In the far North East of Russia’s isolated Siberian region reside the Yukaghir clan. With a tiny population, their way of life and belief system is unique. They hold the belief that all animals and some nature contain souls and, therefore, personhood. For this reason, the Yukaghir culture challenges widely held beliefs about binaries of human/non-human and nature/culture. This lack of binaries is most apparent in the Yukaghir approach to hunting
This lack of binaries is most apparent in the Yukaghir approach to hunting practices. Hunting for Yukaghir people is a way of finding food, but it is also participating in relationships with other beings. Yukaghirs believe that both humans and animals can take one another’s form. When hunting, they undergo the process of becoming the animal they hunt. Yukaghir men will dress in traditional clothing that mimics the form of the animal. For example, when hunting an elk, the hunter will dress in an elk hide and antlers. Rather than morphing entirely into an elk, he will hunt in a liminal space that is half-human, half elk.
A Brief History of the Yukaghir
The Tundra Yukaghirs live in the Lower Kolyma region in the Sakha Republic. The Taiga Yokaghirs live in the Upper Kolyma. The Yukaghir tribal groups reside in present-day Russia’s far east in Siberia. The area was colonized during the 17th century by Russia. Unfortunately, their numbers decreased over the 17th and 19th centuries due to epidemics, diseases, and oppression. According to a 2002 census, only 1509 Yukaghirs remain in Russia, and a further 12 Yukaghirs live in the Ukraine.
The Yukaghirs were once divided into 12 separate tribes with roughly 9000 people. They are the oldest surviving people in North-East Asia. Sadly, only three tribes remain today, and most speak Yakut or Russian as a primary language. Although they speak the same language, their dialects are often different. Since the late 20th century, they mostly speak Russian, Chukchi, and Sakha (Yakut). Few of the younger Yukaghir speak their mother tongue, and because of assimilation, they are generally monolingual or bilingual in Sakha or Russian.
The name Yukaghir is considered to be a generic name of Tungus origin, meaning the ‘icy or frozen people.’ However, there are also some other interpretations and claims that the origin of the word is unclear. They live in an icy environment, hunting and living in the snow most of the year.
The early Yukaghir used weapons made of stone and bone. However, the Tungus who came to Northern Siberia sometime before the 13th century had the advantage of using iron weapons and keeping reindeer for transport. A great number of the weapons used today resemble these traditional tools. However, guns and rifles are now used in hunting. This has not changed many of the beliefs and practices surrounding hunting.
Yukaghir Clan Systems
The Yukaghir has a unique clan system as well as hunting practices. Although there was one clan leader called Ligey Shomorok, who made all decisions on behalf of the clan, women and teenagers had equal say and voices with men. The everyday life of the clan is also under the control of the older women. Their wisdom and decisions are considered indisputable and final.
The Northern Yukaghir were patrilocal, which means centered on the male’s family. Meanwhile, the Southern Yukaghir were matrilocal, meaning they are centered on the female’s line. Inheritance in both groups was patrilineal. They generally organized small family groups into clans. Each clan was guided in matters of food provision and clan defense by an able adult male.
In addition to this, there are hunting leaders called Khangitche and war leaders called Tonia. The primary traditional activity for the Yukaghir is nomadic reindeer hunting. However, they will also hunt wild sheep, moose, and sable.
There is a traditional division of production in which all hunting and men did fishing and women did everything in the household and gathering. However, there is a sense of “genderlessness” in the Yukaghir community and roles are often switched. Unless a woman is menstruating or pregnant, she can go hunting with a group of men or by herself. Women cannot hunt if they are menstruating or immediately after giving birth.
Legally owning land never crossed local tribesmen’s thoughts until the late 1920s, when the Soviets implemented the collectivization policy to consolidate land and economic prosperity among individual families and improve the Soviet economy. Local tribes roamed the lands previous to these laws and fought over land when they crossed paths.
Shamans and Animals in Yukaghir Hunting Practices
The Yukaghir people practice some Russian Orthodox beliefs. However, one of the more fascinating aspects of Yukaghir culture is that they practice shamanism. They hold a view of the spirits of hunting, earth, fire, water, and most importantly, the sun. Each clan has a shaman called an alma, who, after death, becomes a deity. The family will dismember the shaman’s body and keep parts of it as a relic after death.
Animals play a central role in Yukaghir’s spiritual practices, social structure, and hunting. They practice dog sacrifices and have many different epic poems and stories based around animals. The most prominent of these still practiced today is in certain rituals and taboos regarding the hunting of elk and deer. Elk and deer are the most relied upon sources of food in this region.
When a hunter succeeds in catching and killing his prey, that animal’s spirit makes a conscious decision to give itself to the hunter. To catch his prey, the hunter will mimic the form of the animal to try to persuade the animal to approach. Humans and animals can take on each other’s perspectives and forms. A hunter will use this skill to track animals. When the animal is near, the hunter will describe seeing a person approach.
Yukaghir people have a changeable sense of identity. For example, if a person from Yakut or a different region resides in another region for some time, he identifies as that ethnicity. This is because he lives, hunts, and works like a Yukaghir. This is called a ‘relational identity, and also extends to how Yukaghirs see themselves residing with animals.
The Yukaghir hunting practices are not merely hunting but also a vital part of the people’s belief system and spiritual practice. The anthropologist Rane Willerslev records this in his beautifully detailed ethnography Soul Hunters: Hunting, Animism, and Personhood among the Siberian Yukaghirs (2007).
The Yukaghirs believe that humans and animals can turn into each other by temporarily taking on the other’s bodily form. However, doing so is very dangerous as the hunter may become so entangled with his animal form that he loses the ability to shift back into his human body. Therefore, he is forever trapped in an animal form and forgets his humanity.
To avoid this danger, the hunter practices tracking the animal from the point of view of his prey. He does this as far as he can without morphing into an animal. This way, the hunter can get inside the mind of his prey, think like him, understand him, and overcome him in the hunting process. However, he must be careful not to do this so intently that he loses himself.
The role of the shaman for the Yukaghir is to mediate between the souls of men and animals to ensure correct hunting practices are observed. In this way, no balance will be disturbed in nature. The shaman will also protect the clan against the evil doings of a dark shaman or shamans from other clans. Lastly, he acts as a healer against illness or disease.
Persons and Animals in Yukaghir Hunting Practices
Yukaghir hunting practices are a fascinating aspect of their social system. In our Euro-American understandings of personhood, we think of being a person as an exclusively human trait. Humans have language, intention, morality. By contrast, we think of animals as free of morality or culture who act totally on instinct.
This is not how the Yukaghir hunters think of animals, which is evident in their hunting practices. A human being can take on many different animal forms in their world, and being human is just one form. Yukaghir hunters can take on the form of rivers and trees. Animals are what the Yukaghir think of as’ other-than-human persons.’ Animals can also morph into a person or other animals to adopt their point of view.
Therefore, animals are human and have personhood. The ability to do this is what constitutes a person in Yukaghir society. Therefore, animals are human and have personhood. Hunting animals has spiritual complexity, as they are hunting people. Likewise, an evil spirit or animal will see the human as prey. For the Yukaghir, being a person means having the ability to take on the perspective of the other species. As they believe that animals and even rivers and trees have this ability, they are all people.
The anthropologist Viveiros de Castro describes this as an ontology in which each being has the same or similar soul in different forms. Therefore, humans and animals easily bypass strict notions of Self/Other that are prominent in Euro-American cultures.
Animism in Yukaghir Hunting Practices
Animism is a broad term that defines any system of belief in which animals, plants, or objects have souls. A soul is either a sense of intellect, emotion, spirit, or consciousness in different cultures. Therefore, what constitutes a person or a soul varies between different cultures that believe in animism.
Animism is a widely studied subject in anthropology, and the hunting practices of the Yukaghir are animistic. However, in everyday Yukaghir life, animism does not have such a strong focus. In most circumstances, Yukaghir people will not think of animals as persons in a very involved way. Animist thinking emerges in hunting practices alone. For this reason, hunting is also ritualistic.
Willerslev notes that animism alone cannot explain the complexity of Yukaghir hunting practices. The Yukaghir have a complex social system that again challenges Euro-American dualism. Their view of souls and personhood is one in which there are no harsh dichotomies. For example, hunters are both human and animal. The animals they hunt are both predators and prey at the same time.
In the Yukaghir world, humans, animals, and inanimate objects have what is called an alibi. This word translates roughly to what we call a soul or a life essence. Hunters will be sure not to talk too loudly about their plans with one another as they hunt, in case the animals overhear them. However, the animals can only hear them when they are hunting. Yukaghir hunters see bears, reindeer, elk, and other animals with similar morals, values, and codes of conduct.
Cultural Significance in Anthropology
Yukaghir hunting practices are particularly fascinating for anthropologists, as, before the Soviet occupation, their culture resembled the Stone Age. Their society existed in isolation for so long that their practices remain unique in an increasingly globalized world.
The Yukaghir people also think within an entirely different worldview to Euro-American beliefs. Not only do they hold animistic beliefs, but they also have a complex relationship with the world around them. Yukaghirs do not understand the world in oppositional binaries of human/non-human, nature/culture. Instead, their social system is a transient and liminal one in which animals, humans, and plants can all cross over and inhabit the reality and space of the other.
Sadly, due to the ongoing effects of Russian colonization, this Indigenous community is struggling to maintain its traditional way of life. Impacted by the lasting effects of climate change, the Russian government has not adequately supported them. However, the unique hunting practices and spiritual beliefs of the Yukaghir are practiced within their clans.
Examining this type of social structure calls into question the universal notion of binaries and oppositions. Nevertheless, there may be important things that we can learn from the Yukaghir clans about how to view and respect animals and nature. In Yukaghir society, each living thing has its complex world and a reality distinct from ours and also part of our world. In essence, we share the ecosystem and social world with non-humans. Yukaghir culture and hunting practices should be maintained for their beauty.
Further Reading For Those Interested –
Willerslev, R., 2007. Soul hunters. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Willerslev, R., 2004. Not Animal, Not Not-Animal: Hunting, Imitation and Emphatic Knowledge Among The Siberian Yukaghir Hunters. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 10(3), pp.629-652.
Willerslev, R., 2016. Cosmology, Politics, and Suicide in Siberia. Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, 17(2), pp.66-71.
Noske, B., 1993. The Animal Question in Anthropology: A Commentary. Society & Animals, 1(2), pp.185-190.