Evenki (Northern Tungus)
Evenki (Northern Tungus)
ETHNONYMS: Tungus (the Russian name); Birar, Ile, Manegir, Mata, and Orochen (names of dialects and/or ethnic subgroups)
Identification. An indigenous people of central and eastern Siberia, the Evenki were formerly divided into many distinct groups. They fall into two noncontiguous groups, according to their economic activities: the northern group of reindeer Tungus engaged in reindeer husbandry and hunting, and the southern group, or horse Evenki, engaged in horse and cattle pastoralism. There is a strong tradition of ethnic identity, even a sense of superiority among these "aristocrats of Siberia."
Location. The most widely distributed of all native peoples in Siberia, the Evenki inhabit a huge area stretching from west of the Yenisei River to the Sea of Okhotsk and northern Sakhalin Island and from the base of the Taimyr Peninsula in the north to the Amur River in the south. Evenki also live in northern Manchuria and Mongolia. Most of this homeland is mountainous and covered by larch forests, whereas in the far north of central Siberia, north of the tree line, the tundra prevails. Firs, Siberian cedar, and spruce are also encountered, especially along river valleys. Moose, wild reindeer, elks, roe deer, bears, wolves, and boars populate the forests, as do important fur species such as sable, squirrel, stoat, fox, hare, and otter. Wolves, bears, and wolverines are the most serious predators. Many varieties of fish, including several members of the salmon family, make for good fishing, and wild fowl such as wood grouse, ptarmigan, and various geese and ducks are hunted. The Evenki subsist primarily by hunting.
The climate is sharply continental, and permafrost is found under most of the land. Within the Evenki Autonomous District (okrug ) in central Siberia, January temperatures average — 36° C and fall to —80° C, whereas summer temperatures average 16° C and reach 36° C. Annual precipitation is not great, varying from 25 to 40 centimeters; the snow cover reaches 50 to 80 centimeters. The Evenki Autonomous District covers 745,000 square kilometers, but this is only a fraction of the total homeland of the entire Evenki nation.
Demography. At the last published census (1979) Evenki in the USSR numbered 27,531. Earlier censuses in 1970 and 1959 listed 25,149 and 24,151 Evenki. Over 40 percent of the Evenki live in the Yakut Republic; 13 percent live in the Khabarovsk Territory, and less than 12 percent live in the Evenki Autonomous District. The other 38 percent live mainly in Irkutsk and Amur provinces (oblasts) and Buryatia. Most Evenki continue to live in rural areas.
Linguistic Affiliation. The Evenki language belongs to the Tungusic Division of the Tungas-Manchu Branch of the Altaic languages; they are thus related to the Manchu who conquered China in 1644. A literary language was created in 1928-1929 using the Latin alphabet, but the Cyrillic alphabet was adopted in 1937. In 1979, 43 percent of the Evenki considered Evenki their first language; most others spoke Yakut or Russian—bilingualism is common. The wide geographical distribution of the Evenki accounts in part for the existence of numerous dialects.
History and Cultural Relations
Most ethnographers locate the heart of Evenki culture in southeastern Siberia, to the northwest and north of Manchuria. Here, in the prehistoric past, the Evenki domesticated the reindeer and began to use them as mounts. They gradually spread out across Siberia. A good-sized Tungus reindeer can travel 80 kilometers a day with about 80 kilograms over terrain too rough for a horse. Riding reindeer increased the efficiency of the Evenki both in hunting and in military raids against other indigenous peoples. Not all contacts were warlike, however; the Evenki established commercial and cultural ties with neighboring Yakut, Buriat, and other peoples, as evidenced in adopted innovations and linguistic borrowings by both the Evenki and these other nations.
Contact with the Russians began with the so-called conquest in 1540 by the Cossak Ermak and intensified during the seventeenth century—first in the west, later in the east. As Russians penetrated into Siberia along the larger rivers and began to exact tribute and taxes from the native population, the Evenki retreated to the spaces between rivers. Those remaining close to Russian settlement often assimilated linguistically and economically. In the early Soviet period, Evenki pleaded with the government to control and limit Russian encroachment on their hunting grounds in order to protect their economy and culture. These same pleas are being repeated today.
Formerly most of the Evenki population was nomadic, with camps of one to three families traveling over vast areas in search of new pastures for their reindeer. The population density was extremely sparse, averaging only about one person for every 250 square kilometers. For the brief summers, the herds were led through the forests and marshlands; mosses, lichens, shrubs, and dwarf willows provided the main foodstuffs for the animals. Many of the herders would also move northward into the treeless frozen plains, or tundra, where the reindeer would feed on willow shoots, reeds, and lichens. The goal of the summer feeding was to fatten the animals as much as possible in preparation for the coming months.
The herders would lead their animals back to the forests for the winters, which lasted from early October until May or June. During these months, the reindeer had to paw through the snow for lichen, or "reindeer moss," nearly their only food for the winter. Since the trampling of the herds tended to pack down the snow and thus make it impenetrable, the animals had to be kept constantly on the move, covering a great expanse of land.
Despite these extensive migrations, larger groups would still gather a number of times during the year (during reindeer calving season, rut, etc.) for collective labor and celebrations.
The housing of the reindeer herders consisted of conical tents covered with birch bark in the summer and reindeer or moose hides in the winter—small in either case (sleeping room for two or three adults and several children). Early in this century canvas began to replace these materials. Permanent storage facilities were built along routes of migration, so that seasonal clothing and equipment could be cached when not in use. The horse Evenki lived in felt or birch-bark yurts similar to those used by Mongolians.
The Soviet state pursued a policy of sedentarization of nomads. From the 1930s to the 1950s many native villages were established and women, children, and elders were variously encouraged or coerced to settle in these, whereas men of working age continued to herd and hunt. Since the 1950s there has been a trend to consolidate these hamlets into larger villages. Herders and hunters still spend a large proportion of their time in the bush, however, sometimes with their spouses and children not old enough to be in school.
Subsistence and Commercial Activities . The traditional Evenki economy was based on the raising of reindeer (or horses) for transport, the hunting of wild animals for meat, and the hunting of fur species for trade and the payment of taxes. Fishing and the gathering of wild plant foods also contributed to the diet, which consisted most of the time of unseasoned boiled meat. (Reindeer milk, while sweet and creamy, is low in butterfat, and a female reindeer gives only a pint a day, at most.) The Soviet state in the 1930s organized farms to pursue the traditional Evenki activities and also introduced fur farming and agriculture.
Approximately 30 to 50 percent of the Evenki currently work in reindeer husbandry and hunting. Many others are employed in unskilled physical labor. An increasing number participate in the tertiary sector, especially in health care, education, and administration, and a few have entered the industrial work force. The rate of unemployment (i.e., lack of jobs in the public sector) is higher among the Evenki, especially for females, than among the Russian population, and social problems are widespread.
Trade. During the periods when clans congregated, they exchanged gifts. Formal exchange ties were recognized, especially where reindeer-herding Evenki lived in close proximity to settled or horse-herding Evenki, and goods needed by one group were readily produced or procured by the other. Reindeer were rarely sold but only given as gifts, at least between Evenki (they were sold occasionally to Russians). Trade, as such, was uncommon among the Evenki. Rather, gifts were freely given, and a person was welcome to borrow from a cache (a small log hut) whatever equipment or food was needed, with the expectation that he or she would return it when possible.
The Evenki traded furs, most notably sables and squirrels, with the Chinese, and later with the Russians. In exchange they obtained tea, guns, ammunition, fabric, flour, sugar, salt, tobacco, and alcohol. As Russian miners and settlers moved into Evenki territory, they sought to obtain Evenki-made fur clothing, footwear, and gloves, which were well adapted to the severe Siberian climate, and they purchased birch-bark baskets and foodstuffs such as mushrooms and berries.
Both men and women wore coats of deerskin, preferably of fawns, opening in the front and underlain by a leather chest-piece with an apron, and either leggings and short boots or thigh-high boots. The cut of the garments and decorative embellishments of fur, beads, and metal pieces differed for each gender. Today Western-style dress prevails in summer, but traditional attire is still worn in winter.
Division of Labor. Among many Evenki groups women herded and milked the reindeer, cooked, tended children, and tended the camp; men hunted fur-bearing animals, and, for meat, large game. Women processed birch bark and cleaned and sewed hides. Men processed wood, antlers, and bones; slaughtered and skinned animals; and worked as blacksmiths. Many innovations borrowed from other cultures first entered the men's domain, then the women's (e.g., weaving fishnets, baking bread Russian style, sewing with machines). Recently, women more often than men have tended to seek white-collar jobs, frequently in larger villages or urban areas. Evenki men remain predominantly employed in rural physical labor.
Land Tenure. Although the concept of ownership of land was totally foreign to the Evenki, clan usufruct of specific areas for hunting and pasturing reindeer was recognized. A clan territory usually centered around a stream and included the lands on both sides. Boundaries of these territories, however, were apparently fluid, and more than one clan might use the same area without conflict. At the individual level, there was respect for a man's customary squirrel- and sable-trapping grounds.
Kin Groups and Descent. The patrilineal clan was the predominant kinship group in Evenki society; in fact, no word for family exists in the Evenki language. The clan was the unit determining use of territory and punishment for crimes (e.g., strangling for incest). Formerly, the threat of expulsion from the clan was a major form of social control. Evenki could identify clan ancestors for several generations and recount where these ancestors had nomadized. Marriage was exogamous, with prohibitions of affine relations for seven to ten generations. Clans tended to be paired for the purpose of marriage to the extent of developing distinct dialects; cross-cousin marriage, particularly of a man with his mother's brother's daughter, was the ideal and most common form in such cases. Although the family served as the basic economic unit, it was identified by its clan name and participated regularly in clan-based activities, such as the collective use of products of the hunt, collective fulfillment of some tasks, and the provision of collective aid for the poor, the elderly, and orphans. A clan could include a dozen to 100 or more small families. In recent decades clan identity has weakened, and younger Evenki may not know to which clan they belong.
Kinship Terminology. A fairly simple kinship terminology existed for relatives other than those in a direct line of descent (i.e., grandparents, parents, and children). It differentiated relatives by whether they were older or younger (in terms of generations rather than actual age) and by whether they were from the clan of a person's mother or father. Among some Evenki groups, even the term for mother would be applied to one's mother's sisters as well. Polygyny was rare, but when it occurred, the co-wives called each other by the terms for older and younger sister.
Marriage and Family
Marriage. The basic social unit was the small or nuclear family, often augmented by an older relation (e.g., a surviving father or mother of the husband). Marriages were arranged by parents, usually with the consent of the bride and groom. Less frequently, the groom abducted his bride. In the former case, the groom was responsible for providing bride-wealth, usually in reindeer, or working for his future father-in-law for a period of time. The dowry that the woman brought with her to the new household approached the bride-wealth in value. Exchange of sisters as brides between two or more families was a widely practiced alternative, obviating the need for provision of goods or labor by the grooms. After the wedding (attended by up to 150 people) the woman went to live with her husband's clan. Divorce could be initiated by either party, especially in the case of one spouse's failure to provide for the family's needs.
The Soviet state forbade the customs of bride-wealth and prearranged marriages without the consent of both spouses. Increasingly, Evenki marry non-Evenki: in Yakutia 72 percent of Evenki women were married to non-Evenki men, and 66 percent of Evenki men were married to non-Evenki women in 1979. The figure for interethnic marriages is higher in urban than rural areas but still above 50 percent in some rural areas. Historically, many of the Evenki who attached themselves to Russian settlements had been expelled from clans.
Domestic Unit. The family was usually headed by the father, sometimes by a brother or grandfather, and, in the case of death of these males, by the mother or her brother. Extended families of several generations were not uncommon, but the average family size at the turn of the century was 5.5 members, and more recently, 3.7 (1979, among Evenki families in Yakutia). Marriage rates among the Evenki have fallen over the last few decades, and single-parent families of unwed mothers and children have become increasingly common. Although the proportion of extended families has declined over time, such families are still much more common among the Evenki than among nonnative residents of Siberia.
Inheritance. Items owned collectively by the family or the clan were passed from generation to generation. These included the fire (i.e., coals from the family hearth), the flint stone and hook for hanging the cooking kettle, and most reindeer. Many of the reindeer herds can be viewed as clan rather than family property; although individual families cared for the deer, the clan elders could stipulate their redistribution when the need arose to help poorer clan members.
Riding reindeer were personally owned, as were hunting and much domestic equipment. Most personal possessions, including one's riding deer, accompanied the deceased to the grave. Other reindeer would be distributed among the sons and any (male) wards after the death of the head of household. If a son wanted to set up his own household before the death of his father, the father might give him a large number of reindeer and the needed equipment. Property of the (male) head of household would not be divided at the time of his death if he left a widow. If she remarried within her husband's clan, her children became the wards of the new husband; if she remarried outside the clan, children and reindeer were distributed among the late husband's relatives. A woman leaving her late husband's clan could take only her own personal possessions (including tent cover and any reindeer she had brought with her to the marriage, and the offspring of those reindeer). At her death some of her possessions were buried with her, and small items were returned to her mother or distributed to her friends as keepsakes. Children conceived prior to marriage were kept by their mother's parents when she married.
Socialization. The Evenki valued children and cared for them fondly, for the most part avoiding physical punishment. Children were suckled for three to six years and treated very permissively; however, they were also exposed naked to the cold for brief intervals to toughen them; skin diseases and accidental freezing resulted in a very high infant-mortality rate. Although a child participated in various household tasks from an early age, she or he only gradually adopted the full work load of an adult. For instance, boys hunted for small fur animals quite early, but were not expected to participate in large-game animal hunts until the age of 17 or so; girls waited until adolescence to assist in the preparation and sewing of hides, which took much manual strength. Evenki of all ages learned from their elders, and persons with much experience of life were especially esteemed. Personal interaction was masked by decorum, with careful observance of social gradations and rules of hospitality (including a complex etiquette within the small tents and lodges).
Since the establishment of boarding schools in the 1930s, many Evenki children have spent a large part of each year away from their families. Parents complain that the children no longer learn how to live in the taiga and develop an unhealthy dependency on (largely non-Evenki) school personnel for all their needs.
Infractions of clan mores by adults were punished by lashing. Very serious violations were punished by death or by expulsion from the clan.
Historically, each clan was led by a clan assembly composed of the heads of households (men and women). This assembly of elders, which included the clan shaman, met periodically to resolve economic and social issues ranging from war and punishment of clan members guilty of unacceptable behavior to the adoption of children and the care of elderly clan members without family. During the czarist period the Russian government tried to control the assemblies by designating "elders" who would cooperate with its goals. This generally resulted in parallel institutions, one still appointed by the Evenki and answering the clan's needs and the other appointed by the Russians and acting as brokers between the two cultures.
Social and Political Organization. Although intraclan associations were politically important, Evenki would also unite in temporary groups for the purpose of hunting, pasturing, and fishing; these economic associations could include members from a number of clans living in close proximity. The institution of nimat should also be mentioned as a custom that crossed clan lines; upon return to camp after a successful hunt for meat, a hunter was obliged to share his bounty with all members of the camp, regardless of clan. The hide of the animal traditionally went to the hunter's mother-in-law (i.e., to a member of another clan), except for squirrel skins, which were retained by the hunter to be exchanged for tea and tobacco. As fur increased in commercial importance, nimat began to apply only to meat animals. This custom, which survived into the twentieth century, has been evaluated as an important mechanism, along with exogamous marriage, for strengthening interclan bonds.
In 1930 the Soviet state founded two Evenki national districts, as well as a number of lower-level national regions for the Evenki. Groups of hunters and herders were organized into native soviets (councils), the lowest level of the Soviet Union's political-administrative hierarchy. No longer designated "native," but in many areas still predominantly composed of Evenki, these councils exercise a limited control over local economic, political, judicial, and cultural affairs. National regions, long dormant, may make a comeback, as suggested by the recent establishment (1989) of one such region for the Even, a neighboring indigenous people. One of the two national districts created for the Evenki, the Vitim-Olekma National District, was abolished in 1938; the other, the Evenki National District (renamed the Evenki Autonomous District in 1977), remains. An elected head of this district (an Evenki) purportedly lobbies for the interests of his people in Moscow. Evenki constitute only 20 percent of the Evenki District's population, however; moreover, the representative's powers are very limited. The most outspoken proponents of Evenki rights have been Evenki writers, a situation common to other native Siberians.
Conflict. Evenki oral history is rich in accounts of clashes between clans and with neighboring nations. The abduction of women, blood feuds, and disputes over property or the usufruct of hunting territories could precipitate military campaigns, although peaceful negotiations might be attempted first. There were various conflicts with the Russian Cossack conquerors and with subsequent Russian settlers. More recently, conflict between some Evenki and the state has been reported, especially in the context of Evenki protests over governmental projects that threaten their economic activities and cultural survival. Most notable has been the fight against the planned construction of the Turukhansk hydroelectric project, which would have flooded a substantial portion of the hunting grounds and reindeer pasture in the Evenki Autonomous District. Recently there have been other severe conflicts involving the environment and ethnicity.
Religion and Expressive Culture
Religious Beliefs. The Evenki viewed the universe as consisting of three worlds: upper, middle (earth), and lower. Beneficent spirits inhabited the upper world, including Seveki, the guardian of the plant and animal world. The lower world was populated by both deceased ancestors, who there lived a life similar to that on earth, and, on another level, evil spirits. Although the average person could not travel to either the upper or lower world, such sojourns were in fact made by shamans during their rituals. Assisted by spirits, including those of shaman ancestors, the shamans protected clan members from the spirits of hostile shamans and acted as brokers between the Evenki and the spirits that helped or hindered their activities. (The word shaman is an Evenki word and was introduced to the Western world by the Russians.)
From the seventeenth century on, Russians tried to convert the Evenki and other native Siberian peoples to Eastern Orthodoxy. Some rituals of the church were observed, and a syncretic combination of Christianity and shamanism resulted among groups of Evenki that had greater contact with Russians. The atheist Soviet state fought against shamanism (as well as Christianity), eventually identifying the shamans as "exploiters" and "enemies of the people" and severely persecuting them in the 1930s. By the late twentieth century, only relics of the former religion appeared to remain (although the system may be more vital than we suspect).
Religious Practitioners. Each clan had one or more shamans, who not infrequently also acted as the head of the clan. The position of clan shaman was usually inherited, often skipping a generation or more. The spirit of a deceased shaman selected a new member of the clan, most often a direct descendant, and inhabited this person. Someone not directly related to the shaman might also realize in a dream her or his rightful calling in life. Both women and men served as shamans in Evenki society, and the spirit of a shaman could pass through the mother's side to her clan.
A shaman's costume was elaborately decorated with fringe, appliqué, and metal pendants, and the headpiece was often topped with metal antlers. A tambourinelike drum, rhythmically beaten, induced the trance state during which the shaman traveled to other worlds.
Besides protecting clan members, shamanic duties included forecasting and curing. For her or his services to the clan the shaman received no remuneration, and since shamanizing took time away from the hunt and other economic activities, shamans were often among the poorer members of the clan. Clan members did provide meat and furs as gifts on occasion and helped sew the shaman's costume and tan hides for the drum. Shamans were particulary involved in the ubiquitous psychological stress known as "arctic hysteria" (a kind of brief tantrum shared by most boreal peoples); persons prone to hysteria needed help from shamans, and shamans were largely recruited from persons prone to hysteria. Psychological disorders are the main focus of shamanic activities.
Ceremonies. Besides shamanic rituals, major religious ceremonies included the initiation rites of new shamans and the consecration of sacred reindeer to carry the clan's beneficent spirits to the other world. Another common ceremony was the initiation of the bride into her husband's clan. Ceremonies for a propitious outcome preceded setting out on a hunt. When a bear was killed, a complicated celebration lasting several days ensued, both to placate the bear's spirit and to enjoy the rich bounty of meat.
Arts. The oral arts of the Evenki consist of epic tales, riddles, histories, myths, and songs. Ring dances and songs are numerous, and a number of native folk ensembles continue to perform these today. Since the late 1920s, when the Evenki language was given an alphabet, many Evenki prose writers and poets have published their works.
Material arts include bone, antler, and wood carving. The Evenki elaborately decorated saddle pommels, knife handles, pipes, birch-bark containers, etc. Traditional clothing, now usually reserved for winter wear and holidays, is often embellished with bead embroidery, fur appliqué or patchwork, and metal ornamentation.
Medicine. One of the shaman's responsibilities was to tend to the health of her or his clansfolk. Illness was often attributed to the theft of a person's soul by another shaman's assistant spirits. Thus, a shaman sought to detect the cause of the illness, and, when necessary, to find and return the soul to the ailing person. The shaman also cured the clan's reindeer. For less serious maladies, the Evenki used a number of herbal cures; more serious illnesses involved a number of taboos and rituals.
The Soviet state provided a network of clinics to serve the Evenki and other native northerners and ensured free medical care and free travel to and from these facilities. Unfortunately, the level of health care in rural Siberia is still on a primitive level, and among the native northerners mortality remains high and life expectancy low. Consumption of cheap Russian vodka has been an increasing problem ever since the first contacts, and it has caused people to freeze to death, marital instability, and other social problems.
Death and Afterlife. A person died, according to Evenki beliefs, when her or his soul (omi ) permanently left the body. The soul did not die, but continued to live in this world until a shaman took it to the world of the deceased. Usually this occurred one to three years after a person's physical death. Souls of suicides could not enter the world of the dead and continued to wander on earth.
See also Even
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"Evenki (Northern Tungus)." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 15, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/evenki-northern-tungus
"Evenki (Northern Tungus)." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . Retrieved January 15, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/evenki-northern-tungus
The Evenki are the most geographically wide-ranging native people of Russia, occupying a territory from west of the Yenisey River to the Pacific Ocean, and from near the Arctic Ocean to northern China. One of Russia's northern peoples, they number about thirty thousand. Traditionally many Evenki pursued hunting, using small herds of domesticated reindeer mainly for transport and milk. Some groups focused more on fishing, whereas in northerly areas larger-scale reindeer husbandry was pursued. Largely nomadic, Evenki lived in groups of a few households, gathering annually in larger groups to trade news and goods, arrange marriages, and so forth.
The Evenki language is part of the Manchu-Tungus language group. Its four dialects differ substantially, a fact ignored by the soviets when they introduced Evenki textbooks based on the central dialect, which were barely intelligible to those in the East. Evenki cosmology includes a number of worlds; and their shamans negotiate between these worlds. Indeed, the word shaman derives from the Evenki samanil, their name for such spiritual leaders. Shamans were severely repressed during the Soviet period; the possibility of revitalizing shamanism proved a common trope for cultural revival among Evenki in early post-Soviet years.
Russian traders began to penetrate Evenki homelands in the mid-seventeenth century. Prior to this, southern Evenki had carried on trade relations with the Chinese. Russians subjected Evenki to a fur tax (yasak ), and held hostages to ensure its payment. The Soviet government brought new forms of control, organizing Evenki into collective farms, arresting rich herders, and settling nomads to the extent possible. Families were often sundered, as adults remained with the reindeer herds while children attended compulsory school. Children were not taught their own language or how to pursue traditional activities. Inadequate schooling, racism, and apathy have hindered their ability to pursue nontraditional activities. In some areas, mining and smelting have removed substantial pastures and hunting grounds through environmental degradation. Hydropower projects have also challenged traditional activities by appropriating portions of Evenki territory.
Since the demise of the Soviet Union, Evenki reindeer herds have suffered serious decline. At the same time substantial numbers of families took the opportunity provided by new laws to leave state-owned farms and establish small, family based hunting and herding operations. However, lack of government support has made the survival of these enterprises almost impossible. Evenki are battling this predicament through the establishment of quasipolitical organizations, mainly at the regional level, to pursue their rights.
See also: nationalities policies, soviet; nationalities policies, tsarist; northern peoples
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Gail A. Fondahl
"Evenki." Encyclopedia of Russian History. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 15, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/evenki
"Evenki." Encyclopedia of Russian History. . Retrieved January 15, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/evenki