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ALTERNATE NAMES: Abakan Tatars, Minusa Tatars, Kachins, Sagays, Beltirs, Kyzyls, and Koybals
LOCATION: Russia (Republic of Khakassia)
POPULATION: approximately 80,000
LANGUAGE: Khakass; Russian
RELIGION: Eastern Orthodox Christianity combined with native religious beliefs


Khakass is an ethnonym used to refer to a number of South Siberian Turkic groups. The term Khakass came into use during the Soviet era to refer to a number of Turkic groups, the most numerous of which were the Abakan Tatars and Minusa Tatars, named after the river valleys they inhabited. In fact, the group today known as Khakass is composed of five historically and culturally distinct groups—the Kachins, Sagays, Beltirs, Kyzyls, and Koybals. The origins of these five groups are considerably complex, and although they are all Turkic-speaking, historically they were formed from a number of Turkic, Samoyedic, and Kettic groups.

The homeland of the Khakass, the right bank of the upper Yenisei River, was a central region of the medieval Yenisei Kirghiz Empire, which reached a peak in the middle of the 8th century after its conquest of the Uyghur Empire in Mongolia. The Yenisei Kirghiz state did not last long as an independent state, being conquered already in the 10th century by the Khitay, but Yenisei Kirghiz rulers remained established in Khakasia until the appearance of Russians in the area in the 17th century. By the time of the Russian annexation of the region in the 18th century, the Yenisei Kirghiz had disappeared as a political force and as an ethnic group, and the region remained populated by the five groups previously mentioned as the constituent elements of the modern-day Khakass.


The homeland of the Khakass is the Republic of Khakasia, located within the Russian Federation, and the capital of Khakasia is the city of Abakan. Khakasia encompasses 61,900 square kilometers (23,900 square miles) and consists of relatively fertile plains, low hills, and woodlands crossed by a series of mountain ranges originating in the Sayan Mountains. The January mean temperatures range from -20°c (-8°f) to -16°c (0°f), and the July mean temperatures range from 18°c (66°f) to 20°c (70°f). Numbering around 71,000, the Khakass are a relatively small Russian minority nationality, although by Siberian standards the Khakass are a numerically substantial group. There is also a large Russian community within the Khakass's ethnic territory.


The Khakass language is a literary language that was created during the Soviet period to facilitate the integration of the five constituent groups forming the Khakass. In fact, the groups spoke separate, albeit related, Turkic dialects. Linguists commonly classify the language of the Khakass as belonging to the Northeastern group of the Turkic language family, related to Northern Altay, Tuvan and, more distantly, to Yakut. It was only by the beginning of the 19th century that the Khakass became completely Turkic-speaking. Before that time, certain groups, especially the Koybals, retained some degree of knowledge of their ancestral Samoyedic language. Russian is also widely spoken and used as a literary language among the Khakass, and bilingualism is widespread, although it is estimated that about 64,000 Khakass out of a population of 80,000 retains use of their native language.

The Khakass literary language was created in the 1920s and was based primarily on the Kachin and Sagay languages. The Khakass alphabet, however, has been written in numerous scripts. In 1924 the Soviet authorities introduced a Cyrillic alphabet, but switched to a Latin alphabet in 1929. The Latin Khakass alphabet remained in effect until 1939, when the Soviet authorities mandated yet another change back to a Cyrillic alphabet. This alphabet has remained in use to the present day.

Khakass typically have a first name, a patronymic (taken from the father's first name), and a surname. The Khakass were officially converted to Russian Orthodox Christianity during the 19th century, and as a result, Russian names and surnames became quite widespread, although these Russian names often were phonetically "Khakasized." At the same time, in part as a result of the strength of traditional Khakass culture, the use of Turkic names remained widespread.


The Khakass, like other South Siberian Turkic peoples, have retained a very rich folkloric tradition, the most prominent element of which is certainly oral epic poetry, much of which was recorded during the Soviet era. While the number of epics in the Khakass's repertoire is considerable, the best-known Khakass oral epic is entitled Altïn Arïg. Generally speaking, the Khakas epic tradition has many features in common with the epic traditions of the Northern Altays and the Tuvans. Epics were usually performed by bards who would typically sing in a guttural singing style called khay, which was followed by declamatory recitations. The bard would also accompany his recitation with a musical instrument called a chattagan. Khakass also play a sort of jaw harp called a kobïz. Early observers of the Khakass noted that the Khakass were more musically oriented than their neighbors.


Russian Orthodox missionaries converted the Khakass to Christianity in the second half of the 18th century. While the commitment of the Khakass to Christianity is an unresolved issue, there is no doubt that they remained firmly committed to their native religious beliefs and customs even during the Soviet period, when open manifestations of religious life were frequently suppressed. A partial result of the relatively late conversion of the Khakass to Christianity was that the Khakass retained many very archaic religious practices.

Native Khakass religion is characterized by the veneration of clan and family spirits. Likenesses of these spirits were commonly made of wood, fabric, and animal hair and placed within the household. Ritual offerings were made to these spirits in the form of milk and fat, both on a daily basis and during specific rituals.

The most prominent feature of Khakass native religion is the shaman (qam), who functioned as an intermediary between the community and the Upper and Lower Worlds. Shamans functioned as healers of the sick, but they also performed important rituals. Shamans were generally respected as possessors of religious power and are also featured as heroes in Khakass folklore.

Since 1991 Western missionaries, primarily of Protestant denominations, have come to Khakassia, although it is unclear to what degree they have succeeded in attracting Khakass converts.


The most important traditional Khakass holiday was Tyas Tuyï, the greeting of spring. This festival usually took place in early June, when the inhabitants of nearby villages would gather to pray to the supreme God (Quday) and make offerings of fermented mare's milk. They would also bring sacrificial animals, usually horses, which would be festooned with ribbons. After the sacrifice of the horses and the performance of libations and prayers, the celebration would take on a more festive appearance, with participants taking part in feasting, drinking, contests, wrestling, and horse races.

Another major holiday was the annual Prayer to the Sky, held in early summer. This holiday involved prayers and sacrifices to the Sky to ensure a good harvest of hay and crops. Among the Beltirs, for example, it was performed on a high hill, not by a shaman, but by elders from within the community.

Modern-day Khakass celebrate the Soviet and Russian holidays, including May Day (May 1), Victory Day (May 9), and others.


After the birth of a child, the head of the family would name the child after the first thing he laid eyes on. This name would be considered the native name, and six months after birth, the child would receive a Christian name which was in actuality never used in everyday life. Marriage typically involved negotiations between the families of the prospective bride and groom over the size of the dowry (qalïm) and the conditions of its payment.

Traditionally, Khakass buried their dead on mountaintops and other elevated areas. The deceased was usually placed in a wooden coffin and oriented on an east-west axis. Shamans, however, were usually buried without coffins, and children were wrapped in birch bark. The dead were usually buried in their best clothes, and with various goods such as saddles, as well as cheese, meat, butter, and fermented mare's milk. On the 3rd and 20th days after a person's death the family gathered at the grave for memorial feasts, and on the 40th day, the deceased's favorite horse was sacrificed. The largest feast was typically held on the 100th day. Most Khakass would hold this feast at home, but the Koybals, for instance, held it at the graveside.


In traditional Khakass culture, women usually stayed at home, and they remained silent when men were present as guests. Men and women were often segregated in traditional Khakass dwellings. Khakass customs generally involved quiet, polite, and reserved relations.


The Khakass traditional economy depended to a large degree on nomadic and semi-nomadic stock breeding, and stock breeding remains a major feature of the Khakass's economy. As a result, living conditions were closely tied to the well-being of the herds. Natural disasters, such as spring storms or epidemics among animals, could lead to the sudden impoverishment of entire communities.

Styles of traditional housing varied considerably among the five major Khakas groups. These styles included the yurt, the round felt tent characteristic of Inner Asian nomads. The yurt was typically divided into men's and women's halves, with a hearth located in the middle of the earthen floor. There were also numerous shelves and trunks located along the wall. Other common dwellings included teepee-shaped structures made of wood and bark typical of the hunter-gatherer peoples of the Siberian forests, and log structures whose design was borrowed to a large degree from Russian peasant colonists who settled in the Altay lands in the 19th century. There was also some blending between the styles. For example, the Kachins would build hexagon or octagon shaped houses out of logs that mimicked the shape of yurts. The felt and wood structures were usually used as summer dwellings, especially by the more nomadic communities, and the wooden structures were used as winter dwellings.

In general, the standard of living of the Khakass corresponded directly to the well-being and size of their herds. In traditional Khakass society, there was private property, and distinctions existed between rich and poor, but the fluid nature of the stock breeding economy made wealth transitory at best. However, over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, agriculture-especially cereal agriculture-became increasingly widespread among certain groups of Khakass, especially the Kyzyls.

The primary mode of transportation among the Khakass was by horseback, and this continues to be an important mode of transportation today, especially in more remote or mountainous areas. In winter, the Khakass also made use of horse-drawn sleighs and skis.


The Khakass have retained a complex and archaic kinship structure. The five peoples forming the Khakass-the Kachins, Sagays, Beltirs, Kyzyls, and Koybals-are in effect tribal groupings, and each group is further subdivided into clans (seok). Traditionally, the clan was the social unit around which religious rituals were structured, and marriage within one's clan was usually forbidden.

Among many Khakass groups, such as the Beltirs, a father and his married sons held property, such as land and herds, jointly. A father and his married sons lived in separate dwellings but took their meals together. Financial matters were under the authority of the father or should he die, the eldest son. During the Soviet period, this system gradually disintegrated in favor of nuclear family units.


Traditional Khakass clothing varied among the various groups. The Kachins and Sagays, especially the women, retained much of the elaborate traditional dress that was usually reserved for festive occasions. Kachin festive clothing consisted of long robes embroidered with brightly-colored cotton and trimmed with fur. Winter clothes consisted of a sheepskin overcoat, sometimes trimmed with fur or lined with silk. Elaborate and tall fox-fur hats were also worn by women, especially for festivals. Russian-style clothing gradually became more widespread among the Khakass, especially among the more agricultural communities and among the Kyzyls. The clothing of the Koybals, on the other hand, reflected more Mongol influence as a result of their contacts with Tuvans. Modern-day Khakass clothing includes a mix of Westernized and traditional clothing, and completely Russian-style clothing in urban settings.


The diet of the Khakass was naturally influenced by whether the given community's economy was primarily nomadic or agricultural. The basic sorts of food consumed by the Khakass were meat and dairy products, vegetables, and bread. The staple food was ayran, a sort of fermented yogurt made from mare's milk. This product could also be distilled into an alcoholic beverage and the curd dried to be made into cheese. Other sorts of dairy products include cream, sour cream, and butter. Meat, particularly lamb and horsemeat, were made into various dishes, especially soup and sausage. Tea and herbal teas were also very popular among the Khakass. Among the more agricultural communities, who had more contact with Russian peasants, bread, pork, and chicken were more widely consumed (especially by the Kyzyls). The Sagays supplemented their diet with various forest plants as well as wild game.


No formal educational apparatus existed for the Khakass until the establishment of Russian Orthodox Missionary schools in the middle of the 19th century. However, during the tsarist period, some Khakass were able to take advantage of these mission schools as a gateway to the larger Russian educational system. The best example of this was Nikolai Katanov, a Kachin who eventually became one of Russia's greatest Turcologists and ethnographers, as well as a professor at Kazan University.

With the advent of the 1917 Revolution in Russia, the Soviet government created a formal educational apparatus in the Khakass lands, including primary and secondary schools, as well as a Khakass research institute in the district center of Abakan. The goal of the Soviets was to increase literacy in both Russian and Khakass. The first such schools were opened in 1926, and the research institute opened in 1944. Khakass students can also study outside of the region, in larger institutions in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Novosibirsk.


Folklore, particularly the oral epic, remains the richest aspect of the Khakass cultural heritage. During the Soviet era, scholars made considerable efforts to record and publish these epics, both in the Khakass literary language and in Russian translation. In addition to preserving Khakass folklore, the Soviet authorities encouraged the creation of literature, especially fiction and poetry, in the Khakass literary language.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Khakass have been freer to express and preserve their religious traditions, which also form an especially rich aspect of their cultural heritage. Despite the conversion of their ancestors to Christianity in the 19th century, modern-day Khakass are expressing renewed interest in their traditional religious life, especially shamanism.

Like other South Siberian peoples, the Khakass have retained the practice of throat-singing, by which one singer can produce two notes in his or her throat at the same time. This tradition is best known among the Tuvans, but it has also been widely recorded among the Khakass, especially within the context of the performance of oral epic poetry.


Much of Khakass life consists of tending livestock and performing agricultural work. Today, most Khakass live on collective or state agricultural enterprises, whose prosperity depends on the enterprise's resources. Many Khakass are also engaged in hunting and trapping.


The most popular sport among the Khakass is wrestling, and it is widespread during the major holiday celebrations. Another common Khakass sport is horse racing.


Many elements of traditional Khakass life had entertainment and recreational aspects. Most notably, major religious holidays included feasting, drinking, and sports. The performance of oral epics also had a recreational function while at the same time educating the audience about the history of the community, its mythological and religious traditions, and its ethical and moral ideals. Shamanic seances, while intended primarily to heal the sick or to perform a ritualistic function, also served to some degree as a form of popular entertainment.


Traditional Khakass clothing is a particularly elaborate type of folk art. Women's festive dress is especially striking, and many objects intended for everyday use bear complex decorations as well. Traditionally, Khakass craftsmen were skilled blacksmiths. The production of religious articles, especially shaman's drums, not only demanded technical skill, but also an understanding of the complex religious ritual that accompanied the manufacture of a drum. Khakass also carved figures out of wood to serve as representations of tutelary spirits of the home or the clan.


Drinking has always been an important social and recreational pastime among Khakass men. Traditionally, the most popular alcoholic beverage was fermented mare's milk. Alcoholism became a debilitating social problem, however, with the introduction of distilled grain spirits (i.e. vodka), as a result of large-scale Russian penetration of the region in the 19th century. Today, the Khakass suffer from the general social and economic dislocation affecting all of Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union.


In traditional Khakass society there was a sharp division of the sexes in social situations and in terms of the division of labor. Men generally monopolized hunting, warfare, and most aspects of stockbreeding. Women mainly monopolized child-rearing, food preparation, and clothing manufacturing.

According to Khakass customary law, women enjoyed certain rights, including the right to divorce, and divorce appears to have been more commonplace among the Khakass than among many of their neighbors. In such cases, the dowry or a portion thereof would be returned by the husband or his family. After the death of a husband, a common custom was for the widow to marry her late husband's brother, thereby ensuring a degree of material support for herself and her children. Monogamy was the rule among the Khakass, although before 1917 polygamy was occasionally practiced by some wealthier members of society.

Following the Second World War, with the expansion of industrial enterprises in Khakasia, women began entering the industrial workforce, and smaller numbers entered the professional workforce as a result of greater access to Soviet education. Nevertheless, the Sovietization of Khakass society did not result in a revolution in Khakass gender roles, particularly within the rural majority of Khakass.


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—by A. J. Frank

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