English translation from the official periodical of RAIPON “Мир коренных народов живая арктика” (Indigenous Peoples’ World Living Arctic) No. 4, 2000

We should be getting ready for the encounter between the two civilizations as early as today

Recorded by N. Shonina

One does not infrequently come across sacral sites on the tundra. Most often, this is some hill, where one finds a pile of old reindeer skulls and pegs with colored rags, and some rings attached to poles with ropes. In general, a pile of baubles. The Nenets know that one should not touch such baubles, or, all the more so, tear them off lest the host of the site should take offence. The spirits are invisible, but they see everything. They are not very kind to people. But they can be understood. They take care of their domain: the tundra, lakes, rivers and forests. Most often, if their path lies near the sacred site, the Nenets tries to blandish the invisible inhabitants of the sanctuary. He will have a smoke and will leave some tobacco on the ground. If there is some vodka, he will pour some from the bottle, but he will not touch the sacred poles. But a white newcomer is very much interested in touching some of those goods.

The above lines from the foreword to the story by Nadezhda Salinder, "Spirits See Everything", may seem strange or mystical. Newcomers, even those who lived there for dozens of years, know only very little about the culture of the peoples of the extreme North. During the years of great construction projects and universal atheism during the Communist era, few people were aware of the fact that one could attempt to suppress the beliefs of a of a people but one could not eliminate them.

Today, our society is trying to rectify the extremities of several recent decades. The believers are no longer persecuted and temples, mosques, and churches are restored. In our Okrug, too, indigenous intellectuals have been calling increasingly insistently for protection and conservation of sacred sites on the tundra. These issues are particularly topical today, when the industrial development of oil and gas has recently intensified.

Recently, the Gydan tundra was visited by Galina Kharyuchi, Senior Researcher of the Center for Research of Humanitarian Problems of Indigenous Peoples of the North, Candidate of Historical Sciences. The purpose of the trip was the investigation and mapping of the areas of ethnic sanctuaries and sacred sites (including burial sites) of indigenous minorities. G.P. Kharyuchi has been conducting this work for about two years. Compilation of maps is a complicated matter. There are numerous subtleties; those sanctuaries have to be construed carefully, because the significance of their sacred contents is passed down orally.

We have asked Sergey Kharyuchi, President of the Association of the Indigenous Peoples of the North, Siberia and Far East, Deputy Chairman of the State Duma of the Yamalo-Nenetskiy Autonomous Okrug.

It is well known that the subsoil assets of the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug comprise the bulk of the hydrocarbon raw materials, including 90 % of the world resources of natural gas. 92 % of Russian gas is produced in the Okrug. There are also huge resources of oils and minerals. Today, the Okrug area has 197 oil and gas fields, out of which only dozens of fields are operational. Taking into account the fact that in the near future other fields will also be developed in the near future, industrialists are inevitably coming to the Trans-Polar Region.

The Tazovskiy District area has 28 oil and gas fields. Only a single one – Messoyakhinskie – is fully operational. But the remaining area has been so far intact, which essentially applies to the Okrug as a whole. The Purovskiy District and, partly, Nadym District are being developed. Hence, the "encounter of the two civilizations" should be prepared for fundamentally. In any case, industrialists should make use of technologies for the production of oil and gas that are minimally detrimental to the local environment.

There is no doubt that the lands of the people traditionally living in locations of future oil and gas extraction will become inaccessible to them, irrespective of whether we want it or not. Such is the law of life. Our task is to try to ensure that the relations of these two meeting civilizations are marked by equitableness and mutual good will.

Similar practices exist in the world. One example is in the Mackenzie Valley in Canada, where indigenous people are engaged in fishing and hunting and where, in the same area, oil and gas are produced. In this case, reindeer graze near the drilling rig, wild mammals occur and indigenous people find their hunting grounds. We, too, should strive for and achieve such co-existence and cooperation.

Hence, the Law of Specially Protected Areas Has been adopted in the Russian Federation. It covers reserves, sanctuaries, i.e., already approved forms of specially protected areas whose purpose is the conservation of flora and fauna, and also territories of relatively dense northern, Siberian and far eastern indigenous settlement. In this law the locations of holy places and sacred sites are also treated as protected areas. But while the first paragraphs of the law define concretely what reserves and sanctuaries are, the concepts of ethnic monuments and holy places are only loosely defined. Currently, a draft Federal law is being prepared. But it would not be valid until those monuments of cultural and natural heritage are individually registered.

But they are scattered throughout the tundra and taiga. Some holy places were originally the sites of a particular clan or tribe. There were also inter-tribal sanctuaries. From generation to generation they provided protection for the members of the clans and tribes. No one from a different clan or tribe could encroach on the hunting and fishing grounds or reindeer ranges belonging to other groups. That is the traditional law of taiga and tundra dwellers and in accordance with the International Convention on Indigenous Peoples this is common law. Today our task is to convert the common law rights to the Federal or Okrug laws. This is only possible if the areas of dense indigenous settlement acquire the status of specially protected areas.

The complexity of the work compiling sanctuary maps lies in the fact they are divided into types and subtypes in accordance with their purpose. There are clan and inter-clan, tribal and inter-tribal sanctuaries. There are also inter-regional sanctuaries. For instance, in our neighbourhood, this is the Angalskiy Mys. As early as the beginning of the 20th century, from the Yenisey River, Yugra, and also the European part of the mainland, the Argish gathered to make sacrifices there in the spring, when nature awakened. A fair was also conducted there – a commodity exchange between Russian and foreign industrialists, visiting merchants and the local population. In this way, people communicated, maintained contacts, and ethnic identities were not disturbed. In addition to the Angalskiy Mys, our Khanty-Mansiyskiy Okrug has other holies (lake Num-to).

Being monuments to spiritual culture, holy sites also served to ensure some kind of safe conduct. Because Russia of today is undergoing a spiritual revival, we are obliged to concern ourselves with this work in the territory where indigenous minorities live. A great role to play there is that of indigenous intellectuals because this is a very sensitive matter. No one would wish to share his/her intimate feelings, or secrets belonging to a particular tribe, with a stranger. This is only natural. And this explains the complexity of the work begun on the investigation and mapping of sanctuaries and sacred sites. Any indigenous person should be aware that the above work is done in the interests of his/her fellow tribesmen and assist people who are engaged in this important work.

It is important that all ethnic burial sites and sanctuaries are clearly indicated on the maps. In addition to their spiritual significance, these special places indicate the territories of particular clans and their buffer zones.

In the near future, all this should promote a painless and civilized solution of the problems of cooperation between indigenous people leading a traditional way of life and industrialists who will work on their tradtitional areas.

Practically, it would work something like this: An industrial company comes with a license for the development of an oil or gas field. Along with the license, the manager of the company is provided with a map of adjacent areas where all sanctuaries are indicated. The manager must legally assume responsibility not only for environmental conservation but also the preservation of the culture monument situated in and around the area of extraction. In the event of a member of the company being discovered engaged in illegal hunting or disturbing burial sites, the license would be withdrawn. Today, there is a signficant number of companies who wish to work in Yamal to develop its natural deposits and make a profit. The administrators should be responsible for protecting the indigenous population against the vandalism of the newcomers, which should be reflected in the law.