restricted access Living with Koryak Traditions: Playing with Culture in Siberia by Alexander King (review)
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Reviewed by
Alexander King. Living with Koryak Traditions: Playing with Culture in Siberia. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2011. ISBN: 978-0-8032-3509-0. 329 pp.

This book concerns the performance of ethnicity and local understandings of tradition among the Native peoples of Kamchatka, a large peninsula on the north Pacific coast of Russia. The book will be of particular interest to SAIL readers of Alexander Vaschenko and Claude Smith's recent collection of English translations of contemporary Native Siberian literature, The Way of Kinship.1 Though not essentially comparative in form, Living with Koryak Traditions draws explicit comparisons between Native American experiences and the internat or boarding school system set up for Siberian Native peoples while evoking other implicit comparisons, such as the problematics of ethnic identification among urban Natives, the role of crafts and souvenirs, the function of museums and cultural education programs, the prospects for Native language revitalization.

Historically, Kamchatka was said by anthropologists to be the home of three major Native tribal peoples—the Chukchi, the Koryak, and the Itelmen—who were variously distinguished as nomadic reindeer herders, maritime hunters, or salmon fishermen and characterized by a set of traits such as language, costume, and various expressive forms; in this way each "people" had "its culture." Behind this essentializing notion of ethnic identity, so characteristic of a certain kind of early anthropology and still current in the popular consciousness, are essentializing notions of "tradition" and "heritage," with their dichotomies of "then" and "now," "pure" and "corrupted," "authentic" and "inauthentic," and, of course, an essential racialism that anchors "authentic" cultural forms in communities [End Page 89] of "real," "blood-quantified" people. King's experience was different: "on the one hand, Kamchatkan native people are confident of their ability to identify a person as Even or Koryak or Itelmen based on speech, or traditional costume, or dance style; but on the other hand, these identifications may be moot, subject to revision, and most often derived from what that person is doing at the moment. Ethnographers, unfortunately, have assumed ethnic groups then gone on to explain them" (43).

While this may have been the case for ethnographers in the past, no serious Western ethnographer operates with such assumptions today, so, in this sense at least, King has set up a straw man. Surprisingly not mentioned by King is Morton Fried's classic work, The Notion of Tribe,2 which effectively undoes any essentialist definitions of tribe. Fried also introduced the now widely accepted notion of "secondary tribe"—that is, a "tribe" as a consolidation of bands that emerges as a response to pressures from a nation-state, analogous to Frederik Barth's understanding of ethnicity as an oppositional identity.3 For ideological reasons the historical oppositional nature of ethnic identity formation was never sufficiently stressed in Soviet anthropology. Instead the concept of ethnos, a very specific term in Soviet anthropology, tended to focus principally on what were imagined as evolutionary processes internal to the social group.4 The result is a notion of ethnicity, still current in Russia today, that clings to a definition of ethnic group based on a set of shared traits combined with a distinctive "psychic make-up." The Soviet formulation of "ethnic in form—Soviet in content" encouraged cultural diversity and valorization of heritage only as the transitory mask for Soviet assimilation and the promotion of heritage as souvenir nostalgia. In this way one could re/pre/serve materialized cultural forms (costume, music, dance, foodways, housing styles, even language) while they were decontextualized and emptied of their Indigenous meanings. The venue for much of this was the House of Culture, a local institution in almost every community. The craft activities and dance ensembles they sponsored, while often very professional, developed a bad reputation among Western academics who disparaged them as a kind of kitsch. Part of King's effort in this book is to illuminate the real value of such activities for those who support them.

King's introduction provides a theoretical basis for his analysis in Piercean semiotics and an experiential basis in an overview of his Kamchatkan fieldwork. Of the former, the triadic nature of the Piercean sign [End...