Nastassja Martin is an anthropologist. She lived with an Even community in Kamchatka, eastern Siberia. She recounted this experience in Believe in beasts (Verticales, 2019), a magnificent book, and in east of dreams (La Découverte, 2022), recently published.
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This interview is designed as a podcast interview. We strongly urge you to listen to it. If you can’t, here are some transcribed excerpts from Nastassja Martin’s speech.
Reporterre — In your book Believe in beasts “, in which you recount your encounter with a bear, which injured you, you write: “ The Bear saw his share of humanity in my eyes. ” What does that mean ?
Nastasja Martin — What binds us to the rest of living beings is not the biology of our bodies, but something like a soul that we would share with other living beings. In some contexts, we can renew a dialogue despite the fact that our physical dispositions are not the same. We thus find in many mythologies of the Far North the idea that at the time of origins, bears and humans were not as distinguished as they are today. Stories say that in those days, bears lived like humans, dressed like humans, walked like humans, and cooked over fires like humans. One day, bears would have fallen from their position of humanity, but would still have remained very close to humans. The Evens of Kamchatka, with whom I have lived and worked, say that the reason a bear always attacks in the face when they attack a human is because if it meets your gaze, it cannot bear this what he sees there, which is the reflection of his soul as it has fallen.
- “ You have to recover your ability to meet and dialogue with other beings if you want to survive crises. » @ Mathieu Genon / Reporterre
But there is always a breach, moments when, through hunting practices, rituals or dreams, dialogue [avec les êtres vivants] is still possible. This is something that is experienced by hunter anglers all over the world. In hunting practices, there is always a moment when, in order to approach the other, you have to seduce him. You have to put on your clothes, your smell, your way of vocalizing, of speaking. That’s why we imitate the cries, the sounds, that we can coat ourselves with urine, moose for example if we hunt a moose. There is a form of becoming the other in order to be able to bring it to oneself.
Reporterre — What does Believe in beasts », the title of your book ?
It may seem counter-intuitive for an anthropologist, for a scientist, to put the word “ believe » as the first word of the title. It’s on purpose. Right behind believing there is “ Wildcat », and this word has designated very different beings and things throughout history: it could designate black beasts in the Middle Ages, wild boars, deer, then predators, bears, wolves. Then, it was also a smell, a little pungent like savagery. Then it was also a color. It has even been used to designate a movement [artistique]. It is only very recently that the word “ Wildcat » has been reduced to refer only to felines. It is a word that has never ceased to metamorphose, to overflow its own meaning to create others. So, “ believe in beasts »is to believe in those who go beyond the framework of analysis posed at the beginning of the research.
Reporterre — Believing in beasts, isn’t it believing that we could dialogue with beasts, with living beings, with all non-humans ?
It is not a matter of belief. For fifteen years I have worked with animist collectives who, through hunting, rituals, dreams, believe that there are times when they can communicate with those who are not human. We believe we are very distanced from this type of “ beliefs »of ways of being in the world: well, they are not that far away, because if a Westerner like me, moreover a researcher, was able to experience this in her body, it is because these modes of relating to the world do not are not so far from us.
Reporterre — You dreamed a lot among the Evens — the natives of Kamchatka whose life you shared — because they themselves dream a lot. Do you still dream, now that you have returned to France ?
There are two ways to dream. There are the dreams to which we are accustomed, which are projective dreams, that is to say that our consciousness, when it dies out, projects images into our head. But at no time is there this idea, in the modern sense of the dream, that the soul can leave the body to meet other men. While it is a commonplace idea among most indigenous groups who still live in daily contact with the natural environment. I called this other form of dreaming soul dreaming. It is not so easy to obtain, even for indigenous collectives. In the case of the Even collective in Kamchatka, the question of the relationship between the world of the visible and the world of the invisible was previously dealt with by the shamans. But the colonial process ousted them. The whole question is how to learn to dream again, when there is no longer this intermediary between the worlds.
“ Dreaming at home is very complicated »
This diplomatic quality must be reinvested and updated by the members of the collective themselves. What Daria, the head of the family with whom I lived, says is that dreaming at home is very complicated. You have to get out of your daily life, go to a place that is not our place, be in a form of almost physical discomfort, so that these breaches can open. In France, for me, it’s much more complicated. Afterwards, there are plenty of ways to reactivate it, by going to sleep outside under the stars, in the mountains, under a tree, in the forest… Our mind-bodies are much more porous and permeable to what surrounds them than we think. .
- “ Through hunting, rituals, dreams, animist collectives believe there are times when they can communicate with those who are not human. » Excerpt from Kamtchatka, a winter in Evene country
Reporterre — The dream experience is strong among natives. But we who are urban, how to live it ?
What is reactivated by the dreams is to say that you have to recover your ability to meet and dialogue with these other beings if you want to survive the crises. The injunction to reconnect with nature when you live on the fifth floor of a building in a big city, you want to say: I do how ? But at present, in France, there are a lot of initiatives, collectives that make choices that do not go in the direction of the institution in which they are inserted. I am thinking in particular of all the initiatives around zads, forestry alternatives, collectives fighting against obsolete development projects, all this abounds. What seems very hopeful to me is that people who have made radically different life choices realize that there are things that need to be reinvented.
Reporterre — In describing the life of this Even collective, you also described how they faced the collapse of Soviet society. What do you do when it all comes crashing down ?
At a time when all state institutional structures are collapsing, forms of relationship to the world that had been silenced or crushed reappear as possible ways out.
Reporterre — What can we learn from it for today’s world ?
I started my research in Alaska to work on animist cosmologies. the climate change, we talked about it in half-words and in the human sciences, it was very, very distant. I realized that the world I thought was stable was falling apart in the Far North. At the time, I was talking about an outpost. Today, there is no longer an outpost. There are still areas of relative comfort, where it feels like it’s going to hold. But, deep down inside, we know that if we continue like this, we’re going straight into the wall. what are we doing ? Within modernity, we are stuck in two discourses. On the one hand, we are told that the geo-engineering and technology will save us from our excesses and that we will succeed in repairing the climate. There, we are heading towards a world even more shaped in our image, in transhumanist logics. And on the other hand, we are told that the collapse is coming, that we only have to mourn the world and enter into logics of survival, cut off from those who could not save themselves on time.
- “ Initiatives around the zad, forest alternatives, collectives fighting against obsolete development projects… All of this abounds. » @ Mathieu Genon / Reporterre
Reporterre — We will need a lot of detachment because we live with incessant cell phones, screens everywhere, cars that occupy the sound space and prevent us from hearing the animals, the planes whirling around…
There is a lot of noise. It’s something we all feel, how hard it is when you live in the city to find that space of resistance within yourself to shut out the noise. This is why the question of the dream is fundamental. Hilton Krishna, who is an indigenous struggle leader in Brazil, speaks of the place of the dream as a place of possible resistance. Dreaming must once again become a form of resistance and therefore of political action.
We would love to give thanks to the writer of this short article for this remarkable material
Nastassja Martin: “Dreaming must once again become a form of resistance”
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