The Yakuts are the second largest indigenous group in Siberia and the northernmost of the Turkish people. Related the Kazakhs and Kyrgyz, they speak a Turkic language and live in northern Siberia around the Lena River. They have traditionally been cattle and horse herders who practiced shamanism mixed with animism and Russian Orthodox Christianity. The call themselves the Sakha.
There are around 380,000 Yakuts. They make up 33 percent of the Republic of Sakha (formally Yakutia). They tend to live together in Yakut communities, with many of their villages being completely Yakut. Most of the people who live in the Republic of Sakha are Russians or other Slavs. Many Yakuts are now urbanized. Even so Russians dominate the cities.
Around 90 percent of Yakuts speak Yakut as their first language. It is a Turkic languages. The tribes near them included the Evenk, which speak a Tungus-Manchurian languages, and the Yukogir, which speak a Paleo-Asian languages.
History of the Yakuts
The Yakuts are a Mongoloid people who originated through the combination of local tribes with Turkic tribes that migrated northward before the tenth century. The Yakuts call their homeland "Sakja," which means "Sun." There are many legends and stories that refer to it in their canon of epic tales. Archeological and historical evidence seems to indicate that the ancestors of the Yakut originated in the Lake Baikal area and perhaps were part of the Uighar kingdoms which stretched from southern Siberia into western China. Their ancient literature describes many tensions and battles with other ethic groups.
By the 14th century the ancestor of the Yakut migrated northward from Lake Baikal or Kyrgyzstan along the Lena River, where they the fought with and intermarried with the groups that were already there: the Evenk and the Yukagir nomads. In the centuries that followed they had both friendly and unfriendly relations with other Siberians, Chinese, and Mongols.
Cossack arrived in Yakut territory in the 1620s. There were skirmishes and hostilities in which the Yakut hero Tygyn distinguished himself. By 1642, the Yakut were paying fur tributes to the tsar. Permanent peace did not occur until after a long siege of a Yakut fort. By 1700 Yakutsk was a busy Russian-controlled commercial and trading center and launching point for incursions into the Far East. By this time the Yakut were cooperating with the Russians and some had converted Orthodox Christianity.
The collectivization period under the Soviet took its toll on the Yakut. Many lost their traditional homesteads and were forced to industrial or urban work.
According to Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia, China: “Labels like ‘animist,’ ‘shamanist’ and Russian Orthodox do not suffice. ideas of sin are syncretized with concepts of contamination and taboo.. Sanits and bears are seen as shamanist spirits helpers, Christ is identified with the Yakut Bright Creator Elder God, Aiyy-toyon. A pantheon of gods, believed to live in nine hierarchal eastern heavens, was only one aspect of a complex traditional cosmology.”
“Another crucial dimension was the spirit-soul ( ichich) in living beings, rocks, trees, natural forces and objects crafted by humans. Most honored was the hearth spirit ( yot ichchite), still fed morsels and food and drink by pious Yakut. Giant trees ( al lukh mas), deep in the forest, were especially sacred; their ichcich are still given small offerings of coins, scarves, and ribbons.”
The Yakut still maintain a belief in shamanism. They have traditionally had men and women shaman who went into trances with the help of drumming and music from a mouth harp. “Yakut shamanism is a Turkic, Mongolian and Tungusic blend of belief in the supernatural, with emphasis on the ability of ‘white,’ or benign, shamans to intercede through prayers and seances, with water spirits for the sake of humans. ‘Black’ shaman, communicating with evil sprits, could both benefit and harm humans.”
The Yakut believed that death occurred only after the demise of all three of the souls that a person possesses. Three days after the death a grave was dug deep enough to reach the permafrost. A horse, steer or reindeer was sacrificed to help the dead reach the land of the dead and provide food for the family of the grave preparers. One’s souls were believed to pass on to a lush green heaven. An effort was made to make sure all the souls found their proper place, so they didn’t come back as tormented spirits and bring harm to the living.
Yakuts have traditionally raised cattle and horses and hunted in some of the coldest places in the world. They have traditionally raised small, fat shaggy-maned Yakutian horses and hardy breeds of cattle. Rich families owned hundreds of animals. Poorer ones only a few. Herders in the north herded reindeer like the Evenk and Yukagir
Yakuts are skilled horsemen. They like to drink fermented mare's milk ( kumys) and consume the dairy product from cattle and horses. Meat was at special occasions. The Yakuts raised a few grains, hunted elk, bears, squirrels, hares and fowl using dogs and fished for salmon, carp, maccan and mundu. They also hunters for furs until many of the valuable species were depleted.
Both men and women participated in the most important activities: herding, milking and makings hay, with men concentrating on the horses and women on the cattle. Men engaged in the heavy labor chores like sled and house making. They did most of the hunting and fishing but women also participated. Today both men and women work in a variety of jobs as engineers, tractor drivers, miners, legislators, doctors, mangers, and teachers.
In the old days marriages were complicated affairs that involved bride prices, doweries and elaborate exchanges of gifts. Occasionally bride capture was practiced, Weddings were festive, with feasting and dancing. Memorial hitching post were carved for the occasion, with the newlyweds honored with dancing, food and prayers. Wedding anniversaries and graduations are marked with the placement of names on a sledge.
Yakut Homes and Culture
The Yakut traditionally lived in camps with related families living together and sharing pastures, Their winter dwellings were oblong huts with slanted earthen walls, a low ceiling, a sod roofs and a dirt floor. Most had an adjacent room for animals. They generally had large hearth and fur covered benches. The entrance faced east towards favorable deities.
In the summer the Yakuts switched to conical-shape birch bark tents, some of which were large enough to accommodate 100 people. A large hearth was in the middle. Benches and compartments were arranged around the perimeter according to rank. Every pole or eave was carved with an animal. Today these tents are rare; they are used only by herders when they are off in distant pastures. Most live in Russian-style wood or log houses.
The Yakuts had no written language before they came in contact with the Russians. Even so they had a very developed folk art and literature and improvisational poetry accompanied by dancing and mouth harp playing. Yakut artists were famed ivory and wood carvers.
The most important event of the year is the summer yhyak festival. Associated with honoring of Ellei, the founding Yakut ancestor, it features all night line dancing, shamanist rituals, feasting, horse races and merry making. The festival lasts for three days.
The Yakuts enjoy sports such as pole-tugging, jumping, vaulting, lasso throwing, reindeer and dog races, archery, knife-throwing, and Hapsagai, the Yakut form of wrestling. These sports, dancing, singing and mare's milk drinking are the featured events at traditional Yakut ysyakh humiss festivals. Any player that attempts to cheat or get an unfair advantage, or who loses his temper or whines or is spotted doing so by the spectators is booed and humiliated.
Kylys is a jumping event in which competitors take a long run and thrusts off from a bar and try to cover as much distance as possible in 11 steps. It is sort like the triple jump except with more steps. The longest leaps are over 40 meters. Kylys and two other somewhat similar 11-step jumping events make up the Yakut triathlon.
The winner of a hapsagai bout has to pin his opponents on three points of bodies other than the feet (the loser usually touches two arms and a knee). The sport is usually done at festivals and many of the wrestlers are simply people who emerge from the crowd and take their place in the ring. It the old days bouts often lasted hours and the heaviest wrestlers won.
Sakha, whose name was changed from Yakutia in 1994, is by far the largest of the republics in size. It stretch from Russia's Arctic shores in the north to within 500 kilometers of the Chinese border in the south, and from the longitude of the Taymyr Peninsula in the west to within 400 kilometers of the Pacific Ocean in the east. Sakha was annexed by the Russian Empire in the first half of the seventeenth century. Russians slowly populated the valley of the Lena River, which flows northward through the heart of Sakha. In the nineteenth century, most of the nomadic Yakuts adopted an agricultural lifestyle. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]
Sakha (Yakutiya) occupies a fifth of Russia's territory. Formally known as the Yakutsk Autonomous Republic, it covers 1,210,000 square miles (3,100,000 square kilometers), an area three times the size of Texas, most of which is covered by permafrost and half of which is above the Arctic Circle. The northernmost reaches extend along the Eastern Siberia Sea. The southern area includes the Stanovoi Mountains. The Lena River flows northward through cliffs before entering a broad valley and passing the capital of Yakutsk. Altogether there are 700,000 named rivers and streams across Sakha but little agricultural land.
Sakha is a land of bogs, tundra, clouds of mosquitos, -79 degree C winter temperatures, 30 degree C summer temperatures, week-long blizzards, packs of wolves, herds of reindeer, brown bears and Arctic char. It is the largest ethnic republic in Russia but only 21,000 of the republic's one million people are indigenous people such as the Evenks, Evens, Chukchi and Yukagirs. Most of the residents are Russians, Yakuts or Ukrainians.
Sakha (Yakutiya), the parenthesis included, is The official name of the republic. It won limited autonomy when Moscow's authority weakened. The governor refused to rewrite local laws that conflicted with Russia's. Moscow doesn't like this. Yakutia is rich in diamonds, gold, other minerals, coal, timber oil and gas.
Formed as the Yakut Autonomous Republic in 1922, Sakha had a population of 1.1 million in 1994, of which 50 percent were Russian, 33 percent Yakut, 7 percent Ukrainian, and 2 percent Tatar. Climatic conditions preclude agriculture in most of Sakha. Where agriculture is possible, the main crops are potatoes, oats, rye, and vegetables. The republic's economy is supported mainly by its extensive mineral deposits, which include gold, diamonds, silver, tin, coal, and natural gas. Sakha produces most of Russia's diamonds, and natural gas deposits are thought to be large. The capital of Sakha is Yakutsk.
Text Sources: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia, China, edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company, Boston); New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2016