Gone the Bull of Winter: Grappling with the Cultural Implications of and Anthropology’s Role(s) in Global Climate Change

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In this presentation I explore the cultural implications of and anthropology’s role(s) in global climate change via my field experiences working with Viliui Sakha, Turkic-speaking native horse and cattle breeders of northeastern Siberia, Russia, with whom I have worked since 1991. Viliui Sakha have adapted to a sub-arctic climate, Russian colonization and the Soviet and post-Soviet periods. Their newest adaptive challenge is climate change. 90% of 2004 survey participants confirmed that climate change is causing unprecedented change in their local areas and threatens to undermine their subsistence. In tandem, global climate change also has cultural implications for Viliui Sakha. Sakha personify winter in the form of the a white bull with blue spots, huge horns and frosty breath whose legacy explains the extreme 100°C annual temperature range of Sakhas’ subarctic habitat. In December the bull arrives from the Arctic Ocean to hold temperatures at their coldest through January. The realization that a cultural story, which for centuries had explained the annual temperature event of sub-arctic winter, could perhaps become a story of how things used to be, alerted me to the cultural implications of climate change. In response, I developed a full research proposal and am presently conducting a three-year NSF-funded research project, entitled: Assessing Knowledge, Resilience & Adaptation and Policy Needs in Viliui Sakha Villages of Northeastern Siberia, Russia Facing Unprecedented Climate Change. The project seeks to advance knowledge through partnering with Viliui Sakha communities, to explore ways to effectively address the local issues of climate change. The four-village, three-year study is a collaborative effort involving the active participation of village inhabitants, native specialists and field assistants, an in-country research community and international collaboration. In this presentation I first take my audience to my field site to encounter Viliui Sakhas’ climate change observations, perceptions, adaptations and actions, providing a general overview and context for the project and preliminary findings from the first summer field season, 2008.

I next highlight the cultural implications of climate change and anthropology’s privileged approaches to understanding different ways of knowing to move anthropologists from impartial observers into the realm of action-oriented researchers.