Overlooked No More: Ethel Lindgren, Anthropologist of Reindeer Herding Cultures

This article is part of Overlooked, a series of obituaries about remarkable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The Times.

In 1952, the anthropologist Ethel Lindgren made a decision that would change the face of the Scottish Highlands for decades to come: She imported a herd of reindeer. Reindeer, while native to Britain, had not been seen there since the 12th century, when they were hunted to extinction.

Lindgren made the case to government officials that the animals were important sources of meat and fur. And with the looming threat of a conflict with the Soviet Union, she said, the reindeer could be useful in military transport.

But her motivations were also romantic: It would be, she wrote in a letter, a chance “to see against the Scottish skyline a very beautiful animal.”

She started by importing seven reindeer — two bulls and five cows — on a Swedish ship, the Sarek. They were quarantined for nearly a month at Edinburgh Zoo before being released in the Cairngorms, a mountain range in the Highlands, where their progress was monitored. The climate was favorable; in fact, the unique subarctic qualities of the Cairngorms make it the only place left in Britain that could support the animals. More reindeer were imported in the years that followed; their progeny still roam the Highlands today.

Lindgren is best remembered for her reindeer experiment, but she made many contributions to the field of anthropology in a long career that has largely been lost to history.

Ethel John Lindgren was born on Jan. 1, 1905, in Evanston, Ill., to an American mother and a Swedish father. She was 11 when her father, John R. Lindgren, the founder of the State Bank of Chicago, died. He gave most of his fortune to charitable institutions but left his daughter an annuity to provide for her education and, eventually, her fieldwork.

As a young girl, Ethel would watch trains whistle past her hometown and dream of traveling east. The opportunity came after her mother, Ethel Roe Lindgren, a pianist, married Henry Eichhorn, an ethnomusicologist and composer known for incorporating instruments he collected on his visits to China and Japan. At 17, the younger Ethel took a year off from her schooling at Miss Lee’s School in Boston and traveled east with her mother and stepfather.

On the Great Wall in Kalgan, China (now Zhangjiakou), overlooking Mongolia, she gazed over the expanse of “dun-coloured land continuing to the horizon” and was awed by “a great feeling of serenity, of eternity,” she wrote in her diary. The experience impressed on her a fixed objective: One day, she would return.

An unprecedented number of women entered anthropology during the period between the world wars. While some argued that fieldwork was too dangerous for women, the anthropologist Lyn Schumaker wrote in a chapter of “A New History of Anthropology” (2008), edited by Henrika Kuklick, that they were thought to possess many of the qualities — “sympathy, tact, adaptability” — essential for fruitful fieldwork.

It was around this time that Lindgren entered Newnham College, University of Cambridge, where she studied Chinese and social science. She then earned a research fellowship and a Ph.D., also from Cambridge. Five years of fieldwork in Manchuria formed the basis of her thesis.

Its subject was shamanism among the Reindeer Tungus, a collective of reindeer-herding peoples Indigenous to sub-Arctic Asia and better known today as the Evenki. A towering 6 feet 2 inches tall, with cropped red hair and a fearsome self-confidence, Lindgren cut a formidable figure alongside the Evenki, who called her “mangus,” or “giant.”

She brought along the man who would become her first husband, Oscar Mamen, a Norwegian adventurer and salesman living in China. He offered protection and technical aid by carrying her cameras and taking photographs.

Together they produced an enormous, and enormously valuable, trove of over 8,000 photographs and 300 films. These are among the only existing photographic records of the traditional Solon and Manchu cultures, before life changed with the takeover of Chinese Communism.

Lindgren was 24 in 1929 when she and other expatriates were ousted from Manchuria by the looming Soviet threat. She was crushed. She wrote to a friend: “Behind and above and beyond I see only the barren hills and, at night, the stars against a metallic disk of sky outlined by the round hole in the top of the felt yurt — and in my soul are tears.”

Back in England, Lindgren and Mamen married and had a son, John. But they soon divorced.

In 1938, she became the first woman to be appointed editor in chief of The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, a pre-eminent publication in the discipline. By the time she stepped down in 1948, her 11-year tenure had supported the publication through wartime shortages and cost-saving measures.

Lindgren’s scholarly interests included the methodologies of fieldwork, social psychology, shamanism, human-animal relations and material culture. She believed fieldworkers’ psychological profiles could impact their interpretation of data and urged researchers to undergo psychological training to target their biases, long before such reflexivity was commonplace in the social sciences.

In 1949, she took up a lectureship in the department of anthropology and archaeology at Cambridge, but she was terminated two years later because the topics she covered — her focus was on Central Asia and Northern Europe — were deemed less valuable to colonial cadets than learning about East Africa, India and the Middle East. She never returned to academia.

Lindgren was naturalized in 1940. She channeled her aptitude as a social scientist toward tireless war service — first at the Ministry of Information, then as liaison officer for the Royal Institute of International Affairs.

Peace, Lindgren wrote in a letter, could be achieved through a “blending of cultures.” The easy coexistence of Cossacks, a Slavic people, and Evenki was ready evidence that “the interchange of cultural traits is a very important background for intergroup friendships.”

She had occasion to test this hypothesis in 1939, when the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the United States asked her to report on the feasibility of the Alaska resettlement project, a largely forgotten attempt under the Roosevelt administration’s New Deal to relocate Jewish refugees to Alaska, where federal immigration quotas did not apply. Her interviews with locals revealed that far-reaching antisemitism had not spared Alaska. For this and other reasons, the plan never materialized.

In 1950, Lindgren was married a second time, to Mikel Utsi; it was a lasting love in middle age that allowed for her most important legacy.

She met Utsi, a reindeer breeder, while in Swedish Lapland to study the Sami, another Indigenous reindeer-herding people.

On a scenic train ride with Lindgren and her son, Utsi first set eyes on the rolling landscape of the Cairngorms and noticed its similarities to his homeland. He exclaimed, “There must be reindeer moss here!,” referring to the popular pasture among the animals.

Today there are 150 reindeer who roam freely over 10,000 acres in the Highlands. They are observed by the Cairngorm Reindeer Company, an educational center that Lindgren and Utsi founded. The herd celebrated its 70th anniversary last year.

Lindgren and Utsi lived between the Cairngorms and Cambridge, where she was a founding fellow of Lucy Cavendish College, established at the University of Cambridge in 1965. They remained together until Utsi died in 1979.

Lindgren was the secretary of the Reindeer Council of the United Kingdom and the Reindeer Company until her death, on March 23, 1988. She was 83. Since then, the herd has been managed by Tilly Smith, the only female herder in Britain, and her husband, Alan.

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