Traditionalism vs. Assimilation Among Indigenous Peoples of Siberia

Oct 9, 2014 by


[This post was originally published in March 2012]

As is the case for many indigenous groups around the world, native peoples of Siberia struggle to fit into the modern global village while retaining their ethnic identity and cultural distinctiveness. Since the end of World War II, the indigenous peoples of Siberia have had a special legal status which allows for certain “affirmative action”-like quotas and benefits. However, the main aim of these policies was to integrate ethnic minorities into the all-Soviet people and to inculcate the “new Soviet man” mentality. Compulsory boarding schools, where children from different ethnic groups were brought together from the age of seven in a collectivist environment, often served as the hotbed of such Sovietization. The effect on native culture was disastrous. But, as James Forsyth in his A History of the Peoples of Siberia points out, “Russification began even before this, in kindergartens, where most nurses and teachers were Russian speakers. Even where some of them were natives, however, there were cases when children or the nurses themselves were reprimanded for using their native language” (here the parallels with Native North American languages are obvious). In the Soviet Union, it was believed that minority languages and cultures would die out under communism, and that “nationalism can only be bourgeois”. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, a number of new laws have been adopted whose goal is to preserve ethnic distinctiveness of indigenous peoples. But can the tables be turned?

In 1999 a federal law “On the guarantees of the rights of indigenous small-numbered peoples of the Russian Federation” was adopted, and a year later, a special decree “On the Unified Register of Indigenous Small-Numbered Peoples of the Russian Federation” provided a more precise definition of the “indigenous small-numbered peoples” (in Russian, korennye malochislennye narody) of the Russian Federation. A subgroup of this latter category –  “indigenous small-numbered peoples of the Russian Extreme North” – has an even more important legal status. However, the geographical definition of the “Russian Extreme North” begs some questions. The original definition included the areas located mainly north of the Arctic Circle: the whole of Sakha (Yakutia) Republic, Chukotka and Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrugs, Magadan Oblast, and Kamchatka Krai, islands of the Arctic Ocean and its seas, and islands of the Sea of Okhotsk, and certain parts and cities of Tuva Republic, of Krasnoyarsk and Khabarovsk Krais, and of Irkutsk and Sakhalin Oblasts (as well as some territories west of the Ural Mountains, which I will not discuss here). Because this area is known for its extremely harsh climate as well as its enormous mineral and natural resources, people who work there receive extra payments, referred to as the “Northern Bonus”, as well as other benefits, including additional vacations, disability benefits, retirement benefits, and housing benefits. These rewards do not apply, however, to indigenous populations involved in traditional occupations (or inmates of labor camps, which will be discussed in more detail in my forthcoming post). Because of its implications for labor compensation, the definition of “Extreme North” has been extended to most Siberian territories with a harsh climate, which have been defined as “equated to the conditions of Extreme North”. The actual territory thus designated as “Extreme North” extends southwards as far as Vladivostok, 22° south of Moscow!


Another issue in regard to the designation of “indigenous small-numbered peoples” concerns the size of the group: how small are the “small-numbered peoples”? The legal definition specifies that they have no more than 50,000 members, which excludes several indigenous Siberian groups. These larger groups live in their designated ethnic republics: 67,000 Altays in Altai Republic; 76,000 Khakassians in Khakassia; 243,000 Tuvinians in Tuva; and approximately 450,000 Yakut in Yakutia and Buryat in Buryatia (the map on the left has somewhat older figures). Most of these groups do not constitute the majority of their republics’ populations, despite being the titular nationalities. The only two exceptions are Buryatia, where about two thirds of the population are Buryat, and Tuva, where 77% are Tuvinians. Such titular ethnic groups typically experience the same problems as the smaller peoples, yet their access to legal and financial resources is more limited.

Given these definitions, the list of “indigenous small-numbered peoples” living east of the Urals includes some 40 groups, which vary in size significantly. The larger groups consisting of more than 10,000 people include the Nenets, living mostly in the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug; Khanty and Mansi of the Khanty–Mansi Autonomous Okrug; Evenkis spread over a huge territory from the River Ob in the west to the Sea of Okhotsk in the east, and from the Arctic Ocean in the north to Manchuria and Sakhalin in the south; Evens, living in the Magadan Oblast and Kamchatka Krai and the northern parts of Yakutia east of the Lena River; Chukchis in Chokotka; Shors, who live east of the Altay Mountains; and Nanais of the Russian Far East. Smaller indigenous groups, numbering fewer than 10,000, include numerous peoples from Dolgans and Nganasans on the Taymyr Peninsula to Udege living in the coastal areas of northern Primorsk Krai and southern Khabarovsk Krai (not to be confused with the Adyghe in the Caucasus!), and Selkups in Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug to Aleuts on Commander Islands. The smallest group, the Kereks, has only 8 members left.

Some of these small-numbered indigenous groups are growing. For example, the number of the Orok people, who live mainly in the eastern part of the Sakhalin island, has grown almost 2.5-fold in the last twenty years, and now totals almost 400. Other expanding groups include the Nenets, Selkups, Khanty, Yukaghirs, Negidals, Tofalars, Itelmen, and Kets. But other groups are shrinking, owing both to the general population decline in Russia, and to the problems experienced specifically by these peoples.

Most native Siberian groups live primarily in rural areas, where they continue to practice their traditional lifestyles involving reindeer herding, hunting, gathering, and fishing. Some groups also practice other types of animal husbandry, raising horses, yaks and sheep, as well as engaging in beekeeping. Dogs are also extremely important in these northern environments, used in reindeer herding, hunting, and transportation (to pull the sledges). Among the indigenous skills are techniques for processing animal hides, wool, antlers, hoofs, bones, glands, meet and offal, as well as taxidermy. Hides, as well as other locally available materials, are used for building houses, making canoes and sledges, sewing clothing, and crafting toys and objects for religious and spiritual practices. Other traditional indigenous arts and crafts involve making objects from fur and skins, bone and ivory, birch bark and other plant matter. Land rights of the indigenous peoples that are imperative for maintaining the traditional economy and lifestyle are now protected according to Article 8 of the abovementioned federal law “On the guarantees of the rights of indigenous small-numbered peoples of the Russian Federation”. Article 10 of the same law protects the rights of small-numbered indigenous groups to “protect and develop their original cultures”, which includes “protection and development of native languages”, as well as protection of traditional practices and religious rites. This law also allows for the creation of educational institutions where reindeer herding, hunting, fishing, and other traditional skills can be passed on to the younger generations. When it comes to educating the very young, boarding schools in regional centers are being replaced by “nomadic” schools, so that children need not be separated from their parents and the community for long periods.

However, not all indigenous groups continue to practice their traditional lifestyles in rural areas. A few live predominantly in cities, including the Orok on the Sakhalin Island, as well as Kumandins and Shors in southern Siberia (Altai Krai and Kemerovo Oblast, respectively). Despite their rural origins, one in two Kumandin and three out of four Shors live today in cities. An interesting contrast is presented by the two groups that share the titutal ethnic status in Khnaty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug: Khanty live predominantly in rural areas, whereas Mansi live mostly in cities. This correlates with the level of assimilation as measured by the percentage of people who speak the corresponding language: approximately one in two Khanty speaks the indigenous language, whereas only a quarter of Mansi do so. (A forthcoming post will be dedicated to indigenous languages of Siberia and Far East.)

Not only urban groups are experiencing the dilemma of choosing between traditionalism and assimilation. Most indigenous Siberian groups – large and small alike – experience conflict between their traditional lifestyle and modern economic conditions. Time-honored economic activities like reindeer herding and hunting are not competitive in modern markets: the production volume is too small, while production and transportation costs are prohibitive. Moreover, the intensive industrial exploitation of land and natural resources in Siberia (which will be discussed in more detail in forthcoming posts) curtails the ability of indigenous groups to maintain their traditional economic activities. Territories that were used for reindeer herding or hunting have become sites of oil and gas extraction, pipelines, railways, processing plants, and reservoirs. Forests, reindeer pastures, and walrus nurseries have been destroyed, and traditional fishing grounds – polluted. Valleys have been inundated and villages  destroyed or moved.


This crisis of the traditional economy has led to growing social problems and deteriorating health standards among the Siberian natives. Although several regions east of the Urals have some of the highest levels of GDP in the Russian Federation, this is mostly due to the industrial-scale exploitation of natural resources coupled with small populations. The level of socio-economic development, especially in rural areas and among nomadic groups, remains below the national average, while unemployment is 1.5-2 times higher than elsewhere in Russia. The destabilization of the traditional lifestyle, especially in the 1990s, led to a wide range of health issues among the indigenous peoples, whose figures for infant and child mortality are nearly twice the national average. Higher-than-average mortality rates and low life expectancy plague adult Siberian natives as well. Infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis, are very common. The high level of alcoholism causes much concern, resulting in many accidental deaths from freezing or alcoholic poisoning, as well as a higher rate of murder and suicide. Since the traditional clan structure was undermined in the post-WWII period, mixed marriages, typically between Russian men and indigenous women, which James Forsyth describes in terms of “temporary wives” or “provisional concubinage”, have become common. Due in part to these temporary marriages, and in part to the isolation of herding and hunting men from the villages where the women generally remain, there are now many unmarried native men. Single-parenthood, orphanhood, and abortion further threaten the traditional family life. Intergenerational links often break because children are commonly monolingual in Russian just as their grandparents are monolingual in the indigenous language.

The influx of “outsiders” – ethnic Russians and others – makes cultural assimilation very likely, especially for the smaller groups, which remain minorities even in their designated territories. A crucial factor in the preservation of ethnic identity is the use of the national language. Along with urbanization, the decline in indigenous languages at home and in the education system is one of the best predictors of assimilation. But the use of national language among indigenous peoples of Siberia is waning, even among larger groups, with the rare exception of Tuvinians, 99% of whom claim to speak the national language. For example, 95% of the Buryats claimed to speak the language in 1959, but only 83% in 2002. At the same time, bilingualism in the native language and Russian has increased, so that in 1989 a fluent command of Russian as first or second language was claimed by 65% of Yakuts and in 2002 by 87%. The corresponding figure for the Buryat has grown from 72% in 1989 to 96% in 2002. The situation is even more critical among the small-numbered groups, in most of which less than half of the people speak the national language. The groups with the lowest degree of indigenous language retention (12-14%) include such Far Eastern peoples as the Itelmen, Nivkhs, and the Udege. In many cases, “indigenous language retention” does not mean native ability or even fluency in the language, but mere knowledge of some words and grammatical forms.

Perhaps surprisingly, the sheer size of the group and the availability of school books in the indigenous language play only a modest role in the indigenous language retention Certain small without a written language, such as the Dolgans and Nganasans, have succeeded for decades in maintaining fairly high retention rates (67% and 61%, respectively, in 2002). The chief cause appears to be their relative isolation from Russian influence: now, that the contact between indigenous groups and the Russians in the lower Yenisey region is increasing, the numbers are coming down from about 90% in 1989. While language maintenance and revitalization programs are under way, as we shall see in a later post, they achieve moderate success at best.


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