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LOCATION: Russia (Eastern Siberia)
POPULATION: 443,852 (2002 census)
LANGUAGE: Sakha (Yakut), Russian
RELIGION: Eastern Orthodox Christianity and native religious practices


The people who call themselves Sakha are termed Yakut in some European literature. An older term derived from legends is Urangkhai Sakha. The Sakha are the farthest north of the Turkic language speakers. They live in the Sakha Republic of the Russian Federation, in the far east of Siberia. Th eir territory was called Yakutia, or the Yakut Autonomous Republic, when it was part of the former Soviet Union.

The Sakha claim that their ancestors once lived farther south, and ethnographic and archeological data confirm an area near Lake Baikal for an aboriginal homeland where Sakha predecessors, identified in some theories with the Kuriakon people, may have been part of the Uighur state bordering China. By the 14th century, Sakha ancestors came north, perhaps in small refugee groups, with herds of horses and cattle. After arrival in the Lena valley, they fought and intermarried with the indigenous Evenk and Yukagir nomads.

When the first parties of Russian Cossacks arrived at the Lena River in the 1620s, the Sakha received them with hospitality but also wariness. Several skirmishes and revolts followed, led by the legendary hero Tygyn. By 1642, the Lena Valley was under tribute to the czar. Peace was won only after a long siege of a formidable Sakha fortress. By 1700, the fort settlement of Yakutsk (founded in 1632) was a bustling Russian administrative, commercial, and religious center and a launching point for further exploration into Kamchatka and Chukotka. Some Sakha moved northeast into territories they had previously not dominated, further assimilating indigenous neighbors. Most Sakha, however, remained in the central meadowlands, sometimes assimilating Russians. Sakha leaders cooperated with Russian commanders and governors, becoming active in trade, fur tax collection, transport, and the postal system. Fighting among Sakha communities decreased, although horse rustling and occasional anti-Russian violence continued. For example, in the 19th century, a Sakha Robin Hood named Manchaari led a band that stole from the rich (usually Russians) to give to the poor (usually Sakha).

By 1900, a literate Sakha ("Yakut") intelligentsia was influenced by Russian merchants and political exiles. A party called the Yakut Union resulted. Leaders such as Oiunsky and Ammosov led the revolution and civil war, along with Bolsheviks such as the Georgian Ordzhonikidze. The 1917 revolution took several bloody years to consolidate, with extensive opposition to Red forces by Whites (czarists) under Kolchak lasting until 1920, and unrest until 1923. After relative calm during Lenin's New Economic Policy, a harsh collectivization and anti-nationalist campaign under Stalin ensued. Intellectuals such as Oiunsky (founder of the Institute of Languages, Literature and History) and Kulakovsky (an ethnographer) were persecuted in the 1920s and 1930s.

Traditionally, kinship and politics were mixed in a hierarchical council system that guided various levels of Sakha social organization. Sakha ideas of themselves as a people were conveyed by their word dzhon, which means "community" or "tribe" in a territorial sense. Councils were composed of ranked circles of elders, usually men, whose leaders, toyons, were called nobles by the Russians. Lineage councils decided major economic issues, inter-family disputes, and questions of "blood revenge" for violence committed against the group. Full tribal councils were infrequent, dealing with issues of security, revenge, alliance, and (before Russian control) war. In war, prisoners were captured to serve as slaves in the wealthiest households.

By the 20th century, councils were rare, although the demise of the Soviet Union has led some Sakha to argue for a return of community councils. Under a Sakha constitution passed in 1991, an elected Sakha parliament, called Il Tumen ("meeting for solidarity") has become influential, in addition to an elected Sakha president. A bilateral treaty with Russian Federation leaders signed in 1995 outlined the terms of the republic's political and economic relationship to the central government.


The Sakha Republic covers 3,100,000 square kilometers (1,200,000 square miles), or more than four times the area of Texas, in eastern Siberia. Located at approximately 56º-71ºn latitude and 107º-152ºe longitude, it is bounded by Chukotka to the northeast, Buriatia in the south, and the Evenk region to the west. Its northern coast stretches far above the Arctic Circle, along the East Siberian Sea, and its southern rim includes the Stanovoi mountains and the Aldan plateau. Its most majestic river, the Lena, flows north along cavernous cliffs into a long valley, and past the capital, Yakutsk. Other key river systems, where major towns have developed, include the Aldan, Viliui, and Kolyma. About 700,000 named rivers and streams cross the territory, which has some agricultural land, but is primarily non-agricultural taiga with vast resources of gold, minerals, gas, and oil. Tundra rims the north, except for forests along the rivers.

Notorious for extremes of long, cold winters and hot, dry summers, the republic has two locations residents claim to be the "coldest on earth" —Verkhoiansk and Oimiakon, where temperatures have dipped to -79ºc (-110ºf). More typical are winters of 0º to -40ºc (32º to -40ºf) and summers of 10º to 30ºc (50º to 86ºf).

Spread throughout the republic, the Sakha are no longer a minority in their own republic. The 2002 Russian census recorded a total population of 949,280 for the Sakha Republic. The Sakha totaled 443,852 (432,290 in the republic) in 2002. The proportion of Sakha in their republic has been gradually increasing. In 1989 they made up 35%, and by 1996 they made up approximately 40%. In 2002 they constituted the single largest ethnic group in the Sakha Republic, making to 45.5% of its population. By contrast in the 1920s, Sakha constituted about 82% of their republic's population. Sakha outside their republic are mostly in the Far East and the major cities of Russia.

The Sakha have become increasingly urban over the past 20 years, although at a slower rate than the majority Slavic population. Whole villages in central and northern regions remain solidly Sakha, while the major cities of the republic are heavily Russian. The republic population was 65% urban in 1989. Interethnic marriages between the Sakha and other groups were as high as 10% in the 1970s, but this percentage had halved by the 1990s. As of 2002 Sakhas were approximately 65% rural dwellers and 35% urban dwellers.


The Sakha, more than 90% of whom speak Sakha (or Yakut) as their mother tongue, call their language Sakha-tyla. A Northeast Turkic language of the Altaic branch of Ural-Altaic, it is divergent from most other Turkic languages, although related to Dolgan. The current Sakha written language, developed in the 1930s, uses a modified Cyrillic script. Before this, several written forms were tried, including a Latin script developed in the 1920s and a Cyrillic script introduced by missionaries in the 19th century. The first books in the Sakha language were published in 1862.

Many Sakha names are variations on Russian, for example, Iuban (Ivan). Names sometimes derive from folklore-for girls, for example, Tuiaarima (a heroine), Aisa (a good spirit), and Sardana (a kind of lily), and for boys, Niurgun (a hero), Aisin (a good spirit), and Ellei (an ancestor).


Sakha folklore includes legends of a written language lost after they traveled north to the Lena valley. Oral histories begin well before first contact with Russians in the 17th century. Olonkho (epics) date at least to the 10th century, a period of inter-ethnic mixing, tensions, and upheaval that may have been a formative period for Sakha tribal affiliations. Today, few young people memorize the sung epics, which rival in size the Greek Iliad or Finnish Kalevala, but parts of the epics are performed in contests. Other folklore includes stories of benevolent or malicious animal spirits and the feats of traditional spiritual leaders or shamans.


Sakha religion derives from Turkic, Mongolic, Tungusic, and Russian ideas. Labels such as "animist," "shamanist," or "Russian Orthodox" do not suffice. Ideas of sin are syncretized with concepts of contamination and taboo. Saints are seen as sha-manic spirit-helpers, as are bears. Christ is identified with the Bright Creator Elder God Aiyy-toyon. A pantheon of gods, believed to live in nine hierarchical eastern heavens, was only one aspect of a complex traditional cosmology that still has meaning for some Sakha. Sakha also believed in the spiritual power of blacksmiths, because iron-working was an important part of traditional Sakha culture.

A crux of belief is the ichchi (spirit-soul) of living beings, rocks, trees, natural forces, and objects crafted by humans. Most honored is the hearth spirit, yot ichchite, and it is fed morsels of food and drink by believers. Deep in the forest, al lukh mas (giant trees) are especially sacred; their ichchi are given small offerings of coins, scarves, and ribbons. Belief in ichchi is related to ancient ideas of harmony and equilibrium with nature and to shamanism.

Sakha shamanism is a Turkic, Mongolic, and Tungusic blend of belief in the supernatural with emphasis on the ability of "white," or benign, shamans to intercede through prayers and séances with eastern spirits for the sake of humans. "Black" shamans, communing with evil spirits, can both benefit and harm humans. Shamans can be male (oiuun) or female (udagan), with debate over which gender is more powerful. Shamans use drumming to enter into a trance during séances to ascertain the cause of illness or other problems.

In the 19th century, Russian Orthodox priests spread through Siberia, but their followers were mainly in the major towns. A few Sakha leaders financed the building of Russian Orthodox churches, and many Sakha declared themselves Christian, but this did not mean they viewed Christianity and shamanism as mutually exclusive.

Although shamans with full powers are rare, in the 1990s, urban as well as rural Sakha have adapted shamanic rituals. Current Sakha shamans combine medical and spiritual practice. Despite centuries of Russian Orthodox and Soviet discrediting of shamans as greedy charlatans, some Sakha maintain belief in shamans and supernatural powers. Others, struggling to recover spirituality after rejecting Marxist-Leninist materialism, accept aspects of shamanic philosophy. Still others, influenced by Soviet education and science, reject all religion as superstition.


The most important Sakha ceremony, associated with founding ancestor Ellei, is the annual summer yhyak festival, a celebration of seasonal change, of kumys (fermented mare's milk), and of kin solidarity. It was declared a national republic holiday in 1990. Once religious, and led by a shaman, the ceremony has become a mostly secular celebration of Sakha traditions. Practiced in villages and towns, it features opening prayers (algys) and libations of kumys to the earth. Although some debate its "authenticity," the festival still includes feasting, horse racing, wrestling, and all-night line dancing to improvised chants. It lasts three joyous days in Suntar, where it is especially famed. Other major holidays include New Year's, (1 January) and World War II Victory Day (8 May).


Traditional rituals of birth that involved supplicating the goddess of fertility (Aiyyghyt) are rarely observed today, and some Sakha women mock the restrictions once associated with beliefs about female impurity. New rituals marking weddings, anniversaries, and graduations at all educational levels involve serge, or sacred marker posts, on which names of those honored are carved.

Sakha beliefs accord each person three souls. Before burial, the deceased's spirit is thought to visit every place traveled in life. Family members dress the deceased in finery. On the third day, bearers take the body to the graveyard, where a grave is prepared deep enough to touch permafrost yet shallow enough to be seen by escort spirits. A horse, steer, or reindeer is sacrificed, to help the deceased travel to the land of the dead and to provide food for family and grave preparers. One of the deceased's three souls is believed to travel skyward for life in a lush greenery-filled heaven until possible return in reincarnation. Some Sakha fear that souls, especially those of shamans, can stay on earth and haunt kin. Burial symbolism is observed more in villages than cities and a combination of shamanic and Russian Orthodox ritual prevails.


Travelers from afar once greeted each other with the request "Tell me what is new" and with a discussion of kin connections if the people did not know each other. Variations of this occur today, although most Sakha greetings have become Russified, with handshakes and kissing on both cheeks. To show a more traditional style of affection, people greet and part with a small sniff to the cheek. Couples are restrained in public, but warm and considerate at home. Visiting across considerable distances is common for special family and seasonal occasions. Couples usually meet through friendships of their families or through school, and dating takes place both in groups and more privately.


With the decline of shamans, most Sakha rely on Western medicine administered in hospitals and clinics. Folk medicine, however, including extensive use of herbal knowledge, is also prevalent. Traditional healers have long periods of apprenticeship and are specialized. There are herbal experts, bone setters, shaman's assistants, as well as various grades of shamanic power.

Housing is Russian in style, often rough-hewn log huts with broad, raised stoves. Many families, even in large towns, rely on outhouses and outdoor water pumps. Some collectives, however, let workers build more substantial individual family homes with modern amenities. Another style of housing is low concrete apartment buildings with indoor plumbing. The largest city is Yakutsk (187,000 in 1989), and the towns of Viliusk, Olekminsk, Neriungri, and Mirny are growing rapidly.

As horse and cattle breeders, the Sakha had a transhumant pattern of summer and winter settlements. Winter settlements comprised as few as 20 people, members of several closely related families who shared pasture land and lived in nearby yurts (balagan) with surrounding storehouses and corrals. The yurts were oblong huts with slanted earth walls, low ceilings, sod roofs, and dirt floors. Most had an adjoining room for cattle. They had substantial hearths and fur-covered benches lining the walls, with sleeping arrangements made according to social protocol. Yurts faced east, toward benevolent deities. In summer, families moved with their animals to larger encampments. The most ancient summer homes, urasy, were elegant conical birchbark tents, some of which could hold one hundred people. Their ceilings soared above a circular hearth at the center point and around the sides were wide benches placed in compartments that served as ranked seating and sleeping areas. Every pole or eave was carved with symbolic designs of animals, fertility, and lineage identities. By 1900, however, urasy were rare; summer homes became yurts or combination yurt-log cabins. By 1950, yurts too were obsolete, found only in a few museums. In the 1990s, new versions of collectives still send workers to summer sites to graze cattle away from large villages, and some families are returning to homestead-style cattle breeding.


Key kin relations are based on a patrilineage (aga-usa) that traces membership back as far as nine generations. Within this, children born to a specific mother are distinguished as a group (ye-usa) and may form the basis for different households (korgon). Historically, more distant kin were recognized on two levels, the aimak (or territorial nasleg), with 1 to 30 lineages, and the dzhon (or territorial ulus,) composed of several aimak. These larger units were united by common defense alliances and economic relations and reinforced by councils and festivals. A lineage head was bis-usa-toyon, while respected warriors and hunters were batyr. Kin terms reflect gender and age distinctions, marking senior paternal lines from junior ones. All relations are called uru, which is also the term for wedding.

Wedding rituals, pared down from previous eras, center around carved memorial posts, with couples honored by blessings, special food, and dancing. Earlier (and sometimes today), a dual celebration would go from the bride's household to the groom's, where the couple traditionally lived. Since the 1970s, interest in aspects of ritual and gift exchange has been revived, although few couples are paired through matchmakers as previously. Multi-generational families often live together, although the movement of young families to cities has made smaller, less-extended families a more recent norm.

Traditionally marriage could be polygamous for wealthy Sakha. Monogamy was more common, however, with occasional remarriage after the death of a spouse. Arranged marriages were sometimes politically motivated. Patrilineage exogamy (marriage of a Sakha man to a non-Sakha woman) was reckoned with strictly; those one could marry were called sygan. Until the 1920s, marriages had many stages involving financial, emotional, and symbolic resources of the bride's and groom's extended families. This included a matchmaking ritual; several formal payments of animals, furs, and meat to the bride's family; informal gifts; and extensive dowries. Some families allowed poor grooms to work in their households as replacement for "bride wealth." Occasionally bride capture occurred and may have been more common in pre-Russian times.

By customary law, land, cattle and horses were controlled by the patrilineage although used by households. Inheritance or the sale of animals or land had to be approved by elders. Men owned most of the wealth, and passed it down to sons, especially elder sons, although the youngest son often inherited the family yurt. Mothers could pass on dowries to daughters, unless the dowry had been forfeited by bad behavior. In theory, dowries included land as well as goods, jewelry, and animals, although in practice elders rarely gave land to another lineage. Soviet law limited inheritance, but new land laws have made families with small plots more secure. In addition, most apartments and summer houses are kept in families.

Children were reared to be good workers, with boys racing, hunting, playing games of strength while girls learned domestic tasks. Girls were expected to be shy, learning taboos that would become important in a husband's household. With education, however, youth, especially girls, have more freedom. After training, many opt to live away from their rural homes. Even so, the values of Sakha pride, language fluency, and the advisability of endogamy (marriage to other Sakha) are strongly instilled.


Sakha women are fashion conscious, with a strong sense of style and access to European magazines. However, for weddings and the annual yhyakh holiday, women are returning to versions of traditional flowing gowns with ribbons and appliqué. Fur appliqué on coats and strong colorful designs on vests (especially with green and red) merge old and new styles. Long silver and gold earrings and elaborately carved breast and headdress jewelry are popular, especially since the resurgence of traditional Sakha crafts in the republic. Men usually wear European-style casual and more formal clothing. Both genders prefer beautifully made fur hats, coats, and boots during the cold winters.


Dairy products and meat from cattle and horses are especially valued. Diet is augmented by hunting (deer, elk, squirrel, hare, bear, ferret, and fowl) and fishing (salmon, carp, muksun, and mundu). Because of Russian influence, agricultural products (cereals and vegetables) are grown or bought in stores and markets. Mildly alcoholic fermented mare's milk, kumys, varies in processing and taste, with one bubbly style considered the "champagne" of this traditional Turkic drink. A heavy whipped cream with berries called, kerchek, is labor-intensive and therefore a special treat. Horse-meat kabobs cooked over an open fire are served at holidays, and when the horses have been raised for their meat, the kabobs are tender. Bread and waffles have become popular through Russian influence.

Utensils are store-bought and European-style, although traditional carved wooden bowls and spoons are valued as serving implements. Carved wooden kumys cups, called choron, come in many sizes. With a single stem or three carved legs, they are said to be the shape of a woman's breast and symbolize fertility.


Before the Russian Revolution, a few Sakha children attended missionary schools, but most were illiterate. Literacy campaigns for both children and adults in the 1920s and 1930s improved basic education. The turmoil of Stalinist policies and World War II left many Sakha without their traditional homesteads and unused to salaried industrial or urban work. Education improved their chances of adaptation and also stimulated interest in the Sakha past.

By the 1980s, the intelligentsia of the republic was dominated by indigenous men and women in prestigious cultural, scientific, and political jobs. A Sakha man was director of the gold ministry, and a Sakha woman was head of the republic legislature. The Yakutsk State University was a main mechanism for advancement, as were various Russian Academy of Sciences institutes. In the 1990s, not every Sakha child who wants higher education can obtain it, but most Sakha have a high school education and know Russian. Technical schools and on-the-job training improve career chances, but republic leaders recognize that educational reform is needed. There are debates over the goals of education and the level to which training should continue in the Sakha language.


Sakha linguists proclaim that the Sakha language, in oral and written form, has metaphoric flexibility that lends itself to poetry. Continuity of folk arts is strongest in exuberant improvisational poetry that accompanies a type of line dancing, called ohuokhai. A leader sings out a line of verse, which other dancers repeat in unison, giving the leader a chance to think of the next line. This rhythmic dance goes on for hours, traditionally during weddings and the seasonal summer celebration, but recently also at clubs. Similarly, a revival of the twanging mouth harp, khomus, has spread beyond its original familial and sha-manic ritual context onto the Sakha stage.

Filmmakers, theater groups, opera, and dance companies enrich Sakha cultural life with performances that build on traditional themes in new ways. Tension between Russian influence and pride in Sakha identity is clear in many works. Sakha novelists and playwrights, such as Suoron Ommolon, have adopted Sakha pseudonyms, though their readers usually know their Russian family names. Sakha ethnographers explore their roots in widely read works.


In such a harsh climate, pastoralism requires homestead self-reliance, with intense devotion to calves and foals. Before 1917, rich families owned hundreds of horses and cattle while poor ones raised a few cattle or herded for others. Wealthy Sakha hunted on horseback using dogs. The poorest Sakha, without cattle, relied on fishing with horsehair nets and, in the north, herding reindeer like their Evenk and Yukagir neighbors. Sakha also engaged in the fur trade, relying on squirrel by the 20th century when luxury furs (ermine, sable, and fox) were depleted. Sakha merchants and transporters spread throughout the entire Northeast, easing communications and trade for natives and Russians. Staples such as butter, meat, and hay, plus luxuries such as silver and gold jewelry, carved bone, ivory, and wood crafts, were sold. Barter, Russian money, and furs formed the media of exchange. Guns were imported, as was iron for local blacksmiths.

Although occupations within a household were divided by gender and status, the atmosphere was usually one of productive group activity. Haymaking, cattle herding, and milking were done by all, although horses were more a male preserve and cattle a female responsibility. Women tended children and fires, prepared food, carried water, and made clothing and pottery. Men handled firewood preparation, house building, sled making, hunting, fishing, and mowing. Ivory carving and wood and metalworking were male tasks.


Horse racing is one of the most popular sports, and it is featured at the annual summer yhyakh festival. Traditional male sports of wrestling, balancing across poles, rock lifting, hurdles and foot racing hone important skills and remain popular at festivals. Victors are awarded legs of cooked meat as well as more modern commercial prizes.


On dark winter nights, long epics were the most valued form of entertainment. A single traveling tale singer would take the parts of all the characters in a given drama, and families would cluster around a hearth for several nights running. Traditional tales have recently been transformed onto the stage and into movies by skilled Sakha artists. Other traditional entertainment included songs (lada), riddles, and comic, fast-paced tongue-twister dialogues.

There is television in nearly every Sakha home, introducing Sakha viewers to international films, news, and soap operas. But a Sakha language channel also offers home-grown popular songs and comedy, programs on nature, and critical commentary on issues of the day.


Iron-working from marsh ore preceded imported iron, just as ceramics from local clay preceded Russian pottery. Most homemade crafts are for household use, and include birchbark containers, leather bags, dairy-processing equipment, horsehair blankets, fur clothing, benches, hitching posts, and elaborately carved wooden containers. Sakha art takes many forms, sometimes rooted in ritual life, although since the Soviet period, it is often secular and commercial. Silver and gold jewelry, once considered talismanic, is now enjoyed for its aesthetic value. The Sakha were once famous for their bone carvings, which included boxes, pipes, chess pieces, and dagger hilts. The most famous carvings were made from ancient mammoth bones and tusks that had been found in ice. Famed for ivory and wood carving, Sakha artists have recently branched out into graphic art, painting, and sculpture. A group of young artists called Flagiston brings traditional shamanic themes into new mediums.


During most of the Soviet period, crime was covered up with false statistics by Soviet officials engaged in corruption. In addition, elite Sakha helped kin obtain jobs and political positions that built on traditional obligations and were not defined by locals as corrupt. Bad Soviet management, nuclear testing, and disastrous mining practices have left the republic with serious social and economic problems. An environmental movement has formed in response, as well as some political reform agitation. Demonstrations erupted on Yakutsk streets several times in the 1980s, mostly by young Sakha protesting police inaction over violent incidents involving Russians and Sakha. Tensions exist between newcomers and natives, developers and environmental activists, and "internationalists" and "nationalists." Alcoholism and unemployment rates have increased since the Soviet collapse, thus aggravating already existing problems.

Non-Sakha indigenous minorities, such as the Evenk, Even, and Yukagir, have demanded greater cultural and political rights. In response, a national district, Eveno-Bytantaisk, was established in 1989 in the republic, and local self-rule councils are developing.


In traditional Sakha society the subsistence economy and its division of labor strongly affected gender roles. With the establishment of collective and state farms during the Soviet era women were integrated into the Soviet labor force and the Soviet workplace, particularly during and after the Second World War. While child-rearing and household duties generally remained the realm of women, Soviet Sakha women also gained access to educational opportunities. Divisions of labor continued through the 20th century in households of rural collectives, although possibilities for both sexes have expanded. Women now hunt, fish, and engage in crafts once associated with men. They have become doctors, nurses, teachers, engineers, bookkeepers, and politicians, and some work in the growing industrial sector. Men are engineers, tractor drivers, geologists, teachers, doctors, managers, and workers in the lucrative energy, metallurgy, gold, diamond, and building industries.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, in some rural Sakha communities the lines between division of labor have blurred to some degree, with men sharing household duties and also being involved in herding activities that beforehand had largely been the realm of women.


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—revised by A. Frank