The Yakut

©Edward J. Vajda


The Yakut live in the Lena River valley and other areas of the vast Sakha Republic (pronounced sa-HA) Republic in eastern Siberia and number nearly 400,000, making them the second most numerous Siberian people after the Buryat. (The Sakha Republic was known as Yakutia before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.) The Yakuts are the most northerly of all the Turkic speaking peoples. In fact, the Sakha Republic includes the coldest inhabited regions on Earth (remember that eastern Siberia is much colder on average than western Siberia).

The Yakut are predominantly a pastoral people who are thought to have moved from the region of Transbaikal and northern Mongolia northward, finally settling in the Lena valley. Along the way they were heavily influenced by Mongols as well as by the aboriginal Tungusic tribes with which they merged. Certain Yakut linguistic features seem to have been borrowed from some unknown aboriginal Siberian tribes which today have otherwise completely vanished. The term "Yakut," in fact, is a Mongol word (later borrowed by the Russians); the Yakut call themselves the Sakha. Linguists have shown that the root yak is the ancient pronunciation of the ethnonym "sakha" plus the Mongol plural ending -ut. Despite the presence of large vocabularies of Mongol and Tungusic (Ewenki-related) words in the modern Yakut language, this language retains a solid Turkic core. Also, the stockbreeding culture of the Yakut and other ethnological features reveal the original southerly origin of the tribe. Yakut legends tell of the tribe's expulsion from the Transbaikal area nearly a thousand years ago by the Buryats and other Mongol conquerors.

Yakut culture likewise shows elements characteristic of the northern taiga hunters (Tungusic and other peoples) with whom they merged on their migrations north. Scholars argue about how much of the present Yakut population descends from the southern steppe nomads and how much derives from the taiga aborigines who mixed with the northward-migrating Turks.

The Yakut nationality is not considered to be one of the "small peoples of the North." Even after the coming of the Russians in the 17th century, the Yakut have managed to hold their own both linguistically and numerically. Most Yakut continue to use their native language on a daily basis and in all spheres of live. Even before the 1917 revolution, a Russian-style alpabet had been adopted to write Yakut (all other Siberian peoples of Siberia, except for the Tuvans, Mongols and Buryats, who used an ancient vertical script, acquired writing only in Soviet times). Though spread out across a large territory, the Yakut language is relatively free of dialects (due to its rather recent introduction from the south). This makes it possible for everyone to use a single literary language. Many Russians living in Sakha, in fact, have also learned Yakut, as have many of the minority Ewenki and Ewen tribes in the republic. Unlike the situation with most other Siberian languages, there is good reason to believe that the Yakut language will thrive in the future. Since the birthrate among Yakuts is higher than among Russians, there is also reason to believe that the Yakuts will eventually outnumber the Russians in their homeland--something that is also highly unusual in modern Siberia (so far only the Tuvans outnumber the Russians locally).

Traditional lifeways

The Yakut material culture contains many of the same elements found among the Turkic tribes who remained in the south Siberian steppes. Pastoralism, especially the breeding of horses, was the central component of the traditional Yakut economy, clearly distinguishing the Yakut from all of the other east Siberian peoples (who were primarily hunter-gatherers). The Yakuts were sometimes called "the Horse People" by their neighbors. Besides horses, the Yakut also kept goats, cattle, sheep, pigs, and chicken--the only people in northern Siberia to do so before the coming of the Russians. The Yakut also had dogs, for hunting and as pets, as well as pet cats.

With regard to cattle, the Yakut practiced both pasturing as well as stabling. Hay was cut and stored for winter fodder. Horses were usually left to graze both in winter and in summer. The Yakut used a type of scythe for mowing hay (in ancient times, bone sythes were used). In the harsh northern climate, where the stock often went hungry and had to drink icy water from a hole in the river, the cattle were hardy but relatively unproductive, yielding far less milk than their southern counterparts. Cows were not milked during the coldest winter months; mares were only milked in the summer.

Fishing was also a characteristic summer occupation. Horsehair was used to make fishing seines. Hunting was done in the winter. Many of the fishing and hunting techniques seem to have been borrowed from (or inherited from) the neighboring taiga hunter-gatherers. The same variety of traps and snares were used to catch game. The more wealthy Yakut sometimes hunted on horseback. The poorer Yakut who owned no cattle subsisted almost entirely by hunting (on foot) and fishing throughout the year, much like their Ewenki neighbors.

Traditionally, the Yakut who owned livestock moved twice a year (in May and October), alternating between winter and summer camps. Summer dwellings were set up near the pasturelands, while the winter dwellings were located near the hayfields. This sort of transhumance (limited, predictable seasonal movement from one particular spot to another) never took the Yakut on long wanderings (thus, the Yakut were what ethnographers would call extensive pastoralists rather than true pastoral nomads). The Yakut did not use the wheel on the rough taiga terrain, relying instead on horse- or ox-drawn sledges. The Yakut also rode horseback, fashioning elaborate saddles and saddle blankets.

The poorer Yakut lived in a type of dugout. Richer Yakut lived in conical summer houses and large winter yurts. Sometimes the winter yurt was replaced by a type of log dwelling. The Yakut also knew how to make a type of small wooden fortress for defensive purposes.

Yakut tribal structure consisted of clans ruled by chiefs called toyons. Traditionally, the clans were exogamous, patrilineal groups (like everyone else in eastern and southern Siberia). Marriage between two exogamous clans was preceded by a great deal of matchmaking. The groom's family was expected to pay a bride's price (kalym). The entire clan might assist in assembling the bride price. Socially, Yakut women occupied an inferior position and took no part in public decisionmaking.

Traditional Yakut religion shared much in common with the shamanism of other northern tribes. Young people afflicted with any nervous ailment were urged to become shamans. Unlike some Siberian natives, however, the Yakut also believed in higher deities, such as the sky god Uluu-Toyon. One of the main duties of the shaman was to cure sick people by driving out spirits believed to cause the illness. Worship of the hearth fire was also a pervasive element in Yakut folk culture, often surviving even after the superficial conversion to Russian Orthodox Christianity.

Yakut folklore includes long heroic epics such as the Olonkho (pronounced O-lan-HOE), which takes several days to recite in full. Performance of these poems occurs at festivals. Group singing was also practiced, although the Yakut had no native musical instruments except for the ubiquitous jew's harp.

The Yakut made a great variety of utensils out of wood and leather, including a bag used to ferment mare's milk to make the intoxicating drink kumys. Iron working was also prominent among the Yakuts, even before the coming of the Russians; once again, no other northern people traditionally worked metal.

Dairy and meat products were extremely important to the Yakut. Fish and wild game were of secondary importance, except in poorer households. Beef and horsemeat were considered delicacies. Cow's milk was rarely used fresh; instead it was made into a variety of cheese and yogurt-type products. Sour milk products were sometimes frozen in blocks for winter storage.

Because the entire Yakut territory is rich in mammoth bones and tusks, the Yakut also engaged in bone and ivory carving.

The Dolgan

©Edward J. Vajda


The Dolgan are an ethnic group that developed only in the 18th century. Aboriginal Siberia knew no such people until after the population movements set in motion by the Russian invasion.

Modern Dolgan are descended from four Ewenki clans who adopted the Yakut language and moved into Taimyr Peninsula, displacing the original Nganasan inhabitants. The name Dolgan derives from one of the original clan names. The present language of the Dolgan is closely related to Yakut, and yet, because of significant structural changes induced by the switchover from Ewenki, Dolgan is usually considered a separate language (though some scholars claim it is a dialect of Yakut). In any event the Dolgan consider themselves to be a separate ethnic group. Today there are nearly 7,000 Dolgan (about 6,000 speak their native language fluently).

The Ewenki clans who became the Dolgans originally lived to the west of the river Lena. This population gradually shifted to the Yakut language of their neighbors. The earliest Russian inhabitants of the Lena area also contributed to the style of clothing and dwellings which became characteristic of the Dolgan. Due to a complex series of pressures, the Dolgan clans moved northward into the Taimyr, where they live today.

Traditional lifeways

Although the Dolgan language is basically a Turkic language closely related to the Yakut from which it derives, the traditional way of life of the Dolgan clans was more resembled the Ewenki than to the pastoral Yakuts. The chief occupation of the Dolgan was reindeer breeding, which they took with them northward. The Dolgan generally nomadized in the forest tundra belt in winter, venturing out into the open tundra during the summer (not unlike their Nganasan neighbors). The winter camps tended to be on the border between the two zones. Because the reindeer would soon exhaust the food supply in the area of the encampment, the winter camp would be moved several times along the tundra edge. As spring approached, the camps broke up, and the Dolgans formed nomadic groups consisting of several families. The Dolgans wandered through the tundra along lakes and rivers, watching their herds the whole day through; in autumn they went back to their family groups.

The Dolgan rode their reindeer, and also adopted the dogsled from the Nganasan and other Samoyedic tundra dwellers (who had adopted it, interestingly enough, from the Russians in the 18th century). The Yakut style pole tents were gradually ousted by the balok, a type of sled-drawn tent on runners. Borrowed from those used by travelling Russian merchants, these balok were much easier to move during the complex winter and summer wanderings than the pole tents more commonly used in the taiga region.

Dolgan legends speak of ancient times when the Dolgan (who were still Ewenki at the time) hunted wild reindeer by following the herds. According to the legends, hunting was done by bow and arrow as well as by a type of sling. Dolgans continued to use a type of throwing arrow as well as a feather arrow for hunting.

Even during reindeer breeding times, hunting and fishing continued to be important occupations. Fish were pickled in pits; geese and ducks were preserved in the frozen permafrost. Certain roots were also harvested, the digging implement being the reindeer horn.

Although the Dolgan were patriarchal and patrilineal, like the Yakut and Ewenki, traditional Dolgan clan structure shows possible signs of a prehistoric matriarchal arrangement. Several families camped together would elect a chief woman who would supervise the daily routine of the entire camp. Women also kept the sacred fire burning and took care of the group's sacred relics.

The shamans guarded against evil spirits called abaasy who were thought to cause sickness by entering a person's body and gradually devouring their soul. Other, benevolent spirits called ayy were thought to dwell in odd-shaped stones or antlers; these relics were kept as a kind of charm. Dolgan shamanistic practices were nearly identical to those of the Ewenki. The Dolgans buried their dead in the ground after the spring thaw. Sometimes a reindeer was ritually slaughtered over the grave.

As among the Yakut, the Dolgan greatly revered storytellers . They particularly favored animal tales that told about the origin of the different clans. The Dolgan's only musical instrument was the jew's harp. Applied art included mammoth bone carving and embroidery. Dolgan design is mostly geometric.