Student Spotlight

By Derk Renwick
heimark.JPG

Erik Heimark is a senior studying anthropology and religious studies. He studied abroad in Siberia last year in order to investigate the changing face of religious organization in regional attitudes and religious practices.

Why did you choose Siberia as a Study Abroad destination?

I chose to study abroad after hearing about a program in Russia that allowed undergraduates to design and carry out their own research. A friend of mine in the anthropology department suggested I apply for the Student Project for Amity among Nations (SPAN) program because she knew I was interested in Siberia. I had no idea I would be able to study abroad in Siberia when I started looking for foreign study programs in Russia. I wanted to study in a small region in southern Siberia on the border of Mongolia and Kazakhstan called the Altai Republic, but I did not think it would be possible. It worked out that I was able to study under a Russian graduate student in the Altai for a month. I was thrilled about how much I would learn from the experience of traveling with a Russian ethnographer and doing first-hand research.

By Derk Renwick
heimark.JPG

Erik Heimark is a senior studying anthropology and religious studies. He studied abroad in Siberia last year in order to investigate the changing face of religious organization in regional attitudes and religious practices.

Why did you choose Siberia as a Study Abroad destination?

I chose to study abroad after hearing about a program in Russia that allowed undergraduates to design and carry out their own research. A friend of mine in the anthropology department suggested I apply for the Student Project for Amity among Nations (SPAN) program because she knew I was interested in Siberia. I had no idea I would be able to study abroad in Siberia when I started looking for foreign study programs in Russia. I wanted to study in a small region in southern Siberia on the border of Mongolia and Kazakhstan called the Altai Republic, but I did not think it would be possible. It worked out that I was able to study under a Russian graduate student in the Altai for a month. I was thrilled about how much I would learn from the experience of traveling with a Russian ethnographer and doing first-hand research.

What surprised you most about your stay? What was surprisingly similar?

The kindness and toughness of the Altaians impressed me the most. My Altaian friends gave me so much help on my project, taking me to visit shamans and lamas and freely translating Russian and Altaian to English; they were also incredibly hardy. At a nationalist festival I watched a game called Buzkazi--a game like rugby played on horseback.

My experience coming from a farm allowed me to connect on a deeper level with many Altaians. I talked about farming and horseback riding with my family as we built a stove and small log cabin together. So many things were different and also very similar, for instance, seeing yaks and camels among the cattle and sheep herds was new to me, but I was familiar with certain of their cattle breeds (Herford, for example).

What did you study/research in Siberia?

I wanted to research how and why religious concepts were changing in the Altai Republic. I was interested in why the Altaians had been experiencing a religious resurgence in modern times and why there were so many differing opinions on what religion the Altai should support. Likewise I was interested in why the Altai felt it needed a national religion altogether. I found Altaians who were invested in their national identity, usually those who were educated and lived in the cities, wanted to promote Buddhism as the nation's religion and downplay the nation's practice and history of shamanism. The most interesting part of my research was finding that despite this desire for the Altai to have a single national religion, religious life was so mixed between the different religions. I visited a shaman that wore a Buddhist hat and rung a Buddhist bell in some rituals, and when I visited a Buddhist Lama I ended up performing a milk ritual common among shamanic practices. Likewise, Orthodox Christians in Siberia make pilgrimages to shamanic sites in the Altai.

How did your experience change the way you approach religious studies?

The experience made the challenges of ethnography very real for me. I learned that a good ethnography is made by the clarity and organization of one's ideas. It was not until I got my ideas straight and clear in my head that the ethnographic examples fell neatly into place. The experiences also made my interests in religious studies more clear. I am interested in the the actions of religion, or the work religion does among social relationships. This insight has changed my focus from being an area specialist in southern Siberia to focusing on how religious concepts change and adapt to different social settings, such as the rise of the market economy in the post-Soviet world.

What are your plans for the future?

I have thought a lot about pursuing similar studies in graduate school, however, I am also thinking about starting a new chapter in my life. I spent last summer volunteering on a farm in Norway. The experience also made me realize farming and a rural lifestyle must be a part of my life. If I pursue further study of the Altai Republic, I would like to do so from the perspective of changing religious concepts with regard to the rise of market economy.

In 2011-2012, I plan to improve my Russian language skills with the help of a full-year Foreign Language and Area Studies fellowship. I also plan to take a few writing classes while I finish my degree.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by rels published on March 8, 2012 10:58 AM.

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