Explorer Mikael Strandberg

Frozen Frontier; Give us land!

“You know, Mikael, I really don´t know what to do” , Slava Shadrin told us whilst sitting at the kitchen table in our fancy flat in Yakutsk and continued with a deep sigh; “For example, when I was a teacher back in Nelimnoye, my job was to encourage the best students to continue their studies. But by doing that, when then left the village, I knew they would never come back. And suddenly I had sent away the brain power of the future, which could have made a difference for the future of my people.”

Slava is one of my oldest Siberian friends. I met him back in 2004 in the village of Kolymskaya when he was guiding a group if Finnish EU-observers. he is one of the three most important Yukagirs alive today. Just as his grandfather predicted jut awhile after his birth.

“I was sick and weak when I was a kid and my grandfather predicted immediately that I would never make a good hunter or a fisherman” , Slava told us with a smile; “And somehow, by touching the back of my head, he told my parents, that I would become a very important administrator and would make a difference for our people in the future. So my mother took me to Yakustk when I was 4 years old and I have more or less been here since that time.”

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It is a joy to be with Slava. It was important to me to introduce him to my family, especially my wife, because I wanted to influence her a bit as reagrds to what she should choose to do her PHD on. Because for me, there´s a significant difference between the Yakut and the Indigenous groups of Eastern Siberia. The Yakut is very much European in my mind, but like the yukagirs and the Eveny´s that I know a bit, they have this completely amazing serenity and open heart. Still. You easily realize that they´re still trying to adapt to a life style which is so akin to their ways to live. Basically that everyone is of the same value, have  similair lifestyle and share everything. So far from a capitalistic life style one can even imagine.

“I believe the Soviet time was mainly good for the Indigenous people. At least for us Yukagirs, because it was based on these values we´ve always adhered to” , Slava told us and added; “But today we are suffering, because you know, today you are supposed to give somebody something and in return get paid for it. This just doesn´t exist in our ways, since we always give without having a thought in our mind, that we will get anything in return. And this is a problem today.”

The yukagirs impressed me more than any other indigenous group I came across on the Siberian Journey 2004 and 2005. One of them was an old lady which is a relative of Slava. Most people from Nelimnoye are his relatives he laughes. I found out she died two years back. She made such a strong impression on my friend Johan Ivarsson and myself in that time. She came from a family of shamans. And she had dreamt about us much before we arrived in Srednekolymsk.

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“In the eyes of most people, she was very poor. You remember how simple she lived, what a cold apartment she had, but she didn´t see herself as poor. On the contrary, as very rich, since material things were of no value to her.”

Meeting people like Slava is refreshning. Not only because one laughes unhindered and pure. Laughter doesn´t otherwise come easy to the Yakut for example, they´re generally a very serious people, but very good, but as I have noticed over and over with indigenous people, laughter is always close at hand and comes easily once the first shyness is gone.  And they feel so…pure! And Slava taught us a lot about the situation for most indigenous people in the north-east right now, since he is involved a lot with the future of these important people. Right now he is somewhere in Western Russia at the most important of conferences for the Indigenous People, he is one of three Yukagirs, when they have a chance to talk to each other and the government.

“You see, the reason we are only maybe say 20 to 200 real Yukagirs left, he thinks in our native language, is due to the fact that we are hunters and fisherman living close to rivers. And that´s were the Russians and other new arrivals came back in the 17th Centurey. The Eveny for example lved in the inside, in mountainous regions, so they didn´t get as affacted as we. We ere at that time, ten times as many as they, now it is the other way around.”

“So what are the biggest obstacles for indigenous groups in this region to continue their way of life?” I asked.

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“Land” , Slava answered quickly; “Right now, we need to own our land to be able to hunt and fish and keep an eye on it the way we want. For example, during the Soviet Era we started to eat Russian food like bread, milk, butter and so on and just before perestroika, our diet consisted about 60% of Russian food, not our traditional diet of meat and fish. After perestroika, when money had no value and we couldn´t afford anything, once again we went back to a traditional fare and today that is about 80% of our diet. However, the government have now set up a law, where we need to buy fuishing and hunting permits on our own land, which we still cannot prove is ours, we need more than 83 different papers to show this is our land and this takes years to find, but, this permits are sold to the highest bidder, so you can imagine what that means.”

Slava has very little time as he is so busy with conferences and meetings and his phone rings all the time. We serve him food until that moment he says with laughter in a very indigenous way:”

“Don´t give me more food, because if I don´t eat a lot when I get home, my wife thinks I have another woman!”

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