Everyone once in a while I read a news headline that makes me do a double take: “Romanian riot police fire tear gas at protesting shepherds” caught my attention in the December 15 issue of the British newspaper the Guardian. What is going on in Romania and why are shepherds, generally not a highly politicized group, being teargassed in Bucharest?
Over a thousand angry sheep herders gathered outside the parliament building in the Romanian capital to protest a new law limiting the number of sheep dogs they can use and forbidding the grazing of sheep during the winter. Politicians argued that Carpathian sheep dogs kill deer and wild boars, favorite animals among hunters, and that grazing sheep in the winter is not environmentally sustainable.
This new law was proposed by a group supporting hunting, an elite pass time that the former communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu made popular. Hunting in Romania still retains its association with aristocracy and privilege. In contrast, sheep farming is a central agricultural activity and an important part of many local economies in rural areas. There are an estimated 10 million sheep and 1.5 million goats in rural Romania.
Images of shepherds in their wooly capes standing in front of the capital building initially made me think that this was a story about conflicts between tradition and modernity, and resistance to a changing way of life in rural areas à la Slow Food. However, there is little that is modern here. What was at stake were two age-old conflicting uses of land–pastoralism and hunting. This riot reveals the imposition of power on the part of elites to protect their interests and the rural population’s pushback.
What is truly incredible is the political response of shepherds and the success of their protest. Some traveled more than 300 miles to join the protest in Bucharest. Although the protest turned ugly as riot police teargassed the angry sheep herders who were rushing the barricades, the outcome was that the government temporarily lifted the bans and promised to find a permanent solution. While being interviewed on camera, one shepherd defends his right to graze his sheep on the land he owns. Another shepherd munching on a sausage, holds up a piece of cheese and declares the deliciousness of their cheese. Perhaps the cornerstone of this defense lies with taste.
Is it possible to be an authentic Indian in a society overrun with tourists who want to buy bits and pieces of Indian culture? Are those bits and pieces authentic if they are manufactured in Asia? How can people maintain their traditional foodways if the government forbids them from catching enough fish? Can a balance be found between the needs of native fishers and public policies designed to preserve fisheries? Is there room for any kind of distinctive cultural identity in a globalized, touristic, heavily regulated society like that of the contemporary United States? Also, are salmon some sort of deity?
These are the kinds of questions raised by the fascinating film “Smokin’ Fish.” The documentary is the result of a collaboration between Luke Griswold-Tergis and Cory Mann. Having finished an undergraduate degree in anthropology at UC Santa Cruz, Griswold-Tergis set off to Alaska, where he met Mann. Mann is just the kind of person who makes it hard to define culture. He is Tlingit and an entrepreneur with a business designing tchotchkes based on native Alaskan designs. His products are manufactured in Asia for resale in Alaska. Yet even as he pursues his global efforts at mass marketing native culture, he is also deeply engaged in exploring his own cultural identity. The collaboration between Griswold-Tergis and Mann has produced “Smokin’ Fish,” a documentary that explores the connections between native culture, global capitalism, colonialist exploitation of indigenous people, the environment, sustainable fishing and entrepreneurialism. Oh, and smoked salmon. And bears.
Mann seems to be quite a dynamic entrepreneur, pursuing several different business ventures at any given time, most with some sort of tie-in to Tlingit culture. But for a few months each summer, he closes things down in Juneau and heads back to Klukwan, where his extended family lives. There he works with members of his clan to catch and smoke salmon. The fish, both alive and smoked, are central to the film’s story. Mann asserts at various points that Tlingit worship the fish. The smokehouses they build seem central to their foodways. But this is not all about subsistence fishing. Some Tlingit engage in what appears to be commercial fishing. The smoked fish are also used in trade with other native Alaskans.
The film subtly weaves in the kind of ethnographic details that highlight what is distinctive—and unexpected—about contemporary Tlingit life. Mann explains that his mother took him to San Diego as a small child, where they lived what seems like a counter-cultural kind of life, more hippy than Indian. He never knew his father, who was white. At some point an aunt retrieved him and brought him back to Alaska, where he was raised by a large group of female relatives. This makes sense since, as Mann points out, the Tlingit are matrilineal. It is that kind of detail, along with discussions of clans and houses (Mann is a member of the Eagle Thunderbird Clan) and about the ways in which people build and maintain relationships (by helping build and maintain smokehouses, for instance), that remind us that even in a society heavily dominated by Euro-American values, groups like the Tlingit retain at least some aspects of cultural distinctiveness.
At the same time, the Tlingit continue to struggle with their relationship with non-native authorities. They must deal with the limits on fishing imposed by the state of Alaska, including both licenses and limits that would make it impossible for them to catch enough fish to meet their needs (these are very much ongoing debates, if recent news out of Alaska is any indication). The conflict here surpasses any kind of stereotypes about native relationships with the environment vs. rapacious outsiders. The Tlingit are presented as complex people with interests in salmon that are both traditional and commercial, not as natural environmentalists. Mann also must struggle with federal tax authorities, who do not seem to understand the unusual way in which he runs his business. He has to deal with border officials, as he goes to visit and trade with other natives in nearby Canada. I should note that he does all this while displaying a wry sense of humor and while using an astonishing array of vehicles, all of which appear to be in dire need of repair.
Filmed mostly in Alaska, much of the movie is quite breathtaking. Mann does his fishing from a canoe, in areas of stunning natural beauty. There is an amazing number of eagles flying around the region, as well as both brown and grizzly bears competing with the people for the fish. In addition, members of Mann’s extended family provide a wide range of additional voices, commenting on the history of native/nonnative relations, the exploitation of Tlingit lands, and the challenges they face in maintaining any kind of attachment to their heritage.
The movie is currently traveling around the U.S. Details on where it may go next can be found here. The filmmakers have a Facebook page as well. “Smokin’ Fish” would make a very useful addition to a variety of anthropology courses, including any food and culture course, as well as introductory cultural anthropology classes, courses on indigenous cultures or even on globalization. It can be used to start discussions on food, kinship, identity and, of course, culture. I recommend, however, making sure you have some smoked fish on hand when you show it. The audience will be hungry.
By Elizabeth Danforth, MPH PhD, Iowa Food Systems Council
The average hunter is white, rural and male. His father hunted, and he likely hunts close to home. This description perfectly describes my husband, although he also tracks the mileage of his meals, knows more about local microbrew seasonals than field dressing a deer, and is married to a nutritional anthropologist. This weekend, for the first time ever, he’s joining his dad and uncles in Iowa’s early shotgun deer season. My husband is part of a slowly growing segment of the local food movement which has begun to explore hunting as part of the larger local food movement. As of yet however, this movement has been reticent to embrace hunting as an integral part of sustainable eating. Authors such as Michael Pollan have ventured into hunting to provide anecdotal examples in popular media, but the concept has been largely ignored elsewhere, most notably by anthropologists. A quick search of recent anthropological articles related to hunting supplies a multitude of articles related to Inuit groups, Amazonian small land holders, and indigenous Nicaraguan communities. However, anthropologists have provided virtually nothing related to the 12.5 million people who currently hunt in the United States (US Fish and Wildlife Service. 2006. National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation). In one of the few ethnographies of American hunting culture, Marc Boglioli highlights the traditional anthropological division between the ‘noble savage’ and the ‘ignoble Westerner’. Researchers and the public-at-large celebrate animist spirituality of indigenous hunting and traditional subsistence patterns in the ethnographic other, but run from the modern American hunting industry and “you might be a redneck if…..” jokes. (You might be a redneck if…..you’ve even been involved in a custody battle over a hunting dog.)
Despite the lack of anthropological interest in modern American deer hunting, it has the potential to be an important and powerful part of the local food movement and sustainable food systems. The white-tailed deer population in the United States was decimated by the beginning of the 20th century. In the intervening 110 years, this population has grown exponentially. According to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, left unchecked, which it largely would be without hunters, deer populations can double about every three years. Human management of deer is essential to modern herds. More than 300,000 deer live in my home state of Iowa before one third are culled every hunting season. The vast food resources and essential ecological management provide important opportunities to address the pillars of the local food movement.
While deer hunting has been largely ignored by anthropologists and sustainable food system advocates, several interesting ventures do exist. These include Deer Hunting for Locavores, a class tailored to urbanites who grew up outside of traditional American hunting culture and who are searching for local food options. Another is the Bull Moose Hunting Society. This group aims to expose urban foodies to wild game food resources, reconnect urban eaters to nature and recenter hunting as an essential part of local sustainable food systems. Deer hunting is also an important contributor to local food security through venison donation programs, which exist in all 50 states as well as several areas in Canada. These programs provide existing hunters with the opportunity to hunt more and reduce waste. They can have a powerful impact on food security. For example, 1.1 million meals were donated through the Iowa DNR’s Help Us Stop Hunger (HUSH) program.
Within the local food movement, there is the need to explore the many logistical and cultural issues surrounding deer hunting. These include the cultural acceptability of venison as a food resource among food aid recipients, safety concerns of lead shot, and the cost and training required to hunt, as well as cultural constructions such as gender and ethnicity in relationship to hunting. Additionally, the cultural divide between traditional American hunters and the more cosmopolitan local food movement locavores is important to understand in order to combine the two in a sustainable marriage that highlights and celebrates both as valid cultural traditions worthy of anthropological inquiry. Maybe then my husband and I won’t have to answer our foodie friends’ inevitable questions, “he’s doing what?” and “are you OK with this?”