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ETHNONYMS: Ostiak of the Yenisei, Yenisey Ostyak


Identification. The Ket are a remnant population of hunters (of squirrels, moose, reindeer), fishermen, and gatherers currently inhabiting the Yenisei and its tributaries between 61° N and 68° N. They migrate annually between upstream hunting territories and main-river trading and administrative posts. Closely related to the Ket were the Kott-speaking peoples (Arin, Kott, Asan, Yastyn, and others) formerly of the upper Yenisei and now assimilated by Turkic peoples and Russians. The Yeniseian languages are isolated, although significant lexical analogues have been found in Tibetan.

Location. The Ket habitat is primarily boreal forest, predominantly spruce and pine in the west and larch in the east. Birches and aspens are rarer but economically important. South to north a transition from forest to forest-tundra occurs. The climate is severely continental but somewhat moderated by storms that bring heavy snows and lower summer heat. The variety and bioproductivity of the terrestrial biota are much reduced by permafrost. Important mammals include squirrels, hare, chipmunks, brown bears, moose, and reindeer, as well as wolves and ermines. Sables, once almost exterminated, have been partially restored. In the North, arctic foxes are significant. Migratory birds (geese, ducks, swans) and endemic ptarmigan and capercailzie also contribute to Ket food and materials supplies. The rivers, until their recent depletion, provided valuable fisheries, largely of Salmonidae (char, trout, whitefish, and grayling). Vegetal foods include nuts, berries, and wild roots, but raw fish and meat are needed as major protections against scurvy. The formerly Kott areas stretching to about 52° N are richer, so that cattle and horses as well as dogs and reindeer could be kept there.

Demography. The Ket population was relatively stable in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, notwithstanding periodic epidemics and chronic hunger. This was evidently true in the nineteenth century as well, when catastrophes were limited by government stores and some medical help. Between 1926 and 1959 the reported Ket population declined from 1,250 to 1,019. Assimilation, particularly of Ket women, by Russians, Selkup, and Evenki was probably the major process involved.

History and Cultural Relations

The Bökli mentioned as mourners in the memorial epigraph of the Turki prince Kül Tigin in a.d. 715 are unquestionably Buklintsy, a Kott-speaking people of seventeenth-century Russian accounts. They also appear to be the Bila of contemporary Chinese annals who "lived directly north of the Turki .. . in the mountains .. . where there was always snow.... They plowed with horse traction .. . but did not ride horses although they drank mare's milk.. .. They often fought with the Khakas but spoke a different tongue. They tied logs .. . and covered them with birchbark .. . for their dwellings. Each community had its own chief independently of others" (Bichurin 1950, 350).

The next mentions are early in the seventeenth century, when the Russians advanced to the Yenisei from Mangazei in the north and the Keti River in the south. Tribute lists of this century indicate a total Yeniseian population of 5,630, almost three-fourths in the southern Kott groups.

Accounts from the 1770s relate that the Arin were living in birch-bark tipis in the summer and felt tents in the winter. They were traveling upstream twice a year by birchbark canoe for pedestrian hunting and trapping. Ski-shod, they were killing moose, reindeer, and sables in their great February rounds. In the summer they primarily fished, but a few were small-scale farmers with horses and oxen. Accounts from 1790 report that the now-Christianized Yenisei Ket were migrating with portable birch-bark tipis for hunting and fishing, wearing Russian clothing in the summer and reindeer-hide articles in the winter, and traveling by canoe in summer and by dogsled in winter. Those living on the Keti River kept horses. Yenisei Ket betrothals included offerings of bride-gifts in Russian trade items, notably copper cauldrons. Betrothals, once agreed upon, were solemnized in church (all of the Ket are Christians). The Turukhansk area included 1,205 Ket (652 males, 553 females) out of a total population of 4,878. Some Ket lived near the town and others in remote camps, in harmony with each other and the Russians. They traded furs for grain and other needs, as well as to pay tribute.

After 1800 the Kott were largely assimilated; in the 1840s the linguist Castren found only five Kott speakers. The Ket became commercial squirrel hunters or Russian-hired fishermen. They migrated extensively, especially up the Kureika, where they adopted reindeer nomadism and trapped arctic foxes. Migrations broke up localized patrilineal clans and attendant ceremonial centers, although exogamous moieties persisted. Christianization strengthened monogamy, widened marriage prohibitions, and reduced former age and descent-line distinctions in the kinship terminology. Elected elders replaced traditional leaders but shamanism continued.

Until the 1920s Ket life remained largely traditional. Humanitarian concerns and the importance of furs for Soviet foreign exchange motivated the establishment of marketing cooperatives, improvements in emergency stocks, and first steps in education and health services. But ethnographic research in 1926 reported the continuation of traditional, kin-negotiated marriages and influential shamans. In the 1930s collectivization and the establishment of base settlements were largely accomplished. Hunters were better equipped, as were the fisheries. Reindeer breeding, hitherto very marginal, was modernized.

By 1966 Russian-type log cabins housed the Kets in their periodic visits to central settlements. These had a store, post office, club, and medical center. But most of the year the population was dispersed in hunting areas. Children went to boarding schools. Many boys became hunters without finishing even the eighth grade; girls, with largely urban opportunities, stayed in school longer. Almost all school children retained their native tongue. As late as 1971, community bear ceremonies were being practiced.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Even in the 1960s the Ket depended on migratory foraging for game, fish, and vegetal materials in intimately known lands and waters. Extensive biological and geographic knowledge, as well as ritual, supported their efforts. Except for individually shot squirrels, and other fur bearing animals, and some fish, their yields came through family-lineage cooperation and were shared. Their thirteen-month folk calendar began with the month of Leaf Fall, a period of fish netting and spearing from aspen canoes and of bird snaring in thickets. Tipis 4 to 5 meters in diameter with hoop-reinforced seven-pole foundations and birch-bark mat coverings, provided shelter. Within each was a "clean" ritualized side to the east and an entrance to the west. There, household goods and family dogs had their places. The door had "eyes" represented so it might "see."

During the month of Ground Freeze the groups traveled by boat to deeper forest and then moved into semi-subterranean dwellings designed like the tipis but holding entire lineages. At this time, too, many Ket recaptured draft reindeer released over the summer. Then came the Small Walk, in which men traveled by skis or reindeer sleds to hunting areas, later separating to their own lines. Dogs helped in the hunt, as well as in pulling sleds or toboggans. The men spent nights in pits in the snow, covered sometimes by rough wigwams. The women remained behind, gathering firewood, fishing under ice, trapping capercailzie and hare, and making clothes and footgear.

During the Short Days, darkness and intense cold precluded most movement. Stored supplies and food from Russian villages supported life. Summer-born people now told stories to promote warmer weather. With the brighter Long Days, entire camps left for hunting grounds, men breaking trails, and women, helped by reindeer or dogs, hauling baggage sleds. Men made side trips to hunt moose, reindeer, and small game during Moose and Eagle months. In Chipmunk month, a difficult and hungry time, the Ket were back in base camps, where they freed reindeer, repaired canoes and large vessels, and began fishing. Pike Spawning, Taxes and Fairs, Small Duck Molting, and Large Bird Molting marked the less stressful warmer months.

Industrial Arts and Trade. Until recently the Ket made most of their equipment, including knives, axes, arrows, fishhooks, and shamanistic ornaments of iron, copper, and tin. They sewed their clothing and footgear, using Russian cloth for summer articles. Through shaping, joining, and gluing, they made vessels, skis, and a variety of containers, especially of birch bark. They used nettle twine for small fish nets; the larger netslike cauldrons, tea kettles, dishes, guns, and ammunitioncame from the Russians. The Ket built their own tipis and houses, including log cabins of the Russian type. They foraged for animal foods, fish, and lily bulbs; eating loons, eagles, swans, and mushrooms was prohibited. Flour, sugar, tea, and tobacco were imported.

Division of Labor. Men related by blood or marriage formed the basic Ket work groups. In hunting moose, reindeer, or bears, the discoverer of the game would notify others by loudly hitting a ski with a staff. A pursuit group would form, with the leader following the game closely; he would discard all unneeded articles along the way, and the others would pick up his things as they prepared to join in the killing and butchering. Large-scale netting and winter house building also were communal tasks. In contrast to furs, food was shared; the hungry could take food from caches. There was a basic division between men's and women's work. It was rationalized by fear of menstrual blood and applied even to activities such as cooking and handicrafts. Yet, despite such restrictions, women hunted small game and fished.

Kinship, Marriage, and Family

Prolonged Russification and migration have profoundly modified Ket society. In the past it was apparently comprised of localized patrilineal clans grouped into exogamous phratries. Each clan had defined sacred places and cemeteries; shamans and elders provided leadership. Property marks defined clan lands and goods. Inheritance, strictly patrilineal, usually ultimogenous, was symbolized by family fetishes (alali). Summer households were usually nuclear families; winter households were extended.

Kinship. Today there are primary terms (mother, father, brother, sister), descriptive terms (mother's brother, etc.), and classificatory terms (persons of grandparental generation without distinction for gender or line of descent, etc.). Within generations, relatives older than Ego are upgraded; those younger are downgraded. Nevertheless, neither levirate nor sororate occur, in line with Russian Orthodox prohibitions. Marriage is strictly monogamous and, until the Russian Revolution, was indissoluble. The mother's brother prepared a boy's first real bow, gave his nephews and nieces presents, and adopted them if they were orphaned.

Marriage. Until recently the father of a proposed bridegroom would send an older kinswoman as go-between to the proposed bride's kin. She would bring, in silence, a cauldron with cloth or a dress as a present. Later the groom's kinspeople would come seeking approval from the bride and her family. This was usually refused several times until the groom's kinsmen promised to treat her well and not beat her. The key gift would be fifty squirrels killed by the groom and his father and brought by the groom's older-women relatives. The wedding was begun by washing the bride's hair, a task of three of the groom's older female relatives. In the ceremony, the bride and groom sat together in the overall assembly, which was divided by phratry. A shaman and his assistant officiated, albeit without costume or tambourinewith only his drumstick for divination. After the feasting, the bride and groom returned to their parents for three days; until then they could not speak to each other. Nonvirgin brides lost one-third of their bride-price.

Religion and Expressive Cultures

Religious Beliefs and Practices. In traditional Ket cosmology, natural phenomena and even objects were animate. Fetishes, ladles, sleds, and tipi doors all "saw" when decorated with eyes and thus animated. Propitiated through "feeding" and the observance of taboos, they helped humankind. There were also earth, stone, and heavenly spirits, good and bad. Particularly important were the Masters who controlled respectively the forests and game animals, water and fish, the mountains, and day and night. Kaygus, Master of Game Animals, was the son of a bear and a woman who offered animals, including himself, to kindly, ritual-observing men. This mystical unity was intensified by beliefs in the transmigration of souls, especially between people and bears. Khotsadam, Mother of the Sea, denizen of the cold north, ruler of day and night, and devourer of souls, was malevolent. Tomyam, the beautiful provider of migratory birds, who lived in the south, was entirely good. The sky god Es resided in the uppermost heaven, benign but remote from all but shamans. He battled against evil, aided by culture heroes, especially Alyba, and immortal shamans, particularly Doh.

The architecture of the universe remains unclear. The Ket shamanistic staff symbolizing the Universe Tree suggests a common Siberian model of many integrated levels through which shamans traveled in search of lost souls. East and south signified life; west and north, death.

Because animals understood human speech and were sensitive to women's smell, the Ket observed various taboos. In particular, hunting gear over which women had stepped had to be purified by fumigation. Forest spirits embodied in old larches protected lineages. The trees were marked with designs of faces, surrounded by anthropomorphic figures, and presented with gifts. Family fires, inherited patrilineally but cared for by women, protected each household. These Fire Mothers were "fed," protected from abuse (e.g., trash or sharp sticks), and maintained as long as possible. Fires could be shared only with kin. Family fires could foresee events and issue warnings by means of suitable crackles. Alalt, kept in "clean" areas, were decorated anthropomorphic figures, also patrilineally inherited but cared for by women. Fed and periodically reclothed, they aided family welfare. More closely allied to hunting luck were the images of deceased relatives of note (dangols ), prepared by shamans and also kept in the clean area. They purportedly led hunters to game.

Religious Practitioners. Shamanism was a calling inherited alternately by men and women in one lineage. It was actuated by a call (vision or dream), ensuing psychic illness, and curing under a shaman's care. Normalcy, a song, curing power, and a succession of ritual acquisitionsdrumstick, moccasins, mittens, tambourine, staff, and finally, coat and coronetmarked progress to the shaman's full role. At this time he or she gained an assistant. Shamans were curers by means of soul recovery in séances. Their power derived from spirits, dead shamans and heroes, accessories for flight, the places visited, phallic symbols, and human bones. Whereas most shamans had primarily bird spirits and power from upper worlds, bear shamans were of the lower world. In shamanistic acting, beating on the right calf signified very fast travel. The staff was a weapon. If the shaman fell unconscious, he was believed to have flown away. Séances could be held in "dark tents" and involved animal noises, tent shaking, and other marvels.

Apart from séances, shamans could call upon alalt, reinforce family rituals, divine events, resolve disputes, and counteract enemy shamans and wizards (bangos). Wizards and witches were primarily magical practitioners who cured with amulets and medications. Their protector was the Earth Devil.

Death and Afterlife. People and bears have seven souls; other animals, one; fish, none. Death comes from loss of the ulyvei (shadow) soul, usually through Khotsadam's malevolence. After death the ulyvei stays in the dwelling seven days, later spending time in the underworld and finally being reincarnated, particularly as a bear. Because souls of the dead could capture living kinsfolk in dreams, funerary rites were conducted by members of other clans. They included bathing the body, clothing it in reversed manner, covering the face, placing the body facing the dwelling entrance and the west, and burial in the ground or in a tree bole. Personal articles were left broken here. Although there were no cemetaries, burials took place in distant sacred places. Crosses often marked graves.


Alekseyenko, Ye. A. (1967). "Kety." In Istorikoethnograficheskie ocherki (Historical-ethnographic sketches). Leningrad: Nauka.

Bichurin, N. Ya[kinf] (1950). Sobranie svedenii o narodakh obitavshikh v srednei Azii v drevnie vremena (A collection of accounts on the peoples inhabiting Central Asia in ancient times). Vol. 3, 350. Moscow: Akademiia Nauk SSSR.

Popov, A. A., and B. O. Dolgikh (1964). "The Kets." In The Peoples of Siberia, edited by M. G. Levin and L. V. Potapov, 607-619. Translated by Stephen P. Dunn and Ethel Dunn. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Originally published in Russian in 1956.

Shimkin, D. B. (1939). "A Sketch of the Ket or Yenisei Ostyak." Ethnos 4:147-176.

Toporov, V. N. (1969). "Bibliografiia po Ketskomu Iazyku" (Bibliography on the Ket language and culture). Ketskiy Sbornik, 243-281. Moscow: Nauka.