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Anna M. Kerttula’s “Antler on the Sea” Essay

In her book, Antler on the Sea, Kerttula discusses how Soviet government policies aimed to integrate the northern peoples of the USSR in reality helped the groups to maintain their identities as they defined themselves in opposition to one another. According to Kerttula, “in Sireniki, the very system that sought to control and homogenize difference reinforced it” (155). Kerttula illustrates the extent to which much of the native culture has survived the Soviet period. This trend is particularly prevalent as Kerttula progresses through her descriptions of Yup’ik, Chukchi, and ‘Newcomer’ lifestyle and practices. The development of collective group identity and cultural transformation among northern indigenous peoples in the Soviet Union was heavily influenced not only by the structure of the Soviet system but also by the provoking of oppositional relationships between the groups. Kerttula effortlessly explains the interrelationships of the many opposing ‘forces’: tundra and sea, Yup’ik and Chukchi, natives and newcomers, and old and new ways in the North. These relationships were based on prior cultural forms, symbols and meanings but as a result of Soviet influence, local cultural boundaries were transformed and the ensuing dialogue of difference was encouraged. As Kerttula asserts, it is the “we/they dichotomy that for many anthropologists defines an ethnic group” (152).

The Soviet state, with its ideological, political and economic goals, changed the structure of the interactions between local and immigrant groups, but was unable to change the cultural content of their discourse. According to Kerttula, historically the Yup’ik, Chukchi and Russians had very limited contact with one another. Prior to forced relocations and settlements that occurred with collectivization, the Yup’ik lived at Sireniki and met with the Chukchi occasionally for the limited purpose of trade (123). After collectivization the three groups were forced to live in a single locality and thus new dynamics and an increased frequency of interaction changed the ways that the Yup’ik, Chukchi, and Russians (Newcomers) worked together.

As Kerttula points out, the cultural definitions and descriptors of the three groups were not always in agreement; quite often they clashed. For example, Kerttula generalizes on the Newcomer’s feelings of superiority to the Yup’ik and Chukchi. Accordingly, “this attitude of superiority was intensified by the physical separation of the three groups, both at their place of work and in their free time” (152). It was the Newcomer’s familiarity with the Russian social structure that in fact led to this so-called ‘superiority’ (152). Similarly, the Yup’ik and Chukchi view one another as, for instance, receiving favoritism in their language instructions at the local school. Parents are cited as believing the other group to be receiving better instruction: “The Chukchi complained that there were more Yup’ik lessons than Chukotkan, and Yup’ik parents complained that the quality of the Yup’ik lessons were substandard” (154).

Unlike the Nivkhi described by Grant, the Yup’ik and Chukchi do not express a feeling of ‘culturelessness’. As both groups have been able to maintain dominant aspects of their traditional lifestyle, the sense of loss seemed to be felt to a lesser degree (although they did ‘lose’ language and the freedom to hunt whales). The Yup’ik could remain defined primarily by their affinity for and connections to the sea while the Chukchi could remain defined primarily by their affinity for and connections to the tundra. Modernity within the community of Sireniki was integrated in a way that was advantageous for the people. As Kerttula points out however, instead of questioning the government’s socialist tactics, most looked more locally to the ‘others’ in the community (151, 153).

These collective identities enabled the Yup’ik, Chukchi, and Newcomers to accept Soviet designated social and economic conditions by infusing these conditions with their own cultural knowledge, making them meaningful and reproducible. Kerttula captures the disharmony tolerated by indigenous people in the Soviet period as they retained their own beliefs and customs while adapting to altered environments and economic change. As Kerttula reiterates many times, modernity has brought many unexpected and unwelcome changes. Most importantly, the state has used the discourse of modernity to once again portray indigenous peoples in a way that suits their needs as an administrative body. Instead of looking to the heavy restrictions enforced by the Soviet system, the people of Sireniki “focused their discourse on each other” and looked to each other as being a source of some of their problems (155).

Toward the end of her book, Kerttula points out a fundamental problem in the collective group definitions: if the groups defined their identities in opposition to one another, what happens to those who married cross-culturally? In her discussion of possible division within the community into different associations, this problem came to the forefront. As one of Kerttula’s informants asks, to which association would the child of both Yup’ik and Chukchi parents belong? (152). Theoretically the three groups existed separate from the other two. In reality though, intermarriage and the creation of friendships were relatively common inter-ethnically.

The individual cultures were not only subjective, but also laden with political and social questions of identity and personhood (151). What makes the case at Sireniki unique is that three distinct cultural groups were essentially forced to live together in relative peace while each simultaneously sought to prolong and promote their own traditional practices and beliefs. Kerttula’s investigation and analysis is of how collective identities were facilitated among the two indigenous groups and one immigrant group in order to maintain their cultures in the face of rapidly changing social and material circumstances (153).


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