Academic journal article Nomadic Peoples

Ethnic Survival and the Siberian Khanty: On-Going Transformations in Seasonal Mobility and Traditional Culture

Academic journal article Nomadic Peoples

Ethnic Survival and the Siberian Khanty: On-Going Transformations in Seasonal Mobility and Traditional Culture

Article excerpt


This paper is about the Siberian Khanty, their land and culture, and the long-term potentials for their ethnic survival. The Khanty--along with other mobile indigenous peoples of Western Siberia--have long been under intense assimilation pressures, which have included centuries of direct political subjugation, forceful inclusion into state economic structures, imposition of Russian language boarding schools and repeated assaults on traditional religion. Despite these challenges, many Khanty communities continued to maintain their own unique cultural traditions by remaining out in the remote forests. In recent years rapid oil development has resulted in massive environmental devastation in these remaining Khanty homelands, threatening the long-term cultural survival of these nomadic communities.

My main interest in this paper is to identify why core elements of Khanty culture were able to survive Russian colonialism, and second, to explore the current factors which may--or may not--ensure a longer-term cultural persistence. The paper falls into three sections:

First, in order to understand how cultural traditions are expressed and reproduced. 1 explore the social, symbolic and practical engagements that indigenous Khanty hunters, fishers and reindeer herders have with the Siberian taiga landscape. In order to understand why the Khanty were able to remain on the land and maintain these bonds to the land, I explore how these local communities were drawn into the regional fur trade by Russian fur-tax demands. These fiscal requirements created an economic niche for the Khanty, who were obliged by law to stay out in the forests and remain hunting for much of the year.

Second, I explore how Soviet power brought radical changes to the lives of the Khanty, whilst not necessarily creating the conditions for their total assimilation. Despite collectivisation and boarding school education, many communities were still compelled to supply forest products to the state economy, which necessitated lengthy periods spent out in the forest, where many cultural traditions could be maintained, albeit in secret. The key transformation came in the 1970s with oil development. Rapid industrialisation bulldozed its way out into the remote forests, crushing the fragile economic, cultural and spiritual spaces the Khanty had occupied over their longer colonial history.

In the third part of the paper I evaluate recent developments affecting the Eastern Khanty, in particular, by identifying how new pathways to cultural persistence appear to demand not further retreats into the forest but a more active, outward-looking and engaged negotiation of political and cultural rights. Complex questions about access to land and the exploitation of surface and subsoil resources now lie at the core of these struggles for indigenous cultural survival.

The Eastern Khanty

There are approximately 22,500 Khanty (Ostyaks) in Western Siberia (1989 census), who divide into three broad regional groupings, Northern, Southern and Eastern. In this paper I will concentrate on the approximately 5000 Eastern Khanty hunters, fishers and small-scale reindeer herders who reside along the middle sections of the River Ob and its related tributaries (Figure 1). The ethnographic and ethno-historic record (see e.g. Lukina 1995) indicate that the different Khanty communities along each tributary river basin distinguished themselves by dress, dialect, material culture, and minor differences in subsistence practices. (1) As contacts between the different river communities were weak (Shatilov 1931: 55) researchers and administrators have tended to describe each group of Khanty in terms of the river basin they inhabit.


Cultural Bonds to the Land

In order to understand the persistence of traditions it is important to understand how cultural values are expressed and reproduced in small-scale societies. …

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