Academic journal article Nomadic Peoples

Experience, Movement and Mobility: Komi Reindeer Herders' Perception of the Environment

Academic journal article Nomadic Peoples

Experience, Movement and Mobility: Komi Reindeer Herders' Perception of the Environment

Article excerpt


On the basis of fieldwork among Komi reindeer herders in the north of Russia, the author discusses the concepts of movement and mobility. In the first part, he describes reindeer herders' migrations from an outsider's point of view, which reflects the conventional academic approach to the theme of pastoralists' mobility. Komi reindeer husbandry may be described as a transhumant system with protracted linear migrations. In the second part, he tries to look beyond these etic categories and gives an account of their movements from an emic perspective. Moving through the forests and tundra is inextricably connected with a sense of temporality, with the seasons and the weather, with events and memories, and with experience, learning and 'enskilment' (Ingold 2000). This emic perspective is discussed in the frame of Tim Ingold's thoughts about 'the perception of the environment' and other phenomenological approaches. The author differentiates between mobility as the potential of movement, and movement as mobility 'acted out'. The eric (outsiders') perspective can explain pastoral migrations as a potential (mobility), yet it cannot fully account for the pastoralists' being in action (movement).

Keywords: mobility, movement, temporality, experience, perception of the environment, reindeer herding, Komi


This paper seeks to contribute to a better understanding of movement and mobility of reindeer herders. While I start with describing the reindeer herders' migrations from an outsider's point of view--which has been the usual academic approach to the theme of mobility--I shall also try to go beyond these categories from outside the community (etic perspective) and give an account of their movements from within the community (emic perspective). I shall do so by applying phenomenological concepts, for example Tim Ingold's 'perception of the environment' (2000) and Tilley's 'phenomenology of landscape' (1994), to my ethnography of Komi reindeer herders in the European part of Russia, among whom I conducted fieldwork in 1998-99 (Habeck 2005). (1) References are also made to Istomin (2004), a Komi anthropologist who has carried out research in the same region. Two main arguments shall emerge in this paper. I shall show how movement and mobility are interdependent with enskilment and experience. Simultaneously, I seek to make explicit the different meanings of movement versus mobility, and discuss how the concept of movement might inform further research on nomadic and transhumant groups.

First Step: Etic Perspective

The first section of the paper will describe Komi reindeer herding mainly in its spatial aspects. Komi reindeer herding is a transhumant form of pastoralism. Only part of the reindeer-herding family migrates with the animals, as will be explained in more detail shortly. The involvement of the Komi in reindeer herding is comparatively recent. Prior to the expansion of the Komi into the north European tundra, the Nenets, who had been indigenous to this region, had kept reindeer only in small numbers, used them for transportation and very rarely slaughtered them for meat. In a complex process analysed by Istomin (2004), the Komi became acquainted with Nenets reindeer herding. It was not before the eighteenth century that the Komi themselves started migrating with the reindeer herds. Nenets-Komi economic interactions led to the emergence and development of large-scale reindeer husbandry. From the very inception of Komi reindeer husbandry, it has been a market-oriented activity (e.g. Krupnik 1993: 177). Towards the beginning of the twentieth century, reindeer husbandry in the north of European Russia had its first peak. Kertselli (1911: 78; 1929:113) estimated the overall number of domesticated reindeer in the region between the White Sea and the Urals at 450,000 to 600,000. Reindeer owners in this region were Komi or Nenets (and, to a negligible degree, representatives of other ethnic groups). …

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