The Tofalars are a tiny indigenous population located in the Irkutsk Oblast in Russia. Before the 20th century, the Tofalars were primarily a nomadic group dependent on reindeer husbandry. During the Soviet Period, the Tofalars were subjected to intense collectivization. Under this system, families were assigned to collective farms, uprooted from their traditional ways of life and forbidden to practice both the Tofa language and shamanist religion. Today, there are less than one thousand people who identify as Tofalar, and as a consequence of Soviet assimilation policy, few are able to speak the Tofa language. The Tofalar are identified by a number of names including Tubalar, Karagas, and Tufa, each indicative of a different time period.
The Tofalars have lived for centuries in the Irkutsk Oblast in Russia. Evidence of Tofalar ancestors still remains in the cliffs of the Sayan Mountains. Primitive cave drawings depicting both humans and reindeer demonstrate the ancient Tofalar traditions of reindeer husbandry. The Tofalars once belonged to the larger Tuvan-Todzhan group. However, following the subjugation of part of Tuva under the Machu Dynasty during the 18th century, the Tofalars’ nomadic lands were located within the Russian side of the border (Potapov, 384). Unfortunately, the Tofalar were exploited by the Russian Tsarist system and forced to pay an exorbitant hunting tax. Every capable adult paid the hunting-tax, reckoned in sable furs, which were valued at almost 2 times less than proper market price in the central cities of Russia (Sergeyev, 474). The Tofalars were divided in five primary clans: the Kash, Saryg-Kash, Chodgdu, Kara-Chogdu and the Cheptey. The clans controlled separate hunting territories and lived in separate nomadic areas. Each clan was further broken down into smaller familial units (Sergeyev, 479).
The Tofalars were primarily a nomadic people. Small clans moved as frequently as bi-monthly, living along the cooler mountain streams in the heat in the summer, and moving to the sheltered mountain bases in the winter (Sergeyev, 474). Their economy developed primarily around reindeer husbandry; the reindeer provided labor, sustenance, mobility and social standings within the clan. Reindeer were used in transportation, serving both as pack animals and, once domesticated, for riding. Female reindeer were prized for their milk. These herds varied in size, though quantity reflected the social standing and wealth of the family’s patriarch. Unlike other nomadic groups in the region, the Tofalar economy did not predominately rely on hunting and fishing.
The traditional lifestyle of the Tofalar people was significantly affected by the rise of the Soviet Union. In 1930, Soviet policies of collectivization and denomadization were imposed on the many small groups across Siberia, including the Tofalars. Each family was required to join a collective farm, controlled by Russian managers with unrestricted authority and little-to-no understanding of Tofa language, culture or society. Party members encouraged local participation in collectivization through “strange ‘premiums’ for collective farms in the form of alcoholic spirits” (Kolarz, 95). The Soviet government implemented a mandatory Soviet education system for children, requiring Russian as the sole language of instruction. Soviet officials also took steps to weaken local culture and traditions, prohibiting the Tofa language and forbidding shamanism. Though collectivization was defended as the solution to the “very important economic task of settling these age-old nomads” and frequently portrayed as a “genuine cultural revolution”, the realities of its oppression cannot be understated. Policies of assimilation were harsh and “uncompromising; shamanism was to be ruthlessly suppressed, young people inducted into boarding schools, and indigenous languages to be ‘liquidated’” (Bartels, 271).
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, many minorities have since condemned the government, blaming Russia for endangering ethnicities in Russia, including the Tofalar people. Yeltsin’s policies regarding indigenous groups have been criticized; despite massive economic collapse, Yeltsin’s advisors advocated a reduction in time and money for assisting the region. Resources and rights have been allocated by importance, and small Siberian groups have been deemed “lower priorities relative to the requirements of Machiavellian Russian ‘patriot’ groups” (Mote, 176). In March 1996, the APN (Association of Peoples of the North) drafted a letter to the Russian government, entitled Discrimination Against Indigenous People of the Russian North. In it, they decried the failures of the Russian state in regards to minority groups, citing soaring unemployment as a consequence of economic collapse, “increased impoverishment, life-threatening levels of crime and alcoholism, and the erosion of traditional outlooks on life” (Mote, 177).
Dennis Bartels and Alice L. Bartels,”Indigenous Peoples of the Russian North and Cold War Ideologies” Anthropologica (48. no. 2 (2006): 265-279)
James Forsyth, A History of the Peoples of Siberia: Russia’s North Asian Colony 1581-1990 (Cambridge University Press, 1992)
Victor L Mote. Siberia: Worlds Apart (Westview Press, Colorado 1998)
M.A. Sergeyev, The Tofalars. The Peoples of Siberia. Edited by M.G. Levin and L.P. Potapov (The University of Chicago Press, 1956)
Piers Vitebsky, The Reindeer People: Living with Animals and Spirits in Siberia. (Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005.)