Examination of Russia’s historical past and its relations with the ‘small peoples’ of Russia’s extreme North is not complete without an understanding of the Siberian Tungus-speaking Eveny (Lamut) tribe. Through breeding reindeer herds, these semi-nomadic people have maintained a consistent link to their landscape as well as their ancient past. They remained a forest dwelling people for centuries, their environment demanding that they maintain ancient skills. These skills would alter the way Russian Europeans viewed Evenys’ place and function within the empire. The Eveny are described as having “acute powers of observation, they were adept at merging with their surroundings, moving swiftly and silently, and stalking and killing” in order to provide for their basic sustenance (Forsyth, 49). They share a language from the Machu-Tungus group with their closest kin, the Evenk. However, the Evenys’ history of mixing and mingling with other native of distinct Tungus dialects has endangered their own language style and their ethnic population.* Despite this, they still remain the second largest Tungus-speaking group in the Russian North.
Eveny culture and traditions are closely linked to the animal life of the Siberian landscape. In order to survive in the wilds of the circumpolar regions, communal living was and remains central to the tribe. The importance and prestige of the hunt belonged to the nimat or hunting band not just the individual hunter. Much of the Eveny dialect stems from the relationship of their culture and its close dependency on reindeer husbandry. Piers Vitebsky recounts his experiences living amongst a group of Eveny and found just how strongly the reindeer culture impacted their own language:
Eveny language reflects the finality of this separation between the two kinds of reindeer by labeling them forever as different kinds of creatures. As in the languages of many reindeer peoples, there is no single word that covers both wild reindeer (buyun) and domestic reindeer (oron) (Vitebsky, 27).
As the Eveny live a semi-nomadic lifestyle, they are consistently in close contact with various other tribes including different Tungus-speaking groups. This has posed a problem for their heritage and language due to the different customs and dialects of various groups. For this reason, the Eveny have assiduously prevented marriage outside of their own tribes in order to maintain their own cherished ways: “There were local variations in the social customs of different tribes, so that many obstacles existed to prevent inter-marriage even with other Tungus groups” (Forsyth, 50). For the most part, marriages were arranged by parents. Polygamous relations are the norm for their society, though a fixed system of guidelines has been in place regulating the sexual conduct between Eveny men and women for quite some time.
Shaman practices are important to their culture, as is Eveny respect and treatment of bear-burial rites. Much of the function of the shaman was to channel their own soul into the spirit world in order to cure the sick, protect the dead, and ensure a prosperous season and weather for their lives. However, with the emergence of the Russians and Orthodoxy, many members of the tribe converted to Christianity and gave up their ‘pagan’ life styles. Much of this was due to the enlightenment efforts of the Russians to save them from ‘backwardness.’ After the 1917 revolution and the rise of the Bolsheviks, the shamans filled the spiritual vacuum for the tribe members. In Forsyth’s view, “shamanism, indeed, became the principal guardian of Christian standards, especially among the nomadic reindeer herding [Evenys] of the taiga” (Forsyth, 267). Their beliefs in the spiritual and naturalistic world transcend their idea of westernized religion and this includes a mystical belief in bears. When it becomes necessary for the nimat to kill a bear, the meticulous handling of the corpse exhibits its majestic value. Members of the hunting band ask the bear for forgiveness for having had to kill the creature and will in certain cases try to convince the bear that it was the Russians who were responsible. The eyes are sewn shut in order that the spirit of the animal does not see who was responsible for the act. Furthermore, they believed that the performance of the burial rites, “especially the preservation of the skull and bones of the bear, would help the soul to reincarnate as a bear into a new body” (Irimoto, 107).
Such attention and respect can even be traced to the peaceful nature of the tribe themselves: “Eveny culture was founded on the use of animals as metaphors for relations between humans” (Vitebsky, 111). Such a metaphor can include the complete respect of the Eveny for every form of living creature. That is, their respect for the bear, as well as for their reindeer herd, also reaches out to their immense respect for all humans.
Furthermore, the deep attachment held by the Eveny for wildlife extends into the political arena. When acquisition of their herds by Russian forces conflicted with the Eveny’s way of life the tendency for the tribesmen to rebel was more frequent. During the 1931-32 gold-mine crisis, for example, Soviet authorities sought to ‘mobilize’ the reindeer from the native tribes for transport and meat supplies (Forsyth, 343). This caused the local Eveny tribes to conceal themselves in the Siberian forest which the Russians could not penetrate without the assistant of Eveny guides and reindeer. The gold-mine resistance is just one small example of how frequently the Eveny tribes had to struggle to maintain their freedom and culture. However, it may be the case that their own ‘backwardness’ aided in their abilities to remain whole and stave off Russian encroachments on their way of life:
Of all the peoples of Siberia … [Eveny] Tungus with their mobile way of life, absence of hierarchical organization of fixed tribal territory, and traditions of egalitarianism in the distribution of hunting spoils, were perhaps the least capable of adapting, or being molded, to social preconceptions of the Russian communists. However, the relatively limited penetration of Central and Eastern Siberian forest-lands by Russian state influences even as late as the 1940s gave some of the Reindeer-Tungus a respite from the inexorable advance of European civilization (Forsyth, 253).
The Eveny tribe is still an important contributor to the affairs of the Russian North. Though the region has experienced significant environmental damage from gold-mining and unsafe industrial management, the Eveny are aware of the issues plaguing presentday Siberia and are even working to counter it. The only real danger haunting the Eveny today is the continuation and preservation of their culture. Some studies have shown that the traditional economic culture of the Eveny is in decline. Younger generations “did not simply lack the skills to succeed their parents in taiga – they had made a deliberate and…irreversible decision to stay away from most aspects of the traditional economy” (Slezkine, 350). Still, an Eveny tribesman said, “an Eveny never needs to learn afresh…the knowledge of the taiga is in their genes'” (Vitebsky, 97).
- James Forrsyth, A History of the Peoples of Siberia: Russia’s North Asian Colony, 1581-1990 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).
- Takashi Irimoto and Takako Yamada, eds. Circumpolar Religion and Ecology: An Anthropology of the North (Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press, 1994).
- Aleksandr Pika. ed. Neotraditionalism in the Russian North: Indigenous Peoples and the Legacy of Perestroika. (Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press, 1999).
- Piers Vitebsky. The Reindeer People: Living with Animal and Spirits in Siberia. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005).
- Yuri Slezkine, Arctic Mirrors: Russia and the Small People of the North (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994).
- Alan Wood, ed. The History of Siberia: From Russian Conquest to Revolution (London: Routledge, 1991).
- The Red Book of the Peoples of the Russian Empire.