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ETHNONYMS: Ostyaks, Ostyak-Samoyeds, Çumul'-kup, Süsse-kum


Identification. Selkup (söl'qup ) means "forest person." In the seventeenth century the Russian Cossacks called the Selkup the "Piebald Horde," probably because their clothes were sewn from the multicolored skins of small animais and birds. In administrative documents of the eighteenth to nineteenth centuries, the Selkup were called "Ostyaks" (along with the Khanty and Ket); the term "Ostyak," borrowed from Tatar, connotes "impure," "infidel" (ostyak/estek ), that is, non-Muslim. Since the middle of the nineteenth century, when Finnish scholar M. A. Castren established the common origin of the languages of the Ostyak-Selkup and the Samoyed Nenets, the Selkup have been known in the the scholarly literature as the Ostyak-Samoyed." In the 1930s, after the creation of the Selkup literary language by Russian scholars G. Prokofyeva and E. Prokofyeva on the basis of the Northern dialect, the self-designation of the Northern group, "Selkup," was extended to all Ostyak-Samoyeds. Other groups have different self-names: the Selkup of the Tym River call themselves "Çumul'-kup" (land person), the Selkup of the Ket River "Süsse-kum" (forest person).

Location. The Selkup consist of two main groups, the Northern and the Southern. The Northern group resides in the basins of the Taz (which enters the Ob Bay) and Turukhan (a tributary of the Yenisei) rivers, the Southern group along the tributaries of the Ob and its course between Tomsk and Surgut. The Northern group occupies the taiga, where coniferous (pine) forests predominate, rich in reindeer mosses. Among large animals are elks, wild reindeer, and bears; among valuable forbearing animals are sables, marten, otters, ermines, and squirrels. In non-swampy areas of water, white salmon, whitefish, salmo-vimba, salmo-thymallus, tutun (a type of whitefish), and net-caught types of fish abound. The Southern group has settled in the most swampy part of the southern taiga zone of western Siberia. Swamp occupies about 70 percent of the area where "dark-coniferous" (spruce and silver fir pines) and conifero-deciduous (birch and aspen) forests grow. Large fauna include elks and bears; the only animal whose fur is exploited commercially is the squirrel. Because of the abundance of swamps, there are yearly mass deaths of aquatic life owing to lack of oxygen in the water; among ichtyofauna net-caught species predominate. During January the mean temperature in the territory of the Northern group is 28° C, in that of the Southern group 21° C; in July it is 15° C and 18° C, respectively.

In the nineteenth century the Narym Selkup lived in Tomsk Province, the Tax and Turukhansk Selkup in Yenisei Province. Currently, the Narym are in the Tomsk Oblast, the Turukhansk in Krasnoyarsk Krai, and the Tax in Tyumen Oblast. The administrative separation considerably hampers the already limited contacts among the various small groups of Selkup.

Demography. According to the censuses of 1897 and 1926-1927, the total number of Selkup was about 6,000; according to the 1989 census it stood at 3,500. Within this, the number of Northerners had increased a little (from 1,500 to 1,600), whereas the number of Southerners had decreased sharplytoday the Southern group is close to complete depopulation.

Linguistic Affiliation. The language of the Selkup belongs to the Samoyedic Branch of the Uralic Language Family, the sole surviving member of the South Samoyed Branch. It is dosest to the language of the Nenets (especially the Forest Nenets), Enets, and Nganasan. Among other Samoyed languages, it stands out for its multitude of verbal formations and case forms distinguishing animate and inanimate objects (perhaps because of contact with the neighboring Ket), along with phonetic particularities. There are three Selkup dialects: Taz (with the Baishen dialect that has assimilated to it), Tym, and Ket (the last two are sometimes classified together as the Narym dialect).

History and Cultural Relations

Russian sources mention the Selkup for the first time in the sixteenth century. At the head of the political union of the Piebald Horde at that time stood Prince Vonia. The Piebald Horde, numbering up to 400 warriors, offered fierce resistance to the Russians and their allies, the Kodsk Khanty. Vonia entered into a union with the Siberian khan, but after the latter was defeated, Prince Vonia continued to battle the Russians and refused to pay the iasak (tribute paid in furs). Only after the building of the Narym fortress in 1596 did the Piebald Horde submit to the Russian czar. Soon thereafter, a part of the Selkup set off for the northern lands and began the formation of the Taz group. Since then the Northern and Southern Selkup have apparently been separated by the Vakh Khanty and the Elogui Ket.


In the pre-Russian period there were fortified towns (koç ketty ) spread out among the Selkup, enclosed with ditches, earthen walls, and palisades and with approaches protected by crossbow-guarded forests. Later settlements were built without defensive structures, usually on the high banks of rivers along the mouths of tributaries, channels, and old riverbeds. As a rule, the settlement consisted of a small number of dwellings (from two to four), constructed either in a row along the river or arranaged randomly. Frame-post yurts reinforced by sand or turf (çuy-mo, poy-mo ), or framework houses served as dwellings; among the Northern Selkup there were tents of the Nenets or Evenki type. Sometimes several dwellings were built in summer and winter in places suitable for hunting.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Northern Selkup are divided into groups of hunters, fishers, and reindeer herders. Hunting is considered the most prestigious specialization. As a rule, good hunters also keep a small herd of reindeer (ten to thirty head), which is used for the long expeditions during the winter hunting season. Those who specialized in fishing were usually without reindeer. Hunters and fishers also were distinguished among the Southern Selkup, but such a division depended on the district of settlement: near the Ob, the Selkup specialize in fishing; in the upper reaches of the tributaries (of the Ket and Tym), in hunting. Horses were used for transport. Among the Northern Selkup, harnessed reindeer served as the means of conveyance (reindeer herding was borrowed by the newcomer Selkup from the Nenets and Evenki). Fishing on the Taz was carried out year-round by means of nets (in earlier times made from nettle fibers) or dammed structures with wicker-wattled snares of pine laths, as well as with fish spears and hooks. On the Ob, the catching of fish was halted during the time of the mass death of fish ("the rusting") from January to April. Besides fish, the products of the huntmeat, pelts, bones of elks and wild reindeer, aquatic (in summer) and pine-forest (in autumn) birdsplayed an important role in providing their livelihood. Furs were used to pay tribute (iasak) and as a legal tender.

There is evidence that in the past the Southern Selkup engaged in limited agriculture, including the cultivation of tobacco (çope ) and possibly of barley (laaria ). In the Narym dialect there are words suggesting the practice of agriculture: kyraç medy, "clear a thicket of forest"; vylial' dotyty, "loosen the earth"; soçaptiko, "cultivate, plant"; çokor, "millstones." The gathering of berries, nuts, and martagon (a species of lily) roots was widespread. Raw vegetable material supplemented the basic foods, meat and fish. Flat cakes of barley flour (myrsa ) and martagon (togul ) were baked, and a kind of brandy (ul' ) was also prepared. One of the most widely prepared dishes was fish fermented in red whortleberry; another typical food was boiled or raw meat or boiled or fire-baked fish. Women prepared the food, whereas men procured the meat and fish.

Trade. In the nineteenth century a bunch of ten squirrel skins, sarum, was the basic exchange unit. A wolverine or a red fox pelt was equated with one such bunch, that of a polar fox or sable with three. In the seventeenth century a successful hunter could bag up to 200 sables and 2,000 squirrels during the winter season. In conversion into money a squirrel was worth 1 to 2 kopecks, a sable was worth 1 ruble (on the international market the price for a single black Narym sable reached 200 to 300 rubles per pelt). Imported goods vital to the Selkup were priced relatively inexpensively. Apart from furs, fish, reindeer, horses, bows and arrows, and boats served as goods in internal trade. In exchange with the Russians for furs, fish, berries, and nuts, the Selkup acquired metal tools, weapons, cloth, flour, tea, sugar, tobacco, and vodka. Taksybyl'kup (trade people) operating as middlemen emerged among the Selkup.

Industrial Arts. Property consisted of dwellings and household buildings (barn, storehouse, awnings, smoking sheds, pens for horses or reindeer, etc.); hunting implements (iron traps, bows and arrows, and guns and ammunition); fishing tackle (nets, seines, dams); and means of transportation (horse sleds, reindeer sledges, skis, and boats). The inside of the dwelling was divided into a female part (by the entrance) and a male part (opposite the entrance), where the corresponding female and male things (clothing, instruments of labor) were kept. The most significant possession of the woman was sewing equipment; of the man, a knife with belt and weapons. The Northern Selkup wore fur coats of reindeer hide, pargy; the Southern wore fur coats sewn from scraps of pelts (paws or ears) of squirrel and sable with boots and mittens from the skins of sturgeon.

In the pre-Russian period (before the sixteenth century) the Selkup had a highly developed ceramic industry: not only were various vessels prepared from clay, but also smoking pipes, sinkers for nets, smelting forms, crucibles, children's toys, and religious sculpture. Pottery has almost entirely vanished since the seventeenth century. At the same time weaving degenerated under the influence of trade based on the processing of nettle fibers, saatçu. Among the Northern Selkup, blacksmithery was preserved until recent times; earlier, the Selkup smiths, çotrl' kum, were famous among the neighboring peoples for their ability to forge weapons, armor, helmets, masks, mirrors, and adornments. At present, masters are honored in the preparation of boats among the Northern Selkup, as well as in the sewing of fur clothing.


Kin Groups and Descent. Reckoning of kinship was patrilineal. Within the father's clan, marriages were completely forbidden; within the mother's clan, the prohibition extended, as a rule, to three generations. Among the Narym Selkup, there was a circular chain within the framework of a tri-clan union (gary ): a member of clan A took his wife from clan B, a member of clan B from C, and a member of C from A. The clans of the Southern Selkup were the Woodgrouse, Grouse Beak, Raven, Kite, Swan, Crane Beak, and Bear, whereas those of the Northern were the Woodgrouse, Crane, Eagle, and Nutcracker. In the north, there was clan exogamy; a gradual formation of a binary exogamic system has come about with the resulting division of the society into two halveskossyt'tamdyr (people of the Nutcracker) and limbyl'tamdyr (people of the Eagle).

Kinship Terminology. The term il'ça designates the fathers and older brothers of one's parents. The corresponding age class on the female side was called imylia. The younger brothers of the father and older brothers of Ego were defined by the term tymnia. A single concepttytyira was extended to the younger brothers of the mother and the sons of her older brothers. The younger sister of the father, older and younger sister of Ego, as well as younger sisters of the mother and the daughter of the mother's older brother, were called nynyia. The son of the mother's younger brother and the daughter of the mother's younger sister were also distinguished by special terms. The youngest representatives of the female linethe daughters of the mother's younger sister, daughters of the husband's younger sister, and daughters of the wife's younger sisterwere all designated ketsan.

Marriage and Family

Marriage, According to Selkup tradition, boys could enter marriage at 17 years of age, girls at 13. The marriage ceremony included matchmaking (preceded by fortune-telling), a wedding in the home of the bride's parents, and the marriage celebration at the groom's parents' house. The matchmaker was an older relative (father's brother, older brother) of the groom. Persuasion of the bride's parents and the determination of the kalym (bride-price) were the matchmaker's responsibility. A shaman took part in the wedding, shamanizing at the beginning and completion of the ceremony. After the marriage the groom had to stay in the bride's parents' house for about a month. A young wife had to cover her head and face with a kerchief to hide from the older kinsmen of the husband; this "avoidance" continued until the birth of the first child.

Domestic Unit. There were three types of family among the Selkupthe nuclear, the large patriarchal (including the married couples of two generations), and the fraternal (which consisted of married brothers, either related or collateral). Monogamy was usual for the Selkup. The family lived in an individual dwelling; large families erected spacious houses, sometimes with two or three rooms. The family undertook a joint (communal) economy, divided into micro-groups according to need. The head of the family was a manthe husband in the nuclear family, the father in the patriarchal family, and the older brother in the fraternal family. In the cemetery, the graves of members of a family were situated together.

Socialization. Childbirth was celebrated by the rites of circumcision and burial of the umbilical cord, carried out by a midwife (evvem-payia ) ; purification of the infant over the fire; and the preparation of the day and night cradles. A child was not considered to possess an "upper" soul (il'sat ) until the onset of teething. In case of death, Selkup bury the infant away from the common cemetery, customarily within a tree stump (a return to the initial state). No special education system existed for children. From the ages of 1 to 4 they were incorporated into the community through playful imitation of the activities of adults. By age 5 a girl knew how to sew (at 3 she could already "hold the needle"), and a boy could shoot with a bow and had mastered the lasso. From around 7 or 8 years of age a girl participated fully in domestic work, a boy in hunting. By age 14 or 15 teenagers had command of all the necessary skills of independent life. The learning of social norms, ceremonial arrangements, and spiritual symbols took place in the same way.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The Selkup social structure was much altered under the influence of the Russian and Soviet state systems. As far back as the seventeenth century there were the "best people" (somal'kumyt ), "the rich" ( koumde ) , "simple people" ( manyrel'kumyt ) , "paupers" (segula ), and "slaves" (koçgula ). The shamans played a special social role, often as leaders of individual communities or territorial groups. According to legend, magic single combats and actual duels arose between shamans of various associations, as a result of which one overcame the other and appropriated his powerhis spirit helpers.

Political Organization. The Selkup were not a unified political entity. On the contrary, there are several legends about clashes between individual clans and territorial groups. As a rule, communities settling the basin of some small river were considered a unit. Such communities numbered several tens of families. Their territory was demarcated in the upper reaches of the river by a sanctuary, in the lower reaches by a cemetery. Earlier, at the head of such communities stood heroes (sengira ) and princes (kok ). The territory subject to the prince was called pontar (edge/side); it formed as a result of conquests. After the defeat of the Piebald Horde, these leaders gradually became middlemen between the native inhabitants and the Russian administration. The communal meeting, takol, was mainly occupied with economic problems.

Social Control. The basic issues, regulated by the norms of customary law, were land ownership, property arguments, and inheritance. The Selkup had three types of land ownership: çevçom the land of the family, inherited by the husband's line; matarym clan lands, to which belonged the common hunting ground at a distance from the settlement; and edika-da-çonje collective settler grounds. Social norms require the provision of mutual aid. Also, in case of their infringement, there were severe punishments, including death (for example, for the breach of çevçom). Property was considered the personal property of the owner (manufacturer); in case of the death of the owner, a significant portion was placed in the grave or alongside it. Use of another's things was considered prohibited. Thievery was seen as a dangerous illness, subject to shamanic treatment. In the interrelations between kinsmen and affines there existed the custom of mutual giving (exchange of gifts). Criminal acts fell under the jurisdiction of the local district or province administration. Acts of civil status were recorded in the registry of birth of the Orthodox church.

Conflict. Intracommunal conflicts were usually resolved by the heads of the families or, in special cases, by shamans. The most significant clashes were interethnic. War ethics, in opposition to those of times of peace, encouraged ferocity, cunning, violence, and thievery in relation to foreign tribes. Legends recount wars of the Selkup with the Nenets, Khanty, Evenki, Siberian Tatars, and Russians. The uncompromising nature of relations with enemy groups is indicated by Selkup folklore, in which the Selkup cultural hero Lyia often appears in the role of warrior and conqueror of foreigners.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Lyia combines traits of the leader (kok), and the trickster, the son of the celestial spirit Nop, continually engaging in battle with the master of the underworld (kyzy ). The Milky Way is represented as the skitract or seine of Lyia, subjugator of the nocturnal sky. The Milky Way was also called the nocturnal rainbow, uniting the sky with the earth. From one end to the other of the diurnal rainbow (the shadow of Lyia's bow) stretched the whole expanse of life. The cosmos is divided into sky (nop ), earth, (the master of which is llynta Kota, "Old Woman of Life"), and the underworld (Kyzy). All three domains are bounded by a river, along which the shaman descends to the lower world on the seven-oared rowing boat, rontyk, and by a tree, along the notches or branches of which the shaman ascends to the sky.

Religious Practitioners. There are two types of shamans (tetypy ): sumpytyl' kup (those who shamanize in a light tent) and kamtyryl' kup (those who shamanize in a dark tent, that is, without fire). The main attributes of the "light" shaman were the holy tree (kossyl'-po ), drum with rattle, staff, and clothes, consisting of breastplate, caftan, boots, headress (iron crown), and mittens. The ability (gift) to shamanize was inherited, reviving together with the soul of the shaman in one of his descendants (most often in the grandson). Shamans, without fail, possessed musical and poetic abilities; each spring at the festival of the Arrival of Birds the shaman performed a new song. Kinsmen collectively looked after the condition of the shaman's spirit; in the moment of the coming-into-being they prepared for him a first, small drum; then, according to the magnitude of the shaman's ability, the scale of his drum and the quantity of his attributes increased. The clearest function of the shaman was healing. A full (seven-sky) shaman was considered capable of driving out any illness and of resurrecting the dead. In contrast to simple people, the souls of the shamans did not depart to the Lower World. Therefore, sumpytyl' kup were buried in trees.

Death and Afterlife. The death of an ordinary person was treated as the separation of body and soul. After the soul, il'sat, wandered among kinsmen for three to seven years, it moved into a bear and dwelt in the dark (forest) world. The hunt of the bear was called ettylia kietçiemy ("the guesting"). It was thought that the animal was revealed only to his kinsmen. There existed the custom of a thrice-repeated tossing of the slain bear's paw to determine the name of the kinsmen, the soul of whom appeared in the shape of a bear to the hunter. Thus, living and dead relations were inhabitants of one neighborhood. In "the other" world life flowed in a backward direction: old men became infants; the idle, workers; the poor, rich. The moon was the luminary of the other world; setting and rising, upper and lower changed places. Death, a transfer into a shady side of life, was understood as a guarantee of the future rebirth of the soul in a new incarnation.


Prokofyeva, E. D. (1964). "The Sel'kups." In The Peoples of Siberia, edited by M. G. Levin and L. P. Potapov, 587-606. Translated by Stephen P. Dunn and Ethel Dunn. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Originally published in Russian in 1956.

A. GOLOVNYOV (Translated by Gregory S. Anderson)

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