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ETHNONYMS: Karagas, Tofa, Tuba


Identification. The Tofalar are an ethnolinguistic group and the indigenous people of an area called Tofalaria. Tofalaria, as the place where the Tofalar reside, is not a distinct administrative area within the Russian Federation. Thus, "Tofalaria" is a crudely conventional, albeit generally accepted, designation. It is located in two village soviets: the Tofalar and the Upper Gutarskii, both of which are in the Lower Neudinskii District (raion ) of Irkutsk Oblast in Russia.

Location. Tofalaria is located on the northeast slope of the eastern Sayan mountain range and abuts on the north and east with the Krasnoyarsk Krai, on the southwest with Tuva, on the southeast with Buriatia, and to the east with other village soviets of the same Lower Neudinskii District. It lies between 95°37 and 100°05 E and 51°53 and 54°59 N and is thus relatively close to Central Asia. All of Tofalaria is in mountains covered primarily with larch and cedar. The heights of the spurs of the eastern Sayan range and the high-mountain plateaus are covered with alpine meadows and mountain tundra rich in reindeer moss. The northwestern and southwestern parts of the territory are a zone with almost no flora, and on the heights of the mountains there is always snow and ice. The elevations of many mountains are between 2,200 and 2,600 meters above sea level, although Pik Trianguloiatorov reaches 2,875 meters and Pik Grandioznyi 2,742 meters. The climate of Tofalaria is typical for the mountain districts of southern Siberia, and the higher the mountains, the colder and harsher the climate. In the valleys between the mountains the climate is milder. Winter temperatures range to 15° or 20° C; summers are moderately warm (about 20° C), with frequent rains (especially in July and the first part of August) that cause flooding of the rivers. If the summer temperature rises to 30° or 35° C, a considerable melting of mountain glaciers and snow masses (snezhniki ) increases the flood.

Demography. According to the 1979 census, there were 763 Tofalar in Russia, with 476 of them in Tofalaria itself. By 1985 there were 596 Tofalar in Tofalaria out of a total of 710; by 1989 this total was 722. In recent decades their number has generally increased: 543 for 1851; 456 in 1882; 426 in 1885; 417 in 1926; 560 in 1959; 620 in 1970.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Tofalar language is related to the Tuvan language in Russia, to the languages of the Tsaatans and Uigur-Uriankhai living in Mongolia, and to the languages of the Monchak and the Sayans living in Mongolia and China; all these together form the Sayan Subgroup of the Siberian Turkic Language Family. A writing system based on the Cyrillic alphabet was introduced for Tofalar in 1989, and instruction in the language in schools was initiated at that time. Until then, Tofalar existed only in spoken form.

History and Cultural Relations

The Tofalar are the indigenous people of the area. In the territory of Tofalaria archaeologists have found not only remains of Neolithic settlements, but cliff drawings and paintings (risunki ) of animals, and petroglyphs of the same period (Okladnikov 1979, 62-80). The Ket, the Assan, and the Arin tribes related to the Ket, and the Sayan Samoyeds were apparently the historical descendants of this same Neolithic population until recent times. A linguistic substratum is evidenced by the Samoyed and, in particular, Ket place-names in Tofalaria. The Ket substratum is also attested to in appreciable Ket elements that show up in the phonology and vocabulary of Tofalar. The Turkicization of the aboriginal population of the Sayan area took place in the Old Turkic period; witness the Oghuz and, in particular, the Old Turkic elements in Tofalar today, which account for the inclusion of the Tofalar language with other languages in the Sayan Subgroup (Baskakov 1969, 313). There was also a significant influence from Mongolia in the Middle Ages, and later from Buriat.

All of this testifies to the deep and long-standing economic and cultural relations between those groups. Contacts with Russians began in 1648 when the stockaded town of Udin (now the city of Nizhneudinsk) was built by the Tofalar together with other tribes then occupying the Eastern Sayans and the Pribaikal area. The area was linked to the Russian state at this time and began to pay tribute in furs. In 1920 Soviet authority was established in Tofalaria. In 1929-1930 the Tofalar, until then nomads on the taiga, were forced into a sedentary life and settled in three large settlements poselki (sing., poselok ): Alydzh, Nerkha, and Upper Gutara. In addition to Tofalar, Russians, Ukrainians, Tatars, and other peoples of Russia lived there and had, as they still do, close economic, cultural, and marital relations with them. During their nomadic days, the Tofalar had contact only with the neighboring Kamasins, Turin-Toiin, Nizhneudin, and Okin Buriat, among whom many Tofalar selected wives; the Toiin live among the Tofalar and speak Tofalar.


Until 1929-1930 the Tofalar led an exclusively nomadic form of life and did not have fixed settlements. Conical tipis (chum ) of poles served as dwellings throughout the year. These were covered during the summer with widths of material (polotnishch ) stitched together from pieces of birch bark that had been boiled in water. In winter the cover consisted of the skins of domestic or wild reindeer that had been sewn together. All the territory belonging to the Tofalar was divided among the Tofalar clans. Each clan pursued its nomadic life strictly within its territory (aimak ). In the course of nomadism, several families related by blood would usually unite in an aal (nomad camp; pl., aallar ) because by helping each other, it was easier to herd the reindeer and to hunt. The Tofalar divided their entire nomadic area into three parts: (1) the Burungu aallar, the eastern group of nomad camps, which included the territory of the nomadic clans called Chogdy, Akchogdy, and Kara-chogdy on the Yda, Kara-Buren', Ytkum, and Iya rivers; (2) the Songy aallar, the western group of nomad camps, which included the territory of the Haash and Saryt-haash clans on the Agul, Tagul, Gutara, Big Birius, and Iuglym rivers; (3) the Ortaa aallar, the middle group of nomadic camps, which included the territory of the Cheptai clan on the Little Birius, Nerkha, Erma, and Iaga rivers. After their shift to a sedentary life, the first group began to live in the Alygzher poselok, the second in Upper Gutara, and the third in Nerkha.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The traditional activity of the Tofalar is husbandry of domestic reindeer. Their reindeer are the largest in the world. Tofalar use them as mounts and transport loads on their backs. When riding they use horse saddles of the Buriat type, with stirrups. For transport they use a special type of pack saddle. Reindeer mares were milked and the milk was used as food. The reindeer gave the Tofalar hides for clothing and the winter coverings of their tipis. Reindeer meat was also used as food, although the basic Tofalar diet consisted of the meat of wild ungulates (hoofed animals)Siberian deer, elks, and musk deer. They also used the meat of large birdscapercaillies, partridge, geese, and ducks. They cared for their domestic reindeer because of their basic value as pack animals; without the reindeer it was impossible to move across the mountain taiga and the high-mountain tundra. The Tofalar hunted sables, Siberian polecats, and squirrels for their fur, using rifles and accompanied by dogs. The furs were used to pay taxes and to buy necessary goods. Fishing in rivers and lakes was an ancillary activity and did not have a major significance in the Tofalar economy. In addition to the curing (jerking) of meat and the drying of reindeer milk for winter use, dried saran (pl., sarana ) tubers were prepared in large numbers, and wild onions were also dried. In addition, during harvest years in the taiga, Tofalar prepared the meat of cedar nuts for eating. Thus, their traditional economy was three-fold: husbandry of domesticated reindeer, the hunt for game and furs, and the preparation of edible wild plants. Products such as flour, groats, salt, sugar, tea, tobacco, and alcohol were purchased from traders in exchange for furs. The Tofalar also bought various materials for clothing. Today they work in the state-run industrial economy that was created in the territory in 1967 on the former state farms.

The activities of the Tofalar at present remain the same as described above, although, of the gathering activities, only the collecting of cedar nuts has survived (having acquired significance in trade). Sedentary life permits them to keep (in addition to their hunting dogs) cows, hogs, and horses, and to grow potatoes and other vegetables. Domestic reindeer, which were collectivized in 1932 along with the hunting territories, became the property of the economic system in which the Tofalar work as hired reindeer shepherds, state hunters, and general laborers.

Industrial Arts. There were no specialized crafts or artisans. The Tofalar prepared all that they needed themselves from wood, birch bark, and leather. Metal products, including personal decorations, were usually purchased.

Trade. Before the Revolution the Tofalar mainly bartered with Russians, Buriats, and Mongol traders; they acquired saddles of Buriat and Mongol manufacture, hunting knives, axes, felt saddlecloths, harnesses, treated sheepskin, and diverse textiles and ornaments. In the 1920s, with the introduction of consumers' cooperatives among the Tofalar and the abolition of the tax in furs, they began to sell furs to the government for money, with which they then purchased goods.

Division of Labor. Men hunted, fished, pastured reindeer, and manufactured various useful objects from wood and birch bark. Women ran the home economy, cared for the children, prepared the food, and prepared and stored products such as jerked meat, dried sarana, onions, and reindeer milk; they chopped wood, fetched water, milked the reindeer does, cured hides, and sewed clothes from skins and textiles. In addition, they managed the nomadic movements of the family: they packed and unpacked the reindeer and took down and reassembled the tipis.


Kinship Group and Descent. In their earlier, nomadic way of life the Tofalar were organized by clans. The tribe was led by an elder called the ulug-bash (big head). The basic unit was the nyon (clan), in which ties were reckoned patrilineally. Officially, there were five named clans but in actuality there were seven. One of them was called the "Karahaash"hence the pre-Revoluntionary name of the Tofalar, "Karagas"; this clan, however, died out at the beginning of the twentieth century because of an epidemic. A clan consisted of a group of closely related families descended from one ancestor. Such a group was called an aal and was exogamous.

Kinship Terminology. Tofalar kinship terminology contains separate sets of terms expressing blood ties as well as ties through marriage, thus there are many terms for relations through the father's and the mother's lines. In addition, terms for addressing older relatives have been elaborated in considerable detail; for example, an older brother is called an aha and an older sister, uba, whereas younger siblings are called by the single term dunma.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Traditional marriage was clan-exogamous and was usually concluded early in life after a preliminary courtship, an agreement between the parents, and the payment of bride-price (Russian: kalym ) to the father of the bride. The wedding, as a rule, lasted three days, and the feast was accompanied by special rituals, songs, and dances. Three days later the young husband took his wife away to his nomadic camp, where they set up their own tipi and began to live as an independent family. If the bride had premarital children, they remained with her father and were considered his children. Today marriages are entered into in accord with the general norms of Russian society. Mixed marriages are common.

Domestic Unit. The family was and remains the basic unit in Tofalar society, consisting, as a rule, of husband, wife, and children and also, quite possibly, surviving parents. Unmarried adult children continue to live with their parents.

Inheritance. Upon marriage older sons customarily separated from their parents, forming independent families. From their parents they received property essential for raising a family. The youngest son, as a rule, remained in the paternal tipi and inherited the paternal home. Customary levirate did not exist among the Tofalar, but after the death of a husband his brother usually gave material help to the widow, who continued to live independently and could marry according to her wishes. The widow inherited all the property of her deceased husband.

Socialization. The Tofalar traditionally did not practice corporal punishment in the raising of their children, who grew up under the severe conditions of nomadic life and early on joined in the work of the group. By age 16 boys and often girls were hunting on a par with adults. From that age on boys were obliged to pay a tax in furs. Girls were married at age 15 or 16. At present Tofalar children, like the children of all the nationalities of the extreme north, enjoy privileges and are under governmental guardianship. They are raised free of cost in nurseries and kindergartens and receive free secondary and higher education. Even today the Tofalar are characteristically respectful to their children, treating them as members of the family with their own interests and wishes.

Sociopolitical Organization

The Tofalar never had political autonomy. Their nomadic groups were always distant from social, political, and cultural centers; they were always in a dependent, subordinate position. In the Middle Ages they were subject to the Mongol khans and paid tribute to them. Later, Western Buriat princes subjugated them, and they remained vassals until union with Russia in the seventeenth century. Self-government first appeared among the Tofalar in 1922 when their clan soviet was organized. In 1927 the Karagas Clan Soviet was separated into a special national entity. In 1930 the Karagas native council was formed, which, in 1934, began to be called the Tofalar National Sovietthe people were given back their genuine name. In 1939 this soviet was changed into the Tofalar National District, which functioned until 1950, when it was disbanded and two village soviets were created in its place: the Tofalar and Verkhnegutar, each subordinate to the Nizhneudin raispolkom (district administration). This administrative division has been preserved to this day.

Conflicts. The Tofalar have always been a peaceful people who did not wage war with their neighbors. On the contrary, more powerful neighbors were always conquering them. To escape conflict, the Tofalar often practiced nomadism high in the mountains, where they waited until the trouble passed. Thus it was during the civil war, in which they did not participate. But in 1941 almost all male adults volunteered for military service despite the fact that they lacked weapons (bronya ). In the war they proved themselves able fighters and snipers.

Religion and Expressive Cultures

Religious Beliefs and Practices. The Tofalar were shamanists. Their conversion to Christianity after their incorporation into Russia was primarily formal and did not influence their shamanistic views. There were shamans among the Tofalar until their total suppression in 1930.

Because of their nomadic way of life, the Tofalar had neither local religious practitioners nor regular ceremonies or services; nor were there professional shamans. Any person, man or woman, who felt the inclination, could act as shaman. The rites of shamanism were carried out as needed; the rest of the time a shaman lived the usual work-filled life. At the present time there are neither shamans nor priests among the Tofalar.

Art. Representational art was not developed among the Tofalar. The most popular and evolved folklore genre was and remains the song. Preeminent among musical instruments were the chadygan (a stringed instrument like a gusli ) and the charty-hobus (balalaika), which were used to accompany songs and dances at festivals.

Medicine. The Tofalar did not have professional doctors or curers. Almost everyone was competent in the techniques of folk medicine, of curing with herbs. Sometimes the Tofalar turned for healing to the Buriat lama-curers.

Death and Afterlife. The Tofalar believed in life after death, in what they called the Kingdom of Erlik. Personal belongings were buried with the deceased, in the belief that he or she would need them in the next life. Since the world of the dead was conceptualized as one where everything is the wrong way around, the objects accompanying the deceased had to be damaged. The contemporary Tofalar burial ritual has been subjected to significant Christian influence; this is why the Tofalar, like all Russian Christians, mark the ninth and fortieth days, the sixth month, and the first year after the death of a relative.


Baskakov, H. A. (1969). Vvedeniie v Izucheniie Tyurkskikh Yazihov (Introduction to the study of Turkic Languages). Moscow.

Khramova, V. V. (1964). "The West-Siberian Tatars." In The Peoples of Siberia, edited by M. G. Levin and L. P. Potapov, 423-439. Translated by Stephen P. Dunn and Ethel Dunn. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Originally published in Russian in 1956.

Mote, Victor L. (1984). "Tatars." In Muslim Peoples: A World Ethnographic Survey, edited by Richard V. Weekes, 758-764. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.

Okladnikov, A. P. (1979). Otkrytiye Sibiri (Siberian discovery). Moscow.

VALENTIN RASADIN (Translated by Paul Friedrich)