The Yukagir

©Edward J. Vajda


Before the coming of the Russians,the tundra and forest-tundra area of what is today the Sakha Republic was inhabited by nomadic (and near the Arctic Ocean semi-sedentary) tribes known as the Yukagir (sometimes spelled Yukaghir). Unfortunately, the Yukagir were devastated even more than most other Siberian natives by the combination of Russian economic exploitation and European diseases such as smallpox. Today only a few hundred remain, and these are divided into two separate groups speaking very different dialects of Yukagir. The Tundra Yukagir, who call themselves Odul (which means "the Mighty Ones") live in the extreme northeast of the Sakha Republic, in the Tundra near the Kolyma River. The Forest Yukagir, who call themselves Wadul (which also means "the Mighty Ones"), live in a small area of the hilly and heavily forested Upper Kolyma River basin. Today, fewer than 400 Yukagir speak either form of the language fluently (official sources disagree on the precise number). Most of the original Yukagir tribes are now completely extinct, and it is probable that the two language forms we call Yukagir today represent what had been a whole family of closely related languages before the coming of the Russians. The ethnonym Yukagir, which is of Ewenki origin, was adopted by the Russians from the Ewenki in the 17th century and now seems to have been accepted by the two surviving Yukagir groups.

The Yukagir are believed to be the most ancient inhabitants of the East Siberian Arctic. They still lived in the Stone Age in the 17th century, with no knowledge of the use of metal. Their language is not related to any other tongue of Siberia, though recently linguists have demonstrated what seems to be an extremely distant relationship with the Samoyedic language family. It is believed that related tribes once inhabited more southerly regions of eastern Siberia, from where they were displaced by Ewenki tribes moving northward from the Transbaikal area during the past thousand years. The Yakut, who came north even later than the Ewenki, borrowed the term "Yukagir" from their Ewenki predecessors. It is interesting that the Yakut word for the Northern Lights means literally "Yukagir fires." Yukagir legend states that the Yukagirs were once "more numerous than the stars in the polar sky"--so numerous that the smoke rising from Yukagir encampments caused the birds of the sky to vanish. The raven was thought to have been changed from white to black by the soot from so many Yukagir cooking fires in the days before the coming of the Russians.

Many of the Yukagir who survived the Russians occupation shifted to the Ewenki or Yakut language and merged with those nationalities. One easternmost clan, the Chuwan, shifted to using the Chukchi language and became a separate nationality, the Chuwan (or Chuvan) people. Today the Chuwan still live in the interior of the Chukchi peninsula, but they have lost their Chukchi speech as well and now use a creolized version of Russian mingled with Chukchi and some Yukagir elements.

Traditional lifeways

It is believed that at least some of the Yukagir were originally sedentary or semi-sedentary, living near rivers or the coast in large, multi-family dwellings. But even before the Russian invasion, the reindeer breeding Ewenki and Ewen tribes moving up from the south were already slowly displacing the Yukagir. From them, some Yukagir clans acquired a certain knowledge of reindeer breeding. For the most part, those Yukagir clans who survived the Russian invasion were wandering nomadic hunter-gatherers, who followed the herds of wild reindeer and preyed upon them for their livelihood. Before the adoption of small scale reindeer breeding under the influence of their neighbors, the Yukagir hunting-gathering lifestyle was probably similar to that of the very first people to colonize the taiga and forest-tundra zones thousands of years ago.

The traditional hunting and fishing of the Yukagirs involved collective nomadizing over wide areas to take advantage of the seasonal migrations of reindeer (in the tundra) and deer, elk and mountain goats (in the hilly taiga). Tundra hunters would build special corrals and drive the reindeer into them, where they would be slaughtered. The hunters wore a special type of snow goggles fashioned from soft birchbark with a narrow slit for the eyes. A variety of fish and marine animals were also taken at appropriate times of the year. Fish was eaten fresh, dried, or rolled in river willow leaves and left to ferment before being consumed.

Yukagir dwellings included a spring and summer conical tent covered with reindeer hide and similar in shape to the Native American tipi. Winter dwellings were a sort of dugout with earth, snow and logs used as insulation. Before the 19th century, large dwellings containing several families were also encountered among the semi-sedentary groups of the Arctic coast. The Yukagir in the taiga built small log barns for storing implements and goods during their seasonal migrations.

Traditional Yukagir social relations seem to have originally been matriarchal; the main decision makers in the nuclear family were women elders, although the clans had become patriarchal by the 17th century (perhaps under Ewenki influence). Yukagir society as a whole continued to be exogamous and matrilocal, with newlyweds living with the bride's family. The son-in-law was in a position of subordination to the mother-in-law in his new family. The oldest son and daughter were considered to belong to the mother's clan, while any other children were counted as part of the father's clan. Among the modern tundra Yukagir this arrangement has given way to patrilocal customs, whereby the bride went to live with her husband's family (probably under the influence of the neighboring Chukchi, who are strongly patriarchal).

Yukagir clothing and art show evidence of much borrowing from their neighbors, with men wearing an Ewenki-style caftan and women using large ornamental decorations like the Yakut. However, the Yukagir seem to have possessed a highly developed system of pictograms (symbolic pictures drawn on reindeer or elk hide) which predate their association with more southerly cultures. The Yukagir even wrote pictographic love letters to one another, some of which have been preserved. These pictographs seem to be of extremely ancient origin.

The Yukagir were shamanists who believed that their ancestors were giant elk hunters who in the end subdued the elk and reindeer and subordinated them to the needs of their people. The main cult of the ancient Yukagir seemed to revolve around worship of the sun and of ancestor spirits. The family hearth had special religious siginificance, and the matriarch of each family was entrusted to care for it. There were special taboos concerning the hearth fire. Each family had a sacred hearth fire in the center of their dwelling. It was taboo for anyone to take fire from this hearth to give to a stranger. It was also taboo for anyone, even family members, to walk between the hearth fire and the family or clan elder.

One extremely curious feature of Yukagir religious practice is as follows. When a renowned shaman died, his body was dismembered and the parts then dried and preserved as talismans by everyone in the clan. These relics were thought to give their bearer special powers and protection against evil spirits.