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"The Reindeer and the End of the World"

Tuesday, May 4 at 12:00pm

Virtual Event

Climate change and other alterations to the Earth caused by human activity are often described in apocalyptic terms: as Armageddon, or the end of the world. Nowhere is this more true than in the Arctic, where the rates of warming are twice that of temperate regions and have been visible for decades.

Bathsheba Demuth will explore the Chukchi Peninsula, in far eastern Arctic Siberia, in her 2020–21 Clark Lecture “The Reindeer and the End of the World” via Zoom.

The indigenous Chukchi people have traditionally been herdsmen and hunters of reindeer; those who live along the coasts of the Arctic Ocean, the Chukchi Sea, and the Bering Sea have customarily hunted sea mammals such as seals, whales, walruses, and sea lions.

Russia launched a series of vigorous military campaigns against the Chukchi in 1729. The Chukchi put up a ferocious resistance and, when surrounded, they frequently committed mass suicide rather than surrender. By the 1760s, the Russian government decided that the cost of vanquishing the Chukchi was too high in terms of money and troops and ended the war on the condition that the Chukchi cease attacking Russian settlers and pay the yasak (the yearly tax that native Siberians paid in furs).

In the 1930s, the Chukchi were forced into Soviet economic collectives which disrupted their indigenous lifeways. The Chukchi Peninsula became a region of mines and gulags. It’s a place that has experienced radical changes with Russian contact, the founding of the Soviet Union, and then with its dissolution.

Weaving a story of devoted Bolshviks, Chukchi nomads, and herds of reindeer, Demuth will ask what kinds of narratives suit the empirical experience of radical change, what is lost when we emphasize rupture, and what is gained by paying attention to the ruins left by past ways of living as we face a transformed Arctic and planet. 

Bathsheba Demuth is an assistant professor of history and environment and society at Brown University. She is an environmental historian, specializing in the lands and seas of the Russian and North American Arctic. She is interested in how the histories of people, ideas, places, and non-human species intersect. Her interest in northern environments and cultures began when she was 18 and moved north of the Arctic Circle in the Yukon. For over two years, Demuth mushed huskies, hunted caribou, fished for salmon, tracked bears, and otherwise learned to survive in the taiga and tundra.

Demuth’s book Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait, published in 2019, offers a comprehensive history of Beringia, the Arctic land and waters stretching from Russia to Canada. These frigid lands and waters became the site of an ongoing experiment: How, under conditions of extreme scarcity, would modern ideologies of capitalism and communism control and manage the resources they craved?

Demuth’s lecture is free and open to the public. Registration is required to participate in the live Zoom event. Register at ohc.uoregon.edu. The talk will be recorded and available for viewing on the OHC’s YouTube channel. For more information contact ohc@uoregon.edu.