embed it within its primary context of hunters’ actual perceptual engagement with prey. Taking this condition of engagement as a point of departure, I believe that we can find a way to place Yukaghir conceptions of such matters as human-animal transformations in the lived-in world of experience instead of simply attributing them to some overarching cosmological model.[viii]

An appropriate point at which to begin an investigation of this topic is the important element of risk involved when travelling between one’s own body and an alien one. This is not something that can be done easily, because it involves an experience of deep-felt anxiety of self-alienation, or what I earlier referred to as losing one’s sense of human personhood. Thus, an element of self-awareness or reflexivity is crucial to safeguarding oneself against being carried away by an alien body. We see how the reindeer-man made tracks in the shape of reindeer hooves, despite his human appearance. Similarly, the foxwoman is said to keep her strong smell and the bear-man can be recognized by his jog-trot way of moving. Thus, it is imperative for humans and animals, when changing bodies, to retain some of their former physical qualities, which identify them as beings of a special class who act in a manner similar to, but not altogether identical with, their host species. People who have taken on a body of a species other than their own do not therefore simply become copies of the host species. At least, they are not what we would call faithful copies, whereby body-parts correspond point-for-point with other body-parts. Instead, they are incomplete images of the host species. It follows from this that what the Yukaghirs strive for is not to adopt the ‘point of view’ of a nonhuman person in any absolute sense. That would mean actually becoming the animal, and, as we have seen, this should be avoided at all costs. Rather, Yukaghirs attempt to assume an animal’s point of view by intentionally acting as an incomplete copy of it. All performances in alien kinds of bodies therefore share a kind of double-negation: the person is not the species he is imitating, but also he is not not that species (cf. Schechner 1985). Taking on an alien body, therefore, does not imply making one person into another in any absolute sense. Rather, it permits the person to act in-between identities. It gives him a new potential for action, free as he is from the bodily limits of both his own species and those of the species imitated.

This makes sense when we realize that Yukaghirs do not take on the bodies of animals just so as to represent them. They do so in an effort to manipulate the world around them. Often, this is directly aimed at tricking prey by means of its own image: what in an older language is known as ‘sympathetic magic’, whereby ‘the magician infers that he can produce any effect he desires merely by imitating it’ (Frazer 1993 [1922]: 11). However, what Frazer never explained is why such mutual resemblance of the copy and the original should grant the representation power over the represented. He ascribed sympathetic magic to be a mistaken form of causal thinking, similar to a scientific theory, but grounded in error. He simply evaded the question of why sympathetic magic persists if, indeed, the expected results are not materialized, attributing its persistence merely to wrong headedness and conservatism on the part of the ‘savages.’

In a book about the ‘mimetic faculty’, Taussig (1993) argues that the basis of sympathetic magic is not a tragic misunderstanding of the nature of physical causality, but is founded on a particular way of perceiving things, objects, and people outside ourselves. To mimic something is to be sensuously filled with that which is imitated, yielding to it, mirroring it – and hence imitating it bodily. It is, he claims, a particularly powerful way of understanding, representing, and controlling the surrounding world. He illustrates this with a number of different examples, mostly from the colonial milieu, in which indigenous peoples imitate their colonial masters as a means of manipulating and controlling them.

What I find particularly valuable in Taussig’s account is his insightful observation that mimesis collapses such dichotomies as Self vs Other, nature vs culture, and essentialism vs constructionism (1993: 252). ‘It plays the trick of dancing between the very same and the very different’ (1993: 129), ‘between the real and the really made-up’ (1993: xvii). The important point for my argument, which can be inferred from this, is that the manipulating power that is present in hunters’ imitation of prey rests in their dual capacity to incorporate its ‘Otherness’ while in some profound sense remaining the same. Let me illustrate this point. When hunters mimic the elk to bring it into the open so that they can shoot at it, they act simultaneously within two motivational spaces, which could be called ‘the space of predatory mastery’ and ‘the space of animal imitation’. The first has to do with the hunter’s intention of killing the prey animal, the second with his need to take on its identity in order to fulfil that intention. The hunter, we might say, acts with a dual nature: he is both hunter and animal. To act in-between these two identities is a highly complex task. If he lets his intentions as a hunter show through his actions, the prey animal will either run or attack him.[ix] If, on the other hand, he allows his intentions to merge with his bodily movements (which are that of an elk), he will surrender to the perspective of prey and turn into it.The hunter therefore needs to be aware not only of the prey animal, but also of himself being aware of prey, to make sure that his perspective is neither that of a hunter nor that of the animal, but somewhere in-between or both at once. In other words, the success of the hunter rests in his ability to keep up a ‘double perspective’, or act as a ‘double agent’.

Notes and References

  • [i] Both in the past and more recently, Russian anthropologists have distinguished between Yukaghirs, Koryaks and Chukchi, who have long been regarded as aboriginal peoples of the northern Yakutia region (Ertiukov 1990; Fedoseeva 1980), and groups such as the Evenki (Tungus) and Sakha (Yakuts), who are generally thought to be the descendants of more recent incomers from the south who moved into the region between the seventh and fourteenth centuries AD (Vainshtein 1989: 62). The Evens (Lamuts) population is thought to have come into being even later; they are widely described as the product of unions between immigrant Evenki and the local Yukaghir populations (Arutiunov 1988: 36).
  • [ii] Elsewhere (Willerslev 2004) I have argued that the academically widespread view of knowledge as a matter of linguistic representations is essentially misleading. Thus, I show how Yukaghir spiritual knowledge and dreaming are based not in language in any fundamental way, but in everyday practical activities of hunting and dreaming.
  • [iii] When talking about rivers and trees as being ‘persons’, I am not entirely sure whether the hunter was referring to the master-spirits of these entities or to the entities themselves. However, animals are, as I shall argue, often conceived as persons in their own right.
  • [iv] The Yukaghir word for heart, cobo’ye, also means ‘running’ and ‘motion’.
  • [v] It should be pointed out that this story, expressed here as something that happened to the teller, also appears as a common myth. Thus, two different elders told me essentially the same story about how the hunter, while out hunting, becomes able to see the world from the perspective of his prey. We also find this theme used strikingly in myths among other groups of northern hunters, such as the Cree and Ojibwa Indians of the Canadian sub-Arctic (Brightman 1993: 41-8; Hallowell 1960: 36; Tanner 1979: 136-7) and the Inuit (Saladin d’Anglure 2001). The theme is also found among hunting peoples of Southeast Asia, such as the Chewong of the Malay tropical forest (Howell 1996).
  • [vi] At the time Jochelson did his fieldwork, the Yukaghirs had a whole series of narratives about these cannibal giants. As he writes: ‘The first place in Yukaghir folklore is taken by tales of the Mythical-Old-People. They are the most genuine Yukaghir folk tales’ (1926: 303). At the time of writing, however, these giant cannibals have been replaced with the Sakha demon Abaslla’r as the main characters of these narratives.
  • [vii] It has to be said that Viveiros de Castro does explicitly acknowledge the practical aspect of perspectival thinking when he writes: ‘The animal clothes that shamans use to travel the cosmos are not fantasies but instruments: they are akin to diving equipment, or space suits, and not to carnival masks’ (1998: 482). Still, his argument is centred on the essentially symbolic world of shamanism (see Viveiros de Castro 1998: 472, 483). For my part, I argue for a plausible grounding (if not origin) of perspectivism in real-life observations of animals and experiences of hunting. This is not to say that perspectivism is restricted to the hunting context. As a matter of fact, it is present in a great variety of activities, such as in Yukaghir shamanism and dancing, in which people imitate animal movements and cries with great vivacity, as well as in trapping, where the hunter ‘tries to think like the sable’. Yet, the impact of these activities on people’s experience of animals as persons with a (subjective) point of view is, I believe, less intense compared with elk-hunting, which involves a situation of direct face-to-face mimicry and where the bodies of hunter and prey blend to a point that makes them of the same kind. Thus, in my view, hunting is the paramount reality of the daily life of Yukaghirs from which their perspectival thinking ultimately emerges. This may also explain why it is, as Viveiros de Castro himself observes, that the dynamics of predator and prey are fundamental to perspectivist thinking (1998: 471).
  • [viii] In making this claim, I am drawing heavily on Ingold (2000), who argues for a phenomenologically inspired approach to anthropology that places abstract mental representations in real-life types of practical engagements with the environment.
  • [ix] As Nelson correctly points out, the elk (or moose) is probably more dangerous than any other animal in the northern woodlands (1983: 166). I have recorded countless stories about elk that have seen through the hunter’s trick of imitation and attacked him. The elk will lay down its ears as a sign of aggression, and the hunter must slowly withdraw. Otherwise, he will be trampled to death by the enormous animal.
  • [x] I take the term ‘double agent’ from Hastrup, who uses it to address the ‘never-ending reflexivity of the split consciousness of the western actor, who both “is” and “is not” himself on stage’ (1998: 40).


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