ETHNONYMS: Sakha, Urangkhai Sakha, Yakutians
Identification . The Yakut, who prefer to call themselves "Sakha," live in Yakutia, the Sovereign Sakha Republic of the Russian Federation formed in 1992. The Yakut are the farthest-north Turkic people, with a consciousness of having once lived farther south kept alive by legends and confirmed by historical and archaeological research. The Yakut, spread through Yakutia yet concentrated in its center, have become a minority in their own republic. The majority is of Slavic background. Other minorities include the dwindling Yukagir of northern Yakutia, the Even, the Evenk, and the Dolgan, a mixed Yakut-Evenk group.
Location. Yakutia is a 3,100,000-square-kilometer territory (over four times the size of Texas) in eastern Siberia (the Soviet Far East). Located at approximately 56 to 71° N and 107 to 152° E, it is bounded by Chukotka to the northeast, Buriatia in the south, and the Evenk region to the west. Its northern coast stretches far above the Arctic Circle, along the East Siberian Sea, and its southern rim includes the Stanovoi Mountains and the Aldan plateau. Its most majestic river, the Lena, flows north along cavernous cliffs, into a long valley, and past the capital, Yakutsk. Other key river systems where major towns have developed include the Aldan, Viliui, and Kolyma. About 700,000 named rivers and streams cross Yakutia, which has some agricultural land but is primarily nonagricultural taiga with vast resources of gold, other minerals, gas, and oil. Tundra rims the north, except for forests along the rivers. Notorious for extremes of cold, long winters, and hot, dry summers, Yakutia has two locations that residents claim to be the "coldest on earth": Verkhoiansk and Oimiakon, where temperatures have dipped to —79° C. More typical are winters of 0° to —40° C and summers of 10° to 30° C.
Demography. The 1989 Soviet census recorded a population of 147,386,000 for the Russian Republic, and 1,081,000 for the Yakut Autonomous Republic. The Yakut numbered 382,000, an increase from 328,000 in 1979. In the 1920s they constituted about 82 percent of their republic's population; by 1989 they were only 35 percent. The Yakut have become increasingly urban in the past twenty years, although at a slower rate than the majority (Slavic) population. Whole villages in central and northern Yakutia remain solidly Yakut, whereas the major cities of Yakutia are heavily Russian. The population of Yakutia was 65 percent urban in 1989. As many as 10 percent of marriages were between Yakut and other nationalities in the 1970s and 1980s, although this percentage was declining by 1990.
Linguistic Affiliation. The Yakut speak Yakut, a Northeast Turkic language of the Altaic Language Family. It is one of the most divergent of the Turkic languages, closely related to Dolgan (a mixture of Evenk and Yakut sometimes described as a Yakut dialect). The Yakut, over 90 percent of whom speak Yakut as their mother tongue, call their language "Sakha-tyla." Their current written language, developed in the 1930s, is a modified Cyrillic script. Before this, they had several written forms, including a Latin script developed in the 1920s and a Cyrillic script introduced by missionaries in the nineteenth century. Yakut lore includes legends of a written language lost after they traveled north to the Lena Valley.
History and Cultural Relations
Yakut oral histories begin well before first contact with Russians in the seventeenth century. For example, olonkho (epics) date at least to the tenth century, a period of interethnic mixing, tensions, and upheaval that may have been a formative period in defining Yakut tribal affiliations. Ethnographic and archaeological data suggest that the ancestors of the Yakut, identified in some theories with the Kuriakon people, lived in an area near Lake Baikal and may have been part of the Uighur state bordering China. By the fourteenth century, Yakut ancestors migrated north, perhaos in small refugee groups, with herds of horses and cattle. After arrival in the Lena Valley, they fought and intermarried with the native Evenk and Yukagir nomads. Thus, both peaceful and belligerent relations with northern Siberians, Chinese, Mongols, and Turkic peoples preceded Russian hegemony.
When the first parties of Cossacks arrived at the Lena River in the 1620s, Yakut received them with hospitality and wariness. Several skirmishes and revolts followed, led at first by the legendary Yakut hero Tygyn. By 1642 the Lena Valley was under tribute to the czar; peace was won only after a long siege of a formidable Yakut fortress. By 1700 the fort settlement of Yakutsk (founded in 1632) was a bustling Russian administrative, commercial, and religious center and a launching point for further exploration into Kamchatka and Chukotka. Some Yakut moved northeast into territories they previously had not dominated, further assimilating Evenk and Yukagir. Most Yakut, however, remained in the central meadowlands, sometimes assimilating Russians. Yakut leaders cooperated with Russian commanders and governors, becoming active in trade, fur-tax collection, transport, and the postal system. Fighting among Yakut communities decreased, although horse rustling and occasional anti-Russian violence continued. For example, a Yakut Robin Hood named Manchari led a band that stole from the rich (usually Russians) to give to the poor (usually Yakut) in the nineteenth century. Russian Orthodox priests spread through Yakutia, but their followers were mainly in the major towns.
By 1900 a literate Yakut intelligentsia, influenced both by Russian merchants and political exiles, formed a party called the Yakut Union. Yakut revolutionaries such as Oiunskii and Ammosov led the Revolution and civil war in Yakutia, along with Bolsheviks such as the Georgian Ordzhonikidze. The consolidation of the 1917 Revolution was protracted until 1920, in part because of extensive opposition to Red forces by Whites under Kolchak. The Yakut Republic was not secure until 1923. After relative calm during Lenin's New Economic Policy, a harsh collectivization and antinationalist campaign ensued. Intellectuals such as Oiunskii, founder of the Institute of Languages, Literature, and History, and Kulakovskii, an ethnographer, were persecuted in the 1920s and 1930s. The turmoil of Stalinist policies and World War II left many Yakut without their traditional homesteads and unaccustomed to salaried industrial or urban work. Education both improved their chances of adaptation and stimulated interest in the Yakut past.
As horse and cattle breeders, the Yakut had a transhumant pattern of summer and winter settlements. Winter settlements comprised as few as twenty people, involving several closely related families who shared pastureland and lived in nearby yurts (balagan ) with surrounding storehouses and corrals. The yurts were oblong huts with slanted earthen walls, low ceilings, sod roofs, and dirt floors. Most had an adjoining room for cattle. They had substantial hearths, and fur-covered benches lining the walls demarcated sleeping arrangements according to social protocol. Yurts faced east, toward benevolent deities. In summer families and their animals moved to larger encampments. The most ancient summer homes, urasy, were elegant birch-bark conical tents. Some could hold 100 people. Their ceilings soared at the center point, above a circular hearth. Around the sides were wide benches placed in compartments that served as ranked seating and sleeping areas. Every pole or eave was carved with symbolic designs, the motifs of which included animals, fertility, and lineage identities. By 1900 urasy were rare; summer homes were yurts or combination yurt-log cabins. By 1950 yurts were also obsolete, found only in a few museums. Yet collectives still send workers to summer sites to graze cattle away from large villages. Housing is Russian style, often rough-hewn log huts with broad, raised stoves. Many families, even in large towns, rely on outhouses and outdoor water pumps. Some collectives, however, are gradually letting workers build more substantial individual family homes with modern amenities. Another style is the "village of the urban type," with low, concrete apartment buildings and indoor plumbing. The largest city is Yakutsk (with a population of 187,000 people in 1989). The towns of Viliusk, Olekminsk, Neriungri, and Mirny grew rapidly in the 1980s.
Subsistence Activities and Trade. Traditional pastoralism in central Yakutia required homestead self-reliance, with intense dependence on calves and foals in a harsh climate. Stables, corrals, and haying developed in conjunction with hardy breeds of cattle and short, fat, furry horses. Richer families owned hundreds of horses and cattle; poorer ones raised a few cattle or herded for others. A huge variety of dairy products, including fermented mare's milk (Russian: kumys ), was the staple food; meat was reserved for special occasions. The diet was augmented by hunting (bears, elk, squirrels, hare, ferrets, fowl), fishing (salmon, carp, muksun, mundu ), and, under Russian influence, agriculture (cereals). Wealthy Yakut hunted on horseback, using dogs. The poorest Yakut, those without cattle, relied on fishing with horsehair nets and, in the north, herded reindeer like their Evenk and Yukagir neighbors. Yakut also engaged in the fur trade; by the twentieth century hunters for luxury furs had depleted the ermines, sables, and foxes, and they were relying on squirrels. Yakut merchants and transporters spread throughout the entire northeast, easing communications and trade for natives and Russians. They sold luxuries like silver and gold jewelry and carved bone, ivory, and wood crafts in addition to staples such as butter, meat, and hay. Barter, Russian money, and furs formed the media of exchange. Guns were imported, as was iron for local blacksmiths.
Industrial Arts. Before iron was imported, ironworkers used ore from local marshes. Similarly, ceramics made from local clay preceded Russian pottery. Most homemade crafts were for household use: decorated birch-bark containers, leather bags, dairy-processing equipment, horsehair blankets, fur clothing, benches, hitching posts, and elaborately carved wooden containers (including chorons for kumys).
Division of Labor. Although occupations within a household were divided by gender and status, the atmosphere was usually one of productive group activity. All participated in hay making, cattle herding, and milking, but, in general, horses were a male preserve and cattle a female responsibility. Women tended children and fires, prepared food, carried water, and made clothing and pottery. Men handled more strenuous firewood preparation, house building, sled making, hunting, fishing, and mowing. Ivory carving and wood-and metalworking were male tasks. These divisions have held through the twentieth century in households of rural collectives, although possibilities have also expanded. Women now hunt, fish, and engage in crafts once associated with men. They have become doctors, nurses, teachers, engineers, bookkeepers, and politicians. Some women work in the growing industrial sector. Men are engineers, tractor drivers, geologists, teachers, doctors, managers, and workers in the lucrative energy, metallurgy, gold, diamond, and building industries. In the 1980s a Yakut man was director of the Yakutia gold ministry and a Yakut woman was head of the republic legislature. The intelligentsia of Yakutia is dominated by Yakut men and women in prestigeous cultural, scientific, and political jobs.
Key kin relations are based on a patrilineage (aqa-usa ) that traces membership back nine generations. Within this, children born to a specific mother are distinguished as a group (ye-usa ), and may form the basis for different households (korgon). Historically, more distant kin were recognized on two levels, the aimak (or territorial nasleg ), with one to thirty lineages, and the dzhon (or territorial ulus ), composed of several aimak. These larger units were united by alliances, including for common defense, and by economic relations; these links were renewed at councils and festivals. Kin terms reflect gender and age distinctions and distinguish senior from junior paternal lines. Any relation, affinal or consanguinai, is called uru, which is the word for "wedding."
Marriage. Traditionally, for wealthy Yakut, marriage could be polygamous. More common, however, was monogamy, with occasional remarriage after the death of a spouse. Arranged marriages were sometimes politically motivated. Patrilineage exogamy was reckoned strictly; those one could marry were called sygan. Until the 1920s many marriage arrangements were complicated and protracted, involving financial, emotional, and symbolic resources of the bride's and groom's extended families. This included the matchmaking ritual; several formal payments of animals, furs, and meat to the bride's family; informal gifts; and extensive dowries. Some families permitted poor grooms to work in their households as a replacement for the bride-price. Occasionally bride-capture occurred (it may have been more common in pre-Russian times). Wedding ceremonies and their attendant feasts, prayers, and dancing, were held first at the household of the bride's parents, then at that of the groom's. The couple usually lived with the groom's parents or settled in a nearby yurt. Since the 1970s interest in limited aspects of ritual and gift exchange has revived, although few couples are paired through matchmakers. In the 1980s one young man was chagrined to find that a woman he had fallen in love with on a train was a distant cousin, a forbidden marriage partner according to kin rules still observed.
Inheritance. By customary law, land, cattle, and horses, although used by households, were controlled by the patriline. Animal or land sale and inheritance were approved by elders. But by the twentieth century smaller families were keeping resources, in part because of the decline of large horse droves. Men owned most of the wealth and passed it to their sons, especially elder sons, although the youngest son often inherited the family yurt. Mothers could pass on dowries to daughters, but the dowry could be forfeited by bad behavior. In theory, dowries included land, as well as goods, jewelry, and animals, although in practice elders rarely gave land to another lineage. Soviet law limited inheritance to goods, and nonstate housing could be bequeathed at individual discretion. Most apartments and summer houses were kept in families.
Social and Political Organization. Kinship and politics were mixed in the hierarchical council system that guided aqa-usa, aimak, and dzhon. Yakut explanations of dzhon in the nineteenth century included concepts like "people," "community," or "tribe," territorially defined. Councils were composed of ranked circles of elders, usually men, whose leaders, tayons, were called nobles by Russians. A lineage head was bis-usa-toyon; respected warriors and hunters were batyr. Lineage councils decided major economic issues, interfamily disputes, and questions of blood revenge for violence committed against the group. Aimak and dzhon councils were infrequent, dealing with issues of security, revenge, alliance, and, before Russian control, war. Through war, slaves were captured for service in the wealthiest toyon households. Kin-based councils were rare by the nineteenth century and had little influence on twentieth-century politics. Yet in the Soviet period Yakut remained aware of regional and kin ties and helped kin obtain jobs and political positions. In this period the Yakut elite, some of whom were Communist party members, revived certain traditions, participating in wedding ceremonies and annual festivals once associated with council meetings. To avoid doing so would have been impolitic. Yakut have demanded greater economic and political autonomy from Moscow, and some Yakut politicians, including the elected president, are reformers implementing the new republic constitution. A major ecological movement and democratically elected councils are trying to redress local grievances.
Social Conflict and Control. In the Soviet period the Communist party controlled the courts and congresses of the Yakut, most of whom felt removed from policy making until the Gorbachev period. Demonstrations erupted on Yakutsk streets several times in the 1980s, mostly by young Yakut protesting police inaction over violent incidents involving Russians and Yakut. Tensions exist between newcomers and natives, developers and ecological activists, and "internationalists" and "nationalists." In addition, minorities, such as the Evenk, Even, and Yukagir, have demanded greater cultural and political rights. In response, a precedent-setting national district within Yakutia, the Even-Bytantaisk Raion, was established in 1989.
Religion and Expressive Culture
Religious Beliefs. Yakut religion derives from Turkic, Mongolic, Tungusic, and Russian ideas. Labels like "animist," "shamanist," or "Russian Orthodox" do not suffice. Ideas of sin are syncretized with concepts of contamination and taboo. Saints and bears are seen as shamanic spirit helpers. Christ is identified with the Yakut Bright Creator Elder God, Aiyy-toyon. A pantheon of gods, believed to live in nine hierarchical eastern heavens, was only one aspect of a complex traditional cosmology that still has meaning for some Yakut. Another crucial dimension was the spirit-soul (ichchi ) of living beings, rocks, trees, natural forces, and objects crafted by humans. Most honored was the hearth spirit (yot ichchite ), still fed morsels of food and drink by pious Yakut. Giant trees (al lukh mas ), deep in the forest, were especially sacred: their ichchi are still given small offerings of coins, scarves, and ribbons. Belief in ichchi is related to ancient ideas of harmony and equilibrium with nature, and to shamanism. Yakut shamanism is a Turkic, Mongolic, and Tungusic blend of belief in the supernatural, with emphasis on the ability of "white," or benign, shamans to intercede, through prayers and séances, with eastern spirits for the sake of humans. "Black" shamans, communing with evil spirits, could both benefit and harm humans.
Religious Practitioners. As with other Siberian peoples, Yakut shamans (oiun if male, udagan if female) combine medical and spiritual practice. Despite centuries of Russian Orthodox and Soviet discrediting of shamans as greedy charlatans, some Yakut maintain belief in shamans and supernatural powers. Others, struggling to recover spirituality after rejecting Marxist-Leninist materialism, accept aspects of shamanic philosophy. Still others, influenced by Soviet education and science, reject all religion as superstition. In the nineteenth century a few Yakut leaders financed the building of Russian Orthodox churches, and many Yakut declared themselves Christian, but this did not mean that they saw Christianity and shamanism as mutually exclusive. The Yakut also believed in the spiritual power of blacksmiths. By the 1980s shamans in Yakutia were rare and more likely to be Evenk than Yakut. Yet rituals once associated with spirit belief were being revived by urban as well as rural Yakut.
Ceremonies. The most important ceremony, associated with a founding Yakut ancestor named Ellei, is the annual summer yhyak festival, a celebration of seasonal change, of kumys (fermented mare's milk), and of kin solidarity. Once a religious celebration led by a shaman, the ceremony has been adapted since World War I into a secular commemoration of Yakut traditions. Practiced in villages and towns, it features opening prayers (algys ) and libations of kumys to the earth. Although some Yakut debate its "authenticity," the festival still includes feasting, horse racing, wrestling, and all-night line dancing to improvised chants. It lasts three joyous days in Suntar, where it is especially famed. Wedding rituals, pared down from previous eras, center around memorial hitching posts (serqe ), carved for the occasion, with couples honored by prayers, special food, and dancing. New rituals marking wedding anniversaries and graduations at all educational levels include the placement of serge, on which the names of those honored are carved. But traditional rituals of birth, supplicating the goddess of fertility, Aiyyhyt, have become less popular, with some Yakut women even mocking the restrictions that were once associated with beliefs about female impurity. Russian Orthodox holidays are rarely celebrated.
Arts. Yakut art takes many forms, sometimes rooted in ritual life, but, in the Soviet period, often secular and commercial. Silver and gold jewelry, once considered talismanic, is enjoyed for its aesthetic value. Famed for ivory-and woodcarving, Yakut artists have branched into graphic art, painting, and sculpture. Filmmakers, theater groups, and opera and dance companies enrich cultural life in Yakutia and beyond. Continuity of folk art is strongest in exuberant improvisational poetry that accompanies line dancing (ohuokhai ) and in a revival of mouth-harp (khomus ) playing. But few young people memorize the olonkho that once took days to tell. Instead, olonkho heroes are memorialized in other art forms.
Medicine. With the decline of shamanism, most Yakut rely on Western medicine administered in hospitals and clinics. Yet rumors persist of faith healing, described as spiritual or hypnotic. A few Yakut with shamanic family backgrounds attend medical school, supporting the belief among Yakut that healing talent can be inherited. Traditional healers (who had long periods of apprenticeship) were specialized, with herbal experts, bonesetters, shaman's assistants, and various grades of shamanic power. Sources vary as to whether male or female shamans were more powerful. Drumming and the music of the khomus enhanced a shaman's trance during séances to ascertain the cause of illness. Each person was believed to have three souls, which were necessary to maintain health.
Death and Afterlife. At the demise of all three souls, especially tyn or "breath," a person was declared dead. On the deathbed, the family sometimes dressed the dying in funeral attire. Before burial, the deceased's spirit visited every place he or she had traveled in life. On the third day, bearers took the body to the graveyard, where a grave was prepared deep enough to touch permafrost and shallow enough to be seen by escort spirits. A horse, steer, or reindeer was sacrificed, to help the deceased travel to the land of the dead and to provide food for family and grave preparers. One of the deceased's souls, kut, was believed to travel skyward to a lush greenery-filled heaven. People feared that souls could stay on earth, becoming yor capable of haunting kin. Fears of yor, especially yor of shamans, lingered in the 1980s. Burials were mixtures of pre-Soviet and Soviet ritual, with traditional symbolism observed more in villages than in cities.
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MARJORIE MANDELSTAM BALZER