Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

The Edge of Extinction: Ethnic Survival among the Yukaghirs of Northern Yakutia

Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

The Edge of Extinction: Ethnic Survival among the Yukaghirs of Northern Yakutia

Article excerpt

The Yukaghirs are one of the smallest and the most ancient indigenous peoples of Northern Siberia. Out of 1,500 Yukaghirs living in the Russian Federation, almost a thousand live in the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia). The main Yukaghir settlements in Yakutia are located in the Lower Kolyma and Upper Kolyma districts.1 This division is not only geographical but also cultural and linguistic. The two groups are considered to be quite different from each other. The Lower Kolyma Yukaghirs (also called the Tundra Yukaghirs) were traditionally reindeer breeders, just like their neighbours, the Chukchi and the Eveny. The Upper Kolyma Yukaghirs (called the Taiga Yukaghirs) are hunter-gatherer. Both of their dialects, which are practically dead, are as different from each other as Polish and Russian.

Waldemar Jochelson was the first researcher to conduct ethnographic fieldwork among the Yukaghirs, at the end of the nineteenth century. His book The Yukaghir and Yukaghirized Tungus2 is still the most comprehensive work on the Yukaghirs and their past. In it, the author states that the Yukaghirs are on the edge of extinction. It could be reasonably presumed, then, that by the beginning of the twenty-first century, all the Yukaghirs had already died out. In this article, I would like to discuss the discourse of extinction and try to answer why, contrary to that expectation, the Yukaghirs have not vanished yet. The case of the Yukaghirs shows that it is difficult to list, or even name, all the factors responsible for ethnic survival. It also shows that ethnicity is not a primordial phenomenon. Anthony Smith underlines the role of demographic and cultural continuity. According to him, the extinction of an ethnic group does not mean the extinction of its population, but of its characteristics - culture, ways of living or the sense of community. Ethnic survival does not assume the survival of all of the group features (purity of blood, language, culture, etc.). The most important are the so-called specific ethnic elements, which may vary from one group to another.3 It seems that the Yukaghirs, who have lost to a significant degree historical and cultural continuity with the former Yukaghir tribes, have nevertheless saved some specific ethnic elements and survived as an ethnic or local group.

James Clifford writes that existence among ruins has always been considered as a collapse or the end of the group, yet he does not agree with that view. He argues that every assimilated group brings in something new, leaves its trace, or establishes a new group. As an example, he cites the Mashpee Indians, who, despite losing most of their cultural traits, have established a specific local culture.4 Similarly, Smith writes that an ethnic group may survive even if it is assimilated into the other culture.5 An example of this is one of the Yukaghir tribes called the Chuvantsy: in the eighteenth century they assimilated with the Koryaks and became a distinct ethnic group. Over the next decades, the Chuvantsy were russianized, but they are still a separate ethnie.

The issue of cultural traits which are the base of ethnic development brings the discussion to the core of humanity. From the genetic point of view, people are almost identical on the DNA level. There are, however, some parts of the genome that reveal information about our ancestry, and these can be traced to the common 'father' and 'mother' of all humans.6 Culture is somewhat similar to DNA - everyone has it.7 Yet it seems as though it is much more diverse than DNA. This diversity developed over the course of thousands of years, just like the mutations of certain parts of DNA. It is mainly culture that is responsible for the contemporary ethno-cultural diversity of humans in the world. Does our ethnicity depend on our genes? It probably would if there had been no intermixing of genes throughout the history of humanity. However, many contemporary cases show that ethnic identification is not a matter of genetic background but self-identification. …

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