January 14, 2022
Sapiens, an anthropology magazine of the Wenner‑Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, recently published an excerpt from Susan Alexandra Crate‘s new book, Once Upon the Permafrost: Knowing Culture and Climate Change in Siberia.
Crate has spent three decades working with Sakha, the Turkic-speaking horse and cattle agropastoralists of northeastern Siberia, Russia. In her book, she reveals Sakha’s essential relationship with alaas, the foundational permafrost ecosystem of both their subsistence and cultural identity. Sakha know alaas via an Indigenous knowledge system imbued with spiritual qualities. This counters the scientific definition of alaas as geophysical phenomena of limited range. Climate change now threatens alaas due to thawing permafrost, which, entangled with the rural changes of economic globalization, youth out-migration, and language loss, make prescient the issues of ethnic sovereignty and cultural survival.
From the excerpt:
“Our ancestors lived by the alaas, the round fields with forests shaped like an alaaji (small round pancake) with a lake,” Agrafina Vasilyevna Nazarova, a veteran preschool teacher, told me. Agrafina described the alaas as “a small world in and of itself” and a “birthplace” where a person could find fish and game, pasture and hay, and berries—everything needed to live.
These carefully articulated testimonies cast the alaas as an otherworldly place imbued with a lush, abundant, and vibrant nature. Yes, alaas is a physical place, but it is also a sacred vow with the ancestors—an entangled, interdependent set of relationships between human and nonhuman animals, plants, lakes, glades, and spirits.
Sakhas’ identity is founded upon their intimate human-environment relationship with alaas. What are the implications when they lose their alaas?
Across the planet, communities are witnessing the transformation of their significant cultural places, similar to how Sakha are losing alaas. What can forefronting these ways of knowing bring to the table in global climate policy configurations?
Botanist and Indigenous scholar Robin Wall Kimmerer offers her reflections on the matter in Braiding Sweetgrass. She contemplates the “energetic reciprocity” between the complementary colors of purple asters and goldenrod, likening it to the complementarity of Indigenous knowledge and scientific knowledge.
As humans, we live interdependently within not only a planetary biosphere but what anthropologist Wade Davis terms the “ethnosphere,” or “the sum total of all the thoughts, dreams, ideals, myths, intuitions, and inspirations brought into being by the imagination since the dawn of consciousness.” Our common future depends not only on ameliorating the biophysical consequences of climate change but also on facilitating multiple cultural transformations, with a greater awareness of how different peoples are affected by and responding to unprecedented change.
We need both the goldenrod and the asters.
Metaphorically speaking, we all live on permafrost. Only by integrating scientific knowledge with Indigenous knowledge and local knowledge can we fully grasp the depth and breadth of our common plight and have any hope of finding our way out of the existential crisis of climate change.
To read the entire excerpt and check out Sapiens, visit here.