For centuries, the Khanty have used their wits and a rich spiritual life to survive the harsh conditions of Siberia's taiga, the wooded, boggy ecosystem just south of the Arctic Circle. Recently, aggressive development by oil and gas interests has threatened traditional Khanty culture. To witness these changes firsthand, Smithsonian editor John F. Ross flew to Siberia and lived with a herder family.
Alexei and Dusya Moldanov care for 200 semidomesticated reindeer, traveling between seasonal camps. Here Ross learned about the Khanty's reverence for Siberian brown bear and heard stories of the invisible people, a group of spirits who are like the Khanty, only invisible. With the Moldanovs, the writer participated in the ceremonial sacrifice of a reindeer.
But the Russian fever for black gold has hit the Khanty hard, displacing them from hunting grounds, polluting rivers, destroying plant cover, and interrupting the deer herder economy. Alexei's daughter-in-law, Tatiana Moldanova, is working to establish Khanty cooperatives and negotiating with oil companies on how to minimize the negative effects of drilling, roads and pipelines. But she remains pessimistic. "In the next ten years," she says, "most of the traditional ways of the Khanty will vanish."