The Separation of the Sexes
Among Siberian Reindeer
Piers Vitebsky and Sally Wolfe
Where better to be a ‘sacred custodian of the earth’ than in north-eastern Siberia? Rushing stony rivers, lined with groves of vanilla-perfumed poplars, drain out of immense swamps. Wispy larch forests rise to ridge upon jagged ridge of bare, lichen-speckled rock. While spiritually powerful bears and eagles patrol around them, the tiny groups of humans who pick their way laboriously across this landscape leave offerings at the graves of shamans and make peace with the spirit owners of each site where they pitch their tent and light their fire.
Why then is this landscape occupied almost entirely by men? To suggest that women are ‘sacred custodians of the earth’ implies that there is some sort of universal essence of womanhood which sets women off from men in a particular way. This privileged female relationship to earth and landscape, however, should be seen as no more than an ideological construct until it has been tested against a wide range of evidence and forced to confront historical and social circumstances. This custodianship should be examined, not as a presupposition, but as a hypothesis. It may apply in some societies, economies and periods but not in others.
This chapter examines the situation of a community of seminomadic native reindeer herders in Siberia, belonging to the Tungus-speaking Evén people.1 Virtually without exception, women are increasingly looking for their frame of reference to the village,