The Horse in My Blood: Land-Based Kinship in the Sayan and Altay Mountains, Inner Asia

The Horse in My Blood: Land-Based Kinship in the Sayan and Altay Mountains, Inner Asia
This study is an ethnography of human-nonhuman relationships in the Sayan and Altay Mountains of Inner Asia. It is an outcome of research that I conducted in collaboration with horsemen from my patrilineal Soyan clan, who live in the Tes-Xem province of the Tyva Republic (the Russian Federation). In this study, I explore phenomena related to the role of horses in post-Soviet Tyva—in particular, the horse’s participation in the moral economy of human-nonhuman relationships, its contribution to postsocialist identities, and its imbrication in politics.
This research contributes to ongoing anthropological debates on animism and “the ontological turn” by focusing on Inner Asian steppe pastoralists’ understandings of their relationships with sentient nonhumans—homelands and horses. I argue that the communities with whom I work are inherently more than human. By this I mean that, first, more than human communities are comprised of a herding family and domesticated animals; pastoralists adjust their transhumance time and routes to the needs of their livestock. Second, the relationships between pastoralists and domesticates are embedded in relationships with their homelands, which are understood as sentient and superordinate to the interspecies communities inhabiting them. The horse holds a special position among domesticated animals by virtue of living simultaneously in proximity to humans and the superordinate homelands. The ambiguity of the horse characterizes its high status and the understanding that it serves as a communicative bridge between homelands and human-nonhuman communities.
I theorize the inter-relations between homelands and their various inhabitants as a form of land-based, human-nonhuman kinship. By doing so, I expand on the Tyvan concept of “land-based kinship” (čer törel). I frame customary regulations, which apply to relationships within human-nonhuman kinship systems, as “guesting” (aaldaar). Aaldaar, the Tyvan practice of asking for help among kin. This allows me to define my research with Indigenous communities as responsible guesting (aaldaar), where a researcher and communities engage in sharing gift-knowledge. My emic experience as a Soyan with a background in herding life in Tyva has impacted the theoretical and methodological frameworks of my study and helped me to bridge the gap between academic and Indigenous epistemologies and ontologies.
The relational epistemology of Indigenous research has allowed me to employ storying with my kin, horses, and our homelands as a way of acquiring and sharing knowledge in this study. Storying has been especially helpful in analyzing the post-Soviet rise of the horse’s importance in Tyvan politics and identity negotiations among the pastoralists. It has revealed how a human-nonhuman community experiences sociopolitical and ecological transformations, and jointly responds to changes and threats. Storying allows me to show how various agents in human-nonhuman communities depend on each other in order to heal from past traumas and ensure resilience and survival.
In addition to storying, my main field research method was participant-observation with human-nonhuman communities via photography and audiovisual documentation of pastoralists’ practices. Making, sharing, and discussing audiovisual stories obtained through fieldwork formed an important part of the collaborative methodology with pastoralists and helped to shape the theoretical framework of my study around gift-knowledge sharing.


Victoria Peemot

Defended in

1 Jan 2021 – 31 Dec 2021

PhD defended at

University of Helsinki, Doctoral School in Humanities and Social Sciences, Doctoral Programme in History and Cultural Heritage


Social Sciences


Global Asia (Asia and other parts of the World)