Traditional farming

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Traditional Economy

Reindeer herding.

Hunter on a reindeer team

The Lower Kolyma Yukaghir were involved in reindeer herding, having adopted it from the Evens. Reindeer were also used for transportation. The number of reindeer was minimal: from 2-3 to 10-20. That is why during roaming from place to place the property often was transported in several stages. However there were Yukaghir households abundant in reindeer up to 100-150 heads.

At the beginning of the 20th century Nikolay Kurilov was the richest among them: his herd numbered about thousand reindeer. He gathered these reindeer from downfallen neighboring Chukchee camping-grounds after the smallpox epidemic (The Yukaghir, 1975, p. 58). V.I. Yokhelson makes mention of large herd owners of the Indigirka – the Yukaghir assimilated by the Evens. One of them had a herd of 800 heads, and the other was told to have about two thousand reindeer (Yokhelson, 2005, p. 512).

The typical example of the archaic Yukaghir collectivism is their struggle with a botfly grubs of which caused reindeer disease. By the beginning of July, when botflies start to deposit eggs, several Yukaghir nomadic groups settled the place of meeting where they united reindeer into a common herd. Around the herd they spread white reindeer skins attracting botflies by its bright color and all the people armed themselves with special boards with which they killed botflies that sat on the skin (Kreynovich, 1972, pp. 79-80). The tundra Nenets had a similar method.

In the early 20th century there were almost no wild reindeer in the area of the Lower Kolyma Yukaghir displacement. The Yukaghir connect this disaster with the appearance of numerous Chuckhee herds of domestic reindeer which trampled pastures inhabited by wild reindeer. Due to the lack of fodder a lot of the Yukaghir and the Evens (that also lived on hunting) went to the Chukchee as the herdsmen. Owing to this the last seat of strong assimilation arose, it led to the loss of many ethnic culture features (Yokhelson, 1910).


Vasily Gavrilovich Shalugin (left) and Dmitry Grigoryevich Dyachkov

Though in the last century fish provided the Yukaghir with the basic food, they (especially the Lower Kolyma group) continued to consider themselves as the wild reindeer hunters. Having the regular territory of wandering and harvesting, the Lower Kolyma Yukaghir grazed their domestic reindeer in certain places to save the pastures for wild reindeer. Before the hunting season people themselves didn’t go to these pastures needlessly for the wild reindeer not to smell out a man (Kreynovich, 1972, 84). There was a special prohibition for wild reindeer hunting: one cannot hunt reindeer from its fawning till the beginning of August (ib, p. 77).

The most archaic means of harvesting were still preserved in tundra in the early 20th century. These means presupposed wide collective participation. As far as it was carried out in tundra it related to the summer half year. The principle is to drive the reindeer herd into the reservoir near which the reindeer saved themselves from heat and insects. In the water a reindeer was much less manoeuvrable than a hunter on a dug-out, furthermore, killed, it didn’t sink. In this time of year the reindeer already gathered in large herds. It was a very responsible time of harvesting of meat for winter, and also of skins for clothes. That is why eldership distributed hunters to nomadic families in the most optimal way.

Such hunting suggested the track of herds. The easiest way was to catch a group of reindeer that wandered to a lake cape. Then the women and children of a nomads camp got together at its bottom and didn’t let the reindeer return by land, a hunter with gun or spear swam on a dug-out from the far bank towards the reindeer. It was allowed to slaughter reindeer in kidney not to spoil the skin. In August and September when the dark nights approached the Yukaghir built in the dark near the big lakes long chains of pyramidal figures of mounds and ground, it was close to a man’s height and made a corridor resembling a funnel. By its narrow part a corridor opened on the lakeshore. By day the building was interrupted and the reindeer didn’t pay attention to these constructions. When such alley was built, the Yukaghir towards morning tracked down a herd and drove it to the alley. In the fog and semidarkness the reindeer took the ground figures for real people and rushed past it to end up in a lake. The hunters with spears swam in dug-outs towards them.

Duck shooting

The old men observed the slaughter and, when they decided that reindeer would suffice, it stopped (ib, p. 85). In Eurasia the Naganasans still practiced the same form of hunting in the early 20th century (Popov, 1948, pp. 31-34). The antiquity of drive hunting in tundra, rather the certain autochtonity of the Yukaghir population, is shown by the fact that the nearest Yukaghir neighbors don’t use this method – either the Evens that came to tundra from the forest zone or the neighbors of the Nganasans – the Dolgans. Such hunting presupposes the participation of specially trained hunting dogs, but the Evens of the Lower Kolyma considered it sinful to keep dogs in the household, the dogs would supposedly exhaust the reindeer (the Yukaghir, 1975, p. 59).

The other types of wild reindeer harvesting of the Tundra Yukaghir were also peculiar to the surrounding population. It, first of all, concerns ‘drifting’ – killing of the reindeer herds on the large rivers crossings during the seasonal migrations. Here the Yukaghir united with their Russified brothers, Russian old residents, the Evens, moreover, part of these points was situated near the settled colonies. The wild reindeer harvesting using the domestic ones as transportation means – in summer astride and in winter on a sledge – was called by the Yukaghir the Even method (the Yukaghir, 1975, p. 60), although there was also the Yukaghir name (Kreynovich, 1972, p. 91). The principle of drive consisted in that the reindeer escape from a hunter in a curved path representing a circle with big radius. A hunter catches up with them moving in a short cut based on his geometry imagination. Probably this hazardous form of hunting actually came to the Yukaghir from the Evens that had more working reindeer.

Hunting spoil

In late autumn, during the period of wild reindeer estrus and their reindeer ‘tournaments’, wild reindeer harvesting using decoy reindeer started in all tundra zone of wild reindeer dispersal. A decoy reindeer allowed a hunter to approach close to a herd, to kill its leader and, making use of risen herd confusion, to get some more. Hunting with a decoy reindeer was winter. Domestic grey reindeer (which is similar to the wild ones by its color) with big branchy antlers was good for that role. A long lasso was fastened on its neck, the end of a lasso has a bone comb on the reindeer’s forehead. The other end was in the hands of a hunter that stalked to a herd shielding oneself behind decoy. A hunter controlled a reindeer pulling a lasso so that a bone comb cut into a reindeer’s forehead. Or a hunter made a ‘wave’ with a lasso. A decoy was taught not to step on a lasso, to lie down and stand up at a lasso jerk, to obediently turn its head to the right and to the left etc. After six-seven years of training a hunter ventured to let a decoy go without a strap.

Sometimes hunting with two decoy reindeers, male and female, was practiced. Sometimes the Yukaghir practiced hunting with decoy and working reindeer (without a saddle) which also was specially trained. A hunter moved behind them imitating movements of a fawn. When finally snow became deep but still friable, then opportunities of a hunter to track down and catch an animal decreased. After that, hunters set crossbows if a path of wild reindeer was found. Crossbows were marked with well distinguishable signs to easily find it and not to accidentally die. Such work in the deep snow is dangerous, that is why the best hunters were involved in it.

Crossbows if possible were placed closer to a raw-hide tent, as from the long lying in the deep snow killed reindeer started to rot, its meat and skin went bad. In the forest zone wild reindeer and also elk were harvested in spring skiing on the snow crust. This form of hunting was practiced by both Lower and Upper Kolyma Yukaghir. It was convenient this time because a hunter had speed advantage due to skis that kept him from sinking into the deep snow.

Expert on the Yukaghir language and culture Vasily Gavrilovich Shalugin

V.I. Yokhelson writes that at his time some archaic fowling weapons were preserved, curious to relate, by Russified Yukaghir of the Lower Kolyma. It is sling and darts (Yokhelson, 2005, p. 550). V.G. Bogoraz mentions suchlike cases in the Anadyr mouth (Bogoraz, 1991, pp. 82-83). Farther these weapons of bird catching don’t spread westward, but only eastward – to America.

The other type of drive hunting concerned molted geese and was widespread through the all Russian Arctic. The point of it is that such large waterfowl as goose, being nutritious and fat, can’t fly during the mold. As opposed to the reindeer it falters on land. That is why it is carefully gathered from the small rivers upper reaches into a large flock. On one of the beaches a big rectangular area is enclosed and the river is partitioned off below so that it is easy to drive bird into an aviary where one can wring geese necks with bare hands. Tripods and fishing nets were used to arrange such aviaries but as the Yukaghir didn’t have it in good supply, only one riverward side was covered by a net and the other two were hung with tent cover and clothes.

In the early 20th century the distinction of the molted geese harvesting of the Yukaghir from the harvesting of the other northern peoples consisted in the profound ritual officiated by the old men before the killing of defenseless bird. This was a song performed by an old man or woman in which they told geese that death is like a dream, and after death rebirth comes. After the song every man took a goose from a gathered flock and released it. This gesture was compulsory for everyone including babies for which their parents released a bird.

Then the slaughter was started. The last goose was also released (Kreynovich, 1972, pp. 80-81). Ice cellars were made in permafrost for the harvested bird. Upon that the bird was drawn, but feathers were not removed.

When the geese just began to lay and cover eggs, they were caught on nests by either loop or hands. In the first instance a loop was put around the eggs and carefully masked, and a hunter hid near with the end of a rope to tighten a loop in due time when a goose sat on the eggs. Catching by the hands suggested concealment and digging-in of a hunter with spread hands almost under the nest. When the goose couple came flying, a hunter caught at first a male goose, because female goose didn’t fly away without him, and then her (ib, p. 78). This method of harvesting is of high antiquity but it inspires distrust as it is very hard to mask all the traces of thorough preparations, furthermore, much more of human smell remain there than at the loop placing, and wild bird should feel it.

V.G. Shalugin with traditional culture items

When the Russian came, fur hunting obtained a substantial part in the Yukaghir economy; it used to be a means for yasak paying and also money equivalent in local market relations. Sable as the most common among valuable fur animals disappeared already in the second half of the 19th century. For the Tundra Yukaghir the main fur animals were arctic fox and fox, and for the Taiga ones – fox and squirrel. Already in the time of Yokhelson traps were set for arctic fox and fox, a hunter checked it several times in winter. The Tundra Yukaghir went hunting on reindeer sledges. The task of a hunter was to pick up the track after which he caught up an animal and killed it with a bludgeon. The Taiga Yukaghir hunted the fox with a dog, squirrel was shot with special fine shot, and sometimes they took a gun and also a bow with obtuse arrows – for squirrel. The Yukaghir unlike the Yakuts set crossbows on rare occasions. The Tundra Yukaghir also dealt with wolf hunting, two people took part in this hunting, on two reindeer teams. Having caught up a wolf, they threw a lasso upon it (Yokhelson, 2005, pp. 551-553).


Ice fishing

However the Yukaghir were originally settled hunters and fishers, fishing seemed to be devoid of sacral piety that was expressed in ritual aspect of harvesting and use of false words (Kreynovich, 1972, p. 65). Moreover, in the 20th century, if not earlier, it was fish that saved people from the starvation, and this activity was more stable than hunting. The Upper Kolyma Yukaghir began fishing in spring. The fish was caught by rods with lead plummet and iron hook. As bait the hooks were wrapped around with red thread. Bone needle with sharp-ground ends was more ancient tool. It length didn’t exceed 8 cm. Tendon fishing-line was attached near one of its ends. Needle was stuck in a small fresh-caught fish so that one of its ends leaned out. When pike or white salmon swallowed the fish, the end of a needle when drawn got across the gullet, and the yield was caught. The fish was caught in these ways just ‘for the cauldron’, that is for daily needs. In summer thread and hair nets were set along small rivers and lakes.

In the past kiddles with bone needles were used. The part of summer fish was sun-dried, but the most part went into cauldron, because the main fish run started only in autumn – August and September. Then there were big concentrations of broad whitefish and omul which should be found out and surrounded by seine. This method was called ‘scoop’. Precedently the Yukaghir made a fence of withes after the manner of seine. One its end was fixed on the bank, and the vacant one was pulled to the bank when the fish gathered inside. Caught fish was dried and sun-dried if it was big, and small fish was soured in pits for dog food. However, during a period of famine sour fish also saved people. Caviar was dried separately. In late autumn before rivers freezing the Yukaghir set on the rivers passes with fish traps of osier or thread drag nets. In October and November the fish was caught under the ice with hair nets being pulled through the ice-holes. The catch was frozen.

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

Main occupations

To the hunting

Main occupations are reindeer and elk hunting, lake and river fishing. The Yukaghir hunted reindeer and elk with crossbows, loops and since the 18th century with flinty guns. In spring they hunted animals by driving on snow-crust, chasing on skis. The Tundra Yukaghir roamed after the herds of wild reindeer from the forest tundra to the sea, bagged them by slaughtering on the water during the seasonal crossings or drove into the lakes with the dogs. They also used enclosures and decoy reindeer.

Furthermore, the Yukaghir hunted fox, squirrel, sable, arctic fox, ermine, hare, using different types of traps: frameworks (shenyil’), jaws (shashil), loops (monol), crossbows (ene) and also fire-arms. The Tundra Yukaghir killed foxes and arctic foxes with a club (bludgeon), catching up on a reindeer sledge. In autumn during the molt period they shot waterfowl on lakes. The Kolyma Yukaghir used darts and bolas – a bunch of stones on straps. Fishing lasted from late spring till autumn. The Yukaghir fished perch, white salmon, broad whitefish, omul, and whitefish with hair nets (yodiye) or seines. On spawning grounds fish was caught with gaffs and hooks. In the mountain rivers they set fences (yoz) and osier-bed wicker creels (morte).

In October and November fish was caught in ice-holes with hair nets. Harvesting of berries, wild leek, pignoli nuts, yellow daylight roots, leaves, larch laburnum (layer of young wood under the bark), and mushrooms was the subsidiary occupation. Mammoth tusk was obtained for sale.

Transport reindeer herding played a key role in tundra. There were from 2-3 to 19-20 reindeer in the household, and 100-150 in rich families. In summer the Yukaghir united into the groups and grazed animals conjointly. They rode reindeer, things were conveyed by pack (velil), and in winter sledge teams were used. Riding sledge was arc-poppet, freight sledge was shorter and single-poppet. As a rule, one reindeer was harnessed in a sledge. The Taiga Yukaghir harnessed in a sledge 4-5 dogs. Dog sledge (midi, miedyie) was tied, straight-poppet, up to 2,5 m long with a front arc. In winter the Yukaghir went on snow on broad skis with reindeer leg skin. In summer they sailed through the water in dugouts, floats and birchbark boats.

The materials of “Arctic is my home: peoples of the North” encyclopedia

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