We were eating more than I thought possible, including jellied whale casserole and fresh apricot buns, while Elizaveta Dobrieva’s family explained that their ancestors descended from the polar bear and the killer whale. Then Elizaveta disappeared into the back room of her apartment in Lavrentiya, Chukotka, and came back cradling a dark wooden carving. Its eyes slanted down to a long nose, and many thin vertical lines extended below the chin. Elizaveta told me that the lines represent tattoos and indicate that this figure is a woman.
“This is the keeper of our clan,” she said, “her name is Yiakunneun.” (иякунеун) She held the figure like it was a baby, resting it in the crook of her arm, so it seemed to look up at her face. She showed me how she would talk to it, consulting it during difficult times in her life. Then she put her fingers to its mouth and showed how she feeds it with choice morsels from her own table on special occasions. Elizaveta’s ancestors have lived with Yiakunneun for four or five generations, back when life was very different. This cultural figure could be transported into a new life when so many other things had to be left behind.
Elizaveta had been recommended to me by someone at the local library, but when I went to her house, I didn’t know what we would talk about. My visit was part of a three-year journey around the north to learn about the Arctic from its people. Their personal stories are a reminder that the Arctic is more than a setting for climate change, resource extraction, or debates over sovereignty. It is home to over four million people living through a period of unprecedented change.
In Chukotka, a region in the Russian far east, women still speak about the displacement they experienced during the 1950s when many indigenous people were pushed to larger settlements with state-built housing and encouraged to “modernize.” About 800 of the 1,200 Yupik people in this region were relocated in just a few years, and though the relocations happened without the use of force, they caused irreversible cultural change.
At a time when we can gather more data about the world than we could ever process, personal stories have a power to build cultural understanding. They defy generalizations and transcend stereotypes. They can also surprise the heck out of us. Cookies and tea one minute, a century-old clan keeper the next.
Elizaveta is Siberian Yupik and was born in 1942 in the village of Naukan, Chukotka, on the edge of the Bering Sea. She lived there until 1949. When she was seven years old her family moved about 50 miles away to Lavrentiya. Naukan remained her summer home until 1958 when the Soviet authorities closed the village. They explained that Naukan was not a good place to build modern houses and that it was not healthy to live in yurangas, traditional tents. In the summer of 1958, the usual supply ship with food and coal did not come, and within two months Naukan was closed and its people banned from returning.
At that time, Elizaveta remembers her great uncle saying “If they close Naukan, we will lose our language.” “Now,” she told me, “that is what has happened … My grandchildren do not speak it.” Yet 60 years after that relocation Yiakunneun lives on, hidden in a special place in this apartment, just as she would have been hidden in the yuranga generations ago. I wonder where she will be generations from now, who will look after her, and what a Yupik home will look like by then.
To the south of the Chukotsk Peninsula, in the capital of Anadyr, Svetlana Tagyok (Cветлана Тагъек) was recommended to me by her granddaughter, Svatlana Isakova.
Svetlana’s Yupik grandmother used to go out in the street, look up in the sky and think, “When will this border disappear, and we’ll be able to see each other again?” The border between Chukotka and Alaska was closed in 1948, during the Cold War, and travel between the two regions was prohibited, even for the Siberian Yupik people whose families lived on both sides of the Bering Sea.
In 1972, at the age of 30 years old, Svetlana moved to Anadyr and began working as a journalist for the State Television and Radio Committee (Государственный телерадио комитет). For years, she traveled the region to learn about the cultural traditions and ways of life for both Yupik and Chukchi people, and she broadcast these stories—as well as government messages—over the airwaves. Because of the closed border, her Yupik broadcasts were limited to a Russian audience, or so she thought for 25 years.
At the kitchen table, over tea, bread and salmon eggs, Svetlana, now 75 years old, took out her scrapbook. She showed me photographs from a conference on indigenous language in Fairbanks, Alaska in the early 1990s after the border opened again. She wore the same floral jacket in those pictures that she wore during our interview. At the convention, a man whose name she doesn’t remember walked to the front of a conference room with a cassette tape in his hand. “This tape has a recording by a woman named Svetlana Tagyok,” he said, “If this woman is present in the audience, please show up and take this tape.”
Because Svetlana’s broadcasts had included messages from the government about the Soviet Union, and because there had been so much tension between the two countries for so long, she thought this man would criticize her. “I was kind of hiding, I was not ready to say that this was my tape,” she said.
The man continued to praise Svetlana for describing the way of life in Chukotka and teaching them so much about life on “the other side of the world,” which is barely 200 kilometers away. When Svetlana finally stepped forward, this man told her, “We always knew what time you were showing up on the radio, so we were waiting for you.”
Svetlana experienced what her grandmother had wished for. Now that she’s a grandmother herself, she said, “Having lived all of these years, I realize that life is fragile. It’s very unpredictable, and it can change at any time.”
When we had finished our meal, I asked my final question: “Who do you think I should meet next?” She told me about a Chukchi woman who keeps the traditions and songs from the land, though she too now lives in an apartment in town.
As a child living on the tundra, Larisa Vykvyragtyrgyrgyna (Лариса Выквырагтыргыргына) would help the other children get to sleep. At bedtime, she went from one yuranga to the next, “I was calming them down with my singing,” she said. “I was born to sing.”
Larisa is Chukchi, the largest indigenous group in Chukotka, and she was raised on the tundra in a reindeer herding family. Her Chukchi name is Ryskyntonaw (Рыскынтонау), which describes the timing of her birth. It refers to a pattern of leaves that occurs when a particular flower blossoms.
Larisa left the tundra to work as a journalist and teacher. Her traditional life is now molded around an urban one so we gathered at her kitchen table loaded with wild fish and berries from the land followed by ice cream cake from the grocery store. After dessert Larisa brought out a slim drum fashioned from wood and reindeer skin. “Each person has his or her name, and in our culture each person also has his or her own song.” She began by introducing her own: “This song is my peer. We were born on the same day.” Her voice was delicate but steady. The melody’s undulations were so complex as to sound almost accidental. With each phrase, the tundra seemed to come closer to the window. As the night went on, she sang of moose and birds and many people she had known. Sometimes she pinged the drum to rouse a high and shaky beat, often she sang unaccompanied, holding the drum in her arms.
The songs are an expression of the people and land that inspired them. A disconnection from those things results in a disconnection from the music. Teaching these songs to others has been difficult for Larisa, which means some of them will die with her.
“It’s very difficult to transmit the ambience of the place. You know, this may be a spiritual connection, a state of mind, state of soul.” When others try to sing them, they just don’t sound right.
It was dark and windy by the time I left. From the street, Larisa’s apartment window was one small point of light among many, and I would never have guessed at the history and culture those rooms contained.
Larisa’s stories from the tundra helped me imagine life for the women who are still living there, whose stories are not contained by four walls, and whose homes take a long time to reach.
Maya Pelyatagina (майя Васильевна пелятагина), a reindeer herder living in a small tundra camp, paused for a long time when I asked her to describe the tundra. Perhaps it seemed like a silly question, given that we were surrounded by it, but I was curious how she would describe the tundra to others. Finally she said, “I would only say nice things about the tundra.”
It took us 14 hours to drive 120 miles to reach the yurangas where Maya lives with a Chukchi reindeer brigade. It was autumn, the ground had faded to golden brown, and the herders had brought the reindeer, all 2500 of them, into camp. When I asked the crew leader, Valtagin, for a recommendation on who to talk to – even in this community of a dozen people – he said I should talk to the women because they would have a different perspective on life out here. There were four there at the moment: Maya, Olya (оля), Valentina, and Elena. They often leaned into the doorway of the yurangas, and sometimes the animals came right up to the cooking fire.
It only took Maya a few minutes to tell me about her life. Her childhood was split between town and tundra. She studied cooking, had a daughter, married and came back to work with the herd. Officially, she was listed as a veterinary technician, but she mostly looked after the yuranga, which is traditionally the role for women. When I tried to go deeper into her life story she said, “I have told you everything.” Out here, it’s about doing rather than talking. The stories I heard were less concerned with the past and future, they were told through the rhythm of daily life.
The herdsmen take shifts with the animals, so food must be prepared many times each day. For breakfast, we scraped reindeer meat from the rib bones, drank warm reindeer broth and hot tea full of sugar, and we tore into fresh fried bannock. Later Olya told me, “We are always busy, only the herdsmen have time to rest.” I wondered if she would rather be in the village, where she goes for vacation. “There is nothing to do in the village,” she said.
Before bed, several of us gathered in the yuranga as night fell and brought the cold with it. Maya set up the lamp that would keep the tent lit and warm all night, an orange flame that stretched back generations, though it is no longer fueled by oil from marine mammals. These days, the lamp is made from a tin can filled with diesel and a wick made of fabric. Someone pulled out a smartphone which had been charged by a small generator, and we crowded the tiny screen to watch a video of a cat being fed with a spoon. The yuranga exploded with laughter. Then we crawled into the tent made from reindeer skin, called the polog. There was one skin pillow that stretched the length of the communal bed for all of us to rest our heads on. The floor was layered with bunches of willow twigs, a bearded seal skin, a layer of carpet, and finally our blankets. The tundra underneath it all.
Life in Chukotka has changed drastically in the last century. Even before the end of the Soviet Union, many indigenous people in Chukotka were part of modernization efforts that included displacement and fundamental shifts in the daily economy. These changes had very personal consequences for each person who experienced them.
On the tundra, the sounds of reindeer, sandhill cranes, loons, and ravens have been joined by ATVs, generators, and mp3 players. Indigenous languages have given way to Russian. The stories have changed too, and much has been lost, but these women taught me that a story – whether spoken, sung, or lived – is a process that renews itself with each telling, but the telling cannot happen on its own. Stories are nothing without people to hear them.
This article was first published on National Geographic in January 2019.