Oral Tradition Fieldwork Feature

Legends of Lake Baikal:
A Conversation with Agnieszka Matkowska

Agnieszka Matkowska
Agnieszka Matkowska

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The storytelling traditions surrounding southern Siberia’s Lake Baikal, one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world, provide Agnieszka Matkowska with a rich fieldwork topic. The Irkutsk region is home to the Buryat people, an ethnic minority in Russia of Mongol origin closely tied to the Khalkha-Mongols, whose oral tradition caught Matkowska’s attention during a tour in 2007 and has been the subject of her scholarly pursuit ever since.

The legends she studies are tied to geographic locations and physical features of the land. One legend familiar to most Buryat people concerns the Angara River. The Angara flows northward from Lake Baikal. In the legend, Angara is a young woman who runs away from her father, Baikal, to be with the man she loves. Attempting to prevent her flight, Baikal flings a stone to block her way. That stone is now known as Shaman Rock.

Her fieldwork brought her in contact with around 50 storytellers, including performers who belong to professional collectives, shamans, and unaffiliated individuals familiar with the tradition. During her multiple trips to the region, she has conducted fieldwork in the Irkutsk Oblast’ region, characterized as a part of “ethnographic Buryatia,” where she documented storytelling events with audio and video recording along with photographs and field notes.

Matkowska credits the assistance of several scholars and community members who familiarized her with the culture and connected her with storytellers. She also conducted preliminary fieldwork in the National Library of Buryatia and the archive of the Buryat Scientific Centre, the Siberian branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences. This particular archive holds the work of scholars Sergey Petrovich Baldaev and Ilya Nikolaevich Madason, who conducted fieldwork among the Buryat people in ethnographic Buryatia. Fieldnotes and transcriptions provided Matkowska with leads on where to find stories and informants.

The Buryat language is a variety of Mongolic classified either as a language or as a major dialect group of Mongolian. It is spoken in a relatively small area, and Matkowska estimates that “most, if not all” Buryat people speak Russian. Some performers cater to Russian speaking audiences, but in some contexts, the Buryat language is the only appropriate choice. Shamans are “obliged to perform in the language of [their] ancestors.” They will sometimes tell legends “at a ritual gathering, when visiting a sacred place, etc.” although the legends are not part of the official ceremony. Matkowska is collecting primarily in Buryat. Even with her knowledge of the everyday language, the older and dialectic forms of language used in the legends present further challenges in translation.

The oral legends have a complex interrelationship with print versions, the legends are printed in tourist travel books and pamphlets in souvenir shops, and their audience has become diverse. In their oral form, the legends she studies are commonly performed in small contexts, for example, within an individual’s home.

Matkowska is finishing her doctorate in Linguistics at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Poland, where she has submitted her dissertation “Variation Limits in Oral Tradition Based on the Baikal Legends.” Matkowska was the visiting Lord scholar at the University of Missouri’s Center for Studies in Oral Tradition in 2011-12.

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