Local Approaches to Cultures of Northeastern Siberia

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Jessica Kantarovich Senior Researcher, Arctic Linguistic Ecology Lab, North-Eastern Federal University [NEFU], Yakutsk.

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Regular readers of Sibirica are surely familiar with the region of Siberia broadly construed, whether the boundaries are defined from an eco-political, geographic, or cultural perspective. Siberia covers an enormous geographic area (generally agreed to encompass the part of Russia that stretches from the Ural Mountains in the west to the Pacific Ocean in the east) and is home to just over 37 million people (as of 2021),1 merely one-fifth of the overall population of Russia. Scholars of the region will also know that this sparsely populated area nevertheless boasts considerable cultural and linguistic diversity, with over three dozen distinct Indigenous language groups (Vajda 2009), each with its own distinct lifeways and traditions linked largely to stewardship of the land on which the people live.

Regular readers of Sibirica are surely familiar with the region of Siberia broadly construed, whether the boundaries are defined from an eco-political, geographic, or cultural perspective. Siberia covers an enormous geographic area (generally agreed to encompass the part of Russia that stretches from the Ural Mountains in the west to the Pacific Ocean in the east) and is home to just over 37 million people (as of 2021),1 merely one-fifth of the overall population of Russia. Scholars of the region will also know that this sparsely populated area nevertheless boasts considerable cultural and linguistic diversity, with over three dozen distinct Indigenous language groups (Vajda 2009), each with its own distinct lifeways and traditions linked largely to stewardship of the land on which the people live.

This special issue zeroes in on a fragment of this diversity and takes us to the northeastern-most reaches of Siberia (what some call the Russian Far East). We focus on the Indigenous peoples of the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia), many of whom have historically occupied (and continue to reside in) the neighboring areas of the Chukotka Autonomous Okrug and Kamchatka Krai to the northeast, Magadan Oblast to the east, and other areas throughout the Far Eastern Federal Okrug of Russia (Dalnevostochnyi Federal'nyi Okrug). In particular, the authors of this issue describe language practices of the Sakha (Yakuts)—a Turkic-speaking group that represents the largest ethnic group in Yakutia—as well as those of the korennye malochislennye narody Severa (Indigenous small-numbered (minority) peoples of the North), an official classification for Siberian ethnic groups with fewer than fifty thousand members. The small-numbered peoples covered by the authors of this issue include the Even and Evenki (Tungusic peoples), the Yukaghir, the Chukchi (Paleo-Siberian, Chukotko-Kamchatkan), and the Dolgans (Turkic, closely related to the Sakha). All of the authors of the original research articles in this issue are themselves Indigenous Siberians who are predominantly working within their own communities and are engaged in longstanding fieldwork and scholarship on their own languages and cultures.

Members of these communities have different priorities in the preservation of their cultures. All of these cultures are under threat from Russian, which remains the most politically and economically dominant language even in the semi-autonomous Sakha Republic, and which has had variable effects on the maintenance of the local languages. The minority Indigenous populations are unsurprisingly the most vulnerable, as they have historically been small and nomadic; these languages are all endangered, with little to no transmission to children taking place today. Sakha is in a comparatively better position: as the language of the Republic, it has official status as a language of regional government and continues to be acquired by children, many of whom (especially outside urban centers) do not learn Russian until they enter primary school at age seven or eight, and who continue to study Sakha in school throughout their education, even if many subjects are offered in Russian. Still, many Sakha have shared concerns with me about the increasing dominance of Russian in their children's lives beginning from an early age—in the capital of the Sakha Republic, the city of Yakutsk, children are increasingly not learning to speak Sakha or are adopting Russian well before starting school, as it is the language of the playground and most of the media to which they are exposed (cartoons on television, YouTube videos). The following table provides a relative sense of the maintenance of these languages among the ethnic groups. It should be noted that these data are outdated and somewhat misleading; the Yukaghir and Chukchi speaker numbers are almost certainly heavily inflated. Still, the table illustrates the comparatively positive position of the Sakha language, although there are early signs of the beginning of language shift to Russian.

Table 1.

Speakers of the Local Languages of Northeastern Siberia and the Russian Far East (2010 All-Russia Census)

Sakha Even Evenki Yukaghir Chukchi
Number of speakers 450,140 5,656 4,802 370 5,095
Total population (Russian Federation) 478,085 21,830 38,396 1,597 15,908
Percentage who are speakers 94.2% 25.9% 12.5% 23.2% 32.0%

Thus, this issue—which focuses on the linguistic heritage of these different peoples, the history of linguistic contact in the region, current multilingual practices, and proposals for continued language maintenance—is quite timely. For the authors, these languages are not relics to be documented and preserved for scholarly posterity; they are all interested in investigating the modern realities of belonging to one of these groups and attempting to preserve one's ethnic and cultural identity. Many of them are speakers of the languages in question or else have first-hand knowledge of the linguistic ecology of the Sakha Republic and the unique challenges of navigating language learning and advocacy in this setting, which are shared among the different groups even if their individual needs are more or less acute. Readers will see recurring terminology throughout the articles particular to the highly circumscribed political status of these Indigenous groups (particularly of the minority groups). These include terms such as “areas of compact settlement” (mesta kompaktnogo prozhivanie), small areas with a high percentage of Indigenous residents of a particular ethnic group, where they are (locally) entitled to additional rights and protections. Such areas are often the sites of scholarly research and advocacy by and on behalf of the minority groups.

The primary goal of this special issue is to bring attention to Indigenous-led research that has been taking place in Siberia for many years, which has often been inaccessible or simply unknown to Western audiences due to linguistic, methodological, and theoretical barriers. That is, local anthropologists, linguists, and historians tend to work within a particular (Russian-centered) scholarly tradition, and they often publish in Russian with domestic audiences in mind. Nevertheless, they are interested in many of the same questions as outside researchers, and they approach them with largely the same methodology (qualitative, in-depth fieldwork interviews within their communities; extensive collection of corpus data, whether it be images of the local linguistic/cultural landscape, folklore narratives, or dictionaries). Where there are methodological and epistemological differences, they may perhaps serve as useful springboards for discussion and collaboration with Western scholars of the region. The two book reviews in this issue address methodological differences head-on. Singerman reviews Agranat and Dodykhudoeva's 2022 edited volume Strategies for Knowledge Elicitation, which gives examples of Russian approaches to fieldwork; Singerman discovers useful parallels and insights into his own linguistic fieldwork in Amazonia. Grenoble praises the new meticulous grammar of Even from Burykin and Sharina (2021), noting its depth of coverage of phonology and morphology (clearly resulting from years of extensive work with and by Even speakers, such as Sharina herself), while offering recommendations for how to make the tome more accessible to Western linguists.

The original research articles in this issue span a variety of topics and methodologies. Many are concerned with the “linguistic situation” (iazykovaia situatsiia) of the local groups—that is, the current state of multilingual language use, representation, and documentation in the region. Drawing on their own documentation and comparison with existing publications, Savvinova et al. examine the historical development of (and current patterns of) synonymy and antonymy in Even, and how they are used as stylistic resources in the language. Sharina and Kuzmina discuss another kind of linguistic creativity in Even: folklore, and the various genres that are traditionally found in the language (as well as changes over time, evidenced by the authors’ own considerable field materials). Malysheva et al. turn their attention to the multilingual linguistic ecology of the Anabar district of the Sakha Republic, examining historical and present-day language contact and its effects on the Dolgan language and dialectal variation in Sakha. Vinokurova et al. present the results of a comprehensive survey on present-day multilingual language use among Evens in three different settlements in the Eveno-Bytantaiskii district, noting that there is clear language shift to Sakha, though Evens express a strong desire to learn their ethnic language. Lastly, Ignatyeva et al. examine the shared characteristics of storytelling among the nomadic peoples of Northern Yakutia, and the way that they convey the shared experience of inhabiting the harsh arctic and subarctic climate.

The other authors focus on the visibility of the local cultures in urban spaces, and the ways that ethnic-cultural-political identity is negotiated. Danilova et al. examine the political identities of the polyethnic residents of the Sakha Republic through questionnaires and interviews with residents in different urban areas, showing how residents of different ethnicities refract their identities through the prism of the Soviet past and, more recently, through a sense of belonging to a wider “Arctic” community. Manchurina and Samsonova examine this question from a linguistic angle, focusing not on political symbols but on the linguistic landscape of the city of Yakutsk. Their work is the culmination of the collection of a corpus of over 1000 distinct multilingual signs and inscriptions in the city; they show that the status of the Sakha language in signage across the city is diminished and propose ways that Sakha (and the minority Indigenous languages) can be made more prominent. Finally, Sleptsov et al. introduce another dimension of preserving the cultural heritage of minority Indigenous peoples—the legal one. They focus on the complexities of defending Arctic peoples’ exclusive rights to their collective knowledge, traditions, and material culture as a kind of intellectual property.

This volume represents an effort to bridge the divide between local and foreign researchers of these groups and to increase awareness among readers of Sibirica of what Siberian scholars themselves are doing to work on their languages and cultures, and of the issues they believe to be of the utmost importance in their respective communities. Virtually all of the contributions cite the MegaGrant of the Russian government (No. 075-15-2021-616, “Preservation of Linguistic and Cultural Diversity and Sustainable Development of the Arctic and Subarctic of the Russian Federation”), which is an ongoing project that seeks to implement exactly this goal, to combine approaches and transfer knowledge between researchers in Yakutsk (at the North-Eastern Federal University [NEFU] and at the Institute for Indigenous Studies of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences) and researchers from the University of Chicago in the United States. The MegaGrant program is extremely competitive and its award to NEFU is an affirmation of the considerable research being done by its scholars, and the potential value of international collaboration in the advancement of the local languages.

Note

1

A spreadsheet of population figures can be downloaded from the Russian Federal State Statistics Service (Rosstat): https://rosstat.gov.ru/storage/mediabank/Popul_Comp2022_site.xls.

Reference

Vajda, Edward J. 2009. “The Languages of Siberia.Language and Linguistics Compass 3 (1): 424440. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1749-818X.2008.00110.x

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Contributor Notes

Jessica Kantarovich is a Postdoctoral Scholar in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Chicago and a Senior Researcher in the Arctic Linguistic Ecology Lab at the North-Eastern Federal University [NEFU] in Yakutsk. She specializes in language change in the Arctic, with a particular interest in documenting the Indigenous languages of northeastern Russia as they are spoken today.

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Sibirica

Interdisciplinary Journal of Siberian Studies

  • Vajda, Edward J. 2009. “The Languages of Siberia.Language and Linguistics Compass 3 (1): 424440. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1749-818X.2008.00110.x

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation

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