Maria Czaplicka – Whirling with Shamans
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She was a pioneer of anthropology in Europe and the first lecturer of the subject in Oxford. She rode across the Siberian tundra in a dog sledge to learn the cultures of unknown tribes.
Ticket to a better world
Maria Czaplicka is born in 1886 in Warsaw. As a young woman, she wants to pursue higher education. However, Maria soon realises she doesn’t have much choice in the matter: the University of Warsaw won’t start accepting female students until 1915.
What is left for such a talented girl to do? She attends courses at the underground educational institution, the Flying University. Eminent scientists and professors are giving secret lectures in private flats. The classes cannot replace university education, but can often become a doorway to studies abroad. After all, one of the alumni was Maria Skłodowska-Curie herself!
Czaplicka doesn’t come from a wealthy family, so she cannot afford to move to another country. Instead, she teaches at a girls’ boarding school and works as a private tutor. In her free time, she focuses on her academic interests, attending meetings in various scientific societies in Warsaw. She becomes increasingly passionate about geography, ethnology and anthropology.
Maria’s life changes forever in 1910 when she receives a Mianowski Scholarship. It’s an unprecedented situation: never before the institution had granted anyone funds for studies abroad. Maria leaves for London with 900 rubles in her pocket.
From London to Siberia
Once in England, Czaplicka begins her studies in Anthropology at the London School of Economics and Political Science. There, she meets Bronisław Malinowski, who in a few years’ time will leave for his expedition to New Guinea.
After a year in London, Maria transfers to study Anthropology at Oxford. There, she has a chance to impress English academic circles. The British want to know the results of Polish and Russian research on Siberian tribes. Czaplicka speaks both languages, and so she is tasked with an important duty: she is to write a book on this topic, based on her reviews of the Russian literature on the people of Siberia.
Czaplicka becomes increasingly interested in the far ends of Siberia. She decides to organise a scientific expedition to those lands. Her goal is to research and describe the Evenks (then called Tungu), indigenous peoples of that area, barely known in Europe.
Maria collects funds, manages to get the support of various scientific bodies, and puts together a team of researchers. In May 1914, the expedition is ready to go. In Moscow, they board the Trans-Siberian Railway. After reaching Krasnoyarsk, they transfer to an English steamer that takes them to the estuary of the Yenisei River. Their work begins there.
Czaplicka, the leader of the expedition, learns the local languages, creates a dictionary and writes down local legends. The ornithologist Maud Haviland observes local birds. The artist Dora Curtis makes drawings and takes photographs. American anthropologist Henry Hall collects exhibits for the University of Pennsylvania and assists Czaplicka with her anthropological research.
The outbreak of World War I interrupts the expedition. The Englishwomen decide to return to England, but Czaplicka and Hall don’t give up and start preparing for the most challenging part of their mission: a winter journey across the Siberian tundra.
During their physically exhausting journey in a reindeer sledge, they will experience cold up to -60°C and dangerous snow blizzards. It’s not easy, but the Polish-American duo survives. They eventually reach the lands inhabited by the Evenks and continue their research. They return to London in September 1915, travelling through Scandinavia to avoid the front lines.
Forever in Oxford
Their experiences in Siberia make ready material for a book. Czaplicka knows as such, and so in 1916, she writes My Siberian Year, published in a popular non-fiction series. The book is full of anecdotes, exotic facts and blood-curdling stories: and it’s all true.
That’s not the end of Czaplicka’s successes. She is offered a position at the University of Oxford, becoming not only the first anthropologist to teach there, but also the only female lecturer at the whole university. However, her luck doesn’t last long. Maria’s fellowship is only a temporary position to cover for a professor who was conscripted to fight in World War I. When he returns in 1919, Maria needs to step down.
Czaplicka has nothing. She is a prominent expert in her field: she gives lectures, writes academic papers and publishes her findings from Siberia, receives scholarships, but she can’t find a teaching position as prestigious and rewarding as the one she had at Oxford.
Maria decides to try her luck in the United States. She gives lectures at several American universities and museums, but she doesn’t receive any attractive job offers, and after a few months, she returns to Europe. She starts teaching Anthropology at the University of Bristol. It’s not Oxford, but what can she do?
Czaplicka dreams of another expedition. Most importantly, she needs to get funding, but she’s still deep in debt after her trip to Siberia. Maria applies for a research grant for young scholars, desperate to get it. The competition requires all entrants to be British nationals, so Maria applies for citizenship. The jury lets her know they will wait for her application.
In the end, the fellowship jury did not delay their decision. Czaplicka finds out someone else received the grant. The news is crushing. Her contract in Bristol is coming to an end: what to do now? The next day, she poisons herself with mercury chloride. In her will, she requests to be buried in Oxford.
Translated by Agata Zan