The Evenk, or Evenki, are a Tungusic people of East Siberia, situated around what is today the “Evenkiiskii Avtonomnyi Okrug.” The taiga region which they inhabit is characterized by continuous or discontinuous permafrost, depending on latitude, making it also among the most isolated regions of Russia due to the difficulty of transportation, even in modern times (Habeck). The Evenk, like other peoples of the taiga region were traditionally nomadic. Known as “foragers of the taiga zone,” the Evenk engaged in fishing, hunting, and herding reindeer. During the summer months they lived in temporary settlements along the banks of rivers and lakes, and spent the winter months tracking and trapping fur-bearing animals (Slezkine, 5). Interestingly, the Evenk are of uni-lineal descent. They employed a system of “duolateral cross-cousin marriage” which allowed them to sustain their population despite each small group’s relative remoteness (Bondarenko, 85). In spite of this, contact with other ethnic groups allowed for some degree of cross-assimilation. The Evenk influenced many of the smaller ethnic groups situated on their borders, passing on hunting practices and other cultural traits. They absorbed many Yukaghir pedestrian hunters, who adopted the Evenk practice of travelling and hunting by reindeer. They even assimilated many of these Yukaghir linguistically (Bondarenko, 84-85).
Under the tsars, the Evenk experience was much like that of other northern peoples. The Evenk population migrated north in response to Russian expansion, and there populated a region with westward-moving Yakutian clans, as well as Old Believers and other groups similarly seeking refuge from the tsarist empire (Habeck). They could not, however, completely outrun the reach of the expanding Russian state, and fell under the tsarist iasak (fur-tribute)system. Due to the booming fur trade, Russian settlement increased in the north, which in turn negatively affected the population of animals being trapped. With decreasing reindeer populations, growing outside settlement, and a struggling agricultural economy, the iasak tribute became increasingly burdensome for the Evenk, a problem further compounded by famine in the 19th Century (Slezkine, 80). A mid-18th reform of the iasak tribute system alleviated the problem somewhat by categorizing all northern peoples as ‘wandering’ (thereby making them exempt from taxes) with the exception of a small number of Evenk groups, but tsarist exploitation of the Siberian fur trade continued (Slezkine, 90). Tsarist demands were not limited to fur tribute, though. In fact, most early Russian expansion in the region was carried out, at least in part, by other non-Russian groups. The Evenk, for example, played a large role aiding Russia during its campaigns against the Koriak and Chukchi (Slezkine, 23).
The Russian Revolution ushered in a new wave of complex changes for the Evenk. Trade broke down completely, and displaced peasants again poured out over Evenk lands, decimating reindeer populations. It is estimated that about half of all Evenki lost their entire herd of reindeer (Slezkine, 132). The environmental and economic devastation was compounded during the time of the New Economic Policy, as gold prospectors and even more Russian peasants encroached on traditional Evenk lands, burning down forests and searching the mountains for mineral deposits. This prompted a large-scale Evenk rebellion, which was forcefully quelled by the Soviets in 1925 (Slezkine, 164). During the 1930’s and 1940’s, Soviet collectivization policy aimed to settle the previously nomadic peoples of the north, including the Evenk. However, as this was not in line with traditional communal economic practices, the Soviets were met with much resistance. Even by the 1980’s only a portion of the Evenk population had adopted a sedentary, agricultural lifestyle (Habeck). During the Five-Year Plans, the Evenk resisted Soviet attempts to search rivers and mountains for mineral resources, but were eventually coerced into serving as transporters for the extracted material after Soviet geologists proceeded anyway (Slezkine, 267). Many small collective farms were united to form large enterprises, and by the 1970’s all collective farms had been combined to form state farms. The ethnic composition of the region had also changed dramatically due to the influx of deported Balts and Germans in the 1940’s and the arrival of Russian and Ukrainian surveyors who tore apart East Siberia’s forests and mountains in search of poorly accessible mineral resources (Habeck).
Today, the Evenk are largely concentrated in the Evenkiiskyi Avtonomnyi Okrug, an administrative unit within Krasnoyarsk Krai, and the surrounding territories: the Republic of Sakha and Irkutskaia Oblast’ in the east, the Taymyrskii Avtonomnyi Okrug in the north, and the Krasnoyarsk Krai in the south and west. The Evenkiiskyi Avtonomnyi Okrug is also a member of the Northern Forum, whose local Association of the Numerically Small Peoples of the North represents the interests of the Evenk, as well as the region’s Yakut and Ket inhabitants. Transportation and communication infrastructure remains underdeveloped. Air travel is the only quick and reliable mode of transportation between Evenk villages, with the alternatives being boats, lorries, and reindeer and motor sledges. With unreliable electricity, long-distance communication is usually by radio. The education system is similarly inadequate. Most small settlements have elementary schools, but secondary education is largely restricted to boarding schools in larger towns (Habeck). Hunting remains the only industry which brings considerable revenue from outside Evenk territories, but even this industry is undergoing major changes. Decreasing demand for fur in the West has resulted in plummeting prices, forcing many hunters out of jobs. Large fossil fuel deposits in East Siberia, however, represent another potential force for change. These mineral resources – most notably oil and gas, but also coal, graphite, diamonds, and calcite – are largely untapped in the present, but oil extraction is scheduled to begin in the near future (Habeck).
For centuries, the Evenk have been confronted with conflicting pressures between modernization and preservation of traditional cultural practices. While at times the Evenk resisted these external forces ferociously, it appears that time has slowly eroded their traditional way of life. According to the Scott Polar Research Institute, at this time only 45% of the Evenk population claims Evenk as its native tongue, with the percentage much lower among the younger generations. This growing generational disconnect is not limited to language. Perhaps due to late Soviet-era russification policies, or perhaps due to general modernization and globalization, fewer young Evenk than ever are interested in traditional Evenk economic practices and lifestyle, and more express interest in leaving their traditional territorial homes for larger cities (Slezkine, 350). Also at fault is the educational system based on boarding schools, where, after being reintroduced in the 1980’s, Evenk language is taught only as a subject, not as a language of instruction. The education system has also produced an entire generation of Evenk who lack the willingness and skills needed for reindeer herding, an occupation often considered to be inseparably linked with Evenk cultural identity. Some even argue that the cultural survival of the Evenk depends on the continuation of reindeer herding as a viable economic activity (Habeck). It remains to be seen how the continued economic transformation of East Siberia will impact the traditional Evenki cultural practices and the survival of the native Evenk tongue, and to what extent this generation of Evenk will resist or embrace the coming economic transformation and the cultural transformation that is sure to accompany it.
- Dmitri Bondarenko, Svetlana Borinskaya, Alexander Kazankov, Andrey Korotajev, and Daria Khaltourina, “Ethnographic Atlas XXX: Peoples of Siberia,” Ethnology 43 (2004), 83-92.
- Joachim Otto Habeck “Evenkiyskiy Avtonomnyy Okrug (Evenki Autonomous District),” University of Cambridge: Scott Polar Research Institute. http://www.spri.cam.ac.uk/resources/rfn/evenki.html
- Yuri Slezkine, Arctic Mirrors: Russia and the Small Peoples of the North (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996).