The Last Mohicans

Director of the Museum of the Romanian Peasant in Bucharest

"The right of the Danube Delta Biosphere locals to preserve their specific customs and traditional economic activities is guaranteed." That was in 1993. It was a sort of "constitution" of the Delta, which guaranteed fundamental rights to its inhabitants. It was beautiful, but unrealistic. Nowadays, the law's vision is a bit different: "The Reserve Administration makes proposals for paying compensation, according to law, in case of the economic contraction or suspension of traditional activities, as caused by restrictive management measures. This compensation will be paid by those who impose the restrictions that will lead to the contraction or the suspension of certain traditional economic activities, as in all member states of the E.U." Sadly, this is more realistic. And then again, it is as in all member states of the E.U.… It also happened in so many places around the world, where "natives" had to give up their way of life to make way for the one brought by civilization. Moreover, those who our world considers aborigines, the primitive societies sitting at the origin of mankind's irreversible evolution, the hunters and harvesters have generally disappeared from this world. Communities that practically live from hunting, fishing and/or harvesting don't really exist in the present day; they have "evolved" or have been swollen by neighboring, more "evolved" societies. The isolated communities of fishermen from the Delta, the Lipovans or the Haholi, are themselves, in a way, part of this bastion of "last Mohicans", about to become extinct. They are our close savages that used to live on their fishing territories, today the inhabitants of a reservation, disciplined by European legislation. They and their "traditional" way of life can no longer be "guaranteed" by law, but only "compensated", according to their degree of extinction. Like all savages and their primitive way of life, wherever they might live, not only from "all member states of the E.U.". Naturally, neither Lipovans nor Haholi are locals and in no way are they aborigines: they came quite recently, fleeing from Russia and Ukraine for political and religious reasons. Since then, they have become fishermen and locals to such a degree that for Romanians "Delta" is almost synonymous with "Lipovans" – which is quite far from the truth. Anyway, their way of life, within the persistent isolation of their small communities, became for a long period of time similar to the "primitive" one of wandering fishermen, living (almost) exclusively from fishing and the rules and rhythms imposed by it. Thus, the Lipovan of the Delta has played the role of the aborigine, he was as if he would be such an exotic savage, even though in fact he was and remained much closer to the rural societies than to those of hunters and harvesters. Despite an up-to-date, hurried vision, communism hasn't changed a great deal of this lifestyle. It was more like a "tributary system", as the Ottoman one, adapted to modern times. It grouped people in brigades, forced them to give the fish production to the state, but in all other aspects it didn't really interfere: it was too far, too complicated and they were too few to really matter. And the communists didn't really bother to help the fishermen in any significant way. After they gave Caesar what was due to Caesar, the fishermen looked after their own matters, after their laws and in their already "traditional" rhythm. Strangers didn't come too often here to change this way of life, except amateur fishermen who tried to settle in these lands. A long period of time had to pass, and strangers endured many initiation rituals before they would be accepted by locals. For instance, old Pavel watched over Florin for six years before he would let him get in his own boat; he finally let him eat at the same table two years later. The Delta was their territory. Like any other hunting, fishing, harvesting or whatever territory. It wasn't – and it couldn't be – someone's property. Even if some attributed themselves more rights to it than others – or than themselves, the locals. They left at the right time for the right places and they came back with more or less fish. Sometimes, it happened that they would never come back. For instance, when Joco died, old Vasea searched for him for weeks, together with other fishermen. However, the season for herrings approached, that they couldn't skip, so all were preparing for retreat. Luckily, they found his body, driven far away by currents, a few days before the herring season began, so they could bury him properly. Then, his death entered the rich collection of heroic stories of Delta fishermen, through which they consecrated their territory and their manly relationship with it. There is also another consecrated territory, especially for young men: that of wild boar hunting. It was the first thing Rareş told me, when we first talked, over a glass of beer: at night, dogs, specially trained for wild boars, the "pica", made from the spring foil of a farm tractor, and, above everything else, the interdiction to wear a fire arm. Because it is loud and you can be caught (boar hunting is poaching); but also because killing the boar with your "bare hands" is a sort of initiation ritual for the local young men. A few days ago, when I was in the field with the students, the first stories told to the girls by a few proud local boys, referred to boar hunting. The first time I asked the people from Sfântu Gheorghe to draw "mental maps" of the town, I was amazed by the huge space allocated on the map to nature, the Danube and some surrounding canals. The town was there, with its few essential places, but part of a larger space, from which it seemed it couldn't be separated. I repeated the experiment this year. The town seemed almost not to appear on the maps. Almost every drawing represents only the Delta, all of the Delta, with all of its points of attraction that you can see on tourist flyers as well. It's similar to Maramureş, where locals show you what they've learned that tourists are interested in. It is no longer a mental map, not their mental map but a plain copy of tourist maps. This "mental map" of a consecrated territory began to blur in recent years, making room for nostalgia and aggressiveness. In short, confusion. The fishing and hunting territory of the Delta "natives" has gradually become biosphere, national and international reservation, exclusive property of concession holders and border space, one over the other. All these categories of property have their own security and control guards to protect them. From whom? From the locals! Fast motorboats belonging to different "police forces" hunt down fishermen who still think they're on their own territories and who are not keen on abiding by new regulations. Moreover, they don't really understand their usefulness… To protect themselves from the new hunters, all the locals, young and old, bought mobile phones, so they can spread the word quickly: the ecological police is coming! Or the border police! Or X's patrol, meaning the new owner of the water surrounding their fishing community! You're of legal age, you're vaccinated and you've got a mobile phone! – yells an old fisherman to a young man. Like, what else, now you're ready for work and on your feet. And they started poaching. I mean, more hardened and more systematic than ever. Even more dangerous and inadmissible than it once was for themselves. About seven years ago, when I heard about two brothers that once went fishing "by the generator", I found out two days later that the two took a serious beating from the other fishermen from the village. When I passed there, this year, everyone was poaching – though not necessarily with electrical current. "For food" – they say. "Poachers are only those who get wealthy from this. If you fish, just like that, to put food on the table, that's not poaching," explains to me a local fishing inspector. At Sfântu Gheorghe you can foresee the future of the Delta and of its inhabitants. At one end of the village, alongside the Danube, the new owner of the place has made his appearance: a tourist complex as ecological as it can get, blending into the landscape, from thatched roofs to ponds with swans. On one side of the road that leads to the beach lies the three star camping space, with all its facilities. On the other side of the road lies the four star hotel, itself surrounded by a fence, with its pool and multiplex. All over, under the starlit sky, remains the fenceless territory of the "aborigines", about to convert to the new religion of tourism. Welcome to the natural Danube Delta biosphere reserve, such a lovely place, such a lovely place!

by Vintilă Mihăilescu