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The Evenki People of the Arctic

The Evenki are the most widely scattered of all the native peoples of Siberia. Today, about 30,000 Evenki inhabit a gigantic area of Siberian taiga that stretches from the River Ob in the west to the Okhotsk Sea in the east, and from the Arctic Ocean in the North, to Manchuria and the Island of Sakhalin in the South. The total area of their territory is over 2.5 million square kilometres.

The original home of the Evenki, formerly known as the Tungus was the area around Lake Baikal in the south of Siberia, where all the ancient Tungusic groups originated. The anthropological features of the Evenki, are evident in the early Neolithic people around the shores of Lake Baikal. Pressure from other neighbouring tribes led to the Tungus began to migrating eastwards to the Amur and the coast of the Okhotsk Sea, and also north, to the Lena River basin northwest, to the Yenisey River. They moved up to the tundra in the north, and the steppes in the south. As they extended through Eastern Siberia they assimilated other tribes. The Evenki split into three different groups, ‘foot’, ‘reindeer’, & ‘horse’ with each developing a different dialect and way of life. Evenki horse and cattle breeders belonged to the ‘horse group’ and were involved in agriculture. Reindeer breeders who settled in the vast area from the Yenisey River to the Sea of Okhotsk and who also hunted and fished belonged to the ‘Reindeer’ group. The main occupation of the ‘foot’ group was hunting and trapping.

The Evenki settled in areas which had a similar environment mostly, mountain taiga and, to a lesser extent, mountain tundra. Their economy was based on reindeer breeding and hunting which allowed them to be extremely mobile and achieve an exceptional rate of expansion. Their whole traditional culture supported this mobile way of living: they had light conical tents, excellent skis, and light clothing. This way of life and its associated tools and equipment, formed the basis of the Tungus Culture.


The Evenki language is the basic language of the Northern group of Tunguso-Manchurian languages which includes Even (Lamut). The basic vocabulary is related to the Mongolic and Turkic languages and is also close to Yakut.

Daily Life

Evenki women and girl with fish
The nomadic way of life of the Evenki in the taiga was based on their hunting and reindeer herding activities. Their yearly migration routes were determined by reindeer calving and mating areas as well as their seasonal hunting and fishing areas. The Evenki hunted a wide variety of game which included wild reindeer, moose, roe deer, mountain goats & Manchurian deer. During the winter they also hunted and trapped animals for fur, squirrels, sable and otter being the most common. In most of the areas they occupied their fishing was seasonal and included species like taimen, sturgeon, beluga and salmon.

Previously, The Evenki only bred reindeer for riding and for use as draught animals. Families did not have large herds, usually somewhere between 15 and 100 animals. Taking care of the reindeer involved changing pastures all the time, building fences during calving, lighting fires to keep away mosquitoes and midges, building sheds for shade, clipping antlers, neutering and treating sick reindeer. Domestic reindeer were only slaughtered if the family faced real hunger from unsuccessful hunting or fishing.

In the 20th Century most of the nomadic Evenki settled down. On their migration routes, former camps were replaced by Russian settlements with wooden houses, and later concrete apartment blocks. Despite this many Evenki still spend at least part of the year out in the taiga following their traditional pursuits.


Their basic diet comprised of game and fish. They preferred meat boiled with broth though they ate both fish and meat roasted on sticks. They also collected a variety of berries like crowberries, blue berries, raspberry and bilberries etc. During the summer they also milked reindeer which they churned into butter and added to tea made from red bilberries and rosehip. Once they began having regular contact with Russians in the 17th Century, the Evenki had access to flour which initially they only used for soup but later learnt to bake bread. Nowadays most Evenki have access to shops selling an assortment of Russian foods.


Evenk reindeer are large and strong and they were the main form of transport. They mainly rode them rather than hitching them to sleds. In the winter months they also used broad skiis for travelling through the taiga. In the summer they made boats from wood and birch bark. Today, the Evenki still ride their reindeer when they are out in the taiga, but also used modern transport like snowmobiles and motor boats.


Some of the Evenki traditional beliefs such as animism, shamanism and magic have survived up to the present day. According to their belief concepts, the universe had 7 worlds: 3 heavens, the middle Earth and 3 underground worlds, united by a central pillar. The sky was seen as the ground of the higher world where reindeer herds grazed, a reindeer skin, or a cauldron turned upside down. The entrance to the higher world was by the North Star, while the nether worlds were reached though clefts, caves and whirlpools.

The Evenki developed a classical form of shamanism (the word shaman is of Tungusic origin). Shamans acted as mediums between people and spirits, and they flew around the worlds of the Universe in the shape of animals or their ancestor spirits with different aims: to cure the sick, to find lost things, to predict the future, to ensure plenty of offspring for their reindeer, to facilitate childbirth, or to accompany the soul of the deceased to the world of the dead. A shaman’s attire and paraphernalia played an important role. Their costumes were decorated with pendants and images. The also wore an iron crown with the antlers attached and played a traditional Shaman’s drum. According to their shamanistic beliefs, a person had several souls, and they all needed care and food: the soul-body had the shape of a little bird, the soul-life which was the person’s breath and the blood, and finally the soul-shadow, which was a person’s double image. Illness came from the evil spirit who had stolen one of the sick person’s souls or penetrated inside their body. A shaman’s task was to get the evil spirit out of the body or take the sick person’s soul from him. Shamans’ rites for ensuring good hunting were very important. The strongest shamans performed the rites to give the souls of the deceased a send off to the world of the dead. The Tungus shamans were regarded as the strongest in Siberia and even neighbouring peoples turned to them for help.

By the end of the 19th Century most Evenki had converted to the Russian Orthodox faith, but even today, particularly in the older generations, many of their traditional beliefs linger alongside Christianity.


Evenks clothing was designed for the environment and for the active life of riding reindeer and skiing. They were made from reindeer hide and the main item was a caftan that did not meet in the front. A special chestpiece or apron was therefore a necessary accessory. Women’s aprons were highly decorative and incorporated beads, fur strips and metal ornaments. They also and had straight lower edges while the men’s one ended in a point. The winter caftans were made of autumn reindeer skin and had mittens sewn onto the sleeves. Winter boots, of various lengths, were made from reindeer skin. Nowadays most Evenki wear factory produced clothes and only wear traditional clothing for festivals or holidays.

Social Problems

Even though the Evenki cover a vast area the social problems of unemployment, alcoholism and poverty are common throughout their territory. The root of these problems can be attributed to a loss of traditional lands and cultural.

Text © B & C Alexander

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