Susan A. Crate is a writer and scholar who conducts
research in cultural and political ecology, enviornmental policy,
sustainable community development, and global climate change in Siberia,
Russia, and the circumpolar North. She is assistant professor of human
ecology at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.
Interview with Susan:
What is your occupation? Would you
tell us in more details?
I am an Assistant Professor of Human Ecology in the
Department of Environmental Science and Policy at George Mason
University in Fairfax, Virginia. I teach both graduate and undergraduate
courses in human ecology - which is the study of how people interact
with their environment. I also conduct research - both in the Viliui
Regions of the Sakha Republic and in local areas - like the Potomac
Where did you go to college and
how did you come about choosing your major? Do you think you have
reached what you wanted to achieve when you started your college?
I got my BA in 1983 in Environmental Studies at Warren
Wilson College, my MA in 1994 in Folklore and my PhD in 2002 in Ecology
both from UNC-Chapel Hill. I have not gone straight through school but
rather took time off in between my degrees to work and do research and
travel. Much of my academic focus evolved from my work and travel in
Russia. Since 1987 I have worked in Ukraine, Tuva, Buryatia, Mongolia
and Sakha. My Master’s thesis analyzed Sakhas’ Yhyakh festival and my
PhD looked at how Viliui Sakha adapted after the fall of the Soviet
Union on a household food production level.
You new book was
published recently. Would you please tell us about it?
The book is called “Cows, Kin and
Globalization: An Ethnography of Sustainability.” It is an ethnography
of Viliui Sakha - describing history, geography, ecology, culture and
also discussing contemporary ways of being in the villages. The book
also analyzes Viliui Sakha within the global plight of indigenous
peoples and mining - comparing to diamond mining in NWT Canada and also
global mining issues. I hope I have done a good job representing Sakha!
From Susan's book
"Cows, Kin, and Globalization: An
Ethnography of Sustainability"
We woke up in darkness
to the popping of the fire. Marusa switched on the light, revealing a
patchwork of frost fans on the window by my head. At 7 a.m. the sun
wouldn’t be rising for the three more hours but there was much work to
do before then.
I rolled out of bed and
caught Tania’s sleepy eye. We stood and put on layers of clothes to
protect ourselves from the -45C. Four-year-old Maxime waited nearby to
see the magic when we opened the heavy door to let in a gush of frozen
air in a steamy wave that would sweep across the floor and disappear
under beds and tables.
Outside it was still
and cold. The frozen air hit my face, the only exposed part of me,
stinging my eyes and nostrils with its bite and taking away any
drowsiness that remained. The sky was dark to all horizons, offset by
the twinkling of a dense array of stars. Our felt boots crunched along
the shoveled path to the khoton (cow barn). Marusa heaved the
khoton door open, releasing another wave of steamy cold air to
spread across the barn floor. The cows looked up wide-eyed while the
wave enveloped their legs. They took cautions steps away from me, the
stranger in their midst, and Marusa calmed them to my presence with her
The khoton, home
to five cows and their almost yearling calves, was unevenly lit by three
bare bulbs hanging from ceiling wires. Khotons are purposely low
to minimize heat loss. That morning, while Marusa slathered cow’s utters
with cream to soften them, I found myself looking up. I noticed that the
entire ceiling was strewn with moist cobwebs. In among them, I located
two small chimney vents, each approximately four inches square. Then
something strange caught my eye – what looked like a tiny clothesline –
or several of them. With longer inspections, I saw they were strings of
animal hair adorned with pieces of cloth and small shapes, strung
between two of the middle roof rafters. I examined them as best I could
in their shadow position.
Then the milking began.
I replaced full backets with empty ones, while Marusa and Tania milked.
When Tania finished milking, we went outside to the corral and made
piles of hay, spacing them out evently across the area, to fodder each
cow. We led the cows outside then cleaned and skidded manure to an area
just beyond the cow pen. The final morning cow task was to lead the cows
to Marusa’s oibon (a water hole cut in lake or river ice)/ We
would wait until the sun lighted and warmed the air. In the meantime, we
returned to the house for tea.
Over our cups of
steamed tea I asked Marusa about what I saw hanging from the khoton
rafters. She explained that it was salama (a sacrificial gift to
honor the sky deity-protectors and that serves as their pathway from the
sky into the khoton). It is necessary to hang a new one every
year when the cows are close to calving to ensure their protection,
fertility, and good health. The horse hear string symbolizes power and
strength. The miniature birch bark bucket tied to one end is to place
aladye (R.pancakes) in, to keep the god satiated.
We returned to our tea
drinking and I thought of how amazing it was this sacred practice
continued after the blatant oppression of ethnic rituals during the
Soviet period. Next my mind flooded with all I knew about the other
issues of historical change, survival, and adaptation that Sakha have
-Journal entry, January 9, 2000, Tumul, Russia
That morning Marusa’s
salama became for me a vital symbol of and testimony to the
adaptive resilience that has brought Sakha trough to this day.
You describe how you
visited Yakutia(Sakha) for the first time in your book. However, you
have been to Ukraine, Tuva, Buryatia and Mongolia before coming to Sakha
Republic. What made you interested in Sakha and why did you choose to
From 1987 through 1991 I worked and traveled
in Ukraine, Tuva, Buryatia and Mongolia. In 1991 I received an
invitation to the international conference on Jew’s Harp in Yakutsk.
During the week-long conference, we all participated in yhyakh in
different regions. I went to Viliuisk. I was struck by how much of a
sacred element seemed to have been preserved at the festival, as
compared to festivals I had attended in southern Siberia. I was at the
point in my Master’s work where I needed to identify a topic for my
thesis and so I decided to return and study the yhyakh in historical and
contemporary times. I was told by everyone that the best yhyakh were in
the Viliui and Suntar would be my very best place to go.
You speak Sakha
almost fluently. What difficulties you encountered learning the
language? The history and the culture of every nation leave imprints on
the language. What specific features of the language have increased your
interest in the history and the culture of Sakha nation?
I first decided to
learn Sakha when I was conducting my Master’s research studying the
yhyakh festival in 1992. I was interviewing a lot of people, many
elderly people who did not know Russian (I was using Russian to conduct
my research) - and so I always had a translator helping to translate the
Sakha into Russian. In so many instances, an elder would be going on and
on about the festival or some other aspect of Sakha culture - and I
could tell by the others in the room that they were telling some amazing
things - and I couldn’t wait for the translator to tell me - then I
would ask for the translation and the person would turn to me and
apologize and explain that they didn’t know how to say what was said in
Russian. This in itself speaks about the way that language is bound in
culture and often it is so difficult, if not impossible to translate
concepts and cultural ways from one language to another. After returning
to the US, I found a granting agency that had a program to fund people
like myself who wanted to learn a language not taught in the US -
‘On-site language training’ it was called. I got the grant and spent 9
months learning Sakha. The forst 6 weeks I was at YAGU - but the only
place I heard Sakha was in the department - back in those days (1993)
everyone still mostly spoke Russian in Yakutsk. So I moved out to
Elgeeii to learn the language where I could be immersed in it day and
night. It took a while for people there to get used to a person who, in
their minds, looked Russian (big nose and everything) - but slowly they
got used to me speaking. I learned very quickly in that supportive
You love singing
Sakha songs. When was the first time you heard a Sakha song which you
fell in love and decided to learn it?
I am sure I heard Sakha
songs when I first traveled to Yakutsk and the regions during the
International Jew’s Harp Festival in 1991. But the most memorable moment
I remember was in the spring of 1992 when I was traveling in the Viliui
Regions - interviewing people about the festival as I made my way to
Suntar. I was in Nyurba and met up with a group who was traveling from
the Ministry of Culture - they were making all arrangements for the big
UNESCO yhyakh to be that summer. We were having dinner and
someone suggested we sing some songs - and they all started singing ‘Nyurguhunnar.’
I got one of them to write the words for me and I learned it. After that
I learned many more. Sakha songs are beautiful!
You have lived in the
Sakha country away from city and you know about the everyday problems
people face there. How do you think those problems could be practically
This is a big question and one that is
always on my mind. I just finished up a three year NSF project looking
at community sustainability and we focused a lot on this question. In
short, I can say that there are many problems in the villages - and this
is understandable considering where these villages have come from. The
villages we see today are a result of the collectivization and further
consolidation of Soviet-era agro-industrial production. The collectives
and later State farm was the heart of these villages - it provided most
of the jobs and the meat and milk. Now production is largely on a
household level and there are few jobs. People are still in a compact
village settlement which requires them to have to travel out to get
their resources (hay, hunting, fishing, saylyyk, forage, etc.) In
addition, the jobs that do exist are dependant on state coffers that are
themselves based on diamond revenues. This creates a dependence that
precludes a community’s capacity to create a local economy and thereby
make their own choices. There is huge potential in the villages. Most
inhabitants that I know are extremely resourceful, talented and have
good business sense. The question becomes -how can villages develop
their potential? There are examples where progress is occurring - where
villages are close to a regional center or the capital and they can
process their cow products and sell them. But otherwise, there are few
markets for the more remote villages.
Another big problem that ties into this is
the issue of youth. Most youth do go and get a higher education but
there are no jobs for them to return to their home village despite their
desire to. This feeds back into what I discussed above - the need to
develop local economies.
A lot of my emphasis is also on comparing
the village situation with other circumpolar villages. I think there is
much we can learn from each other.
Would you want your
daughter continue your work and carry on your legacy?
Of course I would love it if Katie was able
to take up work like I do. But I also do not intend to (or have not)
done anything to push it on her. She has a path in this life and it is
developing. My role as her mother is to encourage her to follow her
dreams - no matter how alike or different they may be from mine.
"Cows, Kin, and Globalization: An
Ethnography of Sustainability"
Crate presents the first cultural ecological study of a
Siberian people: the Viliui Sakha, contemporary horse and cattle
agropastoralists in northeastern Siberia. The author links the local and
global economic forces, and provides an intimate view of how a seemingly
remote and isolated community is directly affected by the forces of
modernization and globalization. She details the severe environmental
and historical factors that continue to challenge their survival, and
shows how the multi-million dollar diamond industry, in part run by
ethnic Sakha, raises issues of ethnic solidarity and indigenous rights
as well as environmental impact. Her new book addresses key topics of
interest to both economic and environmental anthropology, and to
practitioners interested in sustainable rural development,
globalization, indigenous rights in Eurasia, and post-Soviet and
"Through her eloquent description of the personal, daily choices of
contemporary Viliui Sakha, Crate steers us toward the conclusion that
'truly sustainable development both enlarges the range of local people's
choices to make development more democratic and participatory and
incorporate(s) an in-depth knowledge of local ecosystems and cultures.'
Hers is a cogent, necessary case study for anyone interested in issues
of indigenous peoples, adaptaion, and sustainability seen through the
lens of ethnographic inquiry. " - Ellen Bielawski, author of Rogue
Diamonds: The Rush for Northern Riches on Dene Land and dean of the
Faculty of Native Studies, University of Alberta, Edmonton
"Cows, Kin, and Globalization is three books in one: a vivid
description of the Sakha people of Siberia, a comparative review of the
impact of high-value mining on indigenous cultures, and a thoughtful
exploration of the possibilities and perils of reconciling diamond
mining and local populations. Because it brings these topics together,
it is ideally suited for students and scholars in environmental studies,
geography, and anthropology. " - Josiah Heyman, University of Texas at
"Through this innovative multi-sited ethnography of complex local and
global indigenous sustainability, we see how under diamond mining the
Viliui Sakha were transformed from their pre-Soviet subsistence
strategies into the Soviet working class then to a post-Soviet household
production system founded upon having and knowing land. The Viliui Sakha
reemerged as victors of sustainability. This is a perceptive ethnography
of sustainability that passionately advances indigenous peoples' rights
to socioecological equity, cultural survival, and political devolution."
David Hyndman, Author of: Ancestral Rain Forests and the Mountain of
Gold: Indigenous Peoples and Mining in New Guinea.
"In this richly detailed work, Susan Crate offers a new take on an old
form. Her ethnography of the Viliui Sakha captures the complex
dimensions of daily life for one native people of contemporary Russia.
This work, situated within a cultural, ecological, historical, and
comparative framework, presents the 'how' and 'why' of human adaptation.
In short, this is a multi-faceted jewel of a work." - Barbara Rose
Johnston, Center for Political Ecology, Santa Cruz, California
You can order the book here:
Статья о Сюзан Крейт
- на русском
We would like to thank all members of Sakha
Diaspora for their help with this article.
January 15, 2007