Ethnologist Aimar Ventsel spent years with indigenous peoples in Russia and has a very clear opinion of all those who label Estonians as “some sort of boreal forest folk”.
In an opinion piece in daily Postimees, Ventsel pointed out that over the days leading up to the felling of a large willow tree in Tallinn’s Haabersti borough last week, he repeatedly heard people use the term loodusrahvas to describe the Estonian people. Loodusrahvas, “nature people”, describes an indigenous nation with close cultural ties to nature.
As if that meant that indigenous people were particularly concerned about nature.
As Ventsel wrote, the idea of the “nature people” was invented by what he calls “romantic armchair philosophers” in the 18th and 19th centuries. But despite the fact that those referring to Estonians this way now insisted to label Estonians as some sort of boreal forest folk, reality was really rather different.
In reality, ecological thinking and forest folk were far from each other.
Ventsel is an ethnologist and has researched indigenous peoples in the Siberian Arctic for more than twenty years. And as far as he is able to tell, one of their immediately apparent cultural features is their passion for hunting for sports.
“They shoot everything that flies, runs, or swims,” Ventsel wrote, “no matter whether or not they need meat.” He understood this already in 1995, when he spent time with the Khanty people. And he had seen the same hunting practices earlier, and participated in them as well.
Another claim was that these nature folk don’t want all that junk associated with the modern consumer society because they live in harmony with the universe, and because all this consumption culture is foreign to them.
When he spent time with the Dolgan people a few years back, they had begun to switch from hunting reindeer to fishing. “Every man’s dream was to catch fish so they could buy a Yamaha snowmobile and replace their old Russian Buran. The Yamaha they needed so they could catch more fish and hunt more. And they needed to hunt and fish to buy insanely expensive fuel and spare parts for their Yamahas, and if there was any money left also a cellphone, a TV, and clothes for their wives.”
Of course anyone could say that back in the day everything used to be better, and that everybody’s harmony with everything “rocked”. Meanwhile archeologists thought that mammoths were extinct because they were all simply eaten, hunted until there were no more mammoths to hunt.
The idea that these nature peoples don't want anything and are happy with what they have was rather idiotic, Ventsel wrote. As soon as anyone learned of these people it had also been clear that they were traders, and also hunted for meat as well as for furs they needed for trading. With time, this changed their whole economic system—instead of food and clothing, hunting to have something to sell became the norm. The goal was to buy a heap of supposedly unnecessary junk, like tobacco, alcohol, and industrially made fabric.
Beavers, sables, and other furry animals were extinct by these very nature peoples. Another subject entirely was that they set fire to the forests, whether accidentally or deliberately.
One thing the supposed Estonian boreal folk did have in common with the real indigenous peoples was the fact that “all this nature harmony rubbish” was pushed by activists—activists who lived in the city, were paid a salary, travelled around, and didn’t go out in the forest or the tundra much.
“Just like all the Facebook clickers.”
Ventsel's opinion piece was published in Postimees. It appeared after a willow tree, to be cut down to make room for a road extension, led to more than a week of media noise, among it the claim that the "mother tree" was hundreds of years old, when in reality it was just over 70 and nearing the end of its natural life.
Before the tree was finally felled, the police had to remove activists that had camped on it and under it.
Editor: Dario Cavegn