Vasyugan River and Vasyugan Khanty Culture
Vasyugan is the western tributary of the
Ob river in the middle of the Western Siberian Plain east of the Ural
mountain range, in the Kargasok district of Tomsk
The low-lying local landscape consists of a multitude of rivers and
lakes, which drain the world’s largest bog lands – the Vasyuganskie
Bolota (Vasyugan swamp).
climate and ecosystem
of the Vasyugan basin is typical for
western Siberia, characterised by an
extreme continental climate, with temperatures
ranging from +30C' in
the short summer (May-August) to
in the long winter
Local fauna include bear, elk (moose),
and a range of other fur-bearers and wildfowl. Traditionally, much of the
Vasyugan Khanty diet consisted of fish.
Such species as
bream, perch, starlet among
other species are
a frequent catch
In contrast to other Khanty groups, the
Vasyugan Khanty had no local
tradition of reindeer husbandry
the specifics of
local ecology, dense mixed forests lacking
reindeer pasture, numerous streams,
rivers, lakes and
Traditionally the Vasyugan Khanty were subsistence hunters and fishermen.
low scale seasonal
migration were motivated primarily by the
hunting and fishing,
of repeated trips from the permanent riverside village out to the
hunting territories in October-December
followed by downstream migrations to family-owned fishing locations. The
hunting grounds are traditionally equipped with one or more small hunting
cabins with storage huts elevated above the ground on poles; whilst at
summer fishing locations families would build makeshift tents and shelters
using birch bark and poles.
The routines of seasonal
mobility were also reflected in the traditional
These names do not
equate directly to European notions of months, and may vary in length, both
from one period to the next, but also from one year to the next depending of
climatic, ecological or other practical factors. As a result, these
concepts map sequences
rather than purely temporal notions.
Each season had a common lexical component of
iki 'loose equivalent of
‘time of eagles’ (~March);
‘time of crows’ (~April);
‘time of geese and ducks’ (~May);
‘time of the snow crust’ (~December),
(Filtchenko, 2000-2005; Tereskin, 1961; Gulya, 1965; Sirelius, 2001; Lukina
The prevailing majority of the traditional Vasyugan Khanty permanent
(local topology term of Turkic etymology),
puɣol (native Khanty term) are located along
the Vasyugan River, in widely-spaced
pattern, often several
days by boat from one another.
Exceptions to this
pattern include occasional settlements on the shores of the region’s major
lakes. This settlement
of extended family villages
reflected the structure of traditional social organization which was based
on patrilocal, patrilineal exogamous lineages.
The native reference term used
for this social grouping is
aj puɣol jaɣ
people'. The word
puɣol "village" normally refers the
typical Khanty settlement of 2-3
huts at the river or
lake edge, and housing a small community of 10-15 people.
more localised clan and lineage identities,
historical accounts (Haruzin, 1905; Sokolova, 1983) suggest that the
‘ethnic’ groupings, mainly on the grounds of linguistic affinity.
the major rivers the group occupied,
groups describe themselves as
the ethnonym for
(distinct phonetically from the western Khanty self reference term
and the term
with the general sense 'people' (Tereskin, 1961).
of Vasyugan kinship and social organisation
and Lukina 1976; Filchenko -
Vasyugan are confident that their ancestors have long resided
on these territories and refer to them as
meaning 'ancient people',
according to folklore,
in frequent conflict with Tatars
which is evident, in folk interpretations,
archaeological sites in the landscape,
the remains of fortified settlements, scatters of metal arrow heads
occasional swords and pieces of body armour. The
occupants of these sites
warrior-hero progenitors of the
Vasyugan clans, who lived in the region and defended it from attacks and
occupations by Tatars from the South and Nenets (jor«n
from the North (Lukina, 1976).
The rich spiritual life of these communities was the object of
late XVIII -
century travelers and
Karjalainen 1921, 1922). The
language of Vasyugan Khanty was much lesser described in occasional
sketches and word lists (Karjalainen 1913).
life of all Khanty and animals was created and predestined by
a chief deity. Another ultimately powerful deity is the female
the giver of life and soul (il),
and judge of its length and quality (Karjalainen, 1927).
powerful masters of elements: the water/river deity
the master of fish and a multitude of water spirits and demons; the
the master of animals and birds and of
The Vasyugan Khanty also
used to keep
images of so-called home or family spirits (juŋk)
which were linked to the welfare
of individuals and families,
success of hunting
Dated accounts describe
events when the
sat at a table and offered food, typically by a man, before hunting and
fishing seasons, to give luck and rich spoils.
Various locations along the
river were known as homes of a variety of local spirits, mostly of anthropomorphic nature, in
shape of a woman or a man, and
in having wooden
their image. The sacred sites, “homes” of the spirits continue to be
distinct and known to local families and regularly attended for
offerings and paying respects. For
Khanty, it was also typical to have anthroponymic group-names (Vertesh
1961, Lukina 1978) typically corresponding
to the names of the clan progenitors:
'sack' (Filtchenko, 1998-2005).
The sacred rituals were
typically performed by the hunters themselves,
however, often the
were invited to make offerings to the spirits and ask for rich spoils in
in the role of medicine men and fortune-tellers (Dmitriev-Sadovnikov,
1911; Karjalainen, 1922; Zuev, 1947; Kulemzin, 1976).
The unique role of
shamans was their ability in the process of shaman rituals to part with
their body and ‘walk the worlds’ (lower or upper) and to communicate and
interact with spirits and deities, act on other people’s souls/spirits,
and foresee the future
and help build the
strategies for successful hunting, as well as to
In case of illness
treatment, the shaman’s spirit was typically expected to travel to the
lower world to find and return the stolen spirit of the ill person.
Alternatively, the shaman was understood to heal the person by expelling
the spirit of illness from the body of the ill, fighting it in the
spiritual realm, often in alliance with either the family/clan spirit or
the local patron spirit
skills were combined
the intimate experience with the whole pantheon of spirits and deities,
as well as general close
knowledge of the
local landscape, flora and both behaviour of and towards animals.
The first Russian contacts with
Vasyugan Khanty date back to XVI century at which time
had resided at this location for at least 3 to 10 centuries based on
archeological research. Before the Russian contact,
Vasyugan Khanty are
assumed to have been in contact with Siberian Tatars, as the area was
under administrative control of Siberian Tatar Khan. Based on available
folk data, language/culture contact with Tatars and among other local
ethnic groups was fairly limited, with inter-ethnic relations generally
described as hostile.
Early Russian colonial policies were
conservationist with minimal Russian language contact and assimilative
pressures, with the exposure to Russian growing considerably in the end
of the XIX century and increasing radically in 1930-1960s as a result of
the soviet collectivization and forced migration (exile) policies. Since
1960s-1980s most of the area was heavily assimilated due to policies of
social engineering, mandatory secondary schooling (Russian media
boarding schools) and particularly by the mineral resource exploration
programs resulting in considerable influx of non-native population from
European Russia, Ukraine and central-Asian regions.
the Vasyugan Khanty language
the situation of neglect and discrimination has been a reality. Speakers
are ridiculed by the mainstream majority, children are not taught, and
in some cases persecuted for speaking
Khanty at schools. The common ethnonym ostyak is perceived as pejorative, while the stereotypes
about Khanty in general public remain uninformed. All
are bilingual with Russian being the language of daily communication
across ethnic groups. Khanty undergoes a steady decrease of the
functional sphere, reserved primarily for occasional family use, rare
peer communications and extremely rare traditional religion (shamanism)
The majority of
Vasyugan Khanty are
currently linguistically assimilated Russian monolinguals numbering
under 150 pers. The numbers of Vasyugan Khanty officially registered
vary from source to source, however, based on the original research
there are around 20 Khanty who permanently reside on
Vasyugan river and
have practical knowledge of traditional language and culture. They are
bilingual minority native language speakers, all over the age of 50.
The number of semi-fluent speakers,
capable of maintaining restricted basic conversations in
Khanty does not
exceed 50, principally placing these dialects in the group of languages
in the imminent danger of extinction within a single generation.
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