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Experimentation as Resilience

By Alex Oehler, University of Regina

Is resilience merely a kind of toughness, mixed with “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties?”[i] In an article written for the general public, the American Psychological Association defines individual resilience as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress,” often involving “profound personal growth.”[ii] Taking a social perspective, anthropologist Roberto Barrios, who researches community recovery from catastrophic events, argues: “existing definitions of community resilience make a number of assumptions about the nature of human communities and societies that do not bear out when compared to the anthropological record.”[iii] He argues that such understandings of resilience are often rooted in neoliberal ideology, ignoring systemic inequality, polyvocality, and local knowledge. In other words, they deny self-determination.

Although we are left without examples of living Indigenous communities free from settler government pressures, Barrios’ observations make me wonder what pre-contact resilience would have looked like, and what resilience might look like today. Thankfully, Indigenous oral history, as well as archaeological and ethnographic records, contain accounts of self-determined community resilience for pre- and post-contact eras.[iv] What I wish to look at here, however, is experimentation as an act of self-determined resilience. What I have in mind are borrowed and innovated practices, with which people tinker in face of changing circumstances. Having lived in the Arctic for a few years, I have been fascinated by the experimentation that must have gone into the little-understood transition from Pre-Dorset (4,500 BP to 2700 BP) to Late Dorset cultures in the Central and Eastern Arctic of Canada and Greenland.[v]

Dorset Takiyaaqtuq Qalgia (longhouse), CC 2015 by Brendan Griebel, Modified CC 2020 by Alex Oehler.

Archaeologists tell us that a warming climate enabled the transition, in more northerly locations, from terrestrial gathering over vast distances to many (if not all) communities taking up a comparatively settled life of marine resource collection.[vi] One can only imagine the trial and error that would have gone into this transition, and it remains unclear how voluntary it was. Fast-forward to the 1920s, when Inuvialuit of the Mackenzie Delta experienced a stressful shortage in caribou.[vii] Under the colonial eye of the RCMP, Inuvialuit were encouraged to take up Sámi “close” style reindeer herding in a ploy to end their nomadic existence, while generating local income. Many Inuvialuit families experimented with diverse herding styles between 1935 and the 1960s, only to find there were easier ways of making a living in the North.[viii] Unlike the widespread adoption of dogs (ca. 1000 years ago), the introduction of reindeer in the Canadian Arctic had not been initiated by communities themselves.[ix]

Otto Binder and sled deer at Reindeer Station, NWT, Canada, 1940s, with permission of L. Binder (2020)

In other places, select experiments with domesticated species in hunting contexts have been less colonial and more successful. In the case of Soiot herder-hunters of the Eastern Saian Mountains in southern Siberia, with whom I have been working since 2012, there exists a long legacy of community-driven experimentation with species from other regions. Without “naturalizing” or “reproducing” the “wider social and spatial relations which generate turbulence and inequality,” I would argue that a number of experiments have been community-driven, rather than settler-imposed.[x] Over the centuries, Soiot experimentation has included the introduction of Mongolian and Russian horses, the transferral of equestrian skills and tack to domesticated reindeer, as well as alpine yak herding and cattle hybridization.

Soiot yak resting in Uro Valley, Copyright 2012 by Alex Oehler

Resilience, in this context, has meant for many Soiots to try out a broad range of human-animal relations in their homeland, bridging Eurasian taiga and Inner Asian steppe zones. Interestingly, outsiders have interpreted Soiot interest in yak and other species as a betrayal of their “traditional” reindeer breeding heritage, and not as a form of community-driven resilience. As a result, Soiots have often been denied self-determination. While some Soiot experiments have naturally failed, others have succeeded beautifully. Today, alpine yak pastoralism serves as a beacon of Soiot self-determination. The point I am trying to make is that audacious self-determined experimentation ought to receive more attention from anthropologists.

Alex Oehler is the author of  Beyond Wild and Tame: Soiot Encounters in a Sentient Landscape. New York: Berghahn Books (2020).

[i] Oxford dictionary, online.

[ii] The popular self-help article can be found at:

[iii] Barrios writes about community-driven resilience in: Barrios, R.E., 2016. Resilience: A commentary from the vantage point of anthropology. Annals of Anthropological Practice, 40(1), pp.28-38.

[iv] Examples of pre-contact community-driven resilience can be found in: McMillen, H., Ticktin, T. and Springer, H.K., 2017. The future is behind us: traditional ecological knowledge and resilience over time on Hawai ‘i Island. Regional Environmental Change, 17(2), pp.579-592.

And in: Trosper, R.L., 2003. Resilience in pre-contact Pacific Northwest social ecological systems. Conservation Ecology, 7(3). Post-contact examples are found in: Yumagulova, L., Woman-Munro, D.Y.O., Gabriel, C., Francis, M., Henry, S., Smith, A. and Ostertag, J., 2020. Preparing Our Home by reclaiming resilience. Nordic Journal of Comparative and International Education (NJCIE), 4(1), pp.138-155. As well as in: Kirmayer, L.J., Sehdev, M. and Isaac, C., 2009. Community resilience: Models, metaphors and measures. International Journal of Indigenous Health, 5(1), p.62.

[v] For more information, see: Friesen, T.M. and Mason, O.K. eds., 2016. The Oxford handbook of the prehistoric Arctic. Oxford University Press.

[vi] More on the settlement of Dorset culture can be found in: Milne, S.B., Park, R.W. and Stenton, D.R., 2012. Dorset culture land use strategies and the case of inland southern Baffin Island. Canadian Journal of Archaeology/Journal Canadien d’Archéologie, pp.267-288.

[vii] For a beautiful account of Inuvialuit reindeer experiments, see: Hart, E. 2001. Reindeer days remembered. Inuvik: Inuvialuit Cultural Resource Centre. Another excellent account is: Conaty, G.T., Binder, L. 2003. The reindeer herders of the Mackenzie Delta. Toronto: Key Porter Books.

[viii] For good examples of successful Inuvialuit experiments (such as investment in early use of scooners), check out: Alunik, I. and Morrison, D.A., 2003. Across time and tundra: The Inuvialuit of the Western Arctic. Raincoast Books.

[ix] More on the history of dogs in the NWT: McCormack, P.A. 2018. An ethnohistory of dogs in the Mackenzie Basin (Western Subarctic). In Losey, R.J. and Loovers, J.P.L. (Eds.) Dogs in the North: stories of cooperation and co-domestication. London: Routledge. And on the prevalence of dogs in Arctic prehistory: Morey, D.F. and Aaris-Sørensen, K., 2002. Paleoeskimo dogs of the eastern Arctic. Arctic, pp.44-56.

[x] The quote I use here comes from Barrios (2016:28), who draws on MacKinnon and Derickson (2013).

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