A remarkable tale of life with the reindeer

The Eveny have 1,500 words to talk about reindeer. But will they now fall silent?

I'm an inveterate underliner when I read. To me, it only makes sense - when you revisit a book, you want to know right away what it was that fascinated you most the first time through.

But somewhere in the early chapters of The Reindeer People: Living with Animals and Spirits in Siberia, I quit. I realized that I was underlining almost every sentence.

The image that opens the book is as irresistible as it is timeless. "In the Verkhoyansk Mountains of northeast Siberia, Eveny nomads are on the move," Vitebsky writes. "Teams of reindeer pull caravans of sledges down the steep slides of a frozen mountain river. Bells tinkle on the lead reindeer while dogs on short leashes dive closely alongside through the snow like dolphins beside a boat."

It's hard not to be fascinated by a tale like this one. British anthropologist Piers Vitebsky writes of 20 years of visits to the Eveny, a people whose lives have been organized around the cultivation of domestic reindeer for at least a few millenniums. With temperatures that can plunge to minus 96 F., their region is the coldest inhabited place on earth, and not too surprisingly, few have visited it.

Vitebsky might have seemed an unlikely candidate for developing an intimate relationship with this group. His previous anthropological work took him to the sweltering climes of India. But, as he explains, his growing fascination with peoples who live far outside the centers of power eventually led him to this remote corner of the globe.

Finding his way inside was anything but easy. It took two years of negotiating with former Soviet officials before he was allowed to visit the region.

Once there, however, he achieved a remarkable degree of integration. He learned the Eveny's language and gained their friendship and their trust. He learned how to joke with them, herd and hunt with them, and to understand their sorrows and their joys. Ultimately, he even brought his own wife and children to live with the Eveny for a spell (a story he tells toward the end of the book).

Vitebsky begins his narrative by explaining Eveny traditions, most particularly their relationship with the reindeer.

The Eveny (and their cousins, the Evenki) were once the most widely spread indigenous people on any landmass. Originating in China, they ranged from the Pacific to the Urals, traveling vast distances on the backs of reindeer.

It's no accident, Vitebsky explains, that we associate reindeer with flying. Reindeer can run for hours at speeds of 20 to 30 miles an hour and, in bursts, twice that fast.

In addition, the reindeer is almost ideally suited to the cold. It has a thick outer coat of hollow hair that both serves as insulation and buoys the reindeer up when it needs to swim in icy water. It also has convoluted nostrils that conserve heat when it breathes.

The relationship between the Eveny and their domestic reindeer is remarkably intimate. The Eveny language is said to have 1,500 words to refer to the colors and shapes of reindeer, their body parts, harnesses, diseases, diets, and moods.

Each reindeer in a herd has a name - even in herds that can grow to be as large as a few thousand. Some derive from physical attributes (One-Horn, Hooknose) but others refer to traits of character (Margaret Thatcher for a dominant deer, Bill Clinton for another who liked the females).

But the Eveny have not been allowed to continue undisturbed in their relationship to the reindeer and that is at least in part why Vitebsky wrote this book. He tells the story of the damage done first by the Soviet Union (when herders were forced to merge their herds into huge collective groups and give up a nomadic style of life) and more recently by merchants hawking alcohol.

Vitebsky asks in fact whether the age of the reindeer is drawing to an end. Early on, he tells the heartrending tale of a family of lifelong herders who were required by the Soviet Union to slaughter their beloved herd, and the waste and thoughtlessness involved are stunning.

Unfortunately, this narrative does not remain this compelling throughout.

The early chapters are compulsively readable, but much of the rest of the book is more deliberate - careful, correct, and thorough, but in terms of interest, the heavy ammunition is fired at the outset.

Vitebsky is an anthropologist and offers a detailed accounting of all his contacts with the Eveny, including an analysis of their rites, practices, and worldview. It's rich material, but less likely to enthrall general readers.

What makes this book well worth reading, however, is the almost tender way that Vitebsky writes of his subjects - people who truly became his friends. He's a compassionate, perceptive narrator, and they come alive in his accounts.

Also, there is never a hint of condescension. These are three-dimensional characters with subtle senses of humor, keen powers of observation, and highly nuanced relationships built largely on nonverbal communication. Vitebsky is humble about what he learned from them, and what they have to teach the world.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.

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