The Altai people comprise an amalgamation of Turkic tribes who reside in the Altai Mountains and the Kuznetsk Alatau. Their origins lie with the earliest Turkic tribes (Uighurs, Kypchak-Kimaks, Yenisey Kyrgyz, Oguz, and others). In 550 c.e., the Tugyu Turks settled in the Altai Mountains along the headwaters of the Ob River and in the foothills of the Kuznetsk Alatau, where around 900 c.e. they formed the Kimak Tribal Union with the Kypchak Turks. From this union sprang the ethnonyms Kumanda, Teleut, and Telengit.
In the seventh century, the Telengit lived with another would-be Altai tribe, the Telesy, on the Tunlo River in Mongolia, whence they both migrated to Tyva. By the eighth century they had gravitated to the Altai Mountains and eastern Kazakhstan. The Russians arrived in the 1700s and proceeded to sedentarize many of the nomadic Altai. The Soviet government gave the Altai nominal recognition with the establishment of the Gorno-Altai (Oirot) Autonomous Oblast in 1922. In 1991 it became the Altai Republic.
In 1989 there were 70,800 Altai worldwide, 69,400 in Russia alone, and 59,100 in the Altai Republic. A few lived in Central Asia. The internal divisions among the Altai are distinguished ethnographically and dialectically. The northern group comprises the Tubulars who live on the left-bank of the Biya River and on the shores of Lake Teletskoye, the Chelkans who live along the Lebed River, and the Kumandas who live along the middle course of the Biya. Each of these tribes speaks an Altai dialect that belongs to the Eastern division of the Ural-Altaic language family. The southern groups, including the Altai-Kizhi, Telengits, Telesy, and Teleuts, live in the Katun River Basin and speak an Altai dialect closely related to the Kyrgyz language.
Although the ethnogenesis of the southern Altai took place among the Oirot Mongols, consolidation of the northern groups and overall consolidation between the northern and southern Altai has been difficult. The Teleuts, for example, have long considered themselves distinctive and have sought separate recognition. In 1868 the Altai Church Mission tried, but failed, to establish an Altai written language based on Teleut, using the Cyrillic alphabet. In 1922, the Soviets succeeded in creating an Altai literary language, and, since 1930, the Altais have had their own publishing house.
In spite of internal differences, Altai societies share certain general traits. They are highly patriarchal, for example: Women do domestic work, whereas men herd horses and dairy cows. Since the 1750s, most Altai have been Russian Orthodox, but a minority practices Lamaism and some practice shamanism.
See also: central asia; ethnography, russian and soviet; kazakhstan and kazakhs; nationalities policies, soviet; nationalities policies, tsarist
Mote, Victor L. (1998). Siberia: Worlds Apart. Boulder, CO: Westview.
Wixman, Ronald. (1984). The Peoples of the USSR: An Ethnographic Handbook. Arkmonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.
Victor L. Mote