December 05, 2005 12:00 PM

The Reindeer People

Piers Vitebsky


On and off for almost two decades, anthropologist Vitebsky has lived with Siberia’s remote Eveny nomads. In temperatures that dip below minus 90 degrees (“saliva solidified before it hit the ground”), the Eveny make their living off reindeer, using them for transportation, their hides and their meat. Now Vitebsky has gathered his intimate knowledge of these nomads and their animals in The Reindeer People: Living with Animals and Spirits in Siberia.

The title suggests a breezy read about spirituality and nature, and that’s exactly what this book is not. Vitebsky puts today’s reindeer herders in a broader context by looking at the history of reindeer domestication, the effect of perestroika on nomadic life, and yes, tales about the spiritual relationship between the people and the animals. It’s a captivating look at a part of the world most people will never see, and it’s not all serious. Vitebsky, who points out that the Eveny are complex people, notes that during breeding season one family saucily named its most sexually inexhaustible reindeer “Bill Clinton.”