Cultural Property in Kamchatka, Russia

Project Summary

My work in Halle has two related components. First, I am analysing data I collected in my most recent fieldwork from summer and fall 2001. The main focus of my writings and presentations while in Halle are on topics that intersect with others in the group, i.e. questions concerning property relations, reindeer herding, and culture as property. Reindeer continue to provide the most salient symbols of native identity and symbols of the Koryak Autonomous Okrug as a political entity, even though reindeer herding has become economically insignificant compared with mining gold and platinum and with fishing. To understand the symbolic salience of reindeer it is necessary to examine the role of places and the landscape in ritual. Thus, my analysis of reindeer and people's relations to the landscape require me to analyze religious beliefs and practices. The indigenous landscape in Kamchatka is animated by a complex set of persons: sacred areas such as hills or unusual rock formations have wills of their own.

The second component of my work at MPISA is on culture as property. Cultural property, such as oral narratives, dance and art production, and even subsistence activities, requires an understanding of local definitions of cultural (or ethnic) identity and authenticity. The questions of who is a real native versus who has a right to represent real native culture are separate in Kamchatka. Racial criteria for authenticity (e.g. blood quantum) are rarely invoked when people fight about who is more authentically native. Rather, people invoke mode of life and time spent learning from the elders as chief criteria for validating particular persons as "real" natives and particular representations of native culture as authentic. Discourses about identity and authenticity in Kamchatka provide an interesting comparison to those among Native Americans and in other postcolonial contexts. I will be concerned to extend our theoretical frameworks for understanding the postsocialist Russian North, drawing on models of 'postcoloniality' as put forward by scholars of imperial systems elsewhere in the world. I will be working to link together two academic discourses which have rarely engaged one another in a serious and sustained manner: the study of-postsocialist societies and the study of postcolonial or colonial regimes.

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