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A map of the Yukaghirs settlement

Yukaghirs – the self name odul [ə'du:l] (odul/ vadul - strong) live in communities in two northern regions of the Sakha Republic (Yakutia), in the Magadan region and Chukotka. They are indigenous, tribal groups (peoples) that are related to each other. In the past their tribes were widely spread in the middle and eastern parts of Siberia. Scientists suggest that the ancient Yukaghir-speaking tribes (peoples) –Cogimé, Alayi, Chuvantsy, Khodintsy and others – belong to a separate Yukaghirs group within the Uralic group of languages.

The forest (or the upper Kolyma) Yukaghirs (oduls) live in the Upper Kolyma region of the Sakha Republic (Yakutia) in the Nelemnoye village and in the administrative center of the region - the Ziryanka village. The census data as of 1989 showed their population of 186 people. There are the descendants of elk hunters, fishermen and hunters on other animals living in taiga. The only domestic animals they keep are dogs.

The tundra (or the Lower Kolyma) Yukaghirs (vaduls) live in the Lower Kolyma region of the Sakha Republic (Yakutia) in the Andrushkino and Kolymskoe villages and the administrative center – the Chersky village. Their way of life is mainly based on deer farming hunting and fishing. The census data as of 1989 showed a population of 263 people.

Small groups of Yukaghirs live in the Srednekolymsk and Nizhneyansk regions, near the Indigirka river. There are over 200 Yukaghirs living in the capital of the Sakha Republic, Yakutsk. Chuvantsy – russified Yukaghirs live in the valley of the Anadir river, in the west of Chukotka. In the XVIII-XIX centuries they assimilated with the Russian population and stopped speaking their native language.

The forest Yukaghirs (the Yasachnoy region).
Collage by L. Drugina

The Yukaghirs culture, being one of the oldest in the North-Eastern part of Russia, has a very long history. There are some similarities in the language, folklore, material and spiritual art of the neighboring peoples: Samoyeds of Western Siberia (Nganasans, Entsy, Nenets), the Chukchi and the Koryaks of the Far North-East Asia, the Tungus (the Evenks and the Evens), and Yakuts. The Russian culture caused a great influence on the life of these peoples in the course of the XX century. This polysynthesism makes it difficult to discover and study the Yukaghirs cultural layer itself.

Truncated, fragmentary and archived traces of all the historic periods that the Yukaghirs have gone through can be found in all the spheres of life: trading, household, the spiritual life – from the Neolithic carriers of the circumpolar culture, reindeer hunters and the taiga elk hunters, to the hunters-field men and deer herders equipped with modern technology. The common fundamental basis of the cultural subdivision is the truly Neolithic embezzlement type of economy that the forests Yukaghirs (oduls) still follow today. Here we find one of the great phenomena of the Yukaghirs culture – the functioning of full-blooded infidelity, the pagan worldview among the modern urban society.

The pagan culture of the circumpolar north civilization successors is not a historical anachronism; it holds a great potential for the future. All the spheres of the Yukaghirs culture conceal a great secret of LIFE, the secret of national and cultural longevity. This energy nourishes the intellectual and spiritual powers of the peoples, into the number of which the Yukaghirs came in as an aboriginal cultural layer.

The knowledge about the fundamental worldview basis and the natural physiophilosophy of the ancient circumpolar civilization can be useful for the modern society that faces moral and ecological problems.

(the Russian national census data as of 2002, published in the official documents in 2004-2005 )

The people of the Sakha Republic (Yakutia) 1970 г. 2002 г. Total amount in Russia in 2002
The Yakut 285749 432270 443852
The Evenks 9097 18232 35527
The Evens 6471 11657 19071
Yukagirs 400 1097 1509
Chuvantsy - - 1087

Pluzhnikov N. V. (from the book The Peoples of the North-Eastern Siberia)


Ethnogenesis and Ethnic History

A Yukaghir representative of Chukotka – Tneskina Margarita,
the Director of the Ethnopedagogic Technologies
department of the Teachers’s Career Enhancement
Institute, the Ckukotsky autonomous region, Anadir

It is in the 17th when the Russian government came to power on the Yukaghirs’ territory, that the Yukaghir tribes started paying taxes for the first time. There were about 12 of these tribes (local groups). Due to the fact that Yukaghirs were settled hunters and fishermen from the very beginning, they lived close to large river systems. Thus, if we move from west to east, we can see that the Yandins occupied the middle reach and the upstream of the Omoloy River, and the Khoromoys occupied the downstream of that river. Khoromoys also lived in the downstream of the nearby Yana River and the Onondys lived in the middle reach and the upstream of that river. In the east, in the Indigirka river basin’s upstream there lived the Shoromoy tribes and the Yangas in the middle reach of the river. They were the Omondys neighbors. The Olubents were lived in downstream of the river and shared borders with the Shoromoys in the west, and the Alays in the east. The latter lived in the Alazay River basin. The Alays shared borders with the Omoks in the east, who live in the middle reach and the low stream of the Kolyma River as well as in the middle reach of the Omolon, which falls into that river. The Kogimé mentioned above lived in the upstream of the Kolyma River and Lavrents lived in the middle reach of the Omolon River. They had boundaries with the Khodints, the Anuls, that occupied the upstream and lowstream of the Anadir River basin. To the north there lived the Chuvants, the eastern neighbors of the Omoks. The Chuvants lived next to Chuckchas, while the Koryaks shared borders with the Khodints and Kogimé.

The first Russian written records show that the relations between Yukaghir tribes were different. Those who lived near the neighboring Taiga or Tundra Rivers tended to have friendly relations. The tribes living near one river, whose territory was divided by a border between the taiga and tundra, tended to have mutual feud. The simplest cause for their frequent conflicts was the struggle for the musk deer waftage territory in tundra. They constantly made these so called cruises that supplied them the local people with food for the most part of the year; the ferry worked only twice a year – in spring and fall. Reindeer and moose hunting provided the people living in taiga with food all year round, but in very small amounts. This wasn’t the only reason for frequent conflicts. The different tribes behaved differently which was due to diverse living conditions in taiga and tundra.

By the time the Russians came, the Yukaghir territory was already occupied by the Tungus tribes and the Yakuts. Some cultural features of the Nganases and the Ents show that small Yukaghir groups reached the Taimyr region and got assimilated with the two groups of peoples before the Tungus tribes appeared in the north-west of Yukaghir territories (Gratcheva, 1980, 91-93p.).

Both the Tungus and the Yakuts had technical superiority over Yukaghirs. That’s why as a result of a gory battle with the Tungus, the Yukaghirs had to retreat or assimilate. The Yakuts with their metallurgic skills together with the Tungus being tribes with a nomadic way of life, were no match for the settled Yukaghirs with their stone age industry. No wonder in 1670’s the Cossacks found Yakut armor in the homes of Yukaghirs living by the Indigirka and Yana Rivers (the History of the Yakut ASSR. Vol. 2, 105p.). At the same time, in one of the Yukaghir prayers dated 1657, we came across a blacksmith Palanda (Colonial policy of the Moscow government in Yakutia, 18th century, Leningrad, 1936, 107p.) and the Yukaghir language appears to have it’s own terminology connected with iron processing (The History of the Yakut ASSR, Vol. 2, 106p.). Although the Kolyma Yukaghir folklore has it that the widespread use of iron is linked with the Russians (Yohelson, 1900, 93p.). This is quite typical of Kolyma, where these legends were written and where the Russians came earlier than Yakuts.

The upstream and low stream Kolyma basin is the only region, where from the end of the 19th century and to the modern days remains a population that identifies itself as Yukaghirs. The upstream Kolyma Yukaghirs used Siberian huskies as means of travelling; it was their ancient cultural habit of living up to the Soviet period. The Yukaghirs and the Evens lived in separate neighboring tribes. Yukaghirs, being a tribe with a half-settled lifestyle, settled in the confluents of the Kolyma River. They had a nomadic way of life linked with hunting and they mastered river valleys. The Evens, who rode on deer, occupied the mountain area. The low stream Yukaghirs with deer hunting as their secondary means of living, had similar life style with the Evens, but the Yukaghirs kept closer to river valleys, while the Evens kept closer to mountain areas.

Analyzing the Yukaghir tax-books entries, concluded that there were 4500-5000 Yukaghirs (12 tribes) on the large territory stretching from the Lena River to the Anadyr and to the south, up to the upstream of the Yana River, the Kolyma, and the Indigirka by the time the Russians came to East Siberia (Dolgikh, 1960, p***). Today their population is about 1500 people (electronic database of the Institute of Ethnology and Antropology (IEA) of the RAS).

Siberian Huskies

A timeline of events in the life of Yukaghirs after they acquired Russian nationality, can be presented as follows:

1640 – Shaman Porotcha came to the Indigirka from the upstream of Kolyma and paid taxes there until 1681. As a result this race resulted in the Shoromboysky Yukaghirs (B. O Dolgikh, 1960, p.404). The middle of the 17th century – the Omoloy Yukaghirs move to the low stream of the Yana River, from there they move to the Indigirka (Gurvich, 1966, p.21-22) and became extinct as a tribe.

1650 – The destruction of the settled Anaul Yukaghirs. The rest, that didn’t become slaves (the Colonial policy of the Moscow government in Yakutia in the 17th century. Leningrad, 1936, p.193). left with the Koryaks and the other part left with the Khodintsy (I. S. Gurevich, 1966, p.19).

1654 – The Cossacks defeat Uyandy, the Yukaghirs race from the low stream of the Indigirka with the purpose of gaining profit and catching slaves. The remains of this race switched from a settled life style to nomadic way of life and blended in with the nomad neighbors (Gurvich, 1966, p.19). The end of the 17th century – there is no mention about dismounted Yukaghirs, (except for the Kolyma Yukaghirs) in documents from that point on (Gurvich, 1966, p.19). In order to understand such unusual and rapid decrease of the Yukaghir population and its assimilation, we can point out a few factors that resulted in the modern demographic and cultural situation of what used to be a large group of peoples.

The Cossack’s destruction and tyranny (17th c.) Settle Yukaghir tribes were among the first in the North- East Siberia to become a part of the Russian government. Among the typical for any colonization factors, we can point out armed clashes, numerous destructions and tyranny acts by the Russian Cossacks. On the one hand, there is evidence of these acts in the petitions (Gurvich, 1966, p.18-19), and on the other hand, most of them have the corresponding resolutions about resolving justice and law. Even though these resolutions were executed, the distance and time that passed after they were executed did not help restore the Yukaghirs well-being. Thus, the shift to a nomadic way of life helped the majority of Yukaghirs to keep the Russian Cossacks back from attacking.

Participation in the Russian military expeditions. One of the main reasons for their partial assimilation and extinction in the north-east region is the Yukaghirs’ participation in the Russian government’s further mastering of Siberia – campaigns against the Koryaks and the Chuckchy as guides and armed forces. It was especially the Anadyr Yukaghirs that had to go on compulsory military service among the rest of the North-East Siberian population. Naturally, this service caused harm to the economic set-up of seasonal hunters and fishermen, and led to plain starvation. Another destructive consequence of the Yukaghirs’ participation in the campaign was their reputation of the Russian government accomplices, which exposed them to risk against the rival Chuckot neighbors. Thus, in the 18th century the Anadyr Yukaghirs – Tchuvantsy and Khodintsy became extinct as a local group of peoples. This happened because the Chuckchas destroyed Major Pavlutsky’s squadron, resulting in the abolition of the Anadyr fortress in 1770, under the protection of which the local Yukaghirs existed in the first place. The majority of Yukaghirs moved to Kolyma, where it finally assimilated with the Russian old-timers. The minority of Yukaghirs left with the Koryaks and assimilated with them.

Underwater homage. It was another feature of “law-abiding people”, mainly settled, which included not only Yukaghirs, but also the Russian peasants, as well as Itelmens. There are written records explaining exactly how bad underwater homage had damaged the Yukaghirs’ economy. Although with the constantly existing winter passage and sparsely populated area, one can imagine that fur hunting was gaining losses, and with the given frequency of using the winter passage by the “government people” the underwater homage can be regarded as constant cause for economic destabilization. This factor also caused a negative effect on the population’s transport abilities necessary for hunting. It should be appreciated that the local statesmen excessively used the opportunity to travel on the account of the government, because they were officially prohibited to trade. Although trading allowed the statesmen to earn a bit of extra money, considering the low wages they had. Thus, state business trip with some trading operations along the way took place very often.

The decree of the Anadyr fortress commanders about the migration of a part of the settled low stream Kolyma Yukaghirs to the Big Anuy and Small Anuy for cargo transport signifies the importance of underwater homage in the life of Yukaghirs. It took place in the middle of the 18th century (Gurvich, 1966, p.71).

Child and women slavery (the 17th –beg. of the 18th c.) The fact that the Russian population appeared in this region, that also used hunting and fishing as a means of living, didn’t increase the amounts of food. New trade relations allowed eliminating these problems. But to solve them, the Yukaghirs sold women and child into slavery, which took place in the “Neul years” also as a payment for debts. This was another reason for the Yukaghirs’ spreading and assimilation with the Russians. According to B. O. Dolgikh, in the 1670-1680’s there were about 10% of Yukaghir women outside of their native tribes. Slavery was abolished in 1733. Now it’s very difficult to say to whether this decree had the desired effect or not.

Starvation. The state duties resulted in the Yukaghirs’ constant seasonal starvation. Another reason for starvation was the inflow of the settled Russians and Yakuts, also with hunting and fishing as a means of living. That’s why such old Russian settlements as Russkoe Ustye, Tchokurdakh, Pohodsk, Krai Lyesa, Nizhnekolymsk were located near the deer migration areas – the permanent place for Yukaghirs’ hunting, which worked only two days a year and provided the Yukaghirs with food supplies most time of the year. The coming of the Russians led to Yukaghir migrations in the 17-18th centuries. It is in the beginning of the 19th century that seasonal starvation had become a constant disaster for the Yukaghirs.

The people of the Kolyma tundra

From that point the nomad Yukaghirs all around the Kolyma start settling near the Yakuts and the Russians, because they couldn’t survive on their own. As a result, the Yukaghirs not only died in whole families, but also became extremely poor. For example, with a normal run of the Kolyma fish in 1824, the Yukaghirs couldn’t get enough fish supply, because their seines and nets were sealed due to debts. Another example is that there were no warm clothes; hunters couldn’t go fur hunting, because the warm clothes were eaten back in the summer (Gurvich, 1966, с. 136-137).

The analyzed documents suggest that the last heavy starvation among the Yukaghirs took place at the beginning of the 20th century (1903-1905). The first starvation happened for “natural reasons”, but the second one was a result of a debt payment of a state loan: the government took the Yukaghirs boats that they latter were going to sell. The boats were sold at an auction. As a result the Yukaghirs couldn’t buy fishing tackles, gunpowder and clothes: two families died of hunger. In 1905 the war with Japan made it difficult to transport government goods to the Kolymsky Krai (region). Further poverty didn’t save the Yukaghirs from starvation in 1911-1916, although the prices decreased in 1911 with the help of an organization of steamboat races from Vladivostok to Kolyma (Gurvich, 1966, с.150).

Epidemic diseases. One of the most destructive factors of Russian colonization for the Aboriginal peoples of Siberia was smallpox. It was the Yukaghirs that suffered from it the most.

The destructive force of smallpox for the Yukaghirs can be illustrated in the following examples: the epidemic in 1669 decreased the population of the Khromovsky race from 100 to 60 people; the epidemic in 1693 decreased the population of the Yansky Yukaghirs from 106 to 41 (they paid taxes). In 1692 the Omolonsky race (tax payers) became completely extinct, i.e., as the passage in the Kolyma region tax collectors’ book says: “on this day, the 201st year there are no Yukaghir tax payers found living in the Omolonsky wintering”.

The decrease of the Yukaghir population naturally led to the Tungus and Yakut settlement on the Yukaghir homeland and their further assimilation with the new settlers. Thus, in the 18th century the Yukaghir population of about a 100 people living in the low stream of the Yana River made up only 1/3 of the entire local population. There were similar processes at that same time at the Indigirka and Alazay Rivers. At that time the number of Yukaghirs and the Evens living at the Indigirka was almost equal.

Documents show that the largest smallpox epidemic in the Kolyma took place in the 18-19th centuries (1884, 1889).

The main treasure of the people living in tundra – deer

Cultural assimilation. One of the strongest causes of the Yukaghirs cultural assimilation was their Christianizing and Orthodoxy that began in the 18th century. Other peoples of Siberia also accepted Christianity but it was the “dismounted” Yukaghirs that were similar to the old-living Russian population, owing to their settled and traditional way of life – fishing and hunting along with sleigh dog breading. It follows that they both had common way of life and economic interests; the Orthodoxy allowed Yukaghirs to take Russian godparents and establish further family relations. On the other hand, it was the Yukaghir women, who made up the majority in the Russian industrialist families that came to Siberia in team expeditions and settled in the trading region. Thus, the majority of old-living Russian population of East Siberia consisted of different mixtures of Russians and Yukaghirs. The third cause for cultural assimilation dates back to the initial stage of Siberian Colonization and refers to slavery and the captive “amanat” system; as a result the majority of the Yukaghir population and their descendants never left the Russian surroundings.

Language assimilation. It affected Yukaghirs, who remained outside the contact range with the Russian population, but due to deadly epidemic, new waves of the Evens and Yakuts settled on the devastated territories, the Yukaghir language assimilated with the language of the newcomers. Thus, it is possible that the Yukaghir language disappeared in the second half of the 19th century in the tundra area between the Indigirka and the Yana Rivers as well as between the Yana and the Lena Rivers. Before this happened some groups of Yukaghirs already started speaking the Even language and after the 1850’s the Even language was replaced by the Yakut language (Gurvich, 1966, с.142-143).

There was an opposite tendency in some regions where the Yukaghirs lived. It refers to the Yukaghirs’ language assimilation effect on the Tungus-speaking population, but these traces can hardly be found, with the exception of the Low Kolyma region, because after the 1950’s the population living to the west of Kolyma switched to the Yakut language.

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