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ETHNONYMS: Jukaghir Odul, Wadul, Yukaghir


Identification. The Yukagir are one of the smallest minorities in the former USSR. Territorially, the Yukagir are subdivided into two groups: the Taiga group lives in the Upper Kolyma District of the Yakut Republic and in the Saimanchanskoi District of Magadan Province along the tributaries of the Kolyma River. The Tundra Yukagir reside in the Lower Kolyma District of the Yakut Republic between the Kolyma and the Indigirka rivers. Both groups live among numerically predominant neighbors: Yakuts, Chukchee, Even, and Russians.

Location. The region in which the Yukagir are settled is one of mountains, low ridges, and plateaus divided by valleys and covered by swamps and lakes. The mountains are covered by hardy northern trees: pine, larch, birch, and alder (good shelter for black bears, musk deer, squirrels, and mountain sheep). Aside from some dwarf birches and arctic willows, however, the northern plains and flatlands of Yukagir country support only sedge grasses, mosses, lichens, and berry-bearing bushes. Both territorial groups inhabit arctic or subarctic zones, the main feature of which is the permafrost. A cold winter with blizzards and winds gusting up to gale strength lasts about eight months. In January the mean temperature ranges from -40° F to 70°, and 90° has been recorded. Polar night (with mid-night sun) reigns in the Kolyma lowlands and the northern part of the Chukhotsk Peninsula. During the late spring and early summer, on the other hand, many plants bloom, enormous flocks of ducks and geese appear, the salmon run, and the lowlands become one great marsh. Summers are short and cool.

Demography. During the nineteenth century the population dropped drastically, from 2,350 in 1859 to 1,500 in 1897, eventually falling to below 500. Since then, according to Soviet statistics, it has changed as follows: 1926-1927: 443; 1959: 442; 1970: 613; 1979: 835; 1989: 1,112. This growth is mostly due to the high incidence of ethnically mixed marriages, the offspring of which commonly categorize themselves as Yukagir.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Yukagir language, occupying a special, isolated position among the languages of northeastern Asia, has been provisionally classified as Paleoasiatic. Recent analyses have shown that many elements of Yukagir are related to elements in the Uralic languages. The question of the genetic affiliation of the language, however, remains open. There are at least two mutually unintelligible dialects: Upper Kolyma Yukagir and Tundra Yukagir. Formerly the Yukagir practiced pictographic writing on birch bark (men recorded hunting routes and young women indulged in romantic representations). In the vocabulary are loanwords from Yakut, Even, and Russian. According to the Soviet census of 1970, the Yukagir language was spoken by 288 people. An alphabet was devised in Soviet times. Because of widespread contact with neighbors, the older generations have been multilingual for a long time. In addition to the native language, an individual would command two or more of the following: Chukchee, Even, Yakut, or Russian. In recent decades, however, such multilingualism has begun gradually to disappear. Young people today are typically monolingual or bilingual, in Yakut and/or in Russian.

History and Cultural Relations

The Yukagir, descendants of the aboriginal population of northeastern Siberia, evolved, in terms of culture, from a variant of the eastern Siberian Neolithic hunters and lake and river fishermen who used dugout canoes and ceramic Utensils. Until the arrival of the Russians they were scattered (subdivided by tribe and clan) across a huge territory from west of the lower Lena River in the west to the Anadyr Basin in the east. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in the Yana River Basin, lived the Yandagir, the Omolok, and the Khromov, and, on the Kolyma River, the Alay, the Omok, and the Kogyme. The basin of the Anadyr was subsequently taken over by the Chuvan, Khodyn, and Anaul. Some of the Tundra groups called themselves Odyl " (brave) and "Dektili" (strong). Until the arrival of the Russians there were still Yukagir west of the Lena River and in the southern regions of contemporary Yakutia, but they were forced out or assimilated by the forebears of the contemporary Tungus, Even, and Yakut. The Yukagir were first contacted by Siberian Cossacks: the Yakut Cossack Ivan Rebrov in 1633 and the Yenisei Cossack Ielisei Buza in 1639, both of whom reported fabulous wealth in game and fish. The Yukagir generally helped or guided the Russians during the colonization of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and they suffered terribly from reprisals by the Even and Chukchee, from epidemics of smallpox and measles (1669 and 1691-1694), from reindeer plagues, and from the partial cessation of the migrations of wild reindeer. By the early twentieth century conditions were terribly harsh, and, Soviet authorities claim, there was considerable exploitation by a Yukagir "upper class."

In the Soviet period the Yukagir progressed in many ways. Famines disappeared and wholesale buying of fur, which had exploited the hunters, was discontinued. In 1929, in response to the cessation of reindeer migrations, the government helped the Yukagir reorganize for reindeer breeding and fur hunting. In 1931 Yukagir attended school for the first time; adult illiteracy was eliminated by World War II. Paramedical stations and small hospitals have been established in Taiga and Tundra Yukagir settlements. Clubs have emerged in the encampments, and films are shown regularly. Traveling clubs now entertain reindeer breeders. Today most Yukagir live on collective farms in Russian-style log houses with attached vegetable gardens. Most Tundra Yukagir, together with Chukchee, Even, and Russians, belong to one of two "millionaire collectives" devoted to reindeer breeding, hunting, and fishing.


In the traditional economies of the Upper Kolyma and Tundra Yukagir, a great number of extremely archaic traits were preserved. In essence, the Yukagir had a well-adapted economy. Their techniques of hunting and fishing date to the Neolithic period.

The yearly productive cycle of the Upper Kolyma Yukagir was divided into several seasons. During the cold winter months the Yukagir were sedentary, living off their reindeer and summer stores of fish and meat. Winter camps were usually situated near winter fishing holes. In their winter quarters they repaired their sledges and fashioned boats and canoes for sale to the Yakut and Siberiaki (Russian Old Settlers). At the end of February or early March they abandoned their winter camps. The nomadic period lasted from February until July. This interim period between winter and spring was the most difficult.

If no food was obtained during migration, the situation became critical and the Yukagir were forced to turn to the Yakut or the Even. But they also often lived half-hungry, and in the nineteenth century many cases of starvation were registered. There are many Yukagir tales of small, isolated nomadic groups that meet a tragic end when the hearth fire goes out. During migrations, every family had to provide itself with several sleds; they harnessed four or five dogs to each. As women and children helped the dogs convey the heavily loaded sleds, men broke trail on skis. Behind these men but ahead of the women went a man who was harnessed to a strap that, in turn, was attached to the bow of the sled. He directed its course with the help of a long pole that was attached by a belt to the first bar of the sledge. These bars were small half-hoops of bent birch wood that connected the runners to the chassis and were fixed in a vertical position, three or four to a sledge. In the late winter and early spring, women and children also used skis.

During their migrations the men tracked reindeer and elk, primarily along the Iasachna, Korkolon, Rossakh, and Shamanikh rivers. Having discovered the track of a reindeer or of an elk, the men broke up into groups that took turns pursuing the animal so as not to allow it to rest. The most productive hunting was on snow that had been crusted over. The hunters strove to drive the animals out over sections covered by deep snow with such a crust. The weight of the reindeer would cause them to fall through the crust, injure their legs on its sharp edges, and exhaust themselves. The thin crust hindered any rapid running by deer or elk, and they fell prey to the hunters. Pursuing elk and reindeer on skis called for great endurance and skill. It was usually young men who engaged in this kind of hunt, which was one of the basic sources of livelihood. In a successful year, one family would take up to 100 reindeer and elk, ensuring a supply of meat that would last for many months.

In August and September the Yukagir hunted reindeer by driving them into lakes through corridors of scarecrows. Hunters in boats on the lakes stabbed the deer to death. In case of failure at the crossings, they would pursue the wild reindeer while riding on tame ones, but in winter they used sleds drawn by reindeer or dogs. Next to reindeer paths, not far from their campsites, they would set up crossbows rigged to discharge when reindeer came by. The main season for catching wild reindeer was autumn, when the herds were returning from their summer haunts and trying to overcome the obstacles presented by bodies of water. Pitching camp nearby, the hunters went to meet these "swimming reindeer" in dugout canoes and stabbed them with iron spears and pikes, thus providing meat for the entire winter. Usually each hunter was able to catch several dozen reindeer this way. Siberiaki and sedentary Yukagir also took part in these hunts.

Gathering was supplementary. In summer wild currants and raspberries, bulbs, the inner bark of the larch, and the juice of the red poplar were collected, whereas in winter it was larch sapwood, cedar nuts, and berries. The Yukagir gathered mushrooms (under Russian influence) and used them to garnish soups. The seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century Yukagir used fly agaric mushrooms as a narcotic (probably as part of shamanic rituals), but after the arrival of the Russians, this was replaced by tea and tobacco.

During winter the Yukagir lived in conical tipis covered with reindeer hides. The frame, of birch poles, was selected at each stopping place. The covering for a tipi consisted of five or six skins on the lower part and four or five on the upper part, that many skins being needed as insulation against the cold. In summer, during the rainy period, tipis were covered with the bark of larch trees. In the center of the tipi the Yukagir laid out the fire, and cloth bed curtains were set up over the sleeping places. Near old camp grounds were supplies on one or two poles with a gabled roof and a ladder made of a notched pole.

The Upper Kolyma Yukagir began to fish in the spring. To get to the fishing sites they used rafts, dugouts, and floats made of boards. In summer they set nets along the lakes and small rivers. The catches during this time were customarily for everyday consumption. Only the autumnal catch was large enough to allow the storage of fish for the future. To this end the Yukagir surrounded the schools of fish with seines, got them to shore, and landed them. The places to collect fish in this way were well known to the population, and several of these operations would provide oneself and one's dogs with fish. In past times the Yukagir used to fish with dragnets made out of willow withies.

The traditional economy was marked by certain peculiarities. Although the basis of livelihood was the wild reindeer hunted at fords, the Yukagir in the Forest Tundra also hunted elks, arctic foxes, hare, and ptarmigan. Foxes and arctic foxes were chased with sleds and killed with cudgels. In summer the Yukagir dug up arctic fox dens and collected the cubs. Also important was bird hunting, especially during the autumn moulting season when the birds, unable to fly, could be driven into nets. As late as the nineteenth century birds were hunted with a bola. Trapping for fur was on a large scale: "Every industrious Yukagir set up up to 500 traps annually in various places after the first snow" (Stepanova et al. 1964). Pelts were exchanged for hunters supplies and horse hair used for fishing nets. In March, just like the Even, the Yukagir crossed over the tundra after the wild reindeer, using decoys resembling wild reindeer. In the summer season the women and children settled near lakes and fished using nets set in the streams or a bone gorge on a sinew line. Fish were preferred slightly putrified.

Kinship and Sociopolitical Organization

The basic social unit is the slightly extended nuclear family, which, until the nineteenth century, may have been grouped into largely exogamous patrilineal clansessentially a small group of patrilineally related families never exceeding 100 persons in number. Among the Upper Kolyma Yukagir, marriage was matrilocal (after considerable premarital freedom), whereas among the Tundra Yukagir it was patrilocal. Both groups inherited through the male line, however. "The old man," the ablest adult male in the group, selected fishing sites, dispatched hunters, directed the distribution of food, and organized the group for defense.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religion. The Yukagir were Christianized in the eighteenth century, but some traditional beliefs have been preserved. Shamans were revered even after their death, when their corpses were dismembered, dried, and divided among related families; these relics were used as amulets in divination. The shaman's costume, tambourine, and other paraphernalia resembled those of the Tungus.

There was a cult of exchange or cooperation. Animals obtained through hunting were considered guests. One assumed that if they were honored they would return to this world and come again as guests.

Yukagir legends preserve their ancient world. Giant elk hunters, their true image hidden behind fantastic features, subdue the elk and fasten them to their coats, but eventually are conquered by the more clever Yukagir. In animal tales a major role is played by Raven, not as world maker, but invested with satiric traits. The real culture hero, the cunning hare, kills "the Ancient Old Man," the foe of the Yukagir. (Related to these myths was the so-called sun shield, a silver or bronze disk attached to the clothing over the shaman's chest and bearing a representation of a winged centaur against a background of conventional plant motifs).

Arts. Notwithstanding their small numbers, the Yukagir have given the world talented writers, such as the author and public figure Nikolay Spiridonov, who uses the pseudonym Teki Odulak. In 1935 he published his tale, The Life of the Older Imturfinga, in which he related the hard life, activities, and customs of his neighbors and fellow countrymen. To another generation belongs Semyon Kurilov, who published the novel Khaniso and Khaperkha. Two parts of this novel were issued in 1970 under the title New People. His younger brother, Gabriel Kurilov, is a linguist, a doctoral candidate in philology, and a researcher at the Institute of Language and History of the Yakut branch of the Siberian Department of the Academy of Sciences of the former USSR. He has written Complex Nouns in the Yukagir Language (1977). He is also a novelist, and his poetry has been published in Russian, Yakut, and Yukagir. The Yukagir have started to tell about themselves, to inform the world of their fate, and to express their national consciousness more forcefully.


Forde, C. Daryll (1963). "The Yukaghir: Reindeer Hunters in the Siberian Tundra." In Habitat, Economy, and Society, by C. Daryll Forde, 101-106. New York: E. P. Dutton.

Jochelson, W. (1926). The Jukaghir and the Jukaghirized Tungus. The Jesup North Pacific Expedition. American Museum of Natural History Memoirs 9. New York and Leiden.

Stepanova, M. V., I. S. Gurvich, and V. V. Khramova (1964) "The Yukagirs." In The Peoples of Siberia, edited by M. G. Levin and L. P. Potapov, 788-798. Translated by Stephen P. Dunn and Ethel Dunn. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Originally published in Russian in 1956.

INNOKENTI S. GURVICH (Translated by Paul Friedrich)

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