The Children of Middle Earth

PHOTO by Sergey Guneev / RIA Novosti
An almost-extinct northern tribe tries to save its culture

The Yukaghir are an almost-extinct people in northern Russia who now mostly reside in Yakutia. They have a unique language and culture of their own that differentiates them from other northern indigenous communities. detailed the disappearing traditions and history of the tribe.

Brothers From Different Levels

According to the Yukaghir, Christ and Satan, the two brothers, were one day sailing the ocean. It was something they would normally do since there was nothing but ocean in those days. Christ told Satan to dive to the bottom of the sea and bring back a handful of soil. Satan turned into a seagull and did as told. The soil fell through Satan’s fingers though, and when he surfaced, Christ used the soil from under Satan’s fingernails to create land. However, Satan dived to the bottom of the sea, never to return to the surface.

Waldemar Jochelson transcribed this legend in the early 19th century. Of course, Christ and Satan appeared only after the Yukaghir tribe came into contact with Russian settlers, but the central idea of the myth remained the same: two deities, a good one and a bad one, created a multilevel universe made up of three levels. These levels are the upper level, which is inhabited by God, or Christ; the Middle Earth, which is populated by spirits and the Yukaghir themselves; and the bottom level, which is the domain of ancestors, evil spirits, devils and the Old Man With a Pointed Head, the idea of which later ended up merging with Satan.

Today, the Yukaghir are very few in number and most of them have forgotten their culture and language. However, they were the first people to migrate to the northeast from the Urals.

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Elder, Shaman, Warrior and Hunter

Today, the Yukaghir live in Yakutia, namely in the Nizhnekolymsky and Verkhnekolymsky Districts, as well as in the Magadan Region. In the 17th century, they settled on the lands between the Lena River and the Anadyr estuary, where the first Russian expeditions encountered them. Russians first heard about the Yukaghir after E. Buza, a Cossack leader who travelled along the Chondon in 1639, mentioned them in the reports on his 1639-1640 expedition of northern rivers.

At the time, the Yukaghir led a primitive, seminomadic life: they fished, and hunted elk and deer for their meat and skins. Deer breeding was rare, and the settlements that had deer herds mainly used them to carry people and cargo.

According to Jochelson, the Yukaghir formed clans, which were not necessarily comprised of blood relatives. A clan generally consisted of several neighboring families but could also include visitors who took part in the household chores. Clan leadership included an elder, a shaman, a warrior and a chief hunter.

The elder was either the oldest or the most respected older member of the tribe. He was responsible for household issues, resolving arguments and maintaining tradition.

The shaman protected the tribe from evil spirits and he was even able to continue doing his job after his death, since the deceased shaman’s skull was placed on top of a wooden idol and worshipped.

The warrior protected the clan from enemies. This title was not inherited and was assigned to the strongest member of the tribe. The chief hunter was responsible for providing the clan with animal skins and meat.

There was also a broader definition of the clan, including all tribes on the same river. They would get together once a year to play, dance, hold meetings and talk. These gatherings were incredibly important since they were used to form alliances for mutual assistance and defense from common enemies.

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Wars and Warriors

Unlike the Chukchi, who were famous for their belligerence, the Yukaghir were deemed to be the weakest tribe of the Arctic. They did not agree with this view of themselves, however, and their legends laud their own military bravery. The distribution of the northern tribes across the land in the 17th century also gives proof of their military skills because the Yukaghir had pushed the Chukchi and the Koryaks to the edge of the continent.

The Yukaghir helped Russian colonists in their wars against other local tribes. As a result of those military campaigns, their numbers decreased dramatically, which allowed the Chukchi to take control of a vast amount of the Yukaghir’s hunting grounds.

The colonists, however, did not show much gratitude. They built their settlements on the tribe’s hunting grounds, which caused seasonal famines among the Yukaghir. When a government tax was imposed on the locals, they became even poorer. If there wasn’t money available, the tax payments were made in kind, meaning that household objects and boats that were indispensable for the Yukaghir became their payments instead.

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A Disappearing People

With their seminomadic lifestyle, the Yukaghir were much closer to Russian colonists than other northern peoples. This led to a powerful cultural assimilation, which was especially rapid in the 18th century when many of the locals were baptized into Christianity could therefore marry Russians and become part of their communities.

The Yukaghir language began to wane in the 19th century. The lands abandoned due to famine or epidemics were taken over by the Yakut and Evenk tribes. The surviving Yukaghir had to adapt and learn the languages of their conquerors.

Today, there are only 1,100 Yukaghir. According to a 2011 expedition to the Srednekansky District, the Yukaghir, especially men, are in no hurry to marry and many have not even finished school.

The Yukaghir culture is on the brink of extinction. Research has shown that only a small number can speak the language or even know any Yukaghir words, although all remaining Yukaghir say that they find the language important and would like to be able to speak it.

Not a single Yukaghir makes traditional goods and most do not know their folklore or customs. They take part in the district holiday, where traditional costumes are required, but they learn about making them from the information they are able to find on the Internet.

At the same time, the Yukaghir want to know more about their own culture and they want their children to learn about it too, but those who know it best are the oldest members of the tribe, and they are not long for this world.

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Author: Mikhail Karpov