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ALTERNATE NAME: Evenks, Ewenki, Tungus
LOCATION: Russia (central and eastern Siberia), China (Inner Mongolia and Heilongjiang Province), and northern Mongolia
POPULATION: Approximately 66,000 total-35,527 in Russia (2002), 30,505 in China (2000), 1,500 in Mongolia
LANGUAGE: Evenki, Russian, Chinese, Yakut
RELIGION: Eastern Orthodox Christianity, Tibetan Buddhism, native religious beliefs


The Evenki are an indigenous people of central and eastern Siberia, Mongolia, and Inner Mongolia. Although there has been a great deal of controversy among scholars regarding their original homeland, the most reliable anthropological, linguistic, and archaeological evidence indicates that the Evenki were formed to the east of Lake Baikal in southeastern Siberia around 1000 bc. They then spread throughout eastern and northern Siberia, mixing and intermarrying with other native Siberian peoples. In addition to the general name Evenki (which means simply "person" or "people"), they identify themselves by the names of their clans or tribes: Birat, Ile, Manegir, Mata, Orochen, and so on. Although the word Evenki is a singular term in the Evenki language itself, it is used as a plural in Russian, the Russian singular being Evenk for a male and Evenkiika for a female. In recent decades, the use of Evenki as both singular and plural has become common among most non-Russian writers, although one occasionally encounters the form Evenk/Evenks. In older Russian and Western ethno-graphic literature, the Evenki were formerly referred to by the term Tungus, which is derived from Tongus, the Yakut word for "Evenki."

The Evenki have long been known for their skill at hunting reindeer, bear, moose, sable, squirrel, and other animals, and they rely on hunting for most of their food. The Evenki are divided into two main groups based on the economic activities they perform in addition to hunting. Those of central and northeastern Siberia, herd reindeer, and those of southeastern Siberia, Mongolia, and China, raise horses and cattle. A smaller, eastern group along the coast of the Sea of Okhotsk-often called the "sitting Evenki" because they own no reindeer-has traditionally lived exclusively by hunting forest animals and seals and fishing.

The Evenki have been under Russian and Chinese rule since their conquest during the 17th century by the Romanov and Qing dynasties respectively. Much of the vast territory they originally occupied was gradually taken from them by the government and given to Russian settlers. Nevertheless, with the exception of tax collection (originally in the form of furs), sporadic campaigns by the Russian Orthodox Church to Christianize them, and occasional arrests and trials for theft and other crimes that directly affected the Russian settler community, significant official interference in the day-to-day life of the Evenki came only in the Soviet period. During the 1930s, Evenki hunters and herdsmen were forced into collectives as part of the collectivization of agriculture. Stalin's campaign to rapidly develop Soviet industry simultaneously led to an enormous influx of Russians and other outsiders into Evenki territory to exploit its timber and mineral resources. This resulted in serious environmental damage to ancestral Evenki lands.


The Russian Federation's Evenki number slightly more than 30,000. The Evenki do not occupy a unified territory and are spread over a wider area than any other native Siberian group- from the Yenisei River in the west to the Sea of Okhotsk and the northern portion of Sakhalin in the east, and from the bottom of the Taimyr peninsula in the north to the Amur River to the south. Evenki settlements are thus scattered over almost 3,000,000 square kilometers (1,800,000 square miles)-an area about three times the size of Alaska. There is an Evenki Autonomous Okrug District-sometimes called Evenkia-with its capital at Tura in north central Siberia's Krasnoiarsk Territory (krai), but only 3,500 Evenki live there. The rest reside in other parts of Siberia, mainly in the Yakut (Sakha) and Buriat Republics, the area of Krasnoiarsk Territory outside the Evenki Autonomous District, Khabarovsk Territory, and the Irkutsk, Amur and Chita Regions (oblast). Outside the Russian Federation, the populations of the northern Mongolian Republic and the People's Republic of China's Heilongjiang Province (formerly known as Manchuria) both contain approximately 30,000 Evenki.

Almost all of Evenki territory is mountainous taiga forest, with larch, birch, ash, fir, pine, and cedar as the most common vegetation. The sparse, scrubby cedar trees, moss, and patches of bare rock typical of the tundra are found at high altitudes and in the northernmost stretches of Evenki settlement, and there is occasionally meadowland in the taiga's river valleys. The Evenki forests have traditionally been rich in fur- and meat-bearing game-wild reindeer, bear, elk, sable, squirrel- as well as wolves, ducks, and geese. Rivers hold salmon, perch, and pike. The climate of the Evenki lands is generally continental. Winters are long and often bitterly cold, with January temperatures averaging -36°c (-33°f) and sometimes falling as low as -80°c (-112°f). Summers are short and warm, with June temperatures averaging 16°c (61°f) and peaking at 36°c (97°F).


The Evenki language belongs to the Tungusic branch of the Altaic language family, which includes Siberian tongues such as Nanai, Udegei, and Even, as well as the language of the Manchu who conquered China in the 17th century. There are numerous local dialects of Evenki whose pronunciation and vocabulary differ from each other to varying degrees. This is not surprising, as the Evenki have long lived in small groups divided by vast distances. The Evenki did not have a writing system until 1931, when they adopted the Latin alphabet. This was replaced in 1937 by the Cyrillic (Russian) alphabet. The modern Evenki literary language is based on the southern Poligus dialect and is written in the Cyrillic alphabet with additional letters and diacritics used to represent specifically Evenki sounds.

Evenki given names often reflect a geographic feature of a person's birthplace or some natural phenomenon or other event that occurred at the time of his or her birth. For example, a boy born near Lake Kayo might be named Kayocha. Girls born at sunrise or the first slushy snow of the year are given the names Garpancha and Libgerik, which are derived from the words garpan ("ray of sunshine") and libge ("wet snow"), respectively. Alternatively, a child's behavior at the time of birth might influence the choice of name: Songocho (male) and Songolik (female) both translate literally as "crybaby." Some Evenki names developed from Russian names that were significantly altered to suit the phonetic norms of the Evenki language. Examples of this type of name are Ogdo (female, from Evdokia ) and Kostoku (male, from Konstantin ). Russian given names in their original forms, such as Vladimir (male) and Aleksandra (female), as well as fixed surnames based upon the given name of a male ancestor, have become common in the 20th century.


Although the Evenki did not write in their language until the 20th century, they possess a wide repertoire of centuries-old folk tales and other forms of oral literature. The Evenki tell amusing stories about such human failings as greed, foolishness, and laziness. In addition, there are long epic tales-called in various dialects nimngakan , nimkan , or ulgur- that deal with the feats of mythical heroes. In one such tale, "All-Powerful Develchen in the Embroidered and Decorated Clothes," the hero Develchen makes a long journey through the physical and spirit worlds and fights numerous human and supernatural enemies in order to rescue his betrothed, Kiladii. Develchen and Kiladii then marry, and their children are the ancestors of the Evenki people.


The Evenki were largely converted to Eastern Orthodox Christianity by the middle of the 19th century. Shamanism is one of the traditional religious practices of the Evenki. Animals, plants, the sun, the moon, the stars, rivers, forests, and mountains are believed to have spirits, which humans must respect and honor in order to survive and prosper. Animals and plants may be killed for human needs, but needless injury to animals or waste of the products of animal and plant life is forbidden. According to Evenki beliefs, there are three worlds: the upper world, which is inhabited by the spirits of nature and various other deities; the middle world, inhabited by humans; and the lower world, inhabited by the spirits of the dead. Shamans- tribal priests similar to Native American "medicine men"-are men and women who are most able to bridge the gap between the three worlds and communicate with these spirits. The profession of shaman is usually hereditary passed down on the father's side of the family. The rituals of Evenki shamans take the form of chanting, dancing, and beating on the ungtuvun, or nimngangki-a large, flat drum with a leather head, a cross-shaped handle attached to the back of the frame, and small iron rattles that produce a tambourine-like jingling sound when the instrument is struck. The stick (gisu) of the shaman's drum is made either from the wood of a tree that has been struck by lightning or from a bone or tusk from a mammoth preserved in the frozen soil. The deerskin and fur cloaks worn by Evenki shamans are elaborately and colorfully embroidered and festooned with ribbons, bone ornaments, and jingling bells. The rituals of shamans are intended to heal the sick, ease difficult childbirth, foretell the future, send the souls of the departed on their way to the world of the dead, and in general to ensure the people's well-being. The Evenki of Manchuria came under strong influence of Tibetan Buddhism during the Qing era, and many traditional beliefs were integrated into Evenki Buddhist practice.


Evenki festivals are essentially shamanist rituals performed to ensure success in hunting by honoring the spirits of the animals upon which the Evenki depend for survival. The timing of festivals is tied with the hunt itself, so unlike Western holidays, there is no set date for their observance. One of the most important Evenki festivals is the bear feast, which is held after a group of hunters has killed a bear. On the first day of the festival, the bear is brought back to the hunters' settlement and butchered. A whole series of rules must be observed during the butchering of the bear. For example, its bones must not be cut or broken; they must instead be separated at the tendons, laid on a bed of willow branches, and placed back into the shape of the original skeleton. The meat from the bear's neck is boiled in a cauldron while the young people sing and dance in its honor. At midnight, one of the hunters imitates a crow's call to indicate that the meat is ready. The settlement's inhabitants then walk quietly to each other's homes and wordlessly beckon each other to the feast, which is consumed in silence. On the second day, the bear's heart is cut into small pieces, mixed with bear fat, and boiled in one cauldron while some of the meat is boiled in separate vessels. Again, the young people sing and dance while the meal is cooking, and at midnight a crow's call summons the villagers to the second feast. To trick the bear's spirit into thinking that crows, not humans, have killed him and are eating his body, the participants also caw like crows and call each other oli ("crow"). The celebrants each receive a spoonful of the bear's-heart soup and retire with a portion of the meat, which they eat in their own homes. On the third day, the bear's head is placed on a birch-bark mat, combed with a birch-wood comb and decorated with ribbons; earrings made of cedar needles are fastened to its ears. The head is then skinned and boiled, and its brain and flesh are communally eaten. Finally, the skull is taken out from the settlement into the forest and placed high upon a pole. Evenkis in the Russian Federation also observe the major Russian and Soviet holidays, particularly New Year's Day (January 1), Victory Day (May 9) and others.


In traditional Evenki society, there were many rules surrounding the birth of a child, and these had to be strictly observed in order to ensure the survival of mother and child. A pregnant woman was not allowed to touch the hook upon which a cooking pot was hung, lest her child be born retarded, or to hang a pot upon it, lest he or she be born mute. She could not step over an axe or saw, for this would lead to an especially painful childbirth. If she looked at a corpse, she would have a difficult delivery. There were taboos for her husband to obey as well. If he dug a grave, his wife would die in childbirth. If he brought a hare into the home, the child would be born with a harelip. If he or his male relatives entered the khungkingat-the temporary tent or hut used only for childbirth-the child would be deformed. Certain foods were also forbidden to an expectant mother. For example, she could not eat a bear's peritoneum (the transparent membrane that lines the abdominal cavity), for this would cause her to fall ill during the pregnancy. If she ate a bear's kidneys, liver, or meat from its head, she would suffer from convulsive neck spasms during childbirth. Eating the meat of an old reindeer would result in a long, difficult delivery. When an infant was old enough to eat solid foods but not to speak, its parents could not feed it the gristle from under a reindeer's knee, since this would cause knee injuries, or bear meat, since this would result in muteness. Today, childbirth usually takes place in the special hospitals for expectant mothers and infants that are used throughout the former Soviet Union, and the taboos surrounding childbirth have largely become a thing of the past.

Compared with the maze of taboos that surrounded an Evenki's birth, death was a relatively straightforward affair in traditional society. Immediately after death, the deceased's body was undressed and laid out straight with its arms at its sides and its face covered with a cloth. Depending on which animals were kept by the family, a reindeer, horse, or dog was killed, and the corpse was sprinkled with its blood. The deceased was then washed, laid on a newly dressed fur, and dressed in his or her best clothing (without, however, fastening any laces or buttons). If the person who had died had been married, the bereaved spouse cut off a lock of his or her own hair and laid it on the corpse. To the lock of hair were added items of everyday use-hunting knives or bows and arrows for the men, skin-dressing or sewing implements for women, and tobacco pipes and flints for both sexes. The deceased's family and friends held a feast in his or her honor, and the body was then buried or laid on a raised platform in the forest. Burial in the ground or cremation have become the usual means of disposing of the dead in the 20th century, but items used by the deceased are sometimes still interred with them.


When visiting an Evenki home, it is considered impolite to ride one's horse or reindeer directly up to the entrance of a dwelling and dismount there; one must rather dismount at the side of the home and from there walk to the entrance. It is customary to ask a visitor what he or she has seen on his way to the host's home. Although this is now often a pleasant formality, the original purpose of asking this was to determine whether game is to be found in the area traversed by the visitor. If a guest is older than his or her host, he hands his pipe to the host, who fills it with tobacco, lights it, and returns it to the guest. If the host is older than the guest, it is the host's pipe that is filled and lit by the guest. Guests are always given food and drink, which cannot be refused as this would be interpreted as an intentional insult. It is also customary to give a small gift to the guest, who is expected to reciprocate when possible.

Among the Evenki, dishonesty is considered an especially grievous character defect. Gossip or hypocrisy are seen as forms of deception and are likewise deemed unacceptable. According to the Russian anthropologist Sergei Shirokogorov, this revulsion for dishonesty stems from their traditional reliance on accurate information about the location of game animals and the friendliness or hostility of neighboring peoples. The distaste with which the Evenki view lying and cheating may be deduced from the following anecdote, which Shirokogorov recorded in the early 20th century. An Evenki man was watching some Russian prospectors, who were unaware of his presence, dig for gold. Upon finding a large gold nugget, they agreed to keep silent about it in order to avoid sharing it with their partners. They hid the nugget under a rock and departed. The Evenki emerged from his hiding place, uncovered the nugget, and took it home with him. The local Evenki community refused to tell the Russians what had happened: they considered their compatriot's action to be justified, since he had stolen the gold from men who had conspired to cheat their friends and had thus lost any right to it.


The traditional Evenki dwelling is the dyu, a large conical tent that is similar in appearance to the tepee traditionally used by some indigenous peoples of the American West, and it is well-suited for the way of life of a people of nomadic hunters and herdsmen. The dyu is supported by a framework of wooden poles and covered by reindeer hides or birch bark, which is steamed to increase its toughness and elasticity and then sewn into large sheets. (By the early 20th century, canvas cloth purchased from Russian traders became a common housing material as well.) Fires for cooking and light are built in the center of the floor, and a hole at the top of the dyu allows smoke to exit and light to enter. When a family moves from one hunting or herding area to another, they leave the frame of the dyu in place and take only the covering with them: it is easier to cut new poles than to drag the old ones along from encampment to encampment. Other types of traditional Evenki dwellings include rectangular log cabins with birch-bark roofs and Mongolian-style yurts, which the Evenki of the Lake Baikal area adopted from the local Buriat Mongols. Since the collectivization of Evenki economic activities in the 1930s, the single-story wooden houses typical of rural housing in the former Soviet Union have largely replaced traditional dwellings; however, the dyu is still used by some Evenki, especially during hunting or herding trips.

The Evenki who herd reindeer use the animals for transport as well. Reindeer are saddled and ridden like horses, made to pull sleds, and used as pack animals. The horse- and cattle-breeding Evenki of southeastern Siberia ride horses instead of reindeer, and Evenki who live along the shores of the Sea of Okhotsk have traditionally walked and used birch bark boats or canoes made of hollow logs. Hunters used skis, which they covered with fur in order to muffle their sound and thus enable them to silently approach game. In recent decades, airplanes, helicopters, motorboats, and snowmobiles have supplemented traditional modes of transportation. Automobile and rail transport are not common, due to the vast distances between urban areas in Central and Eastern Siberia and the difficulty of constructing roads and railway lines atop the permafrost.

Prior to the 20th century, medical care among the Evenki was mostly limited to herbal remedies and the incantations of shamans, although pharmaceutical remedies purchased from Russian traders were also used on occasion. (According to traditional Evenki beliefs, illness is often caused by the abduction of the sick person's soul by a spirit, who can be persuaded by the shaman to return the soul to its rightful owner.) Western medicine became much more common than these older methods during the Soviet period, but in the rural Siberian areas inhabited by Evenki, clinics are often many miles away and most offer only the most rudimentary treatments. Health problems caused by the shortcomings of Soviet medical care are exacerbated by widespread alcohol abuse.


Traditional Evenki society was organized into clans that were reckoned on the basis of descent from a common male ancestor and contained from 10 to 100 nuclear families. Clans performed a variety of social functions. For example, they owned communal hunting and herding territory, shared shamans between settlements of clan families, and formed alliances by marriage between their members (it was forbidden to marry someone from the same clan). Clan councils headed by the clan's elder men and women decided on issues such as war with other Evenki clans, punishment of wrongdoers within the clan, and aid to poor clan members.

Within the traditional Evenki nuclear family, men and women performed distinct roles. Men hunted and butchered game and made weapons, tools, and other household items from metal and bone. Women cooked; gathered firewood; herbs, and berries; prepared skins and birch bark; raised children; and cleaned the dyu and its surroundings. Women had to observe a wide range of taboos specific to their sex, most of which had to do with menstruation. For example, a menstruating woman was forbidden to touch weapons or wash in running water, and she had to bury the cloth or fur that she used as a sanitary pad far away from the encampment lest misfortune befall the family's hunters. If she was a shaman, she could not practice her profession until her period had passed. To these taboos must be added those mentioned earlier in connection with pregnancy and childbirth. Moreover, an Evenki woman was expected to behave in a reserved and quiet manner around her elders, in-laws, and guests. On the other hand, women had certain rights that could not be violated. Wife-beating was extremely rare, and husbands and wives usually enjoyed harmonious relations characterized practice by a high degree of equality. A woman could leave her husband if he abused her or even summon her male relatives (and sometimes those of her husband) to give him a thrashing. She could also leave her husband if he proved to be a neglectful provider or lover. The taboos restricting women's behavior have passed from observance in the past 50 years or so. The division of labor between the sexes persists in traditional occupations, but men and women interact on equal terms in teaching, administration, and certain other modern professions.


The classic Evenki garment is a knee-length reindeer-skin robe that is fastened in the front by leather laces. The type of reindeer skin used depends on the season. The winter robe- khegilme- is sewn from the thick, warm, furry skins of reindeer slaughtered during the winter. The summer robe, or sun , on the other hand, is made of the skin of reindeer slaughtered during the summer, when the animals have shed their winter fur. Both sexes wear fur and skin hats and apron-like chest coverings (khelmi for men and nelli for women) and loincloths (kherki) made of cloth or reindeer skin under their coats. Winter boots (kheveri in some dialects, bakari in others) reach up to the thighs, while summer boots (khomchura) barely clear the ankles and are worn with leather or cloth leggings (aramus or gurumi ). Men's and women's clothing is distinguished less by cut than by the degree of decoration: women's clothing is embellished with sophisticated embroidery and fur trimmings, and the clothing worn by shamans of both sexes is particularly elaborate. Traditional Evenki clothing is now worn primarily in the winter. During the summer, Western-style clothing (mass-produced shirts, pants, dresses, undergarments, and shoes) predominates.


Evenki food has traditionally centered around the meat of the animals that they hunt and herd: reindeer, bear, elk, and in southeastern Siberia, cattle and horses. In the summer and fall, when geese and ducks are to be found in the Evenki lands, these are hunted as well. Blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, wild onions and garlic, edible herbs, cedar nuts, and reindeer or cow's milk are also commonly consumed. Fish also make up part of the Evenki diet, especially along the shores of the Sea of Okhotsk, Lake Baikal, and the Amur River. (The Baikal and Okhotsk Evenki hunt seals as well.) Tea, sometimes mixed with reindeer milk, is the most common drink. Russian vodka is also popular. Traditional Evenki delicacies are seven, which is made by mixing roast ground bear meat with fried bear fat, and meni (mashed berries mixed with reindeer milk).

Boiling in cauldrons and roasting on spits are the most common methods of cooking Evenki food, which was formerly eaten with hands, knives, and spoons from wooden or birch bark plates. (Ceramics of Chinese manufacture were common among the Evenki of the Amur River basin.) Soup and tea were drunk from wooden cups. The modern Evenki prepare their food in factory-made metal and ceramic pots and pans and eat with metal knives, forks, and spoons. Meat and fish are dried in the sun to preserve them for use during the long, cold winters when the availability of game decreases. Sometimes dried meat is ground into a powder (khulikta), which is added to boiling water and the blood of reindeer or other game to make soup. The heart, liver, and marrow of elk and reindeer are sometimes eaten raw immediately after slaughter. Reindeer blood is also drunk raw as a tonic or boiled as soup. The intestines of game animals are turned inside out, cleaned, boiled, and stuffed with meat to make sausage.

The Evenki have incorporated a variety of influences from neighboring peoples into their cuisine without abandoning their preference for the products of the hunt. Breadmaking was learned from Russian settlers and traders soon after the Russian conquest, and sourdough bread and pancakes have long been staples of Evenki cuisine. The Evenki who live in Buriatia have adopted süsegei (a type of sour cream), eezgei (a dish similar to cottage cheese), and other milk-based Buriat dishes. Canned vegetables, meat and fish, and other prepared foods purchased from stores entered the Evenki diet during the Soviet period.


During much of the Soviet period, Evenki children were taken from their parents at a very young age and sent to distant boarding schools where the teachers and the language of instruction were usually Russian. As a result, although all Evenki are literate in Russian, many have at best a dim understanding of their own people's history and traditions, and only 30% speak Evenki as their native language. The remainder speak Russian (or, less commonly, Yakut or Buriat) as their first language. Many Evenki in the second group can speak Evenki at levels ranging from the mere command of a few isolated words and phrases to near-total fluency, but the former is far more common. Since the 1980s, native teachers and scholars have had some success in expanding instruction in native folklore, language, and crafts in Evenki schools, but a shortage of personnel and funds (the latter being especially scarce due to the collapse of the post-Soviet economy) has made progress slow in this area.


The folk epics (called nimngakan , nimkan , or ulgur ) are among the greatest treasures of the Evenki cultural heritage. Before the Evenki language had a written form, bards (called nimngakachimni or ulguchemni ) learned these epics by heart and recited them aloud before rapt audiences. Some of the epics extend to several thousand lines. Because of their length, they are usually told in a series of sessions spread out over several evenings. A recent recording by Evenki scholars of the recitation of one nimngakachimni required 18 hours of tape, and the transcription of another filled 150 typed pages. Today, only a few Evenki bards are still alive. The Soviet practice of sending most native Siberian children to distant boarding schools has robbed young Evenki of the chance to learn the epics from their elders. Nevertheless, many epics have been written down and published in Evenki and Russian, so they will not be lost to future generations. Since the 1930s, oral literature has been supplemented with novels, poetry, and drama in the Evenki language. The best-known Evenki author, Alitet Nemtushkin, has become a passionate champion of Evenki language and culture and the ecology of the Evenki lands.


Because hunting has long played such a central role in Evenki life, the Evenki have naturally become accomplished hunters. Their main weapons have traditionally been the bow and arrow and, since the 18th century, the rifle. In recent decades, shotguns have become more common, particularly for bird hunting. The Evenki display remarkable skill in luring and catching animals. For example, they manufacture birch bark horns whose sound is similar to that of a male reindeer. When a male reindeer hears one of these horns, he mistakes it for the call of another male reindeer who has found a group of females. When he runs toward the sound of the horn, he is killed. Blinds have been used for centuries: wooden platforms are built in trees overlooking salt springs and surrounded with branches or birch bark walls to hide the hunter. When game animals come to the springs to lap up the salt, they are shot. In another method of luring reindeer, leather straps are attached to the antlers of a tame male reindeer, which is then set loose into a herd of wild reindeer. If it begins to fight another male, their antlers become tangled together in the straps, and hunters can easily approach the pair and shoot the wild reindeer.


A number of traditional Evenki sports have survived to this day. Wrestling, tossing heavy stones, reindeer racing, and archery competitions are the most common spectator sports. Foot races are also popular, and sometimes competitors are made to run while holding weights. Kickball is played with leather balls stuffed with reindeer or elk hair.


Evenki of all ages have traditionally been fond of conversation and storytelling. Some Evenki stories and jokes are quite bawdy, but they may be told in polite company as long as certain rules are followed: older people may tell them in the presence of younger people, and men may tell them in the presence of women, but not the other way around. It is perfectly acceptable, however, for women and youth to tell these stories in each other's company. Evenki epic poems contain many sung passages, and the audience sings along with the narrator during their narration.

Evenki children's play activities often mimic the work done by adults. Boys are given toy bows and arrows, which provide them with archery practice as well as amusement. Girls typically play with dolls, for which they sew clothing and build cradles. Children of both sexes enjoy playing with puppies and birds. Human and animal figures are cut like paper dolls from birch bark and given to children as toys.


Evenki arts and crafts, like those of most Siberian peoples that have traditionally practiced nomadism, center around relatively small articles of everyday use that can be conveniently carried from place to place. Evenki men are skilled at engraving and carving wood, metal, and bone into saddle horns and other items relating to reindeer and horse riding, as well as knife handles and tobacco pipes. Women's crafts emphasize the decoration of clothing through embroidery, fur appliqué, and bead work, and common patterns are geometric designs, wave-like swirls, and plant and animal shapes.


The foremost social problems facing today's Evenki are ecological and economic. During the Soviet period, the government seized Evenki hunting and herding grounds in order to implement logging and mining projects and build hydroelectric dams. This was done without considering either the wishes of the Evenki or the impact on Siberia's fragile ecosystem. As a result, pollution, overforesting, and flooding have severely damaged the Evenki environment, exacerbating health problems and leading to a decline in the animal population upon which traditional Evenki economic activities depend. During the 1950s and 1960s, small, isolated Evenki settlements were abolished, and their inhabitants were moved into larger villages. The Soviet planners behind this policy hoped that it would improve economic efficiency. Instead, the resulting increased burden on the environment led to declining productivity in meat and fur production, a significant drop in the Evenki standard of living, and a corresponding rise in alcoholism. In the late 1980s, a group of Evenki activists managed to get back a small part of the land that the Soviet government had taken. The result was an improved standard of living and a dramatic drop in alcohol abuse among the Evenki who returned. At about the same time, Evenki ecological activists succeeded in blocking the construction of a dam that would have flooded much of the Evenki Autonomous District.

Cultural survival is another major struggle for the Evenki. Although the Soviet Union's political leaders paid lip service to the official ideal of ethnic and cultural equality, in reality non-Russian cultures and languages (especially those of the numerically small Siberian peoples) were often suppressed. Since Mikhail Gorbachev's liberalization of censorship and minority policies in the 1980s, native journalists, teachers and scholars have worked energetically to increase knowledge of and pride in their cultural heritage among younger Evenki.


A strong division of labor between genders characterized traditional Evenki society. T e effective integration of the Even-kis into the Soviet economy and Soviet society during and after the Second World War and the similar process among the Chinese Evenkis beginning in the 1960s had a particularly strong effect on Evenki women. Particularly in Russia women's increased access to education resulted in women forming a disproportionately large segment of the Evenki intelligentsia and Soviet elite. At the same time Evenki women in the Soviet Union, and later in the Russian Federation, were subject to Soviet gender stereotypes that limited their effectiveness in various ways. Nevertheless, since the collapse of the Soviet Union Evenki women, and particularly women members of the Even-ki intelligentsia, have been at the forefront of the movement to revitalize Evenki society along traditional lines.


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Gorokhov, S. N. "Evenki." In Narody Rossii: Entsiklopediia (The Peoples of Russia: An Encyclopedia). In Russian. Ed. V. A. Tishkov. Moscow: Bol'shaia Rossiiskaia Entsiklopediia, 1994.

Khoziaistvo, kul'tura i byt evenkov Buriatii (The Economy, Culture and Way of Life of the Evenki of Buriatia). In Russian. Ed. G. L. Sanzhiev and A. A. Atutov. Ulan-Ude, Russia: Buriatskoe knizhnoe izdatel'stvo, 1988.

Schwarz, Henry, The Minorities of Northern China: A Survey . Bellingham, WA: Western Washington, 1984.

Shirokogoroff, M. E. Social Organization of the Northern Tungus; With Introductory Chapters Concerning Geographical Distribution and History of these Groups. Shanghai, China: The Commercial Press, 1929.

Ssorin-Chaikov, Nikolai. "Mothering Tradition: Gender and Governance among Siberian Evenki," Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology Working Papers, Working Paper 45. 2002.

Uvachan, V. N. The Peoples of the North and their Road to Socialism. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1975.

Vakhtin, Nikolai. Korennoe naselenie krainego Severa Rossiiskoi Federatsii (The Indigenous Population of the Far North of the Russian Federation). In Russian. St. Petersburg: Izdatel'stvo Evropeiskogo doma, 1993.

Vasilevich, G. M. Evenki: Istoriko-etnograficheskie ocherki (XVIII-nachalo XX v.) (The Evenki: A Historical-Ethno-graphic Outline from the Eighteenth to the Beginning of the Twentieth Century). In Russian. Leningrad: Nauka, 1969.

Vasilevich, G. M., and A. V. Smoliak. "The Evenks." In The Peoples of Siberia. Ed. M. G. Levin and L. P. Potapov. Trans. Stephen Dunn. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1964.

-revised by A. Frank

Evenki (Northern Tungus)

views updated May 09 2018

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 Russianbilingualism 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 centuryfirst 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 wintersmall 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.

Sociopolitical Organization

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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Karlov, V. V. (1982). Evenki v XVII-nachale XXv: (khozyaystvo i sotsial'naya structura ) (Evenki in the 17th to beginning of the 20th century (economy and social structure). Moscow: Moscow University Press.

Mazin, A. I. (1984). Traditsionnye verovaniya i obryady evenko-orochenov (Traditional beliefs and rituals of the Evenki-Orochen). Novosibirsk: Nauka.

Service, Elman R. (1958). "The Reindeer Tungus of Siberia." In A Profile of Primitive Culture, New York: Harper & Brothers.

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Shirokogoroff, S. M. (1980). The Psychomental Complex of the Tungus. New York: AMS Press.

Tugolukov, V. A. (1985). Tungusy (Evenki i Eveny) Sredney i Zapadnoy Sibiri (The Tungus [Evenki and Eveny] of Central and Western Siberia). Moscow: Nauka.

Vasilevich, G. M. (1969). Evenki: Istoriko-etnograficheskie ocherki (XXVIII-nachalo XXv ) (The Evenki: Historical-ethnographic notes the 17th to the beginning of the 20th century). Leningrad: Nauka.



views updated May 21 2018


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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Fondahl, Gail. (1998). Gaining Ground? Evenkis, Land, and Reform in Southeastern Siberia. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Gail A. Fondahl