05/06/2013 07:56 am ET Updated Jul 06, 2013

Animal Truths


For at least 1500 years, clans of reindeer-herding and reindeer-following people roamed up and down the Yamal peninsula of northwestern Siberia, relatively free from intrusions by Europeans and the Russian military. Late in the Stalin era, however, the Soviet government began a program of forcibly removing the children and taking them to coastal boarding schools where they could have more "sanitary" upbringings and become good citizens.

There is no bad weather on the tundra. Yes, for nine months there is only freezing. But freezing hardens snow, and when snow is hard reindeer don't sink.

Tundra is not ice. It thaws into a sponge in the months called False Calving and Real Calving. By One-Year-Old Doe's Calving, it is firm again. It is green with yellow poppies. We wear no boots as we run across grass, racing mosquitoes to the edge of the world. The glaciers that float make huge, cracking sounds. We gather auk eggs and celebrate summer.

But when winter and freezing come again our rituals celebrate them. If they didn't, winter would have hurt feelings.

It is our way to be grateful for everything. Mostly we are grateful for reindeer. Without them we would have no trotting herd to follow from coast to inland and back again. There would be no variety. We would make no journeys through the land of many tiny lakes. We would make no journeys back again to the world's edge. Without reindeer, when we are lost, there would be no lead deer to show the way. Without reindeer, when we are in trouble, the fate of the herd could not foretell our fate.

Without reindeer meat, nothing we eat would embolden us. Without reindeer blood, nothing red and liquid would protect us from doom. Without reindeer, we would have no clothes from skins, no thread from tendons. We would have no hide-sided chums to shelter our families, nowhere to sleep with our feet to the fire. We would have no blankets, buttons, or tool handles.

And without reindeer, who would eat grass? Unless grass is eaten it will wither. If grass withers, lakes will have no pretty edges. When they reflect sun they will do so glumly. With only sadness to see, sun might darken and die. As might we all, without reindeer. So if the mosquitoes are not driven away by my fish oil and urine, if the mosquitoes bite me anyway, I let them. If I don't, they will eat reindeer. And if reindeer die, the world may die.

It's a big job to be alive. Everything needs protection. If we do not give it we risk the wrath of plants and animals. Yes, we cannot rise in the morning, cannot move about, cannot eat anything at all without killing a friend whom we would rather protect. So we kill. But we notice killing when we do it. And we give thanks for what we have taken.


Our shaman is dead. I could never understand his speech, but he could play stringed instruments and drums, swallow sticks, eat hot coals and pieces of horn, spit sharp objects from his mouth, and be in different places at the same time.

Right now we are thanking and killing two grey and one white reindeer. Once dead, they will pull our shaman through to the spirit world on a sledge that we cannot see. Most people are pulled between worlds by sky dogs. But dogs are impure so our shaman must have reindeer.
We are at our sacred site. Men and boys are at its holiest part. That is an island in the middle of one of the many tiny lakes. Girls and women wait on the shore.

As we wait, women make fire. They make it for warmth but also because fire, like warm, red blood, is a living force that fills empty spaces and that speaks the language of everything. Tonight we will need to speak that language.

While the women make fire, young girls (and I am one) listen to the sky for a swishing sound that some can hear if we listen only for it. I am glad to listen only for it. I do not want to hear killing.
The women call to us, "Hear the swish? Hear spirits pulled by sky dogs through soft snow?" My grandmother calls those words to me. I think I do hear a swish. I know I see lights - great blankets of green and red that fill the sky from bottom to top. Those are starlight bouncing off the green and red harnesses of sky dogs as they pull spirits more ordinary than that of our shaman. "Swish." I hear it.

But I also hear killing. It is winter. There is a faint, rosy glow in the sky at mid-day but there is no real sunlight in winter. I cannot see the island from the shore, but I do not have to. I can hear that men are lining up the reindeer so that their heads face toward where the sun will someday rise. When they are lined up, reindeer always suspect sacrifice. Men shout as they dodge their kicks.

Because the reindeer's moments have come, we who cannot help but listen must pray.

That is what we do. We pray together that our old, dead shaman will journey safely to the sprit world. We pray that we will soon have a younger shaman whose tricks impress. We pray that our people will always live together happily and not injure each others' minds. We pray that children will always roam in places where their mothers and fathers did, for these places are not neglected. We pray that every family will have all of itself, and that when there is loss there will be places to commemorate losing.

My father is like a seal, solid and lazy, and good at singing long, musical moans. His moans are about rituals, and the rituals he knows are those of men. Because I am a girl I must never moan them like he does or even remember all the words. But I can say what they tell me. Here is what my father's moans teach me about killing reindeer.

The men stand behind the reindeer. Out of respect, they take off their caps. They put a lasso about each reindeer's neck. They strangle the reindeer so that no precious blood is wasted. The men cry when they kill. To help the reindeer die more quickly, one man hits each reindeer on the neck with the blunt part of an axe. The reindeer fall. If one falls on its left side it is turned onto its right. Before a reindeer breathes its last breath it is dragged, lying on its right side, along the path that the sun, if it were summer, would take across the sky. The reindeer are left lying in their harness positions. The head of the lead reindeer is turned so that its snout faces heaven. All are slapped with a lasso to make them run.

That is what the men and boys are doing right now on the island at the center of this lake as we women and girls pray on its shore.

When the killing sounds stop we stop praying and watch blankets of green and red move slowly in the sky.

I hear more of the swish.

Even though our grandmothers tell us that the green and red lights are the sparkling harnesses of friendly sky dogs, they also warn that, if we whistle like sledge men to hurry the dogs, we must never whistle at the sky. If we do, the dogs will bite off our heads.

Grandmother says this, and I stop whistling entirely.

The men and boys walk across the lake to join us. Gull (and he is my little brother) tells me that the white reindeer shivered when the lasso slapped it. This is a good sign, for this means that its spirit got to the other side. I send best wishes to the white reindeer.

The women build the fire higher, and all of our tribe gathers, listening to the fire's messages, letting the warm light dance on their faces, and smelling the burn of peat and winter wood. The women make a kkkku sound in their throats to tell the fire what they would have the fire say for them to the white reindeer.

"Thank you for dying quickly. Our love goes with you on your journey. We hope you find good things to eat. Please behave yourselves, for wherever you go, you represent the tribe. Think well of us. We think well of you."

The fire spits suddenly and Grandmother rises to announce that we will soon have visitors. That is not always good news, for who comes visiting in the winter in the dark? All together, all of the grandmothers rise and begin a much louder kkkku sound. They are asking the fire and, through the fire, the gods to protect us from whatever visitors bring.

But visitors have come and visitors have gone for many years. So the concern does not last. We start our long walk back to the chums. The women carry blubber lamps to light the way.
It is the boys who start trouble. Girls would never whistle at the sky. I hear boys laughing and girls crying. I see boys look up at the Sparkling Harnesses and whistle. They don't look up and then down before they whistle like they are supposed to. They whistle while they look up, and they laugh.

My mother gathers me into the warmth of her arm. My mother is a white goose, beautiful, constantly on the move, yet always near enough to tend to her young.

"Hear the swish, my little Nogoet?" she whispers.

And I am Nogoet.

"Hear spirits pulled by sky dogs through soft snow, Nogoet?" Grandmother whispers to me as she joins us. Grandmother is like a great bear. You would not want to find yourself between her and the cub she protects.

She thinks I am her cub, but I know I am only a muskrat.

I can hear the swish and, though it is difficult to fight my fear of the boys' whistling long enough to nod my head to let Mother and Grandmother know that I can hear it, I do nod my head, eventually. Nodding gives me some calm. I use the calm to listen again to the swish that comes with Sparkling Harnesses.

Yet all is not calm. All is not swishing and sparkling. For as I listen, the tiny swish grows into a sound that is big.

Mother and Grandmother, one on each side of me, begin to kkkku. Their eyes are suddenly empty, though their vision is not gone.

The swishing sound is now louder than any wind.

We begin to run. Even my father runs, and it is the only time that I have ever seen him hurry.
A bright white light shoots out from the darkness and splits into two huge dog eyes that leap at us. The eyes are not empty like my mother's and grandmother's are. They are hungry and fierce.
The sky dog stinks.

I turn my back to the dog and I run toward dark. I run far and fast.

Now I know that the eyes are not a sky dog's eyes. No one has come to eat our heads. The eyes are lights on a truck, and my grandparents and parents have seen lights and trucks before. I have heard stories of tanks and trucks and of strange truck men in flat clothes. But I don't stay long enough to learn that I have just seen something my parents and grandparents already know.
When I run far and fast, I think that I run toward safety. What I really run toward is the cold. It is so cold that the trucks do not sink in snow, just like the reindeer don't. I have with me no blubber lamp, no family or friends, and no fire. There is no such thing as bad weather, but it will be dark for weeks.

I hope to hide. I notice that, as I run and run and run and run from the awful sound and smell and light, the Sparkling Harnesses get much, much brighter.

I am too tired to run further. I stop and look around. I see nothing but trees and space, for there is nothing else to see. I am not too cold, not yet. I am too warm from the running.

I open my yagushka. I let in the cool, and it will take my perspiration away from me so that it will not wet me and I won't soon freeze.

I close my yagushka. I wait a long time to hear shouts from my family. I do not hear them. But I do hear a message on the wind, delivered from a fire.

The women gave the message for the white reindeer. I do not know why the wind delivers it to me.

"Thank you for dying quickly. Our love goes with you on your journey. We hope you find good things to eat. Please behave yourself, for wherever you go, you represent the tribe. Think well of us. We think well of you."