Russia is populated not only by Russians, Ukrainians, Tatars and other large ethnic groups but also by indigenous minorities such as Yakuts (or Sakha), Eveny, Evenki, Chikchi, Yukaghirs, to name a few. Majority of the indigenous people inhabit vast territories of Arctic and sub-Arctic regions of Siberia. One of these largest regions in Siberia is the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia). Despite its extensive size which fits almost 73 Switzerlands, the population is scarce: only one million people live in the region. Sakha are the Turk-speaking titular nation of the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia) and comprise 49.9% of the total population. Eveny and Evenki are indigenous Tungus-speaking people largely inhabiting Arctic areas of North-Eastern Siberia. In the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia) the population of Tungus people is 3.86%. Indigenous people in Yakutia are highly dependent on their ecosystems for food, economy, social cohesion and cultural well-being. The traditional economy of the indigenous people encompasses hunting, fishing, gathering and reindeer herding. They hunt waterfowls, reindeer, Arctic fox, sable and other fur animals, fish Arctic char, Siberian cisco and others, gather blueberry, cowberry, cloud berry. Reindeer herding is a crucial economic practice for indigenous people as a food, medicine, shelter and transportation. Indigenous people rely on their ecosystems for several reasons associated with health, economy and culture. First of all, local food is deemed to be healthier than store food. Store food is mainly of low quality due to long delivery time as well as frequent delays associated with the weather. Store food is expensive because of high transportation fees as a result of long distances, accessibility mainly by airplane and scarce populations in the Arctic. Secondly, ecosystems have a high spiritual and cultural value for indigenous people to maintain their cultural as well as spiritual identities through their traditional practices.
One of the crucial elements of the indigenous people in Yakutia (and in the Arctic generally) is maintaining social relations and cultural well-being through various traditional ceremonies. Nimat is one of them. It is a traditional custom of mandatory prey sharing. After each harvesting practice, be it fishing or hunting, every nomad shares harvested game with the members of a community. It is not only support of underprivileged families, but also establishment of social relationships with the community, nature and spirits. Furthermore, nimat provides an opportunity for marriage as a consequence of joint land use, enhances territorial and economic relationships, and supports ethnic identity. It is believed that violation of this custom may displease Buga– a spirit of nature – and bring bad luck in hunting or fishing. However, over the last decades the custom of nimat is facing serious challenges due to environmental and climatic changes, urbanization and globalization, and associated social-economic as well as political transformations. Decline in animal and plant species has caused change of sharing rules and today nimat takes place only in a family rather than among community members. In addition, new realities of market economy force households to cease employing nimat and sell their spoil for earnings to be able to live on.
Environmental and climatic changes in Yakutia
Environmental and climatic changes in the Arctic are more intense in comparison to other regions of the world. This is due to the sea ice loss which occurs as a result of temperature increase. When the bright ice melts it does not reflect the Sun’s heat back to the space anymore, and thus the dark ocean surface absorbs more heat from the Sun which in turn warms up the atmosphere. As a result, the Arctic is experiencing significant changes in its ecosystems: southern species shift their habitats northward and force out local species, or cold-adapted northern species migrate away to colder environments. This has negative implications for local indigenous people. Moreover, Arctic ecosystems are considered to be the most susceptible to environmental and climatic changes, and indigenous people are among the most marginalized and poorest.
Climate change in Yakutia is as severe as in the entire Arctic. Over the last decades indigenous people in Arctic Yakutia observe winter temperature increase and summer temperature decrease. These fluctuations may negatively affect traditional activities of indigenous people. Thus, higher temperatures warm up water bodies which force fish to go deeper to a colder river bottom and result in fish catch decrease. Furthermore, temperature alterations increase the rate of accidents with fishers and hunters due to shifts in freezing and thawing periods. In addition, variations in thawing may make it difficult for reindeer to cross open waters since streams may sweep them away. Winter temperature variations may hinder food access of reindeer since they feed by digging snow to access grass underneath. Many people reported about heavy precipitation over the last years. Heavy snowfall may block food access of reindeer and therefore cause starvation and die-off. Additionally, heavy snowfall results in severe floods in springtime damaging infrastructure constructions important for traditional activities. Heavy rainfall causes water level increase which in turn makes fishing difficult because it is impossible to catch fish at higher water levels. It has been revealed that in recent years the number of alien southern species has increased. Expansion of predators such as bears and wolves may disturb local communities by preying on domesticated reindeer and damaging fishing nets. Northward migration of the Sandhill crane may force out local Siberian crane which is a sacred bird and this may challenge spiritual well-being of indigenous people. Waterfowls such as ducks and geese have also decreased in numbers. This has a negative effect for local people’s diet and health. However, new species may also have positive implications for indigenous communities. Habitat shifts of sable have opened up commercial opportunities for local people becoming an additional income source. New plants and berries from southern taiga regions have health benefits: Astragalus is good for heart diseases, Baikal skullcap treats cancer and black currant is rich in vitamin C.
Socio-economic and political transformations in Yakutia
In addition to climate change, indigenous peoples’ livelihoods are challenged by socio-economic and political transformations. Soviet Union collapse, transition to market economy, new regulations, high transportation fees are among the myriad of issues that local communities have been facing over the last decades. During the Soviet regime, indigenous people have experienced dramatic policies of collectivization, when the individual herds were forced to consolidate into collective farms; sedentarization, when the nomads were forced to settle down in villages; “unpromising villages”, when smaller villages were shut down and relocated to bigger ones; Russification, when indigenous people were not allowed to speak their native languages in favor of Russian. New fishing regulations introduced in the beginning of 2000s brought fishers constraints such as temporal limitations, limits of using fishing gear or quotas. Indigenous people complain that these regulations have been established and implemented without taking into account conditions of the local environment which differs from region to region. For example, fish spawning time does not correspond with the fishing ban when the locals are not allowed to catch fish because fish spawns at this time. Or, fishers are allowed to employ only small nets, with which it is impossible to catch bigger fish.
Indigenous people have been adapting to severe Arctic environment for millennia and have developed adaptive strategies to cope with climatic and environmental changes. However, when it comes to external socio-economic and political transformations, their livelihoods, traditional practices, customs and cultural well-being are significantly challenged.
Ksenofontov, S., Backhaus, N., Schaepman-Strub, G., 2017. “To fish or not to fish?”: fishing communities of Arctic Yakutia in the face of environmental change and political transformations. Polar Record. 5 (3), 289–303.
Ksenofontov, S., Backhaus, N., Schaepman-Strub, G., 2018. “There are new species”: indigenous knowledge of biodiversity change in Arctic Yakutia. Polar Geography. 42 (1). 34 – 57.
Evenki lady singing at the opening ceremony of fishers day. Chekurovka fishing ground, Sakha (Yakutia). 2014.
About the author:
Stanislav Ksenofontov is an anthropogeographer and indigenous activist from the Sakha Republic (Yakutia) in Eastern Siberia. In his research Stanislav focuses on the specific issues indigenous people from the Arctic Regions face in a globalized world. He holds a doctoral degree in Geography from the University of Zurich. Since February 2019 he has been working at the Korean Polar Research Institute in Seoul on a project on South Korea’s scientific and political interests in the Arctic.