Yakut People and Their Culture
Yakut people are native population in eastern Siberian region who mainly live in Sakha/ Yakutia Autonomous Republic.
It is believed that Yakuts originated from Turkic people from south Siberia 800-1000 years ago. In the past, due to the threat of their enemies they fled from Central Asia to the north.
Their first settlement was at Lena River, close to the area of Yakutsk, the capital of Sakha Republic.
Russians made first contact with Yakut people only in 17th century (Yakutsk fort was founded in 1632 by Russian Cossacks), but Russian settlers didn’t move to the area of Sakha/ Yakutia Republic until late 18th century.
However, because of Yakutia’s remoteness Russia saw it as a good place for prisoners to be exiled to. Earliest proof of exiled people to Sakha/ Yakutia is from 1640, but only in early 19th century prisoners arrived more of political reasons. Somehow prisoners had a good impact to Yakut people. They built factories, hospitals, taught to write and read, published books and did many other good things. On the other hand, Yakuts taught these people how to survive cold wintertime.
With Soviet regime, area became known as Yakut Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, later it was changed to Sakha Autonomous Republic. If it would be independent nation, it would be the 8th biggest country in the world!
Yakuts who are living in Siberian region have to survive extremely cold winters, where the temperature might drop down to -60°C (-76.0°F). Despite the temperature people still have to go to work and children are still supposed to attend the school. They might only have an additional “vacation” from school if the cold drops below -50°C. However, in the summertime temperature varies from 20-40°C.
There are around 400.000 Yakut people. Vast majority resides in Sakha Republic, but there is significant population in the United States and Canada. Birth rates show that in the near future Yakut people might outnumber Russians in Sakha/ Yakutia Republic.
Political and Economical landscape
As it was mentioned before, Yakuts mainly live in Sakha/ Yakutia Republic. It declared its sovereignty in 1991, but has not been recognized internationally. However, degree of political and economical autonomy has been achieved. Sakha Republic is rich in natural resources such as gold, diamonds, silver, gas, oil and salt. The main investor in mining is Russia. In May 21, 2014 Russia and China signed the gas deal for 30 years. It will bring China 38 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas annually. Construction of the pipelines will start in the first half of 2015 and it will be in use by 2018.
Traditionally Yakuts were cattle- and horse-breeders. In the past, they had to live in different places to let their livestock survive. They had to move twice a year: end of May – summer season, and October – winter time.
During wintertime Yakut people lived in houses called balagan, which was made of mud, dung and birch logs. It had a chimney in the center of the building. These houses were built with sloping walls to isolate living spaces from cold and because of the permafrost, houses were built on wooden deck.
Winterhouse from the old times:
Modern version (in Iceland):
During the summer season, they moved to summer houses called urasa which was made of birch bark. Some urasa could fit in up to 100 people.
Building traditional housing has drastically decreased since 1991, when Soviet collective farming was disbanded. However, farming families and fishermen still own them and use them.
The language that Yakuts speak is known as Sakha-Tyla. It is a Turkic language, which has been heavily influenced by old Mongolic, Evenki, Tungusic, Yeniseian languages. Because of the influence from many other languages, it is not understood by other Turkic speaking people. The only language that is close is Dolgan language (used by Dolgan people in Taymir Peninsula, Russia), which some people claim to be a dialect of Sakha-Tyla.
The current alphabet (modified Cyrillic) was developed in the end of 1930s. Almost 80-90% Yakuts speak their native language and big part of them use it on daily basis. Some Russians residing in Sakha Republic and other minority tribes also use Sakha-Tyla language. Even though high percentage of Yakuts use their own language, Russian is widely used as well. It is important to mention that it is one of few Siberian indigenous languages that is not declining.
Traditional Yakut diet consists of meat, fish and milk. All traditional dishes are still eaten today, but mostly prepared only on special occasions.
Fresh milk is not widely used, but skimmed and fermented products are popular.
Salamat is a creamy sour porridge made of cream, wheat, butter and salt. Usually eaten on feast days.
Kyorchekh is one of the popular desserts/ breakfast treat, which is similar to ice cream made from fresh cow’s milk whipped with berries.
Alaalji is Yakut small thick pancakes.
Leppieske is bread similar to Middle East bread baked on fire in Yakut stove.
Sakha/Yakutia is a land of thousands of lakes. Crobo (crucian carp) is most widely eaten fish by Yakut people. It is eaten cooked, fried on pan or grilled on fire. White Salmon (Nelma) and other kinds of fish is eaten frozen. Most known delicacy is Stroganina – thin long slices of frozen fresh river fish which is eaten frozen during wintertime. It is stored in the traditional permafrost-cellars or freezers. It is considered to be a feast food, which is usually served accompanied by vodka. Stroganina is a bit pricy product, but people in Yakutsk that have relatives in the northern villages, have access to Straganina for a cheaper price.
Horsemeat is a particular delicacy, which is eaten frozen, boiled or fried. Meat of wild horses that live in the nature is considered tastier than the workhorse that is kept inside during the wintertime.
Squirrels are common source of food for hunters. They hunt them and sell their hides. Although, it is a very hard task, because the hunter has to hit squirrel’s eye, otherwise skin gets ruined.
Due to the harsh climate not many types of fruits or vegetables can grow there, but there are some types of berries, leaf plants and root vegetables that grow in the nature.
However, during the Soviet rule agricultural sector was established in Sakha/Yakutia and greenhouses were widely adopted. It allowed people to grow all types of warm-season vegetables like cucumbers and tomatoes. In the past and still today herbs and berries are collected and kept in pantries for the wintertime.
Due to permafrost there is no ground water in Yakutia so during the wintertime Yakuts save ice chunks in permafrost cellars and use it for the fresh water during the summer time.
Yakuts are proud of their kumys drink. It is made from fermented mare’s milk, which is slightly similar to kefir. It is nutritious and refreshing. Kumys is considered to be sacred beverage and is mainly drunk on summer feasts. It is drunk from a traditional vessel choron.
In the past, nobody brewed alcohol. The reason for that was freezing cold that Yakuts had to survive over the wintertime. People had to work hard over the summer time to prepare for the winter. Preparing timber to heat up the houses and schools and growing food was one of the main things to do. It was an obligation of every family.
Original religious beliefs were animalism and Shamanism; latter one is now recognized as an official religion of Sakha Republic. It is a mixture of Turkic, Mongolic and Tungusic beliefs in supernatural. According to it spirits live in houses, mountains, trees and forests. Also, in the water and animals. The strongest spirit lives in bears, owls and ravens. In old times bear feet were placed outside the bed of the little children for protection.
In the old days both male and female could be a shaman, but women were considered to be more powerful.
Because of historical factors and its influence from Russian diaspora, most Yakuts have lost their beliefs in Shamanism or have converted to Russian Orthodox religion. However, Shamanism has not totally vanished. People still believe that shamans have some supernatural powers. They are respected and protected by people and local authorities.
Yakut people today are also reviving their knowledge about traditional naturopathy (alternative medicine) to find cures for all kind of sickness.
In old days main material to make clothing was animal hides and furs. Most common hides were from reindeer and horse. They were used for clothing and footwear. The hides were sewed with dried intestine threads or yarn made of horse hides.
During the winter time clothing had to be and still is very thick and warm. Nowadays, younger generations have shifted from traditional Yakut warm jackets, but reindeer fur boots are still widely used. To make one pair of boots, hides of cow and eight reindeer feet are used.
Rabbit fur is also very useful. Each inch of the fur is used to make valuable items such as socks, gloves, coats and blankets.
There is also the national dress that is worn during celebrations and weddings, but is rarely seen on a daily basis.
Also, it is worth mentioning that women love their Yakut ornamented adornments, which are usually made of silver or gold.
It is summer solstice celebration that is held on June 21th-22th. It is related to the sun deity that Yakut people believe in. According to some ancestral calendar, New Year started in June – when everything becomes alive again. During the festival, people dress in their national dresses and eat traditional food. Celebration includes ceremonies, mantras, game contests and races. Horse racing is considered to be most important game of the festival.
Yhyakh is important festival for the entire nation. People from small villages and isolated areas prepare traditional dishes and sew light costumes for the celebration that they all attend.
The festival usually starts with an ancient ritual and algys (prayer) made by shaman; the prayer is for a well being of the people at the festival. Sprinkling kumys to the fire, sacrificing horsehair and pancakes is a part of the ritual. When the ritual is done people drink kumys from a special sacred vessel choron.
Later, people gather together for Ohuokhai round dance (similar to Faroese chain dance) and singing songs devoted to the force of Nature. The dance starts with the left foot, which is moved sun wise. In this way it is believed that people take the energy from the sun.
After the dance all kind of artistic performances, sport competitions and games start. People play khomus (Jaws harp), drums and kyrimpa (Yakut violin), competing in jumping games, archery, wrestling and horse racing.
Culmination of the festival is the ceremony of meeting the sun. People gather together on a meadow and wait for the sunrise.
The largest Yhyakh celebration is held close to Yakutsk city, place called Us-Khatyn , in 2012 it was visited by 160.000 people.
Yakuts have many great artists who work in many different fields, for example music, handicrafts and blacksmith.
Yakuts have been known for their blacksmith skills for a long time. One of the greatest example is khomus musical instrument which has been introduced ages ago, but still widely used by local musicians. It consists only of two parts; frame and tongue, each part is made of different types of steel.
In the past, clay was not a common material, so people used birch bark to make useful tools like cups, boxes that are sewed with horse hair and other art works. Choron vessel is still made of birch bark nowadays.
Horsehair is also a common material used to make winter hats, belts and bags. However, it is important to mention that if the horse is killed people use every part of it. When the hides are dried, it is used for clothing and as a insulation for a front door. Tail is used to make tool to deter mosquitoes or clothing and meat is consumed. Dried skin which is beaten like a dried fish is used to make a yarn which is mainly used to sew a footwear.
Other handicrafts that Yakuts are known for is ivory, wood, ice carving and jewelry making.
It is a collection of poetic folk tales. Some of them contain few verses, others are up to 20.000 verses, and longest one is 50.000. The tales are a good source of Yakut cultural background, religion and history
Olonkho is usually red by a skilled narrator who is an actor, good singer, reader and who is perfect in poetic improvisation. In the past, it was popular to read Olonkho as an entertainment during the cold winter days. Due to the historical factors, urbanization and cultural changes, the narrative-tradition has decreased and is almost only seen in theater plays.
In 2005 UNESCO declared Olonkho as a “masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity”.
An example of Olonkho performed by Pyotr Reshetnikov
If you are interested in music there is a good website www.sakhamusic.ru which includes songs of most popular Yakut artists. It is not in English, but you can use Google Translate, to get English version. Also you can learn more about Sakha/ Yakut insturments on: Sakha Open World
Yakuts are famous for khapsagay (wrestling) and their own unique sport called mas-wrestling (stick-pulling). Watch the video for the introduction:
Platon Oyunsky (1893 – 1939) – The founder of modern Yakut literature. His most famous work is Red Shaman.
Stepanida Borisova (1950) – Actor in the National Theater of Oyunsky in Yakutsk and folk singer of ancient Yakut music.
Fyodor Markov (1945) – Began his career working as a jeweler and wood carver. Most known for bone, ivory and ice carving. He is famous for his ice carving in Canada, Alaska, China and Japan. Long time participant in winter festivals in Russia.
Viktor Lebedev (1988) – Three times freestyle wrestling world champion.
Kristoforov Ivan Ilich (1955) – One of the most recognized khomus craftsman in Yakutia.
Kjuregej Alexandra Argunova (1938) – Actor (Union of Icelandic Actors) and folk singer. Also mixed media, mosaic and application art artist (Association of Icelandic Visual Artists (SÍM)).
Wacław Sieroszewski (1858-1945) – was educated Polish writer who was exiled to Siberia (Yakutia) where he married Yakut woman. He published his first book about Yakut ethnography in 1896.
Presented information is collected from various books, magazines, internet websites, student researches and collaboration with members of ethnic groups.
Special thanks to all Sakha/Yakut people who helped me to find relevant information.