Family and marriage

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Social life. Family and Marriage.

Kin groups (clans) were the main structural subdivision of the traditional Yukaghir society. Each clan was guided by an elder whose experience inspired the deepest respect. He led military and hunting expeditions, chose fishing areas and fixed a position for every family. He divided a clan into groups if the hunting interests required sending to different places and took care of each group to have good hunters and an elder man as a leader. During long roaming from place to place an elder chose the place of encampment and gave a departure signal in the morning. He also led festivals and kept accepted customs observance.

In all important cases an elder advised with the eldest representatives of the families that made up a sort of a council. An elder did not interfere in family affairs. When the Russian administration appeared an elder undertook the function of a head and the responsibility of yasak collection. An elder’s wife held a corresponding position: she monitored the distribution of common hunting prey and fishing catch between families.

Besides an elder there were three more figures: shaman, hero (strong man, the main defender of a clan) and main hunter (‘chaser’). A shaman and a hero were occasional characters in various emergency situations. An elder and a main hunter are permanent characters.

It is quite hard to imagine the real role of a shaman in the Yukaghir society as the Shamanism went underground fast because of the earlier and closer acquaintance with the Russian in comparison with the other Eastern Siberian peoples and accordingly earlier and more complete Christianization.

The role of a hero was abolished when the Yukaghir were included in Russian citizenship that led to severe suppression of the intertribal discords. However there was preserved a division between a hero and a main hunter in the historical memory of the Yukaghir because both roles required the development of different professional qualities. The Yukaghir clan was exogamic, but data for this are various. Ye.A. Kreynovich wrote about it: according to his data intermarriages were impermissible (Kreynovich, 1972 pp. 58-59), but V.I. Yokhelson met on the Korkodon a highly respected in the Yukaghir midst family where husband and wife were cousins. An old man himself was considered to be a keeper of the Yukaghir customs and had a significant influence (Yokhelson, 2005, pp. 136-137).

Probably, already at the turn of the 19th into the 20th century Yukaghir clan conception was really destroyed as along with the certain number of intermarriages V.I. Yokhelson at the same time brings a complicated system of so called ‘mutual avoidance’ one of the task of which is the prevention of such relations (ibid, pp 125-127). A case with the above mentioned family was solved in the eyes of the local public because cousin married couple sewed a special blanket – with two bags for food (ibid, pp. 136, 138). This symbolic gesture suggests an ancient origin, so it may be concluded that Yukaghir tolerance to such things shows the disposition of this society to endogamic marriages. V.I. Yokhelson considers that these marriages could be more multiple without the Russian Orthodox Church authority (ibid, p. 138).

The traditional way of life of the Forest Yukaghir presupposes existence of this society in the form of small isolated groups straitened by transportation means and therefore rarely contacting among themselves (in contrast to the Tungus, for example). That is why a discordance between desired and actual here look like a set of compromises admitted by the culture but not advertised because the allocating society in Siberia, as a rule, keeps its population number with great difficulty.

Blood feud.

From Yukaghir this custom is translated as ‘blood wrath’ or ‘heart wrath’. Usually blood feud was a response for unpunished murder. When the Russian administrative authority appeared, this custom was ceased for fear of sending to Yakutsk, judicial investigation and possible punishment which seemed to the Yukaghir savagely cruel as it related to the foreign culture set on the other principle. Nevertheless there were preserved a lot of materials about blood feud in the legends. It can be said that in pre-state societies blood feud is the natural mechanism of family and clan self-preservation, its execution was a point of honor with corresponding regulation.

Thus an avenger is a victim’s relative in the male line on the father’s side. If an offender is found by the victim’s relatives on the mother’s side they can just bring to him relatives on the father’s side and only in the last resort they can help to revenge. As redemption offender’s family gives away a young girl that passes into the murdered person’s family. In the absence of victim’s blood brothers cousins or the younger brother of his father revenged. If a victim had sons they revenged instead of the brothers: the elder brother had to kill an offender and the others helped him. A father had to revenge for a girl, but if he was dead, her brothers became avengers. A husband revenged for a woman, but if he was absent or he was old, her sons’ turn came and if there was no sons then her brothers should revenge. If the younger brother of a mother was murdered, his nephews revenged for him (Yokhelson, 2005, pp. 194-195).


Slavery existed before the wars termination and slaves accordingly were their captives. The fate of a male slave was harder and more shameful than of a female slave because a woman usually became a concubine of her master and bore his children. A slave stayed in the woman sphere of a household for life and was engaged in domestic work. Besides this slaves were allowed to repair nets, sledges and catch fish (ibid, pp. 195-196).

Distribution of hunting spoils. The Yukaghir as well as the Tungus peoples rigidly observed the custom of nimat. Its essence is that a hunter gave his spoils to nomads camp old men and they distributed it in their discretion. According to the observations of V.I. Yokhelson a hunter reserved a head and skin of deer or elk (ibid, p. 184). Specially chosen people, ‘distributors’, dealt with the spoils sharing. Thus the tundra clan of Alays chose one-two distributors for 7-8 farms. They did their work in concert with each other the year around. If there were many spoils, for example, during the autumn deer slaughter, people were chosen to help them. Every distributor had a special stick with several facets – for the number of families he took up. He made respective cuts on this stick marking how many deer were given to what family (Kreynovich, 1972, p. 64).

Custom of mutual avoidance.

This custom, preserved in Yukaghir culture to the early 20th century, regulates the relations between relatives. It prohibits to look, to talk, to touch one another etc. If it is impossible to avoid an address, it is made in the plural number. The custom is observed between full brothers and sisters, cousins and second cousins (further it is implied), of father with son’s wife, of elder brother with younger brother’s wife, of elder brother with wife of younger siblings’ son, between mother and her son-in-law, father and daughter’s husband, elder brother and younger sister’s husband, stepfather and his stepdaughter, stepmother and her stepson (Yokhelson, 2005, pp. 125-127). Both sisters and brother are not allowed to sit next to brother’s wife, brothers’ wives cannot sleep together. In the case of brother’s death his brothers can’t marry widow (unlike many neighbor peoples) but they are allowed to help left children (Kreynovich, 1972, p. 61). The Yukaghir don’t have a distinct explanation of the origin of mutual avoidance custom and its meaning.

Connecting the custom of mutual avoidance with the risk of consanguineous marriages and considering the extreme underpopulation of the Yukaghir in the last three centuries, one can see that looking for a marital partner in another ethnic environment is essential. The Tungus (Evens) turned out to be the closest to the Yukaghir nation by their way of life. However there are principal contradictions: while the Yukaghir have matrilocal marriage and therefore a prohibition on marital partner from maternal side, the Tungus have vice versa patrilocal norm and respective prohibition. A contradiction between matrilocation/patrilocation could be eliminated only through the uniting of Tungus and Yukaghir relatives of husband and wife into one nomadic group, and the second contradiction then was eliminated by itself.

In abundance of new forms of kinship a new norm appeared as a preventive means: only such relatives who had a common ancestor not closer than a great-grandparent (great-grandfather or great-grandmother) and further could enter into marriage. Therefore, the age of Yukaghir-Tungus clans extended only to several generations (Tugolukov, 1979, pp. 122-124). At the end of the 19th century Yokhelson witnessed the decomposition of Yukaghir clan and big family to small families. There are a lot of contradictory opinions told by Yukaghir informants concerning pre-Tungus clan past of the Yukaghir. Thus, the manipulations with the shaman bones described by Yokhelson (see below) in detail represent the worked-out mechanism of the clan magic protection. But in this case a shaman should be a woman if there is a maternal relationship in a society and the marriage is matrilocal. But Yokhelson writes about a tradition of keeping shaman bones as the bones of a clan ancestor, male ancestor (Yokhelson, 2005, p. 236).

On the other hand, appearance of the Tungus reindeer led to the transition to the father’s side as the Yukaghir then have property in the form of the domestic deer which is the prerogative of men. If Billings is right, the taiga Yukaghir also had domestic deer (see below) what was not preserved in the Yokhelson’s time. Contacts with the Lamut (Evens) were also different (probably, closer) during the Billing’s time because not only way of life but also transport possibilities of the Yukaghir and the Lamut seemed to be alike.

Special speech etiquette is connected with the Yukaghir custom of mutual avoidance, according to this if there is no mediator one should apply to the avoided person, in particular, in the form of personal and demonstrative pronouns in plural number (Kreynovich, 1972, pp. 60-61). It seems like one of the politeness formula. Far less, V.I. Yokhelson wrote about especial tact and care of the Yukaghir in the intercourse with each other. He also mentioned their innate susceptibility and vindictiveness (Yokhelson, 1900, p. 6). Such qualities appear to be utterly destructive in small settled societies that have to be constantly ready to repulse neighbors and other tribes’ members.

That is why such unusual inner diplomacy of Yukaghir community life (along with the tradition of ‘avoidance’) represents the mechanism saving it from the conflicts. The Ob Ugres had suchlike until recently, their traditional society had characteristics similar to those of the Yukaghir (taiga zone of displacement, sedentism by small groups, certain isolation, unequal relations with neighbors and other tribes’ members). Besides ‘functional’ features of a social life that play a clear to us part, V.I. Yokhelson also noted that taiga Yukaghir have some peculiar and probably archaic features of gender sphere: men and women comprise two competing groups in games. Some sounds in the language are pronounced by women differently than by men (suchlike exists in the Chukchee language). For women cognation and for men agnation is more important (Yokhelson, 1898, p. 259).

Family and marriage.

Billings was the only one that wrote about the Yukaghir polygamy. On this subject he also presented norms of common law, according to which the first wife is considered to be senior and without her consent a husband cannot take other women in marriage, and they, in their turn, have to inviolately obey her. In case of husband death in a family with no sons a senior wife decides the fate of the others and bestows them in marriage, getting bride-money, she also has most of bride-money when one of the junior wives returns to her parents. When Billings describes taiga Yukaghir bride-money there are mentioned domestic deer – up to 40 heads (Ethnographic Materials, 1978, pp. 25-26). These data seem strange as the Yukaghir in his works ride dogs.

Other materials on this subject concern the traditional life of the Yukaghir at the turn of the 19th-20th centuries and were collected by Yokhelson (2005) and also by Soviet ethnographers by means of the questioning of the old men that still remembered that time well (Kreynovich, 1972; The Yukaghir, 1975).

When a little girl grew up, an individual sleeping bed-log was made for her. There with no parents resistance she could receive young men she liked, they had a right to visit her after the elders went to bed. Children born from such relations entered the girl’s clan, and nobody saw anything reprehensible in it. A boy as in other cultures living on hunting obtained the status of a man after he brought his first hunting spoils.

The Tundra and the Forest Yukaghir had different wedding customs and family norms. The wedding customs of the Forest Yukaghir were restricted to match-making, and a bridegroom having taken palm, gun, bow and knife went to live in a bride’s house. After while, depending on the situation, church wedding was added. Matchmaking was started by a youth himself: without excessive arrangements he comes to the bride’s place and begins to do different domestic work – he chops firewood, repairs sledge, and brings his spoils. If the parents of a bride don’t like him, he is delicately stopped, if he suits them as a future husband, the results of his work are tacitly accepted. After a time they let his relatives know about it, a bridegroom returns home, and from there an elder relative comes as a matchmaker.

After a marriage, living at wife’s parents place, a young husband absolutely obeys them until he finally becomes senior in the family or doesn’t have an individual household. In the Tundra Yukaghir family and marriage customs the Tungus influence is clearly visible: a bride leaves to live in a bridegrooms’ house. But before this a husband lives at bride’s parents place for three years doing here any work. It doesn’t bind them to anything, and after three years they can send a bridegroom back home. (The Koryaks also have such ‘trial’ of wife). Further matchmaking of a husband’s senior relative includes obligatory trading with the bride’s parents for bride-money in the form of certain number of deer.

As a dowry a bride takes several reindeer teams with sledges: one is for bridegroom, the other is for sleeping provision, the third is with wedding dresses for newly married couple, sewn by a bride, then – a sledge with household stuff and presents for bridegroom’s relatives. When in motion the relatives shoot a rifle over bridegroom and bride heads to drive evil spirits away. Reindeers brought by a bride join bridegroom’s family herd, but before it their heads behind the antlers are smeared with the red paint from alder bark. Ransom (bride-money) in the form of reindeers has a little more value than dowry and it is distributed among relatives, the parents of a bride take only a couple of animals. The arrival of a bride in the bridegroom’s house is celebrated with wedding feast, where bride’s relatives get presents. On this feast a separate table on skins of a marriage bed is laid for bride and bridegroom, as well as the Yakuts do (Yokhelson, 2005, pp. 147-149).

For her relatives a woman, having got married, is considered to be irreversibly gone from a clan. That is why if she becomes a widow and then wants to get married again, she should ask permission from her late husband’s brother, but not her own brother. If he has no brothers she addresses to a father-in-law, but not her own father (Kreynovich, 1972, p. 61).

Children upbringing.

V.I. Yokhelson, being very careful and impartial portrayer of ordinary life, noted that no Siberian nation shows such love to children as the Yukaghir do. At the same time Yukaghir children in his opinion are the most obedient. In addition, it is not accepted to punish capricious children, the Yukaghir don’t pay attention to their naughtiness, considering that it is their ‘souls’ being capricious (ibid, pp. 162-163).

Pluzhnikov N.V.
(from ‘Peoples of Russian Northeast’)

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