The seals inhabiting Eastern Siberia's Lake Baikal are involved in a suite of meaningful relationships with local people both in the present and in the distant past. Most people rarely see the seals in their natural habitat, but these animals nonetheless are considered icons of the region, particularly among tourists and the broader general public. Our recent interviews with Baikal seal hunters, most of whom are Buriat, revealed relationships of great depth and intimacy with these animals that involved, in part, knowing the animals based on their sounds, smells, taste, fur quality, appearance, and behavior. The hunters and their families maintain relationships with the animals by acting so as to stay in good standing with local spirits and through proper treatment of the animals' bodies after death. Further, Baikal seals have prominent roles in local cosmologies and legends, including the origin stories of some local groups. The region's archaeological record reveals that meaningful relationships with seals extend far back in time, including among ancient foraging groups, some of whom made representations of seals 7,000-8,000 years ago. Humans' long-standing relationships with seals at Lake Baikal cannot be viewed simply as interactions between predator and prey, or consumer and commodity.
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Vol. 33 • No. 2