59: Evenki- People of the Russian North

In plog 11: The Inuit, I said I’d write some plogs about various indigenous groups in the Arctic. Well, it’s been a long time coming but here is the second in that series! This time we’re exploring the Evenki in Northern Russia, looking at their history, beliefs, stories and activism. I should of course mention that I am not Evenki, and therefore not an expert or authority in their culture. However, I hope this is a brief insight and introduction to this group, and of course if you’re interested to learn more I highly recommend reading books written by Evenki authors and listening to them speak about their culture directly. I’ll admit I’ve struggled with finding books by Evenki authors, probably owing to me not speaking Russian or Evenki, but I’ve attached one video of the Evenki speaking of their own culture at the end. With that said, on we go learning about the Evenki!

Evenki population by region in Russia according to 2010 census (diagram: Tigran Mitr am) and on the right the flag of the Evenk Autonomous Okrug

Evenki

The Evenki (also Ewenki, Evenk or Tungus people) are an indigenous group with roots in central and northeast Russia, as well as northern China and Mongolia. Evenki means ‘people’ or ‘person’ in the Evenki language, and there are many more localised names e.g. clan names that they identify themselves by. Whilst there is an Evenki Autonomous Okrug (i.e district) in Russia, only around 10% of their Russian population live there.

Historically in the areas around them, mostly Taiga forest, people did horse breeding. However, the Evenki have been both a hunting and a nomadic reindeer herding people at least since the 1600s. As part of the mobile lifestyle required for herding reindeer, who are migratory animals, Evenki have used teepee-like housing which can easily be dismantled and reconstructed in a new location. Domesticated reindeer have been milked and used for carrying things, whilst wild reindeer were hunted for meat. For this reason, large herds of hundreds or even thousands, as owned by other reindeer herding groups who use them for meat, are not necessary for the Evenki, and so families often have herds of only 20 or 30 animals.

During 1600s, the Russian Empire first came in contact with the Evenki, imposing a heavy fur tax on them. This was sometimes implemented through rough means, taking family members hostage until taxes were paid. It eventually led many Evenki to move further east. During the time of the Soviet Union, many Evenki were forced to settle in collective farms and to undergo ‘Russification’, education that focused on the Russian language and customs, leading to many parts of the Evenki culture being suppressed. Even today the Evenki language is spoken by few and reindeer herding is done by a declining number of people.

Evenki use domesticated reindeer for milk and for carrying things, hunting wild reindeer for meat (Picture: Edward Adrian)

Beliefs

Some aspects of Evenki belief still persist. Their world view is often described as ‘animistic’ or having an ‘ecological ethic’, meaning they see a responsibility for them towards nature, and for nature towards them. Despite official Christianisation in 1700s, and in some areas Tibetan Buddhism, Shamanistic beliefs persist. In fact, the word ‘Shaman’, now often used in reference to the role played by individuals in many cultures, comes from the Evenki language. Beliefs include personification of various parts of the natural world, that we possess a soul, that there is a lower, middle and upper world and that various rituals performed by shamans can aid e.g. hunting. Honesty is also an integral quality, with gossip, lies and hypocrisy being very frowned upon. This partly stems from a need for accurate information to be able to survive in their sometimes difficult landscape.

Hunting, and in some areas fishing, are also important aspects of Evenki life, mixed with a strong respect for animals. It is said

“It is forbidden to torment an animal, bird, or insect, and a wounded animal must be finished off immediately. It is forbidden to spill the blood of a killed animal or defile it. It is forbidden to kill animals or birds that were saved from pursuit by predators or came to a person for help in a natural disaster.” (A.A. Sirina)

This connection with the natural world also can be seen in Evenki names. Children are often named after natural features near their place of birth, e.g. a boy born near the Lake Kayo being called Kayocha; or aspects of nature e.g a girl born at sunrise being called Garpancha meaning “ray of sunshine”.

A major Evenki event is the hunting of a bear, after which there is a feast for the following three days where strict rituals and observances are followed. Young people dance as the meat is processed, and make noises like crows to trick the bear into thinking that it is crows and not humans who are eating it. They even call each other ‘oli’, meaning crow, during this time. Evenki festivals are linked to various events e.g. hunting so do not have a set date, although major Russian holidays are also sometimes celebrated.

Dances are used in various parts of Evenki culture, such as during the bear festival when the bear meat is processed before being eaten

Stories and activism

The Evenki number over almost 40,000 in Russia today and around 30,000 in China. There is only around 500 in Mongolia. Reindeer herding continues amongst some, with helicopters and snowmobiles playing an increasing role in this lifestyle, though many also lead settled lifestyles. Despite the steep decline in those speaking Evenki, there have been efforts since the 1980s to create Evenki schools that teach their language and culture. Evenki story tellers, those holding the impressive folk epics from memory, have started recording and writing down some of these stories to ensure they can be enjoyed for generations to come. Some of these tales are so long it took 18 hours to record one of them being told, showing the skill of the story teller and the rich folk culture of the Evenki.

Evenki action and activism has seen other successes. In 1950s many Evenki were forced out of their small settlements into larger ones, leading to a decline in the  environment around these large settlements, as well as a drop in standard of living and a rise in alcoholism among the population. After much campaigning in 1980s some groups managed to get their land back and return to their small settlements, leading to a vast improvement in both living standards, mental health and a drop in alcoholism. Around this time many Evenki also managed to stop the construction of a dam that would have flooded a large portion of the Evenki Autonomous Okrug.

Despite harmful past policies, Evenki action and activism is leading to more young Evenki learning about their culture and language, as well as gaining the freedom to live their traditional life as hey choose.

Russia is home to over 185 different ethnic groups. Many are indigenous and many overlap with other countries, such as the Saami in West Russia and Fennoscandia, the Ainu in southeast Russia and Japan, and the Yup’ik and Aleut in east Russia and Alaska. The Evenki of China, Mongolia and Russia are just one of these many group, yet like all of them they are unique with their own beliefs, language, customs, history, present and future.

For more info:

Evenki and their Reindeer in China:

Traditional music:

Music: kongano.com

Intro speaking: Varvara from Yakutsk speaking about her life in the Evenki language

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