Interview with Evenki indigenous activist, Galina Veretnova
At the end of last year, Jojo Dieffenbacher was delighted to interview Evenki indigenous activist Galina Veretnova in conjunction with Anya Gleizer, Visual and Performance Artist. Jojo gave a talk for EH*V in January 2020 focusing on interdisciplinary responses to the climate crisis (listen here), she has been volunteering with us since then.
Firstly, could you tell us a bit about who you are, what you do and the history of the Evenki people?
My name is Galina Veretnova, I was born in a small remote town called Strelka Chunya in the northern Krasnoyarski Krai Province of the Russian Federation. Strelka Chunya is mostly an Evenki settlement, with some Russians and Yakuti people. The Evenki are a Native Siberian tribal nation of which around 38,000 live in Russia. We were traditionally a nomadic reindeer herding people that have wandered many thousands of km and are now dispersed over vast distances all across Eurasia. Evenkia, the area we inhabit, is mostly covered by Taiga - a boreal forest - and is characterised by its remoteness and snowy conditions in winter.
Tell us about your work in preserving the traditions of the Evenki people as an artist and an Evenki woman.
My work comprises of traditional singing, choreography and, of course, traditional arts and crafts of the Evenki people. In my work I try to preserve the traditions and environment of the ancient times. Due to globalisation everything is changing and this unique authentic “seed” is at risk of disappearing, so I am trying to recreate old forms and authenticity through song and dance.
As a woman and representative of Evenkia I firmly believe that our ancestors give us strength, a strength that I value and want to pass on to future generations. Hunting in difficult conditions - extreme temperatures, harsh terrain and long distances - has always been a traditional part of the Evenki economy and way of life. Evenki women are equal to men as our clans are both matrilineal and patrilineal, so hunting is a powerful test of our strength and endurance. This has taught me physical and mental resilience, particularly as we cannot rely on modern amenities.
As an Evenki woman I want to be strong in our times, to talk about my wonderful people, about their achievements and about our common national heritage that is growing even stronger today. A lot of interesting, talented young women are emerging who are doing incredible work to preserve Evenki culture and share it in Russia and beyond.
What are the biggest threats you face as an Evenki woman in this ever changing climate? How has your strength and resilience helped you overcome these challenges?
We live in the far North, in extremely harsh conditions. For centuries, our way of life has been challenging as we are nomadic reindeer herding people that are constantly on the move. We have always battled for survival. I believe all of this is being passed on genetically like an ancestral memory, and it has led to great strength and resilience.
One of our biggest challenges right now is to preserve our culture, traditions and the memory of our ancestors. This means that we are not only facing the threat of the cold, the wild animals or exposure to the impacts of climate change, but also the more nebulous threat of the loss of self, which is related to the loss of language. It is very hard to keep language alive, as globalisation has led to the homogenisation of cultures. I hope that Evenki culture and Evenki people will be able to contribute to this new global culture and not be eclipsed by it. Particularly Evenki women have a big role to play in this, so we are cultivating our ancestral strength to educate the youth and fight against the disappearance of our traditions. We need to preserve the Evenki women’s artistry as everything is disappearing - traditional crafts, choreography, traditional singing… These activities are mostly associated with women and we risk losing them all if we begin to abandon them.
2020 marked a year of unusually high temperatures in Siberia, which have been attributed to climate change. How have permafrost melt, milder winters and hotter summers impacted your community?
We are experiencing significant changes to our surrounding environment as a result of global warming. It was raining in November which was unheard of for this time of the year, when the region is usually snowbound. This is having a big impact on the hunting craft, which is the main source of income for many Evenki families. Sables and other animals are easier to spot in the snow, and the milder temperatures mean that hunting is made impossible.
The logging industry is depleting already damaged forests in your region on which the Evenki depend for fishing and hunting. Could you perhaps speak about the importance of the Taiga as herding grounds for reindeer, and what the destruction of the forests mean to your people?
Logging is incredibly dangerous. Its impacts are felt in a more acute and short-term way than those of global climate change. I have personally never been to a logging site but I know that vast areas of the Taiga are being cut down in the southern regions with the result that animal species are disappearing and going extinct. This threatens the Evenki people and makes reindeer herding impossible as the ecosystems that sustain these are disappearing. Illegal logging is similarly posing threats to local communities. It leads to soil instability and has led to widespread flooding, consequently displacing local communities and leaving hundreds homeless.
Are there any resistance movements against logging among the Evenki people?
There are many people that dedicate themselves to this kind of work but there are no laws that defend the Evenki as an ethnic group against these developments. There are no legal structures in place to protect them, no organisations that support us specifically, but there are individuals that are dedicating themselves to this kind of work.
Logging companies also contribute to the spread of forest fires by leaving flammable waste from the logging behind. How have forest fires impacted you and how do you cope with this as a community?
My family and I were particularly affected by the forest fires and the Evenki people are incredibly scared of them. We don’t know how they occur but they repeat systematically around the same time every year. It never used to be like this. As many fires occur in remote areas, the government leaves many of them to burn themselves out, rather than evacuating or sending aid. Every year when the fires start, my father has to go into the taiga to our hunting huts to save expensive hunting equipment, food and petrol that we have stored there. He also does what he can to try to fight the fire, but it is impossible. One time he came back from the forest covered in soot because he tried to put out a fire single handedly; we were worried for his life. Last year the fires were nearby - we were all surrounded by smoke and couldn’t breathe, but no one came to help us evacuate the area.
Finally, what gives you hope despite all these changes and threats?
The situation is quite hopeless but I am a relatively optimistic person and we derive a great deal of hope from the love of our land. When you love your land despite the pervading feelings of hopelessness you can’t help but try to make the most of what is happening. Trying our best on an individual level, preserving our tradition and focusing on continuation is the bedrock of Evenki women’s strength, this gives me hope.
Any last thoughts, comments or pieces of advice for our readers?
Never lose faith in yourself and in the personal strength we all possess – be it masculine or feminine. This is the main thing that supports us and leads us throughout our life.
I also wanted to thank you for your interest in this topic - our culture. I’m thanking you on behalf of all Evenki women. It’s great to see such a genuine interest and I really enjoyed the interview.
All of us at Empower Her* Voice would like to extend a huge thank you to Galina for giving up her time so generously to participate in this interview, to Anya Gleizer for establishing the contact and making this happen, and finally to Darya Nadina for translating and transcribing this interview.
If you would like to find out more about Galina and her work, please follow her on Instagram, @gala.rktika. We would also recommend taking a look at Anya Gleizer’s incredible artwork, conducted at the interface between art and science. Take a look at her work here.