Selected Minor Works: Imaginary Tribes #1

Justin E. H. Smith    

Among Aral-Ultaic linguists, it is widely presumed that no single English word, or any word of any other known language, can adequately translate the Yuktun word nâk.  It may denote, depending on context, reindeer lichen (Cladina rangiferina), an Arctic hare (Lepus arcticus), an adult Yuktun woman, a Russian, something resembling poetic justice, and, of most interest to many, the life force that runs through every tundra-dwelling creature, through the sky, through the great sea to the North, and, during the short Summer, through the top ten centimeters or so of the ground.

In contrast with Chinese, Yuktun is not a tonal language, and so differences of meaning cannot be extracted from differences in the semimusical ways in which the various forms of nâk are pronounced, for it’s always pronounced in exactly the same way.  Nor is Yuktun a highly inflected language like Russian.  There are no noun cases, no genders, not even any endings to distinguish singular from plural, nothing at all that might give one occurrence of nâk away as involving the sort of nâk it does.  Nothing except context.  So, for example, in the sentence

Ba nâk kuntân-te nûq pœrtyttun
With a nâk trade you always both-eyes-open
(When trading with a nâk, always keep both eyes open)

we can be sure that nâk refers to Russians, since no trade is conducted with lichen or with hares or poetic justice or life forces, let alone with women.  On the other hand, in the sentence

Nâkkantaq nar tôgyœn bir nâk grâgttyan
The reindeer in the valley on nâk graze
(The reindeer in the valley graze on nâk)

there can be no doubt but that the nâk in question is lichen, since no other sort of nâk may be grazed upon.

A semi-legendary position has been carved out in Yuktun society for Narda, an elder Yuktun, said by some (evidently conscious of their exaggeration), to have been alive even in mythological time.  She is, to be sure, old, 105 by the best estimates.  But nobody knows how old exactly, for nobody else was alive when she was born.  The Yuktun simply take her word for it when she says that she was seven when the Russian soldiers came through in 1905, en route, so they said, to fight the Japanese.  Must have been lost, she laughed, exposing the blackened stubs she still used as teeth when the BBC came through filming a documentary in the early glasnost years on “Russia’s Wild Frontier.”


The mid-1930s were difficult years, following the 1933 report to the Central Committee of the Communist Party on “Shamanistic Practices and Historical Progress among the Siberian Tribes.”  There, it is reported that “the shaman is usually picked from the most unproductive, most nearly criminal element within Yuktun society, from among those who, in a more advanced stage of history would find themselves members of the Lumpenproletariat.  They are positively hostile to labor, often grand mal epileptics, and prone to the sort of deceitfulness and evasiveness that in a socialist society can only be described as counterrevolutionary.  They practice their art by convincing other tribe members that they are in contact with spirits from the ‘underworld’.  They speak in tongues and beat on drums to invoke these spirits, and their fellow tribesmen watch, spellbound.  It is a magic show and a stunt, all craftily organized by the shaman to gain the maximum respect possible, and, we dare mention, the maximum remuneration in the form of gifts.”   

The report tells of a crafty woman, evidently in her thirties but already hunched over, wrinkled and grey like a tribal elder, who had perfected the black art of shamanistic fraud.  According to the report, she had conned the delegates from Moscow into participating in a ceremony where, by skillful use of smoke, intoxicating herbs, and disorienting glossolalia, she managed, as the report maintained by way of an uncharacteristic colloquialism, to make asses out of all of them. 

Narda had been told that she was to stop her shamanistic performances and to confess, before the delegation of party members, to her own charlatanism.  But she insisted to the members of her tribe that she was no charlatan, but a real shaman, and that she would demonstrate as much to the party delegates.  When they arrived, she invited them all into her yurt.  She began by dancing, beating on a drum and calling to her spirit helpers.  Gradually, she worked herself into a trance.  She called forth a flood, and at once her yurt was filled with water, up to the ankles of all of the spectators.  Next, she called forth a serpent from the underworld, and caught it in her hands, holding it close to the faces of the stunned delegates.  Finally she commanded the men in her yurt to drop their pants and to hold their penises with both hands.  She returned from her trance and commanded them to return as well.  And there they were, standing to their ankles in water, pants down, holding their members like onanistic fools.  They begged her forgiveness, rushed out of the yurt, back to Moscow, and made a concerted effort, in writing up the report, not to look each other in the eyes. 

Narda also appears in Butenko and Vainshtain’s groundbreaking 1938 study, Naknost’ i tavtologiia v predstavlenii prirody u iuktunskogo naroda [Nâk-hood and Tautology in the Conception of Nature among the Yuktun],  There, Narda relates the beginning of the Yuktun creation myth: “In the beginning there was only nâk, but one day the nâk got it into its head to take all the nâk for itself, which naturally made the nâk upset and brought down a harsh nâk to teach the nâk a lesson.”  She broke off, Butenko and Vainshtain report, upon seeing the displeasure the ethnologists exhibited as she told the tale.  The authors report that, when asked to specify which sort of nâk she had in mind in each instance, Narda protested combatively that there is only one sort of nâk .  “Nâk is nâk,” she is reported to have said. “Nâk is always just nâk.”

The authors proceed to observe: “However hard it may be for us to imagine a world-view [mirovozzrenie] in which this could be the case, it may be that in the primitive communism of the Yuktun all the sundry things denoted by the term nâk are seen as bearing certain strong affinities with one another, so strong indeed that, from their point of view, no terminological differentiation between them is needed.  Just as for us noga denotes both the actual foot of an animal, as well as anything that serves an analogous function for an inanimate entity such as a table (though, to be sure, by a much more complicated path of conceptual associations), so too in the case of nâk.” 

The authors conclude that, like the medieval philosophers who appealed to the formal virtues of things, explaining, to use Molière’s famous example, the power of opium to put people to sleep by the fact that it possesses a virtus dormitiva, the appeal to the naknost’ (‘nâk-hood’) of something in nature in the effort to make sense of it is equally vacuous, yet, for the Yuktun, equally satisfying.  In the case of the Yuktun, however, the explanatory power of naknost’, is all the more difficult to comprehend, in view of the fact that it is seen as a virtus of a wide range of entities, characters, and phenomena that would seem to have no obvious connection to one another, unlike the soporific quality that opium clearly shares with anything else said to posses the virtus dormitiva.”

In an unpublished footnote, Butenko and Vainshtain speculate: “It is worth reflecting on our own concept of partiinost’ [‘party-ness,’ i.e., suitability or appropriateness from the point of view of the Communist Party].  Imagine, if you will, a Yuktun struggling to determine what it is that a symphony, the wheat yield at a collective farm, and the knot in a Young Pioneer’s neckerchief have in common.  We tell him that what all these things share is partiinost’, and he looks back at us perplexed.  We are likewise perplexed when confronted with the idea of naknost’.  But we mustn’t assume it does not make sense to him, unless we are equally ready to abandon partiinost’ as meaningless.” 

Sergei Vasil’evich Butenko disappeared in 1938.  The last that was heard of him, he was sent to a camp not far from Noril’sk, in the Taimyr okrug, relatively close, but still a few time zones away from the Yuktun to whom he had devoted his life.  His longtime research partner, Lev’ Abramovich Vainshtain, a physician who practiced ethnology not as a vocation but as an avocation, made it all the way to 1951 before embarking on his first involuntary trip to Siberia. 

On a recent trip to Moscow, I found Vainshtain’s daughter, Tatyana L’vovna, now in her early sixties, a physician herself, a chain-smoker of cigarettes whose packages evoke the American West, and a self-described ‘true communist’, in a dreary grey concrete-block apartment somewhere at the far end of Prospekt Vernadskogo.  She is an avowedly obsessive documenter of her father’s life, and she graciously allowed me to peruse the notebooks pertaining to his work among the Yuktun.  It was there that I found the unpublished draft of the famous article, complete with the speculative footnote about partiinost’ and naknost’. I also found there a curious scrap of paper, on which Dr. Vainshtain had, evidently, sketched out a version of Narda’s abortive creation myth, but in full, and with the appropriate denotandum of nâk substituted in the appropriate place.  If it stands up to expert scrutiny, I believe this scrap may make an invaluable contribution in the field of Aral-Ultaic ethnography, and perhaps even to the study, if I may speak so grandly, of the human mind.  For it shows, as no other study has, that apparently arbitrary ways of carving up the world can, from an internal point of view, make perfect sense. 

Here is what I read on the scrap of paper (translated with the kind assistance of T. L. Vainshtain):

“In the beginning there was only Lichen, soft greyish-green Lichen, extending across the tundra in all directions.  A seven-day journey would not bring you to the end of the Lichen-covered tundra. 

“But the Hare became greedy and got it into his mind that he should steal the Lichen. He placed the Lichen in his ear and darted off.  And he ran for eight days, until he came to the edge of the world, where the land meets the frozen sea in the North.  On the long journey, the Lichen had penetrated into the very depths of his body, and wrapped itself around his leg-bones.  And at the shore of the Northern sea the mother of the Yuktun was born from the Hare’s right shoulder.  She became the Hare’s wife, and from them the generations of Yuktun were born, right down to our own day.      

“One day long ago, in the time before the time we know, a Yuktun Woman came upon a Hare in a trap.  The Hare pleaded with her, saying: ‘Do not kill me, for you are my daughter and my wife.’ But the Woman only laughed and replied: ‘I am the daughter of Nâgvak, and the wife of Sik.  Sik is hunting with the others, and Nâgvak is long dead.’  She slit the Hare’s throat, skinned it, and threw it in the pot.   

“Just then, a Man came along, toward the village.  He was pale as the snow, with a yellow beard as thick and rough as the hair on a Yuktun’s head.  ‘What’s that you’ve got in the pot there?’ the Man called out, but the Woman was afraid, and did not speak.  ‘I said, What’s that you’ve got in the pot there?’  ‘A Hare,’ the Woman muttered.  ‘I say,’ the Man bellowed.  ‘There’s nothing I like better than a stewed Hare.’ 

“‘Where is your husband?’ the Man asked as he devoured his big bowl of stew, but the Woman was afraid, and again did not answer.  ‘I said, Where is your husband?’  ‘My husband is Sik, the Woman replied softly, ‘and he will be back soon with many more hares, and many ermine, from which I will make him a warm and handsome sark.’  But the Man simply laughed, for he had ambushed the husband and his men as they slept by the frozen banks of the Yob, and sliced off their heads, and taken their tools and necklaces of the smoothest antler.  He took her as his own wife, and that is how the time we know began.

“But Justice makes all things right, and neither the Hare, nor the Woman, nor the pale Russian can escape it.   For the generations that issued from this union would suffer mightily, streaming in from the West and the South, weary and beaten down, some the prisoners of others.  They would build up their heavy grey homes on ground that in its depths never thaws, laying tracks from the great City in the West to the great Sea in the East, frozen limbs amputated unceremoniously by their comrades, up high enough to get rid of the dead mass, which can only mean high enough to cut away living flesh as well; half-starved boys lying down in the snow for a little rest and never rising again, broken men without number, fighting, always fighting against one another and against the permafrost, itself so great, so massive and indifferent, that it never even noticed it had an opponent. 

“But still there is the the Life Force, which sees to it that Justice does not go on unchecked, and for a few months every year softens up the very top level of the ground.  And at least a few varieties of flowers bloom, and it is always day, for these few months, and the tundra is covered, at least in patches, with soft, grey-green Lichen.” 


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