The Evenki, also known as the Tungus, are a group of 30,000 or so traditional reindeer herders and pastorialists who live scattered across Siberia and the Far East: in Evenki National Area, Yakutia, Taimyr, Buryatia, Sakhalin Island, the Sakha Republic, in northern Siberia around the Lena River, south of Lake Baikal and around the Amur River in Manchuria.
The Evenki were divided into many distinct groups. Some of the names used to describe them—Birar, Ile, Manegir, Mata and Orochen—were names these groups. They are divided into two main groups: 1) reindeer herders who live in tundras in the north; and 2) horse and cattle pastorialists who live in the mountains, larch forests and grassland in the south. [Source: Vanora Bennet, Los Angeles Times, October 18, 1997]
The Evenki speak a Tungus-Manchu language, which is related to Chinese, look like Mongolians and live in family units called brigades. During the Soviet period, some Evenki were settled in villages; others were allowed to practice their herding ways. The Evenki used to wear fish skin clothes.
Area Occupied by the Evenki
Like their cousins the Evens, the Evenki are unique in the world in that they have a small population but occupy huge expanses of land, in many cases at a density of one person per 250 square kilometers of land. They are the most widely distributed people in Siberia and the Far East and can be found in around half the territory west of the Urals. They can also be found in Mongolia and in northern Manchuria in China.
About 40 percent of the Evenki live in Yakut Republic; 13 percent live Khabarovsk territory and 28 percent live in Irkutsk and Amur Provinces and Buryatia,. The Evenki make up 14 percent of the population of the Evenk Autonomous District north of Krasnoyarsk, where about 12 percent of them live.
In the Sakha Republic, the Evenki, live where there are no roads or towns, only taiga and tundra and snow. The nearest city, Yakutsk, is an hour and a half away by air. Along the Amur river in the Far East they live with the Nania and Ulchi ethnic groups.
The heartland of Evenki culture is in southeastern Siberia, north of Manchuria. The Evenki migrated out from this region using reindeer. After their first contacts with the Russians in 1540 they retreated to area between rivers. In the Soviet era they pleaded with the government to keep Russian settlements away from the traditional hunting grounds.
History of the Evenki and Evens
Until around a century ago no distinction was made between the Even and Evenki—ethnic minorities that are recognized as different today. The two groups are more alike than they are different. Their lifestyles, Tungus-Manchu, Altaic language and traditional religions are similar. The main difference is that the Even live mainly in northeast Russia and the Evenki live in the southeast and north central areas of Siberia. The two groups have been physically separated from each other long enough that some different characteristics have emerged.
Tungus-speaking people emerged in ancient times in Siberia. The ancestors of the Evens and Evenki were closely related to the Turkic-speaking Yakut. Around the 11th century B.C. a northern branch of the Tungus began to have contact with the ancestors of the Yukagir. Threatened by the ancient Turks, Tungus-speaking people began migrating to the west, north and particularly the northeast. In the 15th and 16th centuries the people that became the Evens and Evenki settled on the shore of the Sea of Okhotsk. Even though this area was very sparsely populated there were conflicts with other people that lived there, particularly with the Koryaks over grazing pastures for reindeer.
The consolidation of the Evenki as a distinct group with a distinct territory took place after the arrival of the Russians. The Russians set up a system of tribute and in the process of defining which group gave them what they helped the groups establish territories with roughly-defined borders. Evenki in the 19th Century
The Evenkis used to be called the Tungus. Describing them in the 1820s, the explorer John Bell wrote: "They have no homes where they remain for any time, but range throughout the woods and long rivers for pleasure; and,wherever they come, they erect a few spars, in clinging to one another at the top; these they cover with pieces of boiled birch bark, sewed together, leaving, a hole at the top to let out smoke...They can not bear to sleep in a warm room, but retire to their huts and lie about the fire on skins of wild bears. It is surprising that these creatures can suffer the very piercing cold of these parts."
"They are very civil and tractable, and like to smoke tobacco and drink brandy...I have seen many of the men with oval figures, like wreaths, on their foreheads and chins...These are made, in their infancy, by pricking the parts with needles and rubbing them with charcoal...They have many shamans among them, I was told of others, whose abilities for fortune-telling far exceeded those of the shaman."
"The women dressed in a fur-gown, reaching below the knee, and tied about the waist with a girdle...made of deer skins, having their hair curiously stitched down and ornamented...The dress of the men consists of a short jacket with narrow sleeves made of deer skin, having the fur outward; trousers and hoses of the same kind of skin...They have besides a piece of fur, that covers the breasts and stomach, which is hung about the neck with a string of leather."
"Their arms are a bow and several sorts of arrows, according to the different kinds of game they intend to hunt...In winter, the season for hunting wild beasts, they travel on what are called snow shoes...They have a different kind of shoe for ascending hills, with the skins of seal glued to the boards, having the hair inclined backwards which prevents them from sliding on there shoes...When a Tungus goes hunting into the woods, he carries with him no provisions, but depends entirely on what he has to catch."
The Evenki have traditionally practiced ancestor worship and animism, worshiping many natural elements, including a wind god, mountain god and fire god. Their universe is divided into three realms: upper, inhabited by benevolent spirits, middle (earth) and lower inhabited by deceased ancestors. Bears and some birds were revered and prayed to for good weather and hunting. Whenever the ate bear meat they conducted the same rituals they did for their own dead.
Shamans were consulted for spiritual matters and health problems. They could be men or women, and were believed to have the power to travel to the Upper and Lower Worlds. Usually they became shaman after a long illness and accepted no payment for their services and wore an elaborate costume with iron antlers. Shaman were often called on to treat “arctic hysteria,” a kind of brief tantrum experience by many boreal people.
In the old days, the Evenki practiced wind burial, in which the bones of the dead are hung in a hollow tree suspended on tree stumps. Under the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church, they changed to earth burials.
The Evenki have traditionally been nomadic herders who lived in nomadic units called brigades, comprised of several nuclear families. They move their herds six times a year, migrating primarily between winter woods, where forests provide protection from the wind and supplies of firewood are plentiful, and summer pastures, where their animals can get fattened up for the winter months. The migration southward for the winter takes place after the reindeer mating season. One Evenki reindeer herder told the Los Angeles Times, "To strangers our life may seem savage and primitive. But not to us, it's just life. The life our fathers led before us, what's in our blood. We actually like it."
Traditionally, nomadic Evenki lived in conical tents covered by animal hides in the winter and birch bark in the summer. They herded reindeer and hunted for elk, rose deer and squirrels in groups of four or five hunters with shotguns and dogs. Food was shared equally, with the hunter who made the kill customarily taking the least desirable part. Special care was taken to make sure the sick, aged and disabled were provided for. Reindeer provided a means of transport for belongings. Hunters sometimes rode them or were pulled by them on ski boards.
Evenki that still practice nomadism live in yurts (circular felt tents) or 10-foot-square canvas tents and keep themselves warm and cook from a fire, whose smoke escapes from hole in the canvas. They sleep on low beds, primarily eat reindeer flesh and organs and spend their day doing chores like cooking, milking the herd, gathering berries, making cream, looking for strays, watching out for wolves, doing embroidery and washing clothes.
Evenki society has traditionally revolved around clans. The clan is important in determining who can use land. Exclusion from the clan is an important means of social control. Each clan is headed by a chief, often a shaman, who presides over meetings and settles disputes but otherwise acts like any other member of the clan. Blood feuds have occurred between clans, which have often recruited new members to increase their strength.
Clans have traditionally acted independently of one another, except for purposes of marriage where clans have been to paired to exchange brides. Families have traditionally been identified by their clan names rather than family names. A clan can have anywhere from 10 to 100 members.
Possessions were traditionally shared. Anybody could take what they wanted when they needed, with the understanding they would pay it back wen they were able. For honored guests, a reindeer is slaughtered with a slit to the throat. The pelt is peeled back, the organs are removed, blood is drained and the meat is cut into four-inch cubes.
Evenki Marriage and Family
Marriages have traditionally been arranged, with the consent of the bride and groom. The custom of paying bride wealth was outlawed by the Soviets. In recent decades many Evenki have married non-Evenki.
Traditional elopement occurs. Under this custom a couple sets up a felt tent with a traditional conical tent beside it. In the middle of the night the girls sneaks out off her tent and rides off with her lover. The couple sleeps together in the traditional conical tent. The marriage is formalized when an elderly women rearranges the bride’s eight pigtails into two. Most newlyweds set up their households with the groom’s clan.
Children have traditionally been both spoiled and toughened up. They were breast fed in some cases until they were six but were sometimes exposed to the freezing cold naked to toughen them up. It was not uncommon for children to be treated with exposure to the cold to get rid of diseases. These days children of nomads spend a lot of time away from the herding clan attending boarding school. Their parents complain that makes them weak.
The Evenki made carved sculptures from wood, bone and antlers and made clothing from reindeer fawn skins that featured bread embroidery, fur applique, patchwork and metal ornamentations. Their oral history and literature—comprised of epic tales, myths and songs—is rich in stories between clans, blood feuds and abduction of women,
Some villages still have shaman that do the old dances but many of traditions are being lost and young people are more interested in the modern world than the old world. The Evenki like to play Yakut sports. Sports like lassoing and horse racing are often connected with nomadic life.
The Tungus people revered tigers as a wilderness deity, a protector of ginseng and the "True Spirit of the Mountains." They often refer to the animals as "Grandfather" or "Old Man" and believe that tigers use their color to ambush their prey by leaping from the sun at dawn and sunset.
Evenki and the Modern World
Most Evenki have been educated at Russian schools and have Russian names and developed drinking problems after being exposed to Russian vodka. Many Evenki are part of the modern economy and have regular jobs. Many of those involved in animal husbandry make a living raising fur-bearing animals rather than reindeer herding.
Today, the Evenki dream of setting up a reindeer production facility that can survive without government help and live a life similar to the Scandinavian Lapps, who live a traditional reindeer herding existence but also have things like hot showers, cell phones, decent incomes and televisions. The Evenki also hope to sell reindeer antlers in Korea and China as an Asian medicine. Their biggest obstacle is transportation costs. Their settlements can not be reached by road of ship and the a $1,000-an-hour cost of renting a helicopter is prohibitively expensive.
Some Nenets live in Krasnoyarsk Territory, which extends north of Krasnoryarsk to the Arctic Sea in western-central Siberia in one of the most resource-rich parts of Russia. It is occupied largely by the Yenisey River basin. Many of the towns can only be reached by plane, helicopter or boat. There are few road or railroads.
Krasnoyarsk is relatively wealthy. It covers 600,000 square kilometers (375,000 square miles), an area the size of France or about a fifth the size of the United States, it is endowed with large reserves of coal, minerals, oil, gas, and timber but only has 3.5 million people. Exploiting the resources are a fair number of crooked politicians, corrupt businessmen and gangsters. Turf battles, murders and assassination aimed at towards getting a larger piece of the pie are not unknown.
Since the break up of the Soviet Union the Evenks and the Nenets have suffered catastrophic declines in life expectancy and high rates of sickness and death that have prompted speculation that some of those groups may become extinct. [Source: Library of Congress, 1996]
The Evens are hunter-fishermen related to the Evenki that live in the Chukotka, Kamchatka and Magaden regions. Also known as Lamuts and Tungas, they have traditionally lived in chums, wigwam-type dwellings covered with bark or fish skin, and made a variety of things from birch bark.
Like the Evenki, the Evens are unique in the world in that they have a small population but occupy a huge expanse of land. There are only around 17,000 Evens but have traditionally lived in an area covering 3 million square kilometers, an area roughly the size of Western Europe, that embraces mountains, taiga and tundra. Their neighbors include the Yakut, Yukagir, Chukchi and Koyak.
The existence of the Even as a distinct group is partly the work of the Russians who defined them as a distinct group rather than a subgroups based on their language and cultural elements. Over time they became more distinct as they borrowed features from other groups such as the Koyak methods of herding reindeer and the dwellings of the Chukchi and Koryak.
The Even have traditionally been reindeer herders and hunters. Originally reindeer were used primarily as beasts of burden but as their traditional hunting methods changed they began to rely more on them as a source of food and hides. Today, some Even maintain very large herds of reindeer, with the largest in the 1990s having around 2,000 or so animals. The migration routes are often well defined and in many cases have been followed for centuries by particular clan groups or ethnic groups.
The Even eat nealy every part of the reindeer, including marrow, tendons, gristle and the soft parts of the hooves and horns. They regard eating the meat and tissues raw—particularly the lungs, kidneys and liver—as healthy. The also eat gathered plants, locusts, berries and nuts. Sufferers of frostbite were traditionally treated by wrapping them in the carcass of a freshly killed reindeer. Burns were treated with reindeer blood.
Even herders lived in a kind of conical cylindrical dwelling called a dya that was a combination of the Tungus tipi ( chum) and Chukchi yaranga. Lightweight and easy to transport, it was comprised of a slender pole frame covered by reindeer skins. They could be erected and taken down in 10 to 15 minutes. In the winter they lived in semi-subterranean dwellings at a depth of one meter below the ground. Today most live in wood or log houses but still spend time in traditional or factory-produced tents.
The Even have traditionally been animists who believed that almost every living thing and natural object had a soul. In their pantheon of good and evil spirts were special guardians that were given extra attention. Of particular importance were the fire helper and the cult of the bear. Even Orthodox Evens “feed” the fire before every meal. After a ritual bear hunt, body parts of the bear are placed on altars in their home. Shaman, who wore iron reindeer antlers and a costume with metal pendants, were employed to ward of evil spirits, communicate with spirits through seances, cure people and direct spirits of the dead to the afterlife. Few shaman remain anymore.
Even Hunting Life
The Even hunted of deer, elks (moose), bears, rabbits, foxes, mountain goats, musk deer and other animals for meat and for fur. When hunting wild reindeer they employed a domesticated reindeer attached with a lasso that would entangle any reindeer that tried to fight it. This deer would be maneuvered by a hunter to the leader of the herd who would try to battle it.
Before firearms became widely used the Even hunted bears alone with a spear and knife. The hunter encouraged the bear to charge and when it did the hunter threw a piece of cloth in the air to get the animal to rise up on its hind legs, leaving its chest area exposed. The hunter then kneeled and extended the spear forward. When the bear tried to lung for the hunter it impaled itself on the spear. The hunter usually had a dog with him whose purpose was to distract the bear if something went wrong with the hunt, allowing the hunter to escape.
The Even used powerful bows when hunting elk (moose) and crossbow-like contraptions to hunt small animals. Mountain goats were ambushed from a hiding place, deer were often killed only after being wounded and chased, sometimes for several days. In the winter the Even followed animals and track them on skis. The Even also fished and hunted nerpas (seals). During the salmon migration season they sectioned off parts of rivers and caught large number of fishing. To catch other kinds of fish they use square and conical nets.
After the arrival of the Russians the Even were forced to expend more effort to producing furs for tributes to the tsar and less energy to traditional hunting. The introduction of firearms also changed their hunting style dramatically. Some hunters wore a hunting hat with ornaments made of walrus ivory.
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