On an unusually hot day in the village of Uelen, Chukotka, I was talking with a Russian ethnographer named Dmitri.

“The Chukchi who live here once burned the dried roots of the angelica plant [Angelica archangelica] to keep evil spirits out of their yarangas [tents],” Dmitri told me. 

“What sort of evil spirits?” I said, mopping the sweat from my brow.

“Family members who didn’t know they were dead. They just stuck around the yaranga, breaking dishes and making loud screams at night. The smoke from burning angelica roots would get rid of them.” 

“Wouldn’t the dead family member get angry at a living family member who’s trying to get rid of him or her?” 

“Sometimes, da. So, the best way to protect yourself against angry dead people is to carry around a raven’s claw at all times.”

“I’ll remember that,” I said, mopping more sweat from my brow. Then I asked him if there were any evil spirits besides deceased family members.

“Yes, keedles,” he said. “These were six-legged invisible polar bears that break into the yarangas and try to eat people. Especially, they liked to eat young children. But the Chukchi don’t believe in keedles anymore. Now they believe in kindles, ha ha...”

“Any more evil spirits nowadays?” I inquired.

“Yes, there’s a really bad one,” he observed, mopping his own sweat now. “The heating up of our planet, and even the burning of an angelica root won’t get rid of it...”

Excerpt from The Last Speaker of Bear: My Encounters in the North, collection of vignettes of a life spent traveling in the north from Alaska and Canada to Siberia, Greenland, Iceland, and Norway. Millman spent four decades since on some thirty-five expeditions in search of undeveloped landscapes, wildlife, and traditional cultures.

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