Tribes and Dialects
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Habitat. The Evenks inhabit a huge territory of the Siberian taiga from the River Ob in the west to the Okhotsk Sea in the east, and from the Arctic Ocean in the north, to Manchuria and Sakhalin in the south. The total area of their habitat is about 2.5 million square kilometres. In all of the Soviet Union only the Russians inhabit a larger territory. According to the administrative structure, the Evenks inhabit, amonst others, the Tyumen and Tomsk regions, the Krasnoyarsk district, the Irkutsk, Chita, and Amur regions, Buryatia and Yakutia, the Khabarovsk district and the Sakhalin region. However, their autonomous national territory is confined solely to the Krasnoyarsk district, where 3,200 of the 30,000 Evenks live. Close to 12,000 Evenks live in Yakutia. A large Evenk community (the Solon, the Tungus, the Ainak, the Nakagyr and the Orochon) lives in the northeast of China, close to the Soviet border, while others inhabit areas of Inner Mongolia and Manchuria.
Population. The following data is taken from national censuses:
At the beginning of the 20th century about 10,500 Evenks were living in the north-east of China, while in Mongolia the number was about 1,500. According to S. Bruk about 58.3 % of the total number of Evenks were living in the Soviet Union.
Anthropologically the Evenk belong to the Baikal or Paleo-Siberian group of the Mongolian type, originating from the ancient Paleo-Siberian people of the Yenisey up to the Okhotsk Sea.
Language. The Evenk language is the largest of the northern group of the Manchu-Tungus languages, a group which also includes the Even and Negidal languages. The basic vocabulary has much in common with the Mongolian and the Turkic languages, indicating a close relation. In certain areas the influences of the Yakut and the Buryat languages are strong. The influence of Russian is general and overwhelming (in 1979, 75.2 % of the Evenk were fluent in Russian). The Evenk language varies considerably and is divided into three large dialect groups: the northern, the southern and the eastern dialect. These are further divided into minor dialects. The written language was created in the late 1920s.
Origin and history. The original home of the Evenk was situated in the vicinity of Lake Baikal, where the ancient Tungusic groups have their origins. The anthropological type, characteristic of the Evenk, is discernible in the early neolithic people on the shores of the Baikal. The ancestors of the Evenk also seem to have close contacts with the southern tribes which spoke Mongolian and Turkic languages. From the Baikal the Tungus began to migrate to the east, to the Amur and the coast of the Okhotsk Sea, to the north, to the river basin of the Lena, and to the northwest, to the river basin of the Yenisey. They moved up to the tundra in the north, and the steppes in the south. One of the reasons for such a migration might have been pressure from the Turkic tribes in the Baikal area at the beginning of the first millennium. Any Paleo-Asiatic tribes, met on the way, were assimilated or forced to retreat. In the southern areas the Evenks were under the influence of the Mongols, and came to be known as the 'Horse-Tungus'. Gradually two large groups of Evenks were formed: the northern Evenks, who were hunters and reared reindeer, and the southern Evenks, who bred cattle and horses and, to some extent, cultivated land.
The Evenks inhabited areas of a similar environment: mountain taiga and, to a lesser degree, mountain tundra. The Evenks have been the only Northern people to occupy mountainous areas of taiga. Their economy was based on hunting and rearing reindeer, which allowed for the Evenks' exceptional rate of expansion. Their whole traditional culture supported this mobile way of living: they had light conical tents, excellent skis, and light clothing. This mode of life and its associated objects, forms the so-called Tungus culture. According to some, it was the domestication of reindeer that enabled the Evenks to become extremely mobile.
The history of the Evenks' habitation can be traced in detail from the 17th century on. At that time the Evenks left several of their previous territories, for instance, the River Angara, when the Yakut, the Buryat and the Russians appeared in the province. The Evenks had especially bad relations with the Yakuts, who had settled in the river basin of the Lena in the 13th century. In the 18th and 19th centuries the Evenks living there adopted the Yakut language. In the Baikal area the Evenks began to speak the Buryat and the Mongolian languages, and even converted to lamaism. The southern Evenk -- the Manegir, the Birar, the Solon -- were influenced by the Manchu, Daur and Chinese cultures. The arable lands in Siberia were occupied by Russian settlers, migrating there in the 17th century, and those Evenks, living in the vicinity on the upper reaches of the Lena and near Baikal, were russified. In the 19th century the Evenks appeared on the lower reaches of the Amur and Sakhalin, and, later, on the Chukchi Peninsula. The 'Horse-Evenk', the Manegir and the Birar moved to Manchuria. A number of the Evenks migrated west of the Yenisey. In this case, the movement of the Evenk was caused initially by the pressure of their southern neighbours, but the coming of the Russians, a search for better hunting grounds and the need to escape a scourge of epidemics, were also important factors. At the demants of the Russian tsarist government, Cossack regiments, consisting of the Horse-Evenk and the Buryat were formed to the east of Baikal. These Cossacks were used as borderguards. Later they were assimilated by the Russians and the Buryat and a separate ethnic group of Russians -- the Baikal Cossacks -- came into being. In 1897 their number was 3,045. In addition, 319 Evenks were raised to the ranks of nobility.
An important turning-point in the development of the Evenks was their first encounter with the Russians, in 1606. All the Evenks were taxed. In order to collect the tribute in furs, the tsarist authorities exploited the tribal organization of the Evenks. The Russian Orthodox Church strove to convert the Evenks, but Christianity was accepted only nominally, and shamanism survived up until the 20th century. In spite of occasional conflicts and armed resistance to the authorities, Evenk-Russian relations were relatively peaceful. Trade with the Russians was of vital importance. Conflicts were often avoided by the Evenks relocating out of the way of the Russians. When Russian peasants came, the Evenks left the large rivers, the Yenisey, the Lena, the Angara and the Amur, and moved further on. In some cases the Russians helped the Evenk to fight the Mongolian and Buryat feudal lords. The Evenk-Solon, in the northeast of China, served in the cavalry of Manchu rulers.
The life of the Evenks in the taiga was based on winter hunting and summer fishing and their nomadic way of life harmonized with this cycle. Reindeer breeding was central to the existence of the Evenks. Domesticated reindeer were the most important draught and riding animals, and success in hunting was dependent on the existence of reindeer in a family. The Evenk fishermen at the Okhotsk Sea did not breed reindeer, and the Evenks living beyond Baikal bred horses, camels and sheep instead. They travelled only twice a year -- in winter to the mountains and in summer to the steppes. In several locations on the Angara, on the upper reaches of the Lena and on the tributaries of the Amur the Evenks were successful in cultivating land (they grew vegetables, and tobacco). There were also several other activities indulged in by the Evenks, however, none ever supplanted hunting.
As the Evenks moved over an exceptionally large territory, they met various peoples and had to cope with different natural conditions. As a result, they often had to make changes in their way of life; giving up reindeer rearing, for instance. In several instances, in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Evenks developed new languages. The ethnic area of the Evenk has constantly narrowed, one of the reasons being assimilation. However, they have still maintained the Tungus culture marking the Evenk as different from all other Northern peoples.
During the first years of Soviet rule the Evenks were also forced to form tribal councils and executive committees to local districts. Soviet ideology was introduced and explained by propaganda centres which were also called "Red tents". In 1927 the reorganization of the Evenks on a territorial basis began, and national village councils, districts and territories were formed. In 1930, the Evenk National Territory was formed in the Krasnoyarsk district. At present only one tenth of the Evenks live there and they form 20.3 % of the local population. The Vitim-Olyokma National Territory, established in the same year, was later liquidated.
The campaign of collectivization in the 1930s tried to settle the nomadic Evenks and it brought about unprecedented changes in the distribution of people. New dwellings and schools of Russian type were built in village centres. As there were attempts to continue with reindeer breeding in collective farms, special reindeer herding brigades were formed. This meant that men were separated from their families for long periods. As a result of this, alienation between different generations grew, along with a loss of tradition and specific skills. At the same time several 'cultural centres' were opened. The centre in the village of Tura included, for instance, a boarding school, a veterinary surgery, a tuberculosis hospital, "the home of an aborigine", a public bath-house and a laundry.
Writing. Evenk written language was created at the end of the 1920s, and in 1933--34 Evenk was introduced into primary schools in the Evenk National Territory, and some other areas. The written language was created on the basis of one dialect (the Nepi dialect) which caused confusion among the speakers of other dialects. Hence, it was decided that the dialects spoken in the National Territory (the Podkamennaya Tunguska dialects) were to form the basis for the Evenk writing. The first book in Evenk was published in 1931, followed by an assortment of various publications. Though Evenk can be heard on the radio and can be read in newspapers, the use of the language is still very limited. Its use is difficult to implement in schools because of the mixed nationalities of pupils. There have long been problems concerning the Evenk language. The Evenks, living dispersed over a vast area, have had close contacts with the Russians, the Buryats and the other ethnic groups, and so the transition to another language was often inevitable. According to data from the 1897 census only 44.5 % of the Evenks were native speakers. In 1979 the percentage was 42.8 %. Over 31 % of the Evenks had adopted Russian, 15.6 % had adopted Buryat, almost 8 % had adopted Yakut, and 216 Evenk spoke the Yukaghir language. In the 1926 census, the Evenks who spoke another language were included in the count of that other people. This explains the considerable differences in the results of the censuses in 1897 and in 1926 (64,500 and 38,800 respectively). The level of bilingualism among the Evenk is high. In 1979, 75.2 % of Evenks spoke Russian fluently, and 20.7 % considered it to be their mother tongue. The native language was spoken fluently by 45.1 %. Of the 12,000 Evenks living in Yakutia, 85 % speak the Yakut language and only 12 % speak their own language. As much as 57.2 % of the whole cannot speak their native language. It is quite apparent that in such a situation, the opportunities for developing ethnic culture are limited.
Compared to the other ethnic territories in Siberia, the Evenk National Territory has almost escaped the negative influence of the developing oil industry, although it has suffered a steady influx of immigrants. The peaceful life of the Evenk in the Irkutsk and Chita regions and in the Khabarovsk district was disturbed by the construction of the Baikal-Amur railway. This brought about pollution, mass deforestation and the destruction of traditional hunting grounds. The decrease in the number of the Evenk is most conspicuous in the Khabarovsk district.
The Evenks chose 47 representatives to participate in the Congress of Northern Ethnic Minorities that was held in Moscow on March 30--31, 1990 (the total number of the participants was 341). An Evenk writer, M. Mongo, belonged to the organizing committee of the congress and delivered a critical speech on the fate and future of small nations.