- The Telengits of Southern Siberia: Landscape, Religion and Knowledge in Motion
The Altaian researcher of her own people and region Svetlana Tyukhteneva, who Agnieszka Halemba generously cites, told me a moving story in the mid-1990s that can be seen as an allegory of indigenous hopes for cultural revitalization. One of Svetlana's close kin was a young singer of popular music who had shunned traditional cultural spirituality. He was in his bathtub one day belting out a song when suddenly he was consumed by an uncommon string of epic poetry that seemed to just pour out of him. Feeling inspired, literally in-spirited, he adapted his career to include traditional epic singing in public, helping to sponsor the revitalization of Altaian musical arts. His respect for shamanic ways of knowing, and for elders "who know" increased dramatically. For Svetlana, his story meant that shamanic prayers, epics, and seances are not as dead as many Altaians had feared, after decades of Soviet rule and previous Russian Orthodox influences.
Cambridge-trained anthropologist Agnieszka Halemba's monograph captures some of the same hopes and debates about cultural revitalization, but with more cynicism and critical analysis than Svetlana's account from a decade earlier. The difference is both in the timing and approach to Altaian experiences of post-Soviet political and cultural life. Halemba constructs her [End Page 787] monograph around two major themes: "landscape and movement," and "ritual and knowledge." These themes serve her well as she foregrounds the importance of refined, long-term multi-village fieldwork, and sensitivity to values that her interlocutors would recognize. While her work focuses on the Telengit of the Altai mountain region [near the Russian border with Mongolia, sharing an inner border with the Republic of Tyva (Tuva)], she mostly avoids generalizations about all Telengits, much less all Altaians. Nonetheless, one of her crucial conclusions is that Telengits, and the larger, more eclectic Altaian group, are straining toward some sense of cultural-political unity in a post-Soviet context that both enhances and impedes this. Noting that the Altai Republic separated from the Altai Region (Krai) in the early 1990s, Halemba appropriately is concerned with struggles toward national identity. But how can this be achieved amongst diverse peoples and communities where flexibility, nomadic self-sufficiency, and rejection of organized religion (for many) have been prized and practiced?
Halemba's main argument is that unity comes at a cost that may entail serious change in traditional ways of knowing, as well as in Altaian construction of "personhood." Tied deeply to the land and its sacred yet often violated nature, Telegit spiritual authorities (shamans, elders, lamas and others) have not coped easily with impinging tourists, missionaries, or developers. Debate is a way of life that yields only partially to claims of higher authority, whether these claims be from Soviets, Russians, local schoolteachers, Buddhists, or well-meaning United Nations specialists on nature preserves. Halemba is at her best when describing the debates and multiple reactions of Telengit villagers to perceived outsiders. She also does a superb job taking the reader into a world where "rites of springs" for personal and family rejuvenation are as important, if not more so, as national unity. Her analysis may lean too heavily on the logic of her theorization, however, when she claims that certain rituals are impossible to recover. It is unwise to underestimate the potential for Siberian cultural revitalization, unless one subscribes to artificially strict definitions of "authenticity" for new generations.
Halemba relies on the theories of her mentor Caroline Humphrey, who with James Laidlow has written on archetypes of ritual. Following their distinction between chiefly, fixed, rule-bound rituals of social power orientation and shamanic, flexible, creative rituals of ad hoc spirituality, Halemba suggests that shamanic traditions and spiritual communication are not conducive to post-Soviet contexts. Further complicating the interlinked political-spiritual environment, a key ritual called Altai tagylga honoring Altai and its permeating [End Page 788] yet easily offended spirits, has nearly disappeared. Its attempted rebirth by a group of schoolteachers and by...