This book is an ethnographic study of the present-day religious life of the Telengits, a Turkic-speaking population of 8,000-9,000 people in Southern Altai (Federation of Russia). It provides very valuable materials on the local debates of the 1990s about the religion that ought to be adopted by Altaians: Buddhism, Shamanism, or Burkhanism ― an indigenous millenarian movement of the early twentieth century ―, as well as original descriptions of contemporary ritual practices of the Telengits. The brief presentation of the Altai (chap. 1) ignores some of the main sources on this region (Dyrenkova, for instance) and contains many historical and ethnographical inaccuracies (e.g., the difference between Northern and Southern Altaians, who have different ethno-geneses, social organisations and histories, is assessed as an “outcome” of the Soviet period, p.20). The second chapter provides a detailed description of the relationships of the inhabitants of different Telengit rural localities with their environment. The analysis of maps drawn by villagers reveals significant contrasts. Chapter 3 (“Moving through a Powerful Landscape”) is disappointing, due to the absence of ethnography of Altaian nomadic pastoralism. It is difficult to describe “movement” in a semi-nomadic population without any reference to pastoral activities and to mobile uses of landscape. Instead of studying the itineraries of herders, A. E. Halemba describes a touristic travel she accomplished through the Altai Mountains with other scholars after a conference. Chapter 4 (“Rites of Springs”) describes ritual practices of Altaian families visiting holy springs (arzhans). The reader will find here excellent data about the decision-making process in ritual context. There is no stable rule about ritual procedures around arzhan and a new consensus has to be found between participants at each new performance. The chapter on the “Chaga Bairam” shows the transformation of the New Year ceremonial ― from a family ritual before the Soviet period, it became a national festival initiated by national ideologists. The title of chapter 6, “Ontology of the Spirits,” announces a rather strange programme, which consists of giving ontological status to Altaian spirits. However, no attempt is made in this chapter to explain why Altaians should have an ontological understanding of spirits, rather than a relational, or a phenomenological one. A. E. Halemba argues that, for Altaians, spirits are “indices of the occult.” The “occult” is defined, after Alfred Gell, in this way: “The occult, as the Holy, remains mostly unreachable and unknown (138).” This theory seems to be neither consistent with the Gellian notion of index, which deals with material artefacts, nor with the Altaian terminology itself. It is not sure that such a mysterious notion as “occult” can be very helpful in an anthropological analysis. The two last chapters address the question of ritual speciality (shamans and lamas) and the relationship between ritual practices and national ideology.
One of the present book’s unquestionable achievements is the author’s subtle description of the complexity of the notion of Altai. Altai can be the name of different mounts and at the same time of the whole massif. Such an ambiguity is of course a consequence of the traditional nomadic way of life of the Telengits. In nomadic migration, the status of main protecting mountain, designated by the term Altai, is assumed by different concrete summits depending on settlement. The thesis of the book ― that the Altai is a part of the “personhood” of Altaians ― is in contradiction with the nomadic experience of landscape. For herders, the mountain is not a part of them; on the contrary, they are a part of the mountain, which gives them life. At a theoretical level, the notion of personhood does not seem relevant here, as for the relationship with the mountain, if necessary for anybody, does not define a particular person. Altaians also acknowledge that the sun is important for their life: however would it make sense to conclude that the sun is a part of the “Altaian personhood”? The focus of the book on nationalism, which is not announced in the title, may be better understood if we take into account that, from the beginning of her research, the author was concerned by political ideas of urban élites rather than by the herders’ everyday life. In the introduction, she explains that in the early 1990s, like many other anthropologists, she decided to study in Russia the phenomenon of “national-cultural revival” with the help of the main theoretical tools then available: “the creation of tradition” and “national identity.” She “was fascinated by the activities of the mostly city-based, educated Altaians,” people who “often see themselves as the intellectual élite of the Altaian nation (p. 2).” The ideas of these intellectuals “serve as a background for an analysis of the contemporary religious life of the Telengits (ibid.).” However, in an anthropological perspective one can wonder whether it is not more useful to criticise the claims of Soviet-educated ‘élites’ to represent (and thus to reify) a whole population.