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The Khanty People of the Arctic

The Khanty are one of the indigenous peoples of northwest Siberia. They were previously called ‘Ostyak’ (People of the Ob) by the Russians. Today there are about 22,500 Khanty most of whom live along the River Ob in the Khanty-Mansiysk Autonomous Region and the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Region. There are three separate groups of Khanty, ‘northern,’ ‘southern’ and ‘eastern’ and each has a different dialect and economic way of life. The Khanty culture dates back to the middle of the first millennium BC, and their ancestors are thought to have been Ugric horse breeders who moved northward into the taiga. By about 500 AD the main regional groups of Khanty were formed in their current areas. They adopted a hunting and fishing lifestyle, while the northern group also herded reindeer. They were led by feudal chiefs before coming under the authority of the Russian state in the 16th Century.


Khanty is classified as an ‘Ob-Ugric’ language belonging to the Finno-Ugric branch of the Uralic language family, and it is closely related to Mansi. Most Khanty also speak Russian which they are taught in school.

Daily Life

Khanty with Telephone
The traditional subsistence activities of the Khanty are river fishing, hunting and reindeer breeding. The main animals they hunt and trap in the taiga are elk, bear, hare, fox, sable, squirrel and weasel. They also hunt migratory waterfowl during the spring and autumn. Most Khanty live in rural areas in log cabins and also use tepee style tents made of reindeer skin or canvas. Reindeer herding remains very important with each clan having their own grazing and hunting grounds. In former times large reindeer herds reached 1000 animals or more in some areas, but most Khanty families kept much smaller herds of 20-30 animals. Some of the northern Khanty group still lead a semi-nomadic life, migrating with their reindeer herds in the spring and autumn. In the south the herders keep their reindeer close to the villages and the distances between their winter and summer pastures relatively short.


The staple foods of the Khanty are meat and fish. The main species of fish that they catch are Sterlet, sturgeon and pike, though the northern group eat white salmon and muksun. They also eat the meat of elk, hare, bear as well as game birds like geese, ducks and ptarmigan. Reindeer meat is eaten, both raw and cooked and the blood of the animal is often drunk immediately after slaughter. Like most other northern indigenous peoples they collect a variety of berries during the summer. Nowadays they have access to flour so bread and bannock has become part of their diet. They are also able to buy an assortment of Russian food in their local shops.


Khanty use mainly reindeer for transport, particularly the northern group. Further south, dogs were used for winter transport. They also hunt in the taiga on broad wooden skis. Nowadays modern snowmobiles are also in common use. In the summer they use dugout canoes, but these are being superseded by modern factory produced motor boats for fishing.


Although most Khanty have been converted to the Russian Orthodox Christian faith, a lot of them still maintain their traditional cults and beliefs. Many of these beliefs are related to animism, totemism and the hunting cult. The bear cult, with its myths and rituals called the ‘Bear Festival.’ has a very special place in Khanty spiritual culture as the Khanty believe the bear to be an ancestor-relative.


Khanty with Reindeer Sled
The northern Khanty men wear a similar ‘malitsa’ hooded reindeer skin parka with mittens attached and thigh length reindeer skin boots as the Nenets. The design of the decoration though is different. The women wear a front fastening coat made from a double layer of reindeer skin. In the summer the traditional dress for women was similar in design to the winter coat, only made from brightly coloured cloth. The hem, sides, cuffs and neck are embroidered with beads. In both winter and summer women wear large square scarves to cover their head. All the clothes of the eastern group of Khanty are the front opening type. Men’s coats are short and made of fur or fabric. Their footwear is made of reindeer skin or leather. Nowadays, traditional clothing is increasingly being replaced by modern factory produced clothes but many northern Khanty still wear their traditional clothes when they are out with their reindeer herds or hunting.

Social Problems

The rapid development of oil and gas fields in the areas of Khanty settlements has led to a gradual destruction of their traditional way of life. In many areas, rivers, lakes and pastures have been badly polluted making pursuits like fishing and reindeer herding almost impossible. The decline of their culture is blamed by most experts for the high rate of alcoholism, poverty and suicides that occur in many of the Khanty villages.

Text © B & C Alexander

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