The Forest is My Planet: Indigenous Peoples and Climate Change. Part 1

Text and illustrations: Elena Sakirko

A person does not belong to a place until there is someone dead under the ground.

Gabriel García Márquez

When researching the impact of climate change on the life and culture of indigenous peoples, the words of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, always come to mind: as I see it, she very accurately underlined the special connection these peoples have with nature: “Traditional indigenous territories encompass about 22% of the world’s land surface and they coincide with areas that hold 80% of the planet’s biodiversity.

These figures indicate that indigenous peoples play a key role in the conservation of our earth’s biodiversity. Despite this, we still have a long way to go before governments and dominant society act according to the principles laid down in the international Convention on Biological Diversity.”
Where to look for the expression of this special connection indigenous peoples have with nature – with their forests, rivers, wetlands and tundra? What are the connections between their cultures and animals, and what changes have fluctuating climatic conditions brought to their lives? Can indigenous lifestyles help save our planet?
For indigenous peoples, the Earth is alive, and human beings are part of natural cycles which they are inextricably linked with, on both a spiritual and bodily level.

From birth, they learn to interact with the nature around them, to listen and hear, to treat the Earth with care and give it rest and time to recover, to take only as much as is necessary, and nothing more, to share and give thanks.

A deep spiritual connection seems to be established between man and the forest, rivers, bogs and tundra during the regular traditional practices of interaction with nature found in the culture of indigenous peoples: you can talk with the trees, should refrain from making noise in the swamp, and can cross paths with wild animals without such encounters ending in them killing each other...

The individual human being grows and learns the rules of interaction with nature from birth, and this becomes a key energy resource for the continuation of life.

The forest as a living being

Indigenous people say that the forest is their home. Even those who have been forced to leave it for work or study are constantly striving to return, and are acutely aware of the changes taking place in their native land.
Polina Shulbayeva, a member of the Selkup people and native of the village of Vasyugan in Tomsk Oblast, calls the forest her “spiritual home”: “The forest is an immense ecosystem. It’s not just a tree, nature, a place where you come, walk around, meditate and then leave. It’s an ecosystem with hundreds to thousands of living organisms, and everything in nature is interconnected.

Take a city, for example. What is a city? You can’t say it’s just buildings and a big mass of people. There are so many things there, and everything is interconnected. So the forest is not just trees either.” “In translation, Selkup means ‘forest people’,” as Natalya Platonovna Izhenbina states, an inhabitant of the village of Ivankino in Tomsk Oblast; “If you asked us where we felt better: in the house or in the forest, I’d answer in the forest, because we like the forest more.”

Photo from the personal archive of Polina Shulbaeva, Novy Vasyugan village, Tomsk region

Ivan Ivanov, a member of the indigenous Komi people from the oil-extracting settlement of Nizhny Odes in the Komi Republic, recalls that he has been going into the forest “since as far back as he can remember” with his father, a hunter, who taught him “not to take too much”.

As a child, he first encountered pollution – “there were already oily streams back then”. Today, Ivan heads the non-profit Committee for Saving the Pechora, which fights to conserve the nature of his native region.

Answering my questions, Ivan stopped to think for a moment: “What is the forest for me? I can hide there. The forest heals me. I get my thoughts in order there. It’s an environment you can live in. What would you call that? It’s where I live! My planet!”

Vyacheslav Shadrin, a Yukaghir from the village of Nelemnoye in the Upper Kolyma Ulus of the Sakha Republic, says that although he has been living in town for almost twenty years, he constantly makes the effort to go for walks in the forest.

The forest is important for his mental well-being. Vyacheslav is one of the few surviving Yukaghirs to have undergone the ceremony of joining kin with a tree: “I have a brother tree in the area of ​​the Omulyovka river basin (a tributary of the Kolyma). I went through a special rite and have a connection with this tree.

From the state of this tree, my uncle has always been aware of my health problems. I was still young then and was sceptical about it. But there were two occasions when he simply amazed me: I was already living in Yakutsk, and, at his request, the radio operator who keeps in touch with him got hold of me to ask what had happened to me: one time I had injured my leg, and the other time it was my hand.”

Polina Shulbayeva likewise touches on this same theme. Admittedly, her story does not involve one specific tree, but rather particular kinds: whether they be a cedar, a pine, or a birch... There are male trees and female trees. From their early years, children are taught by their parents how to find and sense which tree is “theirs”. And then, whenever they experience a breakdown in later life, they can come up to such trees, embrace them and listen to how the energy of their tree pours into them.

Daria Yegereva, also a Selkup, says that for her the forest is a sacred place one can go to to restore one’s strength. She recalls how, during a difficult period in her teenage years, she went out there to cry and “hug a birch tree” while no one was looking. Daria’s family had also taught her from a young age to go into the forest, but as a form of work: “I had certain set conditions not for leisure, but for work. We went twice a day to the forest. For berries, for mushrooms, filling our buckets. We came back to drink tea and then went out into the forest again. The attitude to the forest is one of work, not just walking around to collect leaves for the herbarium.”

Galina Tuimesheva, a member of the Tubalar people and a sixth-generation indigenous resident of the village of Yailyu in the Altai Republic, says that nature is alive for her ethnic group: “We believe in the spirits of our mountains, rivers and lakes... [It’s] Just a beautiful old cedar – we personify it – it’s like a living entity for us. Our ancestors prayed to all this, prayed and lived in unison with nature, and so spiritually we are very protected here.”

Galina says that the air is cleaner in the cedar forests of the Altai than in an operating theatre, that these are the “lungs of Mother Earth”. She likes to take long walks in the forest, saying that it fills her with energy and knowledge, and also calls the forest her “native home”.

In the photo - Galina Tuymesheva (from the personal archive), the village of Yailu and its environs, the Republic of Altai - photo Elena Sakirko

Another protective role the forest plays in the lives of indigenous peoples is that of a resource bank and the basis of all life. “The forest feeds. It gives berries, mushrooms, roots and bark,” as Valentina Sovkina, a representative of the Sami people, shares her thoughts about the forest. “We used to make cakes from pine bark: we ground pine flour, which we boiled, and you could season the soup when there was no flour. In the forest you can shelter from the weather, it’s warmer in the forest than on the bare tundra.”

Agrafena Sopochina, a member of the Khanty people from the Surgut region, notes that a modern person could live well enough without the forest, but for a native there is “everything-everything-everything” you need in the forest: “The forest for me is a being that provides all living and warmth, and food, and everything-everything-everything, including people. To make yourself a house you need sawn poles, you need to cover these poles with something, you need skins, and the forest also provides this, to make it warm you need firewood, and, of course, food – everything that the forest grows – not only wild plants, but animals, fish and so on too. If there were no forest, there’d be no fish, because the forest ensures the safekeeping of the water.”
The forest for an indigenous person thus represents their daily toil, the extraction of the resources needed for life; it is both the food to satisfy physical hunger and spiritual communication, a link with previous generations, a living organism with which you can talk, a place to spend time alone with your thoughts, and a being that gives the energy for the continuation of life.

The river as life

Water is another key resource for the continuation of human life. For the native, water is also spiritualised and charged with many important vital functions. On the one hand, it is a direct resource for quenching the body’s thirst, and so is taken from local bodies of water.
Yulia Gorbachyova, a Selkup woman originally from the village of Ivankino in Tomsk Oblast, shares her impressions: “It seems to me that the most delicious water is when you’re in the forest, taken from a lake and [filtered] through a handkerchief! That’s so delicious to me. In the lake, with all these things floating in it – little bugs...” On the other hand, this is a habitat for fish to live in. And fish form more than just the traditional diet of indigenous peoples, they are also an integral part of the culture.

“I was born into and raised in a family that lived off fishing and hunting,” says Yulia. “I saw a lot of fish, a lot of pelts, a lot of meat. I grew up on this, with my grandmother, Yelizaveta Varlamovna Sychina; I followed her like a tail, carrying a big birch bark box for putting mushrooms and berries in. My grandmother passed away, I was twelve years old, and from the age of fifteen I started fishing myself and still do so: I have two children of my own now, I found myself a fisherman husband, and we all go fishing with him. Yulia proudly adds that her son, despite having grown up in the large village of Togur, which they were forced to move to because of their children’s studies, and not having been on a fishing trip since childhood, still loves fish on an almost genetic level.

In addition, water refers to specific bodies of water that are perceived by indigenous peoples as living beings in their own right, or the guardians of such places. They are treated with respect, certain rules are observed in interactions with them, and pollution or the degradation of such water bodies causes a pain that can be compared to the loss of the basis of all life.

Natalya Platonovna Izhenbina calls the river a foster mother or nourisher: “The Selkups live along the banks of the River Ob. And thanks to the river, we survived. You get up in the morning – fish, all day fish, fish... We ate fish all the time in different forms: boiled, smoked, salted, cured, fried, and dry...”
“The Vasyugan bog is the largest swamp on our continent. It’s bigger than France. And it’s still growing, there are so many rivers and lakes. These water bodies are all named in the indigenous languages.
I used to live on the River Vasyugan, and this is made up of two words from the Khanty language: Vas Ukhgan – the ‘Narrow River’,” says Polina Shulbayeva. “When I was little, we were taught how to walk correctly in the swamps, the rules of the forest and for how to behave in it. When I came to the city at the age of sixteen to go to university, everyone said that I walked strangely. I’d got used to walking in a different way, and it’s probably still visible in me today.

You see, this isn’t merely a mental connection with nature, it’s about your behavioural habits too: like how you walk, for example. A man from the tundra or from the wetlands always stands out: he doesn’t plant his feet in the same way as an ordinary city person. This isn’t just about traditional knowledge, where you know what berries and what mushrooms to pick in what season. It’s a different mentality: you think in a completely different way.” Polina emphasises that they kept a certain rule in their minds from early childhood: “When people are engaged in any traditional economic activity near water, by a river or a lake, or in the swamps, you don’t make a noise. Because the sound travels far and wide, disturbing the fish, birds and animals, and predators can come along.”

Vyacheslav Shadrin meanwhile reminisces that his native village of Nelemnoye used to be a spawning place for fish (the name of the village comes from the word nyel’ma or “Siberian white salmon”) and that children were not allowed to play on the river bank during the spawning season, so as not to unduly bother the fish.

A member of the Yukaghir people emphasises the ritual attitude to rivers observed in Yakutia and its connection with the well-being of the people: “The river is the main link holding everything together. For us, the indigenous people, all natural phenomena – including animals, and the lake, and the forest, for example – they’re all combined. When we go on a journey, we must feed the river, we always address it in person. There used to be certain rituals associated with the river.

When, for instance, the ice began to drift on the river, you had to help the river – by shooting a gun up into the air. This is ritually connected, almost like in childbirth, to helping break the ice so that the river can be freed of it. Once the ice is broken like this, the river gets moving. We pour out some vodka, and give it something to eat.”
Photos from the personal archive of Natalia Platonovna Izhenbina, Ivankino village, Tomsk region
Galina Tuimesheva shares her special attitude to waterfalls and water: “In our territory there are waterfalls located in secluded places. Any mountain river has waterfalls, because on its way it will encounter, in one way or another, stones or obstacles in the form of deadwood – and so, as it falls over these, a waterfall is created. I had a favourite place like this near our village, but one year there were heavy autumn rains and, unfortunately, the waterfall was destroyed.

During my childhood and youth, it was the most beautiful waterfall. It wasn’t so big, though – literally six metres in height. I really loved spending time alone there, listening to the sound of the water. Water is cleansing. I live right beside the water, my house stands literally thirty metres from the shore. Come joy or come troubles, I go either into the forest or to the shore of my Teletskoye Lake. Nowadays my occupation involves meeting and communicating with lots of different people.

They’re mostly kind, pleasant people, but malevolent types come to Yailyu too, who don’t know what their purpose is in coming here or what they want to find here. And for some reason, we, the locals, end up being their punching bags. So, when I’m faced with some kind of negativity, I go to the lake and plunge headlong into it – I cleanse myself, wash myself. And, of course, I ask the lake afterwards to forgive me for throwing off my negativity into it. Lake Teletskoye is a huge living organism, into which there flow more than one hundred and thirty rivers and streams, all of which carry their waters from the mountains, from the rocks, from the forests of the taiga... And all this power is there in the depths of this lake.”

Ivan Ivanov from the Komi Republic compares the river with life: “When you live on the river, you can do nothing, you can go ashore and watch how the world changes, how summer replaces spring, and so on, fine weather, bad weather, movement, life... What it goes on, that it changes. Basically, fish live in the river too, you can eat and you can travel on it. No wonder villages were built along the river. It’s a road, and food too – to wash in, to drink from.”
Photos from the personal archive of Ivan Ivanov, Komi Republic

Animals as totems

The water is teeming with fish, and the forest teems with wild animals. And the indigenous people have also built a special relationship with their non-human neighbours. Many indigenous individuals say they have no fear of wild animals, having had to deal with them since childhood and having learnt to choose their path accordingly.
Polina tells how, as a child, she was once hunted by a lynx: “She was small, probably just learning to hunt. We’d gone out to gather pine cones in the autumn, and I saw something red running around me. For two hours she chased me like that. But I wasn’t alone, and we saw that she was small, and wasn’t going to lunge out at us, so we weren’t afraid. I know how terrifying this can be for many people.

But when you live in all this, you know the rules, and know that a little lynx won’t attack you. Of course, there is a big mama-cat prowling around somewhere nearby, watching how the young one learns and teaching her, but she won’t rush in if you’re not alone, and if you don’t threaten her cub you needn’t worry at all.

Polina also recalls how, when she went to pick berries in the swamp as a child, she loved to watch snakes: “Whenever I saw them, I’d sit down and stay there to watch. They never attacked me, because they probably didn’t feel threatened, as I never prodded them with a stick or my hands. I didn’t make any sudden movements. I just went up close to them, watched a while, and left.”
Natalya Platonovna Izhenbina stresses that wild animals try to avoid meeting humans, and the rare instances when a beast approaches their dwellings are ones in which it is asking for help, such as when a very sick animal wants to be put out of its misery. This is how they always used to think in the village of Ivankino.

Yulia Gorbachyova admitted that she only became afraid of bears when she had small children of her own, and one came to her house. Recently, indigenous peoples have begun to notice the growing frequency of wild animals appearing in the villages.

They associate this both with food scarcities as a result of climate change, and generally with the fact that “everything has begun to change” and “this is a completely different animal now”, and with the fact that bears, for example, are often fed by industrial workers, which has changed their attitudes to human beings and their settlements.

At the same time, if, say, there is a disaster in the forest, such as a fire, and an animal comes out towards a human, many indigenous people believe that they are obliged to help it, to give it water, and that it must not be killed, because “nature itself sent him to you for help”. Fairy tales teach interaction with the forest from childhood. Many fairy tales feature the motif of having to respect nature as you would your nearest and dearest, and that people are very close to animals: they often transform into them and vice versa.
In the beliefs of indigenous peoples, all animals are sentient. And they do not pose any threat to humans, including predators like the bear, wolf, and so on, if unprovoked. Many peoples of the North have totemic notions involving their deep connection with the animal world.
For example, Vyacheslav Shadrin says that the Yukaghirs revered bears as their kin, meaning that it was forbidden to kill a bear. Some clans had an association with wolves, and there were even legends about how people became wolves.

In Vyacheslav’s native village of Nelemnoye, most of the inhabitants belong to the Ushkan clan, whose totem animal is a hare. Their Yukaghir name is Cholgoradomok, i.e. “the hare clan”.

By way of example, Vyacheslav also mentions a Yukaghir legend that tells how a larch tree fell down and from it the first ancestors emerged, and also that the Yukaghirs are deer people: a deer walked along and hairs of its coat fell to the ground, and later sprouted. That is, where it had passed, humans appeared.

Galina Tuimesheva explains how the Tubalars also have totem animals. These are the maral or red deer and the white wolf: “Marals live in our forests to this day, but no one has seen any white wolves for a long time. Despite this, we meet our totem animals on the subtle spiritual plane.

This is something you have to feel for. Our most important object is the ancestral mountain Torot. It was at the foot of this mountain that our ancestors performed the ritual of sacrifice. They didn’t only sacrifice to this mountain, but also to the spirit of the lake, the forest, and the spirits of our ancestors, who protect and guard us.”

Indigenous peoples have a great many different rules and traditions associated with animals. “The swan is a bird that cannot be touched at all,” says Polina Shulbayeva in reference to the traditions of her people. “It’s the bird of the dead. That is, a bird which is an intermediary between the world of the living and the dead. You can’t kill her, this is taboo, a prohibition – you’ll be cursed, your whole family will be cursed. My brother still leaves a piece of bread or something before entering the forest, at the junction of the forest “roads”. There’s no other way of doing things. If you come to the forest, you don’t just take, you have to give too. The same goes for fishing when you go to the river. Apart from that, we never killed birds of prey, for instance. On the contrary, if you go fishing and you see that a bird of prey is flying above you, well, you leave behind one or two fish on the shore and move on.”

Lingering sounds

Nature is full of sounds. The cries of animals, the noises of the forest and water are identified by indigenous people as an important part of the space around them.
As Valentina Sovkina recalls, “The first sound – and I call it the music of the heart – is the barking of the deer. I get such a feeling, like something inside me is starting to tremble. Whenever I hear them, I’m just in such a state of reverence, and if they are around, if they are running, then it means everything in life is as it should be.

Everything is in order, everything is stable, and if they are making their calls, it means that life goes on.” Ivan Ivanov tells how he has loved the sound of murmuring water and the spring forest ever since his childhood: “When [you’re] on the river somewhere at night, on a rushing river, on the rapids... When you walk through the forest, you listen to the birds, and it’s clear that life goes on. In the spring, everyone almost comes to life – the birds, the animals – and they sing like crazy.”

Polina Shulbayeva remembers the sound of leaves rustling and crunching underfoot as a child walking through the wetlands: “The swamp is so moist, and there are all sorts of dry fallen bits of bark and twigs in it. And when you step on them, it makes sounds like this: ‘KHRRR’, a crunching noise, but very soft and wet, reminiscent of something like the purring of a cat.”

Vyacheslav Shadrin talks about sounds and the silence which is important for one’s interactions with nature and survival: “I really love the pre-dawn silence, that short moment when the sun rises. A more unsettling feeling is when the northern lights start talking to you, whispering something to you. This is a warning sign. Usually about a coming frost: the northern lights start talking to you when there is some kind of danger looming. They say it’s heard most often by those who are freezing to death.”
Agrafena Sopochina says that all her life she has loved it when the capercaillies sing and flying swans make their calls: “Probably you’ve never seen pink swans? I’ve seen them! I was sitting guarding the smokehouse for the venison, and as soon as the sun began to rise, I saw swans flying above me. The rising sun illuminated them, and they were pink, not white, but pink! I can see them right before my eyes even now.”

Silence is often perceived as emptiness, as a warning sign of approaching change. “When you’re walking, the forest never stops,” says Polina Shulbayeva, “it doesn’t happen in nature that a sound disappears. This happens in the city or in an apartment. But in nature, life doesn’t stop, and you constantly hear some kind of sound.”

Agrafena Sopochina laments that there are almost never any wood grouse heard any more in the forest where she lives: “While 60–70 years ago in the spring we fell asleep to the song of the wood grouse and woke up to the song of the wood grouse, now you won’t hear them. There’s silence in the forest. You used to walk through the forest – a chipmunk would whistle there, whistle there, a squirrel would run by, a squirrel would chirp away over there, but now I don’t hear anything at all. An empty forest.”
Photos from the personal archive of Agrafena Sopochina: Territory of traditional nature management; Garbage left near the sacred place Shaman Mountain); Traces of lumberjacks on a reindeer pasture; Agrafena Sopochina on the territory of traditional nature management
The deserted, silent forest is perceived by the indigenous people as an alarming sign of the dying away of life, of nature concealing itself. Indigenous peoples are witnessing the on-going climate change in their daily lives, and many see it as a response to human activities. “Nature has stopped trusting us,” says the older generation.

The article was written on the basis of materials from 9 interviews with representatives of indigenous peoples (conducted in December 2021). Interview participants:

Polina Shulbaeva is a member of the Selkup people and native of the village of Vasyugan in Tomsk Oblast. Now Polina lives in Tomsk, where she came to study when she was 16 years old, but every summer, for holidays and weekends, she goes to her relatives. Polina is the coordinator of activities in the field of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, the Center for Support of Indigenous Peoples of the North, and a member of international working groups under the CBD, IFFCS, IPBES and others.

Daria Egereva, Natalya Izhenbina and Yulia Gorbacheva are members of the Selkup people, originally from the village of Ivankino in Tomsk Oblast. In addition, they represent the regional organization "Union of Indigenous Peoples of the North of the Tomsk Region", which includes several local organizations and people from different parts of Tomsk region. Now Daria lives in Moscow and is a member of the Center for Support of Indigenous Peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East, as well as the representative of indigenous peoples on the UN platform on climate change. Natalya and Yulia still spend a lot of time in Ivankino. For the winter, Yulia leaves for Togur (Kolpashevsky district of the Tomsk region), Natalya - for Kolpashevo, where she leads the creative association "Tussayoka" (Sparkle). She teaches the Selkup language and culture. With women, they sew souvenirs and participate in fairs.

Vyacheslav Shadrin is a member of the Yukagir people. Vyacheslav was born and raised in the village of Nelemnoye in the Verkhnekolymsky ulus of the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia). Currently he lives in Yakutsk and is the Vice President of the Association of Indigenous Minorities of the North of the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia).

Ivan Ivanov is a member of the Komi people, currently he lives in the oil-extracting village of Nizhny Odes, where he moved in early childhood. Now he heads the Save Pechora Committee, an environmental non-profit organization working in the Pechora River basin.

Galina Tuymesheva is a member of the Tubalari people, a sixth-generation indigenous resident of the village of Yailyu in the Altai Republic. She is a member of the non-governmental organization "Sacred Altai", which is trying to preserve the nature of their native land.

Agrafena Sopochina, a member of the Khanty people, grew up on the territory of traditional nature use in the forest, now she lives in the village Lyantor, Surgut district. Agrafena is an anthropologist, translator, specialist in the language and culture of the Surgut Khanty, she also actively defends the nature of her native land and the rights of her people.

Valentina Sovkina is a Saami activist born in a family of fishermen and reindeer herders. He is the head of the elected body - the Assembly of the Saami of the Kola Peninsula), a member of the Aboriginal Forum and the Saami Women's Forum.