The Ewenki

©Edward J. Vajda


The most widely dispersed people of Eastern Siberia are the Ewenki (often spelled Evenk or Evenki). In tsarist times, the Ewenki were known as the Tungus, a Yakut name of uncertain origin. Before the coming of the Russians, Ewenki tribes roamed across Siberia from the Yenisei to the Pacific, and in parts of Mongolia and Manchuria, as well. Today, they are still one of the most numerous Native Siberian peoples. (According to the 1989 census, there are over 30,000 Ewenki, though fewer than 10,000 speak an Ewenki dialect fluently). There are also nearly 20,000 Ewenki in Manchuria, on the Chinese side of the Amur River in northernmost Innner Mongolia (Ewenki in China are sometimes referred to as Solon). The Ewenki speak a language of the Tungus-Manchu group believed by many linguists to be distantly related to Mongolian and Turkic languages (with which Ewenki shares basic vocabulary correspondences). Together all of these languages are called Altaic languages (see map of Altaic languages in this packet), since the distant ancestors of these peoples are believed to have originated somewhere near the Altai mountains. The Ewenki themselves seem to have come from the Transbaikal area, the land to the east of Lake Baikal; prehistoric human remains from this region show strong resemblances to the physical traits of modern Ewenki, as do certain elements of culture and design (ornaments found with the clothing of prehistoric inhabitants of Transbaikal are strikingly similar to traditional Ewenki designs). As the Ewenki spread northward over vast stretches of Central Siberia during the past several hundred years, they merged with and displaced the earlier aborigines of this area, believed to have been related to the Yukagirs who now live only in the circumpolar North.

Most of the area inhabited by the Ewenki is taiga; unlike Western Siberia, the land east of the Yenisei is hilly and in some areas quite mountainous. The Central Siberian taiga is also rather dry in comparison to the Pacific coast, a fact that makes the more extreme cold of these regions more bearable.

Today Russians and Yakuts constitute the local majority in all of the vast former territory of the Ewenki. The Ewenki have been reduced to isolated minorities throughout Eastern Siberia. But the Ewenki language endures and is taught in the local schools,though strong dialectal divisions have hampered the development of a single literary standard (the same problem affecting Khanty and Mansi in Western Siberia). The large number of Ewenki dialects, each spoken by a few hundred people at the most, make survival of Ewenki as a modern written language uncertain.

Traditional lifeways

In terms of lifeways, the Ewenki are divided into northern groups, who are primarily hunters and small-scale reindeer breeders (the reindeer being used primarily for transport), and southern groups, many of whom raise horses and cattle. The Ewenki reindeer breeders call their southern pastoralist cousins Murchen, meaning "horse people." The language of these "horse Ewenki" shows evidence of prolonged contact with the Mongols and Buryats. Some Ewenki in the region of the Pacific coast are predominantly fishermen, but Ewenki everywhere fished during the summer. During winter they sometimes engaged in ice fishing with wooden hooks. Coastal Ewenki also hunted seal, usually in the spring. During the seal hunt, the Ewenki wore white gowns so as to blend in with the snow.

Many Ewenki in the northern areas of their range supplement their diet by hunting wild reindeer; for this a tame reindeer is used as a decoy to dispel the fear of wild reindeer, who are then killed more easily. In some areas, reindeer breeding was well developed, with a single family owning many dozens of animals. Ewenki used small numbers of domesticated reindeer to haul sledges as well as for pack animals. Unlike most Siberian hunter-gatherers who kept reindeer, the Ewenki milked their does. The reindeer belonged to the entire group or clan (unlike livestock in most pastoral societies, which belonged to individual families).

The far-flung Ewenki clans were patriarchal (with the man in charge of family decisions, and men chosen as temporary leaders of larger groups in times of need). Most Ewenki clans were traditionally endogamous. Over the centuries, the taboos against out-group marriage helped lead to the divergence of dialects between the different Ewenki groups.

The Ewenki staples were fish and wild meat of various sorts; these were either boiled in a caldron or roasted on a spit. The heart and liver of game animals were considered delicacies, as was the blood, which was turned into a type of gravy. Fish caught in summer were air dried and stored for the winter. Various types of berries were gathered, some of which were eaten together with reindeer milk. As in the case of other Siberian natives, flour, bread and sugar came only with the Russians in the decades after 1582.

In winter, Ewenki hunted in groups, setting up their pole tents called dyu in a circle of about ten or so dwellings. The pole framework of the dyu was often left to be reused by other groups, with only the leather coverings taken on to the next encampment.

The Ewenki used wooden utensils and birchbark containers called chumans. Their traditional clothing included a type of footwear (untal) said to be so well adapted to walking in the taiga that the Russians later adopted it for their own usage. Men wore caftans that came to a point in the back; in front the caftan was closed by a breastpiece or apron equipped with belt and knife. The Ewenki also wore a characteristic tight-fitting cap made from the head skin of a reindeer, usually with the ears left in place.

Ewenki were basically patriarchal, although group decisions were made by a council of elders consisting of both men and women. Reindeer and tools were sometimes owned by individual families, sometimes collectively by the clan group.

The traditional Ewenki religion retains some extremely ancient elements, including an animistic belief in the spiritualization and personification of all natural phenomena, a belief in the soul (called omi), and a belief in a lower earthly world and an upper divine world. Shamans served as intermediaries with the spirit world. After Russians introduced Orthodox Christianity, the main upper world deity was replaced by the image of St. Nicholas.

Ancient Ewenki beliefs about the origin of the earth, shared by all the dispersed Ewenki tribes in some form or another, are as follows: In the beginning there were two brothers' the elder was an evil spirit and the younger a good one who became spirit-master of the upper world. The elder brother lived at the top and the younger brother at the bottom. Between them was water. The younger brother had two assistants, a golden-eyed duck and a loon. One day the golden-eyed duck dove down and brought back the earth in its beak. The earth was thrown on the surface of the water. The brothers went there to work. The younger brother created the first people out of clay as well as all of the "good" animals, that is, animals that people could hunt and eat. The bad brother made "bad" animals, that is, the ones that are useless or harmful to humans. Various versions of this creation legend depict the raven or the dog as the good brother's helper.

In other legends of the Ewenki, the bear was a hero who had sacrificed himself by becoming a forest animal; in exchange, the spirits of the forest provided humans with reindeer. The bear feast was performed by tribes throughout Central Siberia. The Ewenki language contains more than fifty allegorical names for the bear.

Ewenki folklore includes numerous legends about past heroes and warriors. Interclan warfare over access to hunting grounds or over bride abduction was not uncommon at the time of first contact with Russians in the 17th century. Sometimes the contest was decided by hand-to-hand combat between two clan leaders or representatives instead of a general war.

The only Ewenki musical instrument is the jew's harp (kenngipkevun), a metal, stringed instrument which resonated in the mouth (incidentally, the name comes from "jaw + harp" and has nothing to do with Jewish culture or people). A sort of circle dance was performed at festivals.


The Ewen

©Edward J. Vajda


The Ewen (sometimes spelled Even) are an offshoot of the Ewenki, both linguistically and culturally. Formerly known as the Lamut (a term meaning "ocean people" in Ewen), the Ewen live generally to the east of the Ewenki, occupying mostly the coastal areas along the Sea of Okhotsk. Like the Ewenki, the Ewen absorbed an earlier population believed to be related to the Yukagirs, from which they adopted certain linguistic and cultural traits. Today there are about 17,000 Ewen, but only about 7,000 are fluent speakers of their language (the others having adopted Russian or Yakut).

Traditional Lifeways

The Ewen tribes were predominantly nomadic reindeer breeders. A small group of families would nomadize together collectively. Because the coastal area of eastern Siberia is one of the coldest, dampest and most inhospitable areas on earth, the difference between life and death was a precarious one, with any sudden loss of reindeer liable to doom a group to starvation. One small group of Ewen on the Pacific coast were semi-settled fishers and hunters of sea animals and possessed only a few reindeer. This is thought to be an adaptation made when the Ewen moved from their ancestral grounds in Transbaikal to the coastal areas and not indicative of an original way of life for these people.

The Ewen herders also rode their reindeer and used dogs for sledge animals. The economy was supplemented by winter hunts to obtain wild game. Hunters sometimes rode reindeer, sometimes moved along on wooden skis.

The Ewen lived in conical tents which could be disassembled and transported on sledges. Animal skins and, in the southern coastal areas, fish skins were used as the tent covering. Settled Ewens used a type of earth and log dugout of extremely archaic design. Near the dwellings were erected sheds to house stocks of frozen fish and meat.

The Ewen were traditionally divided into patriarchal clans. The clan observed the custom of nimat, or the communal sharing of all fish and game caught, and the collective assistance of needy people in the community. The Ewen were also patrilocal: the bride normally brought to her husband's family's home a dowry of reindeer that had been designated for her out of her own family's herd at the time of her birth.

Ewen religion was shamanistic, with the shaman serving as healer as well as spiritual leader. The dead were buried on raised platforms, their property broken and strewn around the site during the burial ceremony.

Ewen musical instruments include the jew's harp common to all Tungusic groups as well as to many other Siberian peoples.