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LOCATION: Russia (Taimyr peninsula and along the Yenisei River)POPULATION: 7,261 (2002 census)
LANGUAGE: Dolgan; Russian
RELIGION: Orthodox Christianity; native form of shamanism


The Dolgans are one of approximately thirty "Numerically Small Peoples of the North" in Russia. The Numerically Small Peoples are indigenous groups who have lived in the Far North for thousands of years, relying on the land and its natural resources to provide food, clothing, and shelter. Th eir spiritual life is also rooted in the land and the animals with which they share the tundra and taiga. Although their lives have changed rapidly as industrialization has spread throughout the world over the course of the past one hundred years, the land and its resources continue to provide a livelihood and spiritual anchor for the Dolgans. The contemporary Dolgan people are offi-cially recognized as an amalgam of Sakha, Evenki, Entsy, Russian, and Nganasany peoples. The name "Dolgan" is derived from one of the Tungus clans from whom the contemporary Dolgans originated. The ethnonym, or ethnic self-designation of the Dolgans is "Dulgaan," but this is a very recent (19th century) name. Prior to that, groups used names originating from their past ethnic identities or the territories in which they lived.

Indigenous peoples in both Czarist Russia and the Soviet Union were considered "primitive" because they lived in the harsh arctic environment and made their living off the land. In the Soviet Union, the government implemented policies designed to "modernize" indigenous peoples and thus bring them into the fold of socialist society, whether they wanted to be modernized or not. Collectivization, universal education, and assimilation were three primary focal points of government policy. Collectivization entailed confiscating people's property, including their reindeer herds, and organizing economic activities on the basis of collective (kolkhozy) and state farms (sovkhozy) . Education is generally acknowledged as a positive development except when students are denied the right to learn in their Native languages, and their cultures are disparaged by teachers and administrators. This is a problem which is only today being addressed. The Dolgans were expected to assimilate into the dominant Soviet society-to stop thinking of themselves as Dulgaan and start thinking of themselves as Soviet. Their lives as nomadic reindeer herds and hunters would end as they adopted modern industrial occupations and lifestyles. Their distinctive way of life, culture and beliefs would merge and eventually disappear into the larger "Soviet people."

The 2002 Russian census recorded 7,261 Dolgans in the whole Russian Federation. The Dolgan people today are one of the most politically powerful groups in their territory, and many senior officials of the Taimyr Autonomous Okrug are Dolgans. Political activism is especially important for native peoples as they begin to address the social and economic prob- lems which have resulted from discriminatory government policies.


The Dolgan people live on the Taimyr peninsula and along the lower portions of the Yenisei River in the Taimyr (Dolgano-Nenets) Autonomous Okrug in Russia. The Taimyr Autonomous Okrug is an administrative unit within Krasnoiarsk krai, and has its administrative center in the port city of Dudinka. The total population of the okrug recorded in the 1989 Soviet census was 55,803. Of this total, 8,751 were members of indigenous groups (Dolgans, Nentsy, Evenki, Nganasans, and Entsy), and the Dolgans numbered 4,939. Although the Dolgans (along with the Nentsy) are the titular nation of this okrug, they are a numerical minority, the majority of the population is Russian. Some Russians have lived for generations in the region, but most are relatively recent immigrants who moved to the okrug to work in the large industrial centers, the shipping industry, and the mining complexes. The okrug occupies 862,100 square kilometers (332,900 square miles, or about twice the size of Sweden), and competition for land is a serious problem. The traditional economic activities of the Dolgans, Nenets, and other Native peoples require large tracts of land that are relatively free of human disruption. The industrial economy of the okrug is intensive, focused in large cities and settlements along the arctic coast and inland waterways. As industrial activities such as mining and processing minerals increase, they encompass land from surrounding rural areas, leaving fewer resources for native peoples.

The Taimyr Autonomous Okrug is located entirely north of the Arctic Circle. Winters are long and cold, with a mean January temperature in Dudinka of -30°c (-22°f). Summers are short and cool, with an average July temperature of 2°c to 13°c (36°f to 55°f). Humidity is relatively high, and strong winds blow throughout the year. Precipitation totals 110 mm to 350 mm (4.3 in to 13.8 in) per year. Permafrost is widespread.

Arctic, tundra, and forest-tundra ecological zones are all represented in the Taimyr Autonomous Okrug . The arctic zone has almost no shrubs or lichen and only sparse mosses and liverworts. The tundra has willow and arctic birch trees, mosses, lichens, liverworts, and grasses. The forest-tundra zone has large expanses of lichen where reindeer graze, and the entire Khatanga River Valley north of 68° latitude is covered with forests of larch, spruce, and birch. The wildlife that inhabits this diverse environment includes seals, walrus, and beluga whales along the arctic coast; fish on the coast and inland waterways; and wild reindeer, bighorn sheep, arctic fox, lemmings, ermine, hares, and wolves throughout the okrug . Bird species are also varied, especially during summer migrations when ducks, geese, and wading birds join local residents such as the ptarmigan and willow ptarmigan. Polar bears live on the ice floes along the northern coast and arctic islands.


The Dolgan language today is classified as a distinct language, although as late as the 1950s it was considered to be a dialect of Yakut, which is spoken by the Sakha. It is classified as a member of the Turkic language group, which is itself part of the Altaic language family. Most Dolgans speak both the Russian language and Dolgan. There was no written Dolgan language until quite recently. In 1973, the first Dolgan language book was published using the Yakut alphabet. A Dolgan primer has been prepared to help teach the language in school. In 1991, the Dolgan language began to be taught in the lower grades.


Dolgan folklore is rich and varied. Historic legends tell of travel to faraway places. Epic tales are sung and describe ways of life totally foreign to the Dolgans in which heroes struggle against persons in league with the evil spirits. Most popular are short stories which tell of the everyday life of nomadic people, explain the origins of animals, and describe the metamorphosis of animals into people. Storytellers were considered to be chosen by the good spirits, and especially gifted storytellers might create their own schools and have young apprentices. Storytellers often worked with shamans to cure illnesses. The Dolgans believed that the images evoked by a storyteller could be made visible. A storyteller would be called to the bedside of the sick person and begin to tell an epic tale. As soon as the evil spirit making the person ill appeared to help defeat the story's hero, the shaman would cast a spell to remove the evil spirit from the sick person's body and thus effect a cure. The power of storytelling was elieved to be so strong that stories were not told before a hunt in case the images brought forth might scare the game away.


Traditional Dolgan religion can be said to be Eastern Orthodox Christianity, since their adherence to Christianity was a factor in their formation as a people from the 16th to the 19th century, and which distinguished them for their unbaptized neighbors, such as the Nganasan. At the same time Dolgan religious practice incorporated many aspects of Siberian shamanism. It is based on a respect for the land and animals which embody spirits that guide hunting, herding, birth, death, and the behavior of individuals and society. Their animistic beliefs divide spirits and gods into three categories: ichchi, ayyy, and abaasy. Ichchi are invisible spirits which can bring to life anything they enter. Ayyy are spirits which help humans in their daily lives, such as in the hunt and in domestic matters. Abaasy spirits are evil, causing sickness and death. Shamans serve as mediators between humans and the spirits. Storytellers often help sha-mans in identifying the cause of illness or misfortune. The Dolgans believe that after death they will live in another world with their kinfolk.

By the beginning of the 20th century, the Dolgan people were said to have all been converted to Orthodox Christianity. Traditional beliefs never completely disappeared, however, but instead were practiced secretly or incorporated into Christian ritual and practice. Although religious practices were discouraged in the Soviet Union, Orthodoxy is still strong and the role of shamanism in traditional culture is being revived in some areas.


In addition to the Soviet secular holidays celebrated by all peoples in the former Soviet Union, the Dolgans celebrate Russian Orthodox holidays such as Easter and Christmas.


Traditional Dolgan beliefs held that death was caused by evil spirits who stole souls and carried them off to the underworld and then invaded a person's body and ate it. Some groups of Dolgans built log structures over their graves, while others felled a tree, which would be carved with various designs, over the gravesite.


Marriages were traditionally arranged by parents who used a matchmaker to negotiate the payment of "bridewealth" and assure that a sufficient dowry would be provided. Bridewealth, paid by the husband to his bride's family might include furs and reindeer. A bride's dowry would include household goods and clothing. The wedding would be held at the parents' home, and the newlyweds would live with the groom's family until they were able to establish their own home. Marriages today are arranged by individuals themselves (sometimes in consultation with elders), but they are still accompanied by celebrations with families and friends. Young married couples still often live with parents until a separate apartment can be found and furnished.

Social rules governing the activities of men and women and their behavior towards one another were stringently followed in traditional Dolgan society to ensure such things as successful hunting, and healthy births, and to ward off the attention of evil spirits. The world of men was outside the chum or tent, among the reindeer and in the forests. Women dominated the household and were responsible for its maintenance and internal harmony. Although the tasks of men and women might sometimes overlap (for example, men would help build a tent or sled tent), each was primarily responsible for their own part of the Dolgan world. Within Dolgan society, there continue to be strong traditions of sharing among kinfolk and care of the elderly. In times of need, an individual's relatives can be counted upon to help. The elderly, regardless of whether or not they are one's immediate relatives, are always provided with assistance in the form of food, shelter, or whatever else might be needed.


Dolgans who live in the tundra, herding and hunting, tend to live in traditional types of dwellings-tents made of reindeer skins (or occasionally today canvas or tarpaulin) or small huts built of wooden frames covered with skins or fabric on sled runners. These sled tents can be pulled by reindeer and were adopted from Russian merchants. The families of herders and hunters might also have apartments in villages where they spend part of the year. Today many Dolgans live in small settlements (300-600 people) of wooden apartment buildings heated with coal. Plumbing is generally absent in these homes. Villages often have a medical clinic, a general store, and an elementary and/or middle school. Dolgans who live in large cities live in modern apartment buildings with plumbing and central heating. They shop in stores, attend school, and work in stores, hospitals, schools, factories, and so on.

Transportation in the tundra is often by reindeer-pulled sleds, although helicopters, airplanes, snowmobiles, and all-terrain vehicles are used as well. Canoes purchased from the Sakha or from Russian merchants are used for river transport and fishing.


The nomadic life of Dolgans herders and hunters is rigorous and demanding. As families move their reindeer from pasture to pasture, they must also move their homes and possessions with them. Among the nomadic reindeer breeders, men are generally responsible for the animals, hunting, and fishing. Women in traditional households are responsible for making fur clothing; preparing food; maintaining the tent; sled tent, or house; and child care. Some herding families have both mobile sled tents and apartments in a small village associated with a sovkhoz , or state farm. Each family today has its own tent. In the past, extended families predominated, whereas today the nuclear family is more common. Orphans and children from poor families are often taken into families of relatives to be raised, a practice that was common in the past and continues to be important today. In towns and cities where Dolgans have nontraditional jobs, women are still primarily responsible for the home and child care in addition to working outside the home. Young married couples and single people often live with their parents because housing is generally in short supply.


Traditional and manufactured clothing are often combined by the Dolgans, depending on their jobs and where they live. People in towns and cities tend to wear modern clothes made of manufactured cloth and perhaps fur coats and hats in winter. In rural villages and in the tundra, there are also manufactured clothes, but traditional types more suitable for hunting and herding activities are often seen. Russian-manufactured clothing was in use by the Dolgans by the early 20th century,and household garments of this type were worn by many people. A cloth coat called a sontap was worn by men and women in both summer and winter. In the winter, a second coat of fox or rabbit fur was worn beneath the cloth coat. Sometimes in winter instead of a cloth coat a short deerskin parka was worn. Belts embroidered with beads were sewn onto the outside of both men's and women's garments. Men's shirts and women's aprons were almost always decorated with embroidery. Hats (bergese) shaped like hoods were also ornamented with embroidery and beadwork.


Traditional foods include reindeer meat, fish, fowl, and other game animals. Meat and fish were traditionally eaten boiled, dried, or raw (frozen or fresh). Fish were also sometimes fermented in pits in the ground. Reindeer milk was used by the Dolgans. Plant foods such as tea and sugar were introduced into the Dolgan diet long ago and have become integral parts of every meal.


Educating the children of reindeer herders, who spend most of the year away from any village, has always been a difficult task. When universal education was first introduced by the Soviets, it was proposed that traveling teachers would move with the herding groups until they could be settled in permanent villages. This solution to the problem was short-lived, however, and the decision was made to send the children of nomadic herders to boarding schools, often far from their parents and other relatives. This resulted in children who knew the Russian language but not their own Dolgan language. Children were also taught that traditional ways of living and working should be abandoned in favor of life in a modern industrial society; thus, they learned little about their own cultural traditions and the land on which their families depended. Settling families in permanent homes in villages was another means of educating children and today most villages have schools that include the eighth class and sometimes the tenth class. After this point, students must leave their village to receive a higher education, and such a journey for 15- and 16-year-olds can be daunting. Today attempts are being made to change the educational system to include studies of Dolgan traditions, the Dolgan language, reindeer herding, and land management in addition to reading, writing, and arithmetic. Traveling teachers have again been proposed as one possible solution to the problem of combining education and a nomadic lifestyle, but even this system would have limitations, especially as children grow older and require more specialized instruction. Educational opportunities at all levels are available to the Dolgans Taimyr, other regional centers, and Moscow.


Archaeological evidence shows that Samoyedic peoples had settled the Taimyr area by the first millennium ad, and these people were ancestors of the present-day Dolgans, Nentsy, and other indigenous peoples. They too were nomadic hunters and reindeer herders (although on a smaller scale than today). In the mid-16th century, Russian traders, trappers, and government representatives began moving into the Taimyr region; thus, the Native peoples have a long history of contact with Europeans. Beginning in the 17th century, travelers ourneyed along the "Great Russian Road" across the Taimyr Peninsula from Lake Piasino east toward the Khatanga and on to the Anabar River and Sakha. Travelers on reindeer and dog sleds plied this route from one camp or settlement to the next. Peoples of diverse origins, languages, and cultures lived along this road, and it was along this route that the intermixing of peoples began which eventually lead to the formation of the contemporary Dolgan people.

In the 1926/27 Soviet census, the Dolgans were said to be composed of people descended from several ethnographic groups: Dolgans proper, Sakha, Evenki, Russia old peasants, and some Nentsy and Entsy. The Dolgans proper consisted of four Tungusic clans, one of which was named "Dolgan" or "Dulgaan." Only in the 19th century was this name used by the government to refer to people who called themselves by other names. Today this ethnic designation is recognized by the government and by the people themselves as an ethnic self-designation or ethnonym. Dolgan culture is also an amalgam of elements taken from each of the original ethnic groups: riding reindeer from the Evenki, herd dogs from the Nentsy, women's fur coats from the Sakha, and so on.


Work is often difficult to separate from other aspects of life among indigenous peoples. Although the Dolgans were traditionally hunters of wild reindeer, today there are many laborers, doctors, teachers, and other professionals among this group, and some people combine traditional occupations with nontraditional work on a seasonal basis.

The traditional Dolgan economy was focused on hunting wild reindeer in the north and elk and mountain sheep in the south. Ptarmigan, ducks, geese, and small game animals such as rabbits as well as fish were also important in the diet. Trapping polar fox was a significant commercial activity which allowed the Dolgans to trade for manufactured foods and goods. Reindeer breeding was oriented toward transportation: reindeer were ridden and used as pack animals during parts of the summer, and in winter they pulled sleds. Reindeer breeding requires a nomadic lifestyle as reindeer must frequently be moved to new pastures. The Dolgans had regular seasonal routes of migration not only to take advantage of pasturage, but of hunting and fishing opportunities as well. All of these activities continue to be important today, although they are more formally organized and sometimes conducted in nontraditional ways.

During the Soviet period, the traditional economic activities were reorganized by the government within the system of state farms, or sovkhozes. Work brigades moved the reindeer along traditional migration routes, going north in the summer and south in the winter, and changing routes on a regular schedule to maximize the use of available pasturage for the reindeer. Additional activities such as fur farming (raising foxes in cages), dairy farming, and vegetable growing were added, and fishing has become an important commercial activity. The Dolgans worked as laborers on the state farms and in the fishing industry. Today these state farms are being reorganized again in official attempts to encourage privatization and stimulate production. Educational and employment opportunities have also lead to substantial Dolgan participation in local government and nontraditional occupations in education, health care, construction, business, and so on.


There is little information available on sports among the Dolgans. Presumably, in the large industrial centers of Noril'sk and the like, the Dolgans have access to Russian sports.


Children in urban communities enjoy many of the same entertainments that children in the United States do: riding bicycles, watching movies and television, and playing with manufactured toys and games. In rural areas, and especially in the tundra, recreational opportunities are more limited. In villages there are bicycles, manufactured toys, televisions, VCRs, clubhouses (where movies might be shown), and radios. Although a trip to town might produce a store-bought toy, children in the tundra also depend on their imaginations and the games and traditional toys of their nomadic ancestors. The Dolgans have no musical instruments of their own, but at the end of the 19th century began to adopt the Sakha Jew's harp which has become common.


Folk arts are represented by the ornamentation of items of traditional material culture. Clothing is often embellished for special occasions with glass beads, metal buttons, embroidery, mosaic designs of fur, and appliqués of various colored skins and furs. Even everyday clothing is decorated with embroidery and beading. Skins are dyed red or black with natural dyes such as ochre, alder bark, and graphite. Reindeer harnesses are decorated with openwork embroidery made by women, and men carve the wooden cheek plates and saddles used for reindeer, inlaying them with tin and pewter. Traditional hunting and special household goods are sometimes inlaid with copper over steel. Wooden sculptures of religious significance were traditionally made in representation of animistic deities.


Social problems among the Dolgans are generally related to environmental degradation and related problems as well as discriminatory practices in urban centers. Dolgans living in the Lower Yenisei Valley have experienced serious disruptions in their nomadic lifestyle and have lost most of their domestic reindeer herds due to dramatic changes in the migrations of wild reindeer. The normal movement of wild reindeer herds has been disrupted due to industrial development, and increased shipping traffic which have cut off migration routes. The wild herds steal domestic deer away during the fall breeding season, and they winter unpredictably on pastures previously only used by domestic herds. The industrial city of Noril'sk, where copper and nickel ores are refined, the port cities of Dudinka, Dikson, and Igarka, the mining settlements, and all of the smaller satellite communities of workers that ring these cities have produced pollution of unprecedented scale which expands outward into the rural tundra areas where Dolgans and other indigenous groups continue to practice traditional economic activities. The pollution has serious negative effects on human health, wild and domestic animal communities, and the plant life of Taimyr.

Unemployment, inadequate health care, alcoholism, and poorly developed infrastructure in small villages have all contributed to the serious situation in which the Dolgans and other Native peoples in Russia find themselves today. Social welfare payments made by the government for unemployment, child care, and pensioners are important in helping support the indigenous population, but they are only short-term solutions to long-term problems. The Dolgans and other indigenous peoples in the Taimyr Autonomous Okrug have created an Association of the Indigenous Peoples of the Taimyr Autonomous Okrug through which they are demanding the rights to control their own destinies. The Association has declared that indigenous peoples in Taimyr have priority rights to the land and its subsurface resources and hopes to be able to use revenues from mineral exploitation and economic development to fund programs addressing the many social and economic problems facing indigenous peoples today.


Gender issues among the Dolgan in particular have been little studied. Traditional Dolgan descent groups were patrilineal, although at the same time there was a clear division of labor between the sexes, with women responsible primarily for child rearing and domestic chores. During and after the Second World War Soviet labor policies began to erode this division of labor, accelerated by the sedentarization of the Dolgans, and increasing integration into Soviet society. The collapse of the Soviet Union, and the economic collapse in the Russian Federation in the 1990s probably fell particularly heavily upon Dolgan women, who had to provide for households in the face of severe unemployment and other social problems.


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Gracheva, G. "Dolgan." In Encyclopedia of World Cultures. Vol. VI, Russia and Eurasia/China. Boston: G.K. Hall and Company, 1994.

— — —. "K voprosu o vliianii khristianizatsii na religioznye predstavleniia nganasan," Khristianstvo i lamaizm u korennogo naseleniia Sibiri , Leningrad: Nauka, 1979, 29-49.

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Popov, A. A. "The Dolgans." In Peoples of Siberia. Ed. M. G. Levin and L. P. Potapov. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964. (Originally published in Russian, 1956.)

— revised by A. Frank