The Khanty (pronounced HANT-ee) are a group of Finno-Ugric-speaking, semi-nomadic reindeer herders. Also known as Ostyaks, Asiakh, and Hante they are related to the Mansi, another group of Finno-Ugric-speaking reindeer herders. [Source: John Ross, Smithsonian; Alexander Milovsky, Natural History, December, 1993]
There are about 23,000 Khanty. They live primarily in the Khanty-Mansisk District of Tium Oblast, a region along the northern tributaries of the Ob River in northwestern Siberia about 1,100 miles northwest of Moscow and 200 mile south of the Arctic Circle. Their cousins, the 8,000 or so Mansi (or Voguls), also live there. The region has been damaged by oil exploration.
Only about 60 percent of Khanty speak their native language and a much smaller percentage live in the forest. In the Khanty-Mansiisk District they are far outnumbered by other ethnic groups.
History of the Khanty
The Khanty speak a language similar to Finish and Hungarian. They are believed to have migrated from the steppes of Central Asia northward around the 8th century. They fought with the ancestors of the Komi, and Nenets, and captured slaves, wives and sacrificed victims. From the 13th to 16th centuries they paid tribute to a Tatar sultan but then joined a Cossack group to oust them. Later they joined with the Tatars in a rebellion against the Russians and Cossacks.
The Khanty picked up reindeer herding around the 15th century from the Nentsi. Over the centuries they have dealt with Turks, Mongols, Cossacks and Russians. Their spirit world includes a Christlike figure and Turkic gods. The have a long history of livestock theft, blood feuds and wars.
Two hundred years ago the Khanty and Mansi ranged over much of western Siberia but more aggressive drove them to where they live now. Beginning in the early 1820s, Russian settlers began moving into Khanty areas. At first they encroached on the southern limits of their territory and then spread northward on the rivers. There were periodic revolts and population declines that resulted from introduced diseases. Many Khanty migrated inland, These people retain their traditions and have been largely untouched by Christianity, Islam, agriculture or urban Russian life.
During the Soviet era, the Khanty were restricted from participating in their traditional way of life and encouraged to assimilate. Like other herders, they were collectivized into large state farms. Owners of large herds were punished as class enemies. The Khanty rebelled. Their uprising was brutally suppressed by Stalin's soldiers. Some of their shaman were imprisoned and executed.
Khanty Religion and Bears
The Khanty believe the forest is inhabited by invisible people and spirits of animals, forest, rivers and natural landmarks. Their most important spirits belong to the sun, moon and bear. Khanty shaman work as intermediaries between the living worlds and the spiritual world. The invisible people are like gremlins or trolls. They are blamed for missing puppies, strange events and unexplained behavior. Sometimes they can become visible and lure living people to the other world. This is one reason the Khanty are suspicious of strangers they meet in the forest.
The Khanty believe that women possess up to four souls, and men five. During Khanty funerals rituals are performed to make sure all the souls go to their proper places. To remove an unwanted spirit a person stands on one foot while placing a bowl of burning birch fungus under the other foot seven times. In the old days sometimes horses and reindeer were sacrificed.
The Khanty believe the bear is the son of Torum, master of the upper and most sacred region of heaven. According to legend the bear lived in heaven and was allowed to move to earth only after he promised to leave the Khanty and their reindeer herds alone. The bear broke the promise and killed a reindeer and desecrated Khanty graves. A Khanty hunter killed the bear, releasing one of the bear spirits to heaven and the rest to places scattered around the earth. The Khanty have over 100 different words for bear. They generally don't kill bears but are permitted to kill them if they feel threatened. The Khanty walk softly in the forest so as not to disturb them.
Vogul graves were like cradles. The corpse was laid a on bed of moss and elk hair. The dead often had reigns placed in their hands to signify they were embarking on a journey.
Khanty Bear Festival
The most important ritual in Khanty life has traditionally been the ceremony that takes place after a bear is killed. Dating perhaps back to Stone Age, the purpose of the ceremony is to placate the bear’s spirit and ensure a good hunting season. The last bear festival to serve as an initiation was held in the 1930s but they have been were held in secular terms since then. Hunting bear was taboo except at these festivals.
Lasting anywhere from one to four days, the bear festival featured costumed dances and pantomimes, bear games, and ancestral songs about bears and the legend of the Old Clawed One. Several reindeer were sacrificed. The climax of the festival was a shaman ritual in which the head of the slain bear was placed in the middle of the table.
Describing a Khanty shaman, Alexander Milovsky wrote in Natural History: "Suddenly Oven took up a frame drum and beat upon it, gradually increasing the tempo. As he stepped into the middle of the room, the sacrament of the ancient dance began. Oven's movements became more agitated as he entered his deep trance and 'flew' to the other world where he contacted the spirits."
Next the man who killed the bear apologized for his actions and asked the bear's head for forgiveness by bowing and singing an ancient song. This was followed by a ritual play, with actors in birch bark masks and deerskin clothes, dramatizing the role of the first bear in the Khanty creation myth.
Khanty Bear Games and Tolstoy
The Khanty bear games include bawdy sexual role reversal dances, anti-Russian skits, plays that make fun of awkward hunters that fall through holes on the ice, and dances in which female "reindeer" in pink dresses try to get away from male hunters. Tolstoy described similar rituals in his account of the "the theater of the savage Voguls." (Voguls were an old name for the Mansi).
Tolstoy wrote: "A third Vogul played the part of a hunter. He held a bow and arrow and had snowshoes on his feet. A forth depicted a bird that warned the reindeer of danger. The hunter talked to the doe and its young relentlessly. That, indeed, was the drama of the piece. The deer ran off the stage and then came running back."
"The performance took place in a [tepee]. The hunter came closer and closer and wounded the calf. Exhausted, it pressed up against its mother, who licked the wound. The hunter drew a second arrow. The audience, as those present related, held its breath. There were sighs of sympathy. Someone even sobbed."
Khanty Life and Homes
Khanty men have traditionally hunted and trapped, tended the reindeer herds, fished and killed animal for sacrifices while women processed furs and fish. Women have traditionally been very self reliant because their husbands were gone for long period hunting or tending reindeer. They are regarded as ritually impure and there are many taboos associated with them especially when they are menstruating. For example they can mot prepare food when they are having their period. They often wear flower print headscarves and brightly colored dresses hemmed with embroidered strips of cloth.
Khanty festivals have traditionally featured naked dancers and transvestite men imitating bride capture. Shaman seances included drumming, slight-of-hand magic, dancing and ventriloquism and the calling on spirits that ranged from mosquitos to sacred ears to St. Nicholas. The recitation of epic tales and legends sometimes lasted all night. Khanty medicines include Siberian ginseng, ground deer antler and chewing tobacco mixed with ashes. Gunpowder is rubbed on the eyes. Rancid bear fat is rubbed into the skin.
Most Khanty now live in Russian-style log houses in settled communities in villages or on the outskirts of towns. Some still live in camps and villages in traditional tents and houses. In the winter the Khanty lived in yurts or houses deep in the woods. The houses are often log cabins organized around a reindeer corral and lake.
The Khanty have traditionally lived in swampy forests filled with ponds and bogs. In the summer when they are on move they live in 12-foot portable tepees, known as chum (pronounced CHOOM), made from deerskin or khaki-colored canvas. The tents is supported by 26 pine poles covered by felt. The hole at the center allows smoke to escape. Inside the tent the ground is covered with pine boughs and white reindeer fur. A metal stove lies at the center. It provides warmth and often has a kettle of water of tea boiling. One the walls are hung animals skins and wings from eagles and ducks.
Khanty Food and Hunting
Khanty eat bread, fish, berries and reindeer meat. During the summer they spend much of their time picking cranberries and cloudberries. During the winter they eat sweet pine nuts. They are particularly fond of eating raw reindeer meat dipped in salt or fresh blood, and blood bread. which resemble pink pancakes.
The Khanty like to drink tea. The Khanty also like to drink vodka. After pouring the vodka into cups they sprinkle water on the coals of fire and chant for a few minutes: a prayer to the invisible people. Many Khanty and Mansi suffer from alcoholism.
The Khanty catch pike and whitefish in conical traps woven from reeds and sticks and placed in the middle of streams and rivers. In lakes they catch perch and pike with nets dropped from small boats. Most of the fish are fed to the reindeer that have a fondness for dried fish.
The Khanty also engage in hunting and trapping. They set wooden traps for bear and capercaillie, a large black grouse. They also eat the meat from moose, squirrel, ptarmigan, waterfowl and reindeer. Khanty men sometimes carry a shotgun and are often accompanied by small huskies. Many hunters today use snowmobiles to reach areas where animals are and then track them by foot. Animals are easiest to track in the winter when they leave tracls in the snow.
Khanty and Reindeer
Khanty reindeer herds are owned by both families and the community. The animals provide the Khanty with food, clothing, housing and transportation. The hooves and fur are used for boots; bone is carved into knife handles; and the sinews are used for sewing. The skin is scraped, cured and hardened with fish guts and used for the bedding of sleds.
Reindeer are killed with a blow to the head from the blunt end of an ax. After a reindeer dies the Khanty turn clockwise seven times, bowing and chanting for the spirit of the reindeer to be accepted by the spirits of the earth and the forest. The animals is then butchered. Arteries are tied off so blood doesn't splatter on the fur.
The reindeer meat is buried next the permafrost to keep it from spoiling. Sometime meat is sold to butythings the forest doesn't provide.
Khanty Reindeer Herders
The Khanty are seminomadic. They move among seasonal camps to make sure the food supply for their reindeer and the themselves is not depleted in a single area. When on the move Khanty carry sacks and birch backpacks filled food and supplies. Many Khanty have jobs and return to the forest when they can to take up the nomadic life.
The Khanty traditionally followed the same migration routes and repeatedly used the same winter and summer camps. Wealthy herders had several hundred animals. Extended family herds typically numbered a few dozen.
The Khanty are forest herders. Reindeer are more difficult to supervise in the forest than in the tundra. Hence they manage small herds and supplements their diet with other game and fish caught with weirs and traps. Furs were traditionally the primary means of exchange for goods they could not produce themselves.
A typical herd has 200 reindeer. They all have names and the herder is aware of the habits, ages, personality and ancestry of each individual. In the spring reindeer are allowed to roam freely. In the summer, Khanty herders drive the reindeer into corrals by lighting piles of wet peat fires, which produce thick smoke that drives the mosquitos away.
The Khanty have set up cooperatives to sell meat. Many young Khanty say they don't want be reindeer herders.
Khanty and Oil Exploration
Many Khanty have been driven from their homelands by oil and gas companies. Some Khanty continue live off the land in areas where there is intensive oil and gas development. In these areas some rivers have been polluted and reindeer migrations have been disrupted by oil drilling and exploration. Dying trees are blamed on acid rain from refineries.
In the 1980s the Khanty protested to the government about the exploitation of their traditional lands and the invasion of outsiders who had little respect for their traditional ways. In the 1990s they joined forces with other northern peoples to fight for their rights.
Some Khanty have consulted with the oil companies about establishing corridors for reindeer and minimizing the damages caused by drilling and explorations.
The Mansi, known in the old days as the Voguls, are close relatives of the Khanty and live primarily in the Khanty-Mansisk District of Tium Oblast, a region along the northern tributaries of the Ob River in northwestern Siberia about 1,100 miles northwest of Moscow and 200 mile south of the Arctic Circle. There are around 8,000 or so Mansi.
The Mansi have traditionally survived by fishing, hunting and gathering, The hunting methods they employed and the animals they went after was determined by what was available. Often they relied chiefly on fishing and dried enough fish during the summer to last through the winter. They hunted elk, bears, wild reindeer with spears, bows and arrows and traps until the 19th century when the began using firearms. Elk were caught with a system of traps and triggered bows.
Many Mansi still hunt. They use dogs and firearms and go chiefly after muskrats and squirrels. Sable are hunted with nets and guns by a pair of hunters: one who flushes the sable from its den into the net and the other who shoots the animal. Their traditional religion is often aimed at securing a successful hunt.
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