Placating a bear in Siberian oil pipeline jungle
Mansi youth no longer speak their own mother tongue
By Kirsikka Moring
The name of the group, Saly Ljongh, is in the Mansi language, and translates as "Paths of the Reindeer". There are few reindeer any more in the area where they live. The herds have been replaced by a jungle of oil and gas pipelines.
They live in the village of Saranpaul, in the middle of the black gold region of Western Siberia. Russia's new energy wealth flows to Europe largely from there, but unfortunately it also flows in the area itself.
The old pipes will spill oil onto the taiga for weeks on end with nobody doing anything. It is an issue which is included in the group's drama performance.
The group performed ancient bear funeral rituals at a festival in Helsinki organised by the M.A. Castrén Society last weekend. The oldest of the bear songs were performed in the Mansi language, but most of the performances by the group's young people and children of various ages were in Russian.
The rituals, which live on in villages on tributaries of the River Ob, make for a dazzlingly colourful and fast-paced theatrical performance. The episodes depicted more than 100 years ago by Finnish researcher M.A. Castrén bore the same characteristics: birch bark masks, and bird and animal symbols.
Sword dances and depictions of hunting interlock with crane dances with women waving large scarves.
The leading role in the I, a Human Being performance is still with the head of the fallen bear. It is decorated with beads and trinkets. It is placated with food and drink, and the bear is entertained in the ceremony, which takes several days. After that, the animal can return to its previous state, and be with its father, the god Num Torum.
Interspersed within the bear funeral ritual the group performs a poem by the world-famous Mansi poet Juvan Shestalov on the slow destruction of the taiga, which has been going on for decades, and on the water that is being damaged by oil pollution, where even the fish reek of oil.
The old spirits of the forest and the gods of nature also drop dead, forgotten by humans.
in the play, two young Mansi ponder their future. One wants to be a hunter, and the other one wants to be a fisherman. The young Mansi performers themselves have no such ambitions. When they are asked what they want to be, there are as many answers as there are kids. "A pilot", says one. "A teacher", says another.
Aspirations include those of corporate manager, cosmonaut, singer, and artist, but no hunters, and certainly no reindeer herdsmen.
In addition to going to regular school, they attend a Mansi music school, where they practice the rituals, the manufacture and playing of the traditional instruments, and singing the songs of the traditional rites.
One of the teachers, Georgi Lelyatov, himself a very young Mansi, believes that the school helps keep the traditions alive. The students have learned to appreciate their own culture, even though in their free time they might prefer to listen to rock music hits and play computer games.
"Nobody is ashamed of being a Mansi any more!"
Saranpaul is a Mansi village where people still speak the Mansi language - except for the children. Fewer parents speak Mansi at home. Of the whole Paths of the Reindeer group, only one says that he speaks the language. Most understand a little, but they do not speak it. They study the language at school, where the lessons take a few hours a week.
According to the latest census, there are slightly more than 8,000 Mansi. The future of the Mansi language, which is part of the Finno-Ugric family of languages, does not seem too promising.
However, the very fact that the bear rituals survive - even as a stage performance - is something of a victory for Russian multiculturalism.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 27.9.2006
More on this subject:
COMMENT: Farewell to citizens' cultural exchange
M.A. Castrén Society
KIRSIKKA MORING / Helsingin Sanomat