The Evenk are an indigenous people of Siberia. They occupy a large territory from the left bank of the Yenisei River in the west to the Sea of Okhotsk in the east. The southern boundary of the Evenk distribution range reaches the left bank of the Amur and the Angara rivers. They also live in northeastern China (20 thousand ) and in Mongolia. The number of the Evenk in the Russian Federation is about 30 thousand. Administratively, they are distributed within the boundaries of the Tyumen and Tomsk regions, the Krasnoyarsk Krai, the Irkutsk, Chita and Amur regions, the republics of Yakutia and Buryatia, Khabarovsk Krai and Sakhalin. Nowhere on this territory do they account for the majority of the population, living in the same villages with the Russian, Yakut, and other peoples. The native name is the Evenk, which became the official native name in 1931, and the old name was the Tungus. Some individual Evenk groups were known as the Orochen, Birar, Manegr, Solon. The Evenk language belongs to the Tungus-Manchurian group of the Altai language family. Three groups of dialects are distinguished as follows: the northern ("the khak"), the southern ("the sek" and "shek") and eastern ("sek" - "khak"). Every dialect is subdivided into sub-dialects. Many of the Evenk living in Yakutia and Buryatia also speak the Yakut and Buryat languages. Anthropologically, they are characteristic of the Baikal, Katank and central Asiatic types.
The Evenk were formed through a mixture of the local population of Eastern Siberia with the Tungus tribes which came from the Cis-Baikal and the Trans-Baikal region. There are grounds to regard the Trans-Baikal people of Uvan as direct ancestors of the Evenk. The Chinese chronicles indicate their territory fairly accurately: the mountain taiga northeast of Barguzin and Selenga, roughly between the upper reaches of the rivers Olekma and Upper Angara. The Uvan were pastoralist, who came from a more southerly region. When they found themselves in the Trans-Baikal and the Cis-Amur regions, the bonds and cultural interactions with the local population gave rise to the ethnic evolution of the modern Evenk. In the course of their distribution through the expanses of Siberia, the Tungus assimilated other local tribes. The features of ethnic formation of the Tungus resulted in the development of three anthropological types characteristic of them and also three different economic and cultural groups: reindeer herders, livestock breeders and fishermen.
The Evenks had their first contacts with the Russians in the beginning of the 17th c., when Russian Cossacks built the Ket Fortress (1602), and began moving up the Yenisei river. After their forts were established in the basin of the Ob River, the Cossacks reached the Yenisei River to travel down its right tributaries, populated by the Evenk. From around 1620, most of the Evenk had to pay the Russian fur tax, which was collected with cruel methods. The indigenous peoples suffered from their commercial and political contacts with the Russians. The Russians brought tools, firearms and various trade goods, including alcohol, which has plagued these people ever since. They also brought with them diseases that these peoples had never been exposed to before. Alcohol and diseases led to a rapid decline of the Evenk population. By 1623, almost all the Evenk of the Angara, Nizhnya Tunguska, Vilyui and Chon rivers became Russian subjects. With the establishment of the Yakutsk fort (1632) the Russian domination extended to the Evenk of the Lena basin, and by the middle of the 17th century, in the Cis-Baikal and Trans-Baikal regions. The Evenk repeatedly resisted Russian encroachment and their forced inclusion into Russia, but Christianization began as early as the end of the 17th century. Between 1825 and 1841, there were several Evenk rebellions, all of which were ruthlessly crushed.
After the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the Soviet government issued the "Declaration of the Rights of the Peoples of Russia", including a wide range of rights of self-determination, that largely remained on paper, as policies of "modernisation" were put through. In 1924, a Committee of Assistance of Peoples of the North was established. They first proposed creating large reservations where the indigenous populations could continue their traditional life-styles. But instead, the Soviet government decided to integrate these peoples into the larger social, political and economic body of the country. In 1927, the Soviet authorites began establishing so-called cultural bases in Evenk territory, with schools, hospitals, day-care centres and so on - mainly in an effort to minimize the traditional lifestyle of the Evenk. Schools were built for Evenk children, and from 1938, Russian was the language of instruction. Evenk religion was also attacked. Collectivisation of Evenk economic activities began in 1929. Many Evenks resisted, by destroying their herds or fleeing their territory, rather than turn their herds over to the collectives. Around 1930, several "national districts" were established, administrative units named after one or two of these small peoples. The Evenk National Okrug was established in 1930.
After World War II, as a result of huge state development plans, large numbers of ethnic Russian workers poured into Siberia. The Evenks and other indigenous groups found their land decreasing, and more and more of them gave up reindeer-herding or other traditional ways of living for jobs at construction sites and in factories. In connection with the construction of the Baykal-Amur railway, and various mining and hydroelectrical projects, many Evenks were forced to leave their herds to work for the state, transporting materials and people. Loss of land led many Evenks farther to the north.
Environmental problems resulting from Soviet industrialisation projects has been a main threat to the Evenk way of life. The greatest threat emerged in the 1980s, with government plans to construct a huge dam across the Lower Tunguska river. The project would have flooded most of the Evenk Autonomous Okrug. The Evenks, supported by the Association of Peoples of the North, as well as Russian environmentalists, protested, and eventually, the project was cancelled.
In terms of economy, the Evenk notably differ from other hunting peoples of the Siberia and Far East. They are primarily hunters and reindeer herders. Some groups of the Evenk did not use the reindeer, hunting on foot, but it was exactly the use of the reindeer for riding which distinguishes the Evenk from other peoples. The hunt played an important role in the majority of the Evenk territorial groups. Some exceptions were the sedentary Evenk, living on the banks of rivers and lake shore, for whom the most important occupation during summer was fishing, and also the Orochon Evenk, who combined hunting and fishing. Until the advent of the Russians, they mostly hunted the moose, wild reindeer, the musk deer, the roe deer, the Siberian stag, the mountain sheep, and also the bear. The most favorite was the driving hunt - chasing the prey on skis. In some areas the moose was hunted from boats, at river crossing. Widely used were shooting sets, loops, and also hole traps. Hunting fur-bearing mammals was of primary importance. The role of furbearer hunt increased with the advent of Russians, since yasak was to be paid with pelts.The hunting nature of the Evenk is clearly manifested even in such an occupation as fishing, which is of minor importance to him. To the Evenk, fishing is equal to hunting. The main fishing tools used by the Evenk for many years were the hunting bow with blunt arrows to stun the fish and a spear. With the depletion of the game fauna, the importance of fishing increased. There appeared some new and more productive tools such as the bottom gill nets, and dams. In some groups fishing became commercial. The Evenk are engaged in a peculiar type of reindeer herding. Their reindeer are baggage and riding animals, used in the taiga. The Evenk practiced an unrestricted grazing of reindeer, and the milking of reindere cows is also a sepcific Evenk feature. Seasonal migration with the reindeer herds is central in Evenk life. The length of migrations reached hundreds of kilometers per year. Some families covered distances of thousands of kilometers.
The main type of Evenk settlement is the camp. There were temporary camps (urikit) and constant camps (meneen). The constant camps (most frequently winter) comprised 1-2 dwellings, the summer camps had more dwellings. Evenk hunters, leading a mobile mode of life, lived in light portable tents - chums (dyu). The stationary winter type of dwelling, characteristic of semi-sedentary Evenk hunters and fishermen is called golomo. It has the shape of a pyramid or a truncated pyramid. The summer constant dwelling of hunters and fishermen was a four-cornered structure of poles or logs with a double-pitch rod. The southern Evenk, the stockbreeders and nomads of the Trans-Baikal Region lived in portable tents of the Buryat and Monglolian type. Today, the majority of the Evenk live in modern in standard log houses. The traditional dwelling is only used on the hunting grounds. Service buildings are not typical of the Evenk. Those are mostly various types of storehouses, where various articles were stored, and also reindeer sheds. The traditional clothing of the Evenk is a kaftan of reindeer hide, whose flaps were tied up on the chest with straps. A compulsory supplement to the kaftan was a chest-bib, which was held on a sling around the neck and covering the slit between the flaps. In winter, the head and the neck were covered with a long scarf of the tails of fur-bearing mammals. The footwear were the olochi of skin, fabric, or rovduga (moose skin) in summer and the reindeer fur in winter. The traditional diet was based on the meat of wild mammals (the Evenk who had horses consumed the horse meat) and fish. The meat of the moose and wild reindeer was sun-dried to be stored. The dry meat was minced into meal, which was poured on with hot water or mixed up with berries. The main beverage is the tea, occasionally drunk with reindeer milk or salt. The meal was known before the arrival of the Russians. They Evenk baked balls of sour dough, and in the east, unleavened cakes. In winter, the hunters moved on unlined skis on the rust, and on kamus-lined skis if the snow was deep. The reindeer were used only when migrating to a new place. The Evenk used the reindeer for riding and to carry bags. A reindeer harness comprised a hackamore, the riding and the bag saddles and a bellyband. When riding, they used a stick which served as a support when straddling the deer. Sled riding is not characteristic of the Evenk.
Spiritual and Folk Culture
Sources: RAIPON (Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North) | Norwegian Institute of International Affairs - Centre for Russian Studies
The Evenk are shamanist, incorporating animism and totemism into their beliefs. They have various magic rites associated with hunting and guarding reindeer herds. The shamans administer those rites as well as seeing off the soul of the deceased, the purging of the hunters, dedication of the reindeer, etc. There existed elements of the bear cult - the rites associated with the dressing of the carcass of the killed bear, consumption of its meat, burial of the bear head and the bones. The Evenk folklore is highly diversified. The following genres are distinguished: improvisation songs, myths, animal stories, riddles, domestic and historical tales. The favorite genre of the Evenk was the folk tale and heroic epos. Different groups of the Evenk had their own historical characters. The epos was performed in recital during the night, and the listeners often took part in the performance. The main musical instrument was metal (kennginkevun) or wooden (pennengipkevun) harp. They also used bilgau - the dried bird throat and a hunting bow. The only Evenk dance is the kheir round-dance, which was performed to a song improvisation. The fine arts are represented by ornamentation of metal, bone and wood carving, embroidery in beads and silk, fur and fabric applique, birch bark stamping. The Evenk chest-bibs are true works of art. Traditionally, the ornamentation of the chest-bib is executed in three layers: the central design compostion, a long broad edge band, and a fringe of rovduga on the tail of the chest-bib. Richly ornamented are also the flaps of the kaftans, footwear, belts,and housewares. During the recent decades, professional art appeared, the Evenk have gifted writers, and numerous creative intellectuals.
Links to external websites about the Evenk people, their land, history, and culture (pages will open in new window):
The Red Book of the Peoples of the Russian Empire: Evenks |
Scott Polar Research Institute: The Evenki |
Wikipedia - Evenks |
RAIPON (Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North)