views updated Jun 08 2018


ETHNONYMS: Sakha (Khaka), Tya or Tya Kikhi (forest person, forest man)

Identification and Location. The Dolgan inhabit the Taimyr Peninsula and the left bank of the lower Yenisei River, across from the town of Dudinka. This territory forms part of the Taimyr (Dolgan-Nenets) Autonomous District (okrug), the TAO, which is part of the Krasnoyarsk region of the Russian Federation (RF). The Dolgan do not enjoy national autonomy. In the majority of settlements they reside and conduct their economy in common with the Nganasan, Evenki, Nenets, and other nationalities, as well as with migrants. At the present time most of the Dolgan are concentrated in the settlements along the courses of the Dudypta, Kheta, and Khatanga rivers and along the shores of Khatanga Bay. Some also live in the settlements of Levinskie Peski and Khantaiskoe Ozero in the western part of the TAO. A number of families reside in the district capital of Dudinka and in the large townlike settlement of Khatanga.

The majority of the territorial groupings that contributed to the formation of the Dolgan migrated from regions more to the south than those of the Nganasan. Here the terrain is for the most part forest tundra (Russian: lesotundra ) with sparse growth of larch. In the eastern part of the peninsula the taiga infringes from the south. The average January temperature for Khatanga is 33.8° C and the mean July temperature is 12.3° C.

Demography. According to the 1989 census, 6,600 Dolgan resided in the Russian Federation (RF), with 1,300 in cities of the RF. Some 5,000 Dolgan resided in the TAO and constituted 11.8 percent of the total population. About a quarter of the total Dolgan population resided outside their district. Of those residing within the district, 71 percent were concentrated in the Khatanga subdistrict.

linguistic Affiliation. The Dolgan language is classified in the Turkic Language Group, part of the Altaic Language Family. As late as the 1950s it was classified as a dialect of the Yakut language. Today, however, it has won a place for itself as a distinct language. Yakut lexical and grammatical forms predominate, but Evenki, Russian, and some Samoyedic lexical forms have become incorporated into the Dolgan language. There are phonetic and morphological differences between the speeches of various territorial groups. At present, three Dolgan subgroups are distinguished: Western (Yenisei, Norilsk), Central (Avam), and Eastern (Khatanga). Occasionally a fourth subgroup is distinguished, the easternmost one of the Popigai Dolgan. In spite of local divergences in speech, there is excellent mutual intelligibility among the speeches of all groups and also with that of the northern Yakut. All Dolgan, except those of very advanced years, have a good command of the Russian language, and some individuals also speak Nganasan and Evenki. Until recently there was no written Dolgan language. In 1973 the first book in the Dolgan language was published, printed in the Yakut alphabet. Beginning in the fall of 1990 instruction in the Dolgan language was introduced in lower school grades. A Dolgan primer, developed for the purpose, is now in use.

History and Cultural Relations

The Dolgan are probably the most recent example within the Russian Federation of the formation of an independent ethnic group. Their consolidation began in the nineteenth century. At the time of the 1926-1927 census, the Dolgan were represented by nine ethnographic groupings. These consisted of the Dolgan proper; of alliances that historically incorporated large numbers of Yakut; of Yakut proper; of Evenki groups (also of varied origins); of a significant number of Russian peasants, hunters, and dog breeders; and of small numbers of Samoyeds, Nenets, and Enets. All of these spoke different Dolgan or Yakut dialects. The Nganasan did not play a significant part in the formation of the Dolgan. They simply ceded the southern and easternmost frontier regions of the territories they used in their transhumance to the Dolgan.

From the seventeenth century on, the "Great Russian Road," the Khatanga Tract, existed on the Taimyr. Along this road communications were maintained by means of reindeer and dog transport between the Dudino settlement and Lake Piasino and then eastward toward the Khatanga and even farther to the Anabar River and to Yakutia. Winter camps along this road were relatively permanent. It was in this stretch of territory that groups speaking different languages, diverse in origin, with different traditions and beliefs and different material and spiritual cultures, developed a unitary self-consciousness, language, and culture and eventually coalesced into the Dolgan people. Their collective name is derived from one of the Tungus clans.

Their economy was primarily based on huntingwild reindeer in the north, elks and mountain sheep in the south. Subsidiary game were ptarmigan and hares. In the summer, molting geese and ducks were taken. Reindeer husbandry in various groups was oriented mostly toward transport. Reindeer were raised to serve as mounts and for forest transport, although some families residing in the tundra kept large herds for sled transport. Fishing played a very important role, and commercial polar-fox trapping was well developed.

By the beginning of the twentieth century all Dolgan were Christians. The presence of the Russian population in the area facilitated the spread of Orthodox Christianity. By the end of the 1930s this population was completely assimilated by the Dolgan. Thus, Dolgan culture incorporated components from different peoples, and these different influences are discernible even today to various degrees in different areas of the Dolgan settlement.

Following the establishment of Soviet control, the Dolgan, especially the Western groups, experienced numerous administratively mandated reorganizations of their economies and resettlement from one territory to another within the Taimyr Peninsula. The mixing of peoples of various origins increased, and the emergence of a single common identity as a separate people became stronger.

The basic transformations followed the same pattern as among the Nganasan and in tandem with the latter. The Dolgan tundra-reindeer breeders in the 1970s, under pressure from the proliferating wild-reindeer herds in western and central Taimyr, lost all of their domestic animals and had to switch to commercial fur trapping, fishing, and fall hunting of wild reindeer. Stable units for reindeer breeding are preserved only to the east of the Khatanga settlement.


Various Dolgan groups, depending on the principal mode of their economy, lived in different types of dwellings. The majority of the Dolgan were nomads and lived in portable, conical, pole-supported dwellings (Russian: chum ). In the main, only the Russians and the Yakut of the Zatundra had permanent winter or summer dwellings and settlements of one to two wooden houses, which they abandoned during the time of transhumance. A hunting band (cooperative group) was formed by one to two families. A reindeer-breeding band could be larger, depending on the size of the herd. Already in the 1920s, a portable structure was utilized in the tundra and forest tundra regions as a permanent winter dwelling.

At present, the Dolgan reside in relatively large-scale settlements, which in the eastern Taimyr are inhabited almost exclusively by them. Such settlements consist of 300-600 persons. The settlements have four-apartment wooden houses heated by imported coal. Water mains and waste disposal are absent. Small settlements have medical centers, and the larger ones have small hospitals. In each there is an elementary and/or middle school.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities . The rural economy is organized into relatively large state units, sovkhozy. Besides facilities for trapping and hunting, fishing, reindeer breeding, and fur-animal farming, each Sovkhoz usually has a hospital, a school, and a farm to supply fresh milk to the kindergarten.

The working groups (Russian: brigady ) of the reindeer breeders of eastern Taimyr, move northward in the summer and southward in the fall, following the traditional routes. These are changed each year, so that the group returns to the original route every fourth year, depending on the condition of the pasturage. Slaughtering of domestic reindeer is done in November, when the herds are located dosest to the settlement. Since the middle 1980s, commercial trade in reindeer horn and certain parts of the reindeer carcasses (for development of biostimulant preparations) has been developed intensively. In exchange, the economic units receive imported manufactured goods and food items.

Land Tenure. All immovable property used by the residents of a settlement belongs to the state economic units or to the councils of various levels of administration. Apartments in the settlements are assigned to families for life. As a very rare exception, a hunter may possess immovable propertyfor example, a very small house that he built himself at his trapping location. The basic personal property among the Dolgan, as among the Nganasan, consists of portable dwellings, self-constructed or factory-manufactured boats, boat motors and motorized sleds, etc.

Trade. Besides goods available in the settlement stores, there is a system of ordering by mail, from catalogs. Private commercial enterprise is minimally developed among the Dolgan, as is the case among the other small-scale societies of the Taimyr. At present, commercial activity is controlled by the sovkhozy.

Industrial Arts. Formerly each man had to be able to make, out of wood, skin, and fiber, all the basic implements needed in the household, all weapons, and all implements used in the hunt. Even today, in the eastern regions, hunters (trappers) and reindeer breeders have these skills. Blacksmithing is practiced only by a few masters. The younger generation increasingly prefers apartments and factory-produced goods.

The ability to work skins and to make beautiful and warm fur and skin clothing, bedding, and dwelling covers used to be one of the most respect-evoking attributes of a woman. These skills are still preserved among the reindeer breeders. In the settlements there are sewing shops where women make footwear out of reindeer-leg skin. These are decorated with fur mosaic, worsted cloth, and beads. For this, the women receive previously agreed-upon wages.

Division of Labor. Men are engaged for the most part in trapping and hunting, fishing, and reindeer breeding. Women's labor related to these activities consists of providing men with clothing, preparing food, and participating in the processing of the catch. In the settlements men are engaged in heavy labor on fur farms, in construction, in the building of cold-storage units in the permafrost, and in bringing in fuel and water. The Dolgan men, in contrast to the Nganasan, participate more actively in dwelling construction and household tasks. Within the family, there is also division of labor based on age.

Food and Clothing. Venison, fowl, and fish constituted the traditional foods. For winter, the meat and fish were dried. Dishes prepared out of traditional foods are much more varied than among the Nganasan. Bread and flour entered the diet long ago. Some of the traditional foods are eaten either raw or frozen. Today, additional foods are available in stores.

Traditional and permanent winter clothing of reindeer fur is worn on the hunt and in reindeer-herding activities. In a settlement one might see such traditional clothing on small children; adults all wear manufactured clothing. Bright, festive garments, multicolored glass seed beads (biser ) and metal buttons are worn during winter festivals and on visits to distant places.


As a rule, a genealogical distance of four generations is thought to be desirable between marriage partners, although occasionally cross-cousin marriages do take place. In practice, almost all Dolgan are more or less distantly related, the kinship links being known to the elder people. The kinship net extends beyond the Dolgan group boundary, involving Yakut, Evenki, and some of the Russian Old Settlers.

Adult baptism in the period of Christian conversion resulted in predominance of a limited number of family names. The bearers of these names are at present so genealogically distant that people of the same surname are permitted to enter into marriage.

Different Dolgan families use different ancestral kinship terms, depending on their origin. The majority use Yakut terms of the descriptive and classificatory type. The elder members of the family are addressed, in most cases, by kinship terms or terms referring to age-group. The marriage systems of various territorial groupings do not dictate observance of intragroup endogamy. Interethnic marriages are common.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Formerly parents arranged marriages for their children. The groom's family sent a matchmaker to the family of the bride, where the bride-wealth was discussed, as well as what the bride would bring to her future husband's family. The wedding was held at the home of the bride's parents' family. Then the newlyweds moved to the residence of the family of the groom. Ideally, only after the birth of the first child did they, with the help of their kin, establish their own dwelling and household.

At present, young people enter into mutual agreement between themselves but consult their elders about the permissibility of their union. The marriage is registered according to (Russian) law, and a feast is given that is attended by very many and lasts for two to three days. Weddings are attended by kinsmen living in other settlements.

Domestic Unit. Certain nomadic Dolgan groups formerly had their own lineage (Russian: rodovye ) names. As a rule, children were numerous. The head of the family, a man, was universally respected, but the women, too, had a considerable degree of independence. The practice of taking orphans or children from poor families with many offspring into a related family was widespread in the past and remains so. Today, the nuclear family predominates. In reindeer-breeding brigady each family has its own portable dwelling. Single young persons live with the families. Trapping is conducted occasionally by work crews whose members are linked by ties of kinship. In such cases the members live in a relatively large single-room house constructed in the hunting territory. Trap lines, however, were assigned to each individual. In the settlement, each family belonging to a work crew has its own quarters. Children of school age live in the settlements, either with relatives or in the school dormitory.

Inheritance. The traditional propertypersonally owned reindeeris inherited by the children who, at the time of their parents' death, live together with them. This principle is generally adhered to even today.

Socialization. Formerly all customs with respect to maintenance of household economy, intergenerational relations, and knowledge of behavioral norms were acquired by the young within the family or the nomadic group, wherein there was a strict gender- and age-based division of labor. At present, education and socialization are effected primarily through state general-educational institutions, which frequently leads to the loss of traditional household and economic norms and customs. Members of families that work in traditional occupations, however, often return to their families and adopt the same way of life. In the western Taimyr such individuals are becoming increasingly rare. Other young people prefer not to adopt this traditional life-style but to reside in the settlements permanently. A number of them migrate outside of their ancestral area, motivated by, among other things, the desire to seek suitable employment.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social and Political Organization. Prior to the establishment of Soviet power, administrative units to which the Dolgan belonged were headed by princelings and leaders appointed by the central power. They occasionally acted as the primary tax collectors. Rich reindeer herders also belonged to the upper strata of society. Hired laborers, persons who owned only a few reindeer, or kinsmen who had met with misfortune tended the herds of the wealthy. Although the tradition of kin-group mutual assistance was well developed, this did not preclude disputes over property and payment for labor.

The kin-group or nomadic-group councils, created in the 1920s, were by the 1930s headed by formerly propertyless but active persons. After the abolition of the kulak system and the socialization of the reindeer herds, the formerly propertyless headed the first small-scale economic enterprises. At present, almost all settlement soviets are headed by the Dolgan, but the state enterprises are headed by outside specialists. Within the settlement, the elite core is composed of the enterprise director, the trapping engineer, the hunting specialist, the manager of the settlement store, the chairman of the settlement council, the school principal, a physician or paramedic, and managers of economic departments. In the eastern settlements, some of these positions are occupied by the Dolgan. In most western settlements the Dolgan are represented only on the settlement councils.

The Dolgan, like all other small-scale groups within the TAO, receive certain privileges and subsidies from the state to enable them to survive and develop. These, in the main, are in the area of education, settlement building, and the improvement of settlement and economic enterprises.

The Dolgan now head the Association of the Indigenous Peoples of the TAO. They were most active in supporting the organization of this association in 1989. They are also represented in the Council of the Association of the Small-Scale Peoples of the North of the Russian Federation. The Taimyr Association declared the inalienable right of the small-scale peoples to the land and its subsurface resources, as well as the right to development of traditional culture.

Social Control. All peoples of the Russian Federation are subject to its constitution and juridical codices. The customary law of the Dolgan has been destroyed under the impact of state legislation. In spite of this fact, the traditions of mutual assistance among kin and supplying the elderly with a share of the catch are still strong.

Conflict. Various nomadic Dolgan groups in the Taimyr territory became involved in the same type of conflicts as did the Nganasan. Among the Dolgan, however, commercial relationships were already much more developed by the nineteenth century because a number of the Dolgan groups specialized in fur procurement for the market. Relationships with the merchants were not always smooth. The Nganasan remember even today how, in the past, the Dolgan nomads occupied their territories. Despite the numerous administratively mandated reorganizations and resettlements of 1950-1970, interethnic tensions still flare occasionally in the mixed settlements.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs and Practices. At the end of the nineteenth century, the Dolgan and the Yakut were considered the most faithful Orthodox Christians on the Taimyr Peninsula. The Church of the Epiphany in Khatanga was in existence from the early eighteenth century to 1920. The Dolgan have retained their ancient beliefs, however, which vary with different territorial groupings. At the basis of traditional Dolgan beliefs is the veneration of nature and of a multitude of spirits that control the hunt, the increase and safety of humans and cattle, and the preservation of life and the family hearth. Christmas and Easter were celebrated before the Soviet period and traces of Christianity are found in the intertwining of Dolgan traditional rituals with celebrations of saints' days. Shamans existed in almost every nomadic group, however, and the older generations among the Dolgan maintain their beliefs even today. In connection with the recent general democratization, it is possible that shamanism, which had been destroyed, may experience a kind of renaissance.

Medicine. Traditional means of healing sickness involved appealing to the spirits but also included minerals, medicines, animal parts, and metal plates. In cases of serious illness, shamans were consulted. Nowadays, a helicopter, summoned by radio, may transport the patient to a larger medical center than the one available in the settlement. Women about to give birth are also transported to such a center. Medicines and medical services are free of charge.

Art. Visual art, decorative and applied, was traditionally rather well developed. Reproduction of traditional wooden sculptures, however, has practically ceased because of the destruction of certain ritualistic beliefs. The fine and labor-intensive decoration of dressy clothing with fur mosaic, multicolored braid, embroidery thread, skin strips, and glass beads is highly developed. Traditional designs are used. Outstanding are the wooden details on the old reindeer saddles, inlaid with lead and pewter. Blacksmiths were also masters of copper inlay over steel, used on traditional hunting and household implements. The formerly rich folklore, songs, and narratives are preserved in a few places, but there are no more traditional storytellers. The modern poet and writer Ogdo Aksenova and the painter Boris Molchano are well known.

Death and Afterlife. A dead person's body remains in the dwelling for two days. Interment takes place at the cemetery on the third day, after noon. The preparation of the grave varies regionally. The Eastern Dolgan bury the body with the feet to the east in a coffin within a wooden chamber deep in the earth. On the surface, the grave site is marked by a cross or an obelisk at the foot. Occasionally, some of the following are appended to the cross: a star, an icon, the head of a reindeer consumed at the funeral feast, a model of a bow, an arrow, oars (if the deceased was a man), scrapers for skin processing (for women), or little birds (for children). Often the grave site is enclosed in a narrow wooden palisade. Formerly the grave was visited for three years. Nowadays it may be visited for longer periods. According to Dolgan belief, the deceased persons continue their existence in another world, dwelling with their dead kin.

See also Nganasan


Dolgikh, B. O. (1963). "Proiskhozhdenie Dolgan" (Origin of the Dolgan). Trudy Instituta, Etnografii AN SSSR 84:92-141.

Gracheva, Galina N. (1984). "Ekspeditsiia k vostochnym Dolganam" (Expedition to the Eastern Dolgan). Polevye Issledovaniia Instituta Etnografii, 1980-1981, 149-158.

Popov, A. A. (1964). "The Dolgan." In The Peoples of Siberia, edited by M. G. Levin and L. P. Potapov, 655-619. Translated by Stephen P. Dunn and Ethel Dunn. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Originally published in Russian in 1956.

GALINA N. GRACHEVA (Translated by Lydia T. Black)


views updated May 18 2018


The Dolgans (Dolgani ) belong to the North Asiatic group of the Mongolian race. They are an Altaic people, along with the Buryats, Kalmyks, Balkars, Chuvash, Evenks, Karachay, Kumyks, Nogay, and Yakuts. This Turkic-speaking people number today about 8,500 and live far above the Arctic Circle in the Taymyr (or Taimur) autonomous region (332,857 square miles, 862,100 square kilometers), which is one of the ten autonomous regions recognized in the Russian Constitution of 1993. This region is located on the Taymyr peninsula in north central Siberia, which is actually the northernmost projection of Siberia. Cape Chelyuskin at the tip of the peninsula constitutes the northernmost point of the entire Asian mainland. Located between the estuaries of the Yenisei and Khatanga rivers, the peninsula is covered mostly with tundra and gets drained by the Taymyra River. The Taymyr autonomous region also includes the islands between the Yenisei and Khatanga gulfs, the northern parts of the Central Siberian Plateau, and the Severnaya Zemlya archipelago. The capital is Dudinka. On the Taimyr Peninsula the Dolgans are the most numerous indigenous ethnic group. A few dozen Dolgans also live in Yakutia, on the lower reaches of the River Anabar.

Generally, the languages of the indigenous peoples of the Eurasian Arctic and subarctic can be grouped into four classes: Uralic, Manchu-Tungus, Turkic, and Paleo-Siberian. The Dolgan language is part of the northeastern branch of the Turkic language family and closely resembles Yakut. Although Dolgan is particularly active among the twenty-six languages of the so-called Peoples of the Far North in Russia, the small number of speakers (6,000 out of the total population of 8,500) of this rare aboriginal language in Siberia prompted UNESCO to classify Dolgan as a "potentially endangered" language. The demographical and ecological problems of the Taymyr region also work against the language. As for writing, the Dolgans lack their own alphabet and rely on the Russian Cyrillic.

The name Dolgan became known outside the tribe itself only as late as the nineteenth century. The word derives from dolghan or dulghan, meaning "people living on the middle reaches of the river." Some ethnologists believe the word comes from the term for wood (toa ) or toakihilär, meaning people of the wood. Although originally a nomadic people preoccupied mostly by reindeer hunting and fishing, the advent of the Russians in the seventeenth century led to the near destruction of the Dolgans' traditional economy and way of life. The Taymyr, or Dolgan-Nenets National Territory, was proclaimed in 1930. The next year old tribal councils were liquidated, the process of collectivization initiated. Taymyr's economy in the early twenty-first century depends on mining, fishing, and dairy and fur farming, as well as some reindeer breeding and trapping.

See also: nationalities policies, soviet; nationalities policies, tsarist; northern peoples; siberia


Balzer, Marjorie Mandelstam.(1995). Culture Incarnate: Native Anthropology from Russia. Armonk, NY.: M.E. Sharpe.

Smith, Graham. (1990). The Nationalities Question in the Soviet Union. New York: Longman.

Trade directory of the Russian Far East: Yakut Republic, Chita Region, Khabarovsk Territory, Primorsky Territory, Amur Region, Kamchatka Region, Magadan Region, Sakhalin Region. (1995). London: Flegon Press.

Johanna Granville