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The Northern Selkup

The Selkups are one of the indigenous peoples of Northwest Siberia. They have traditionally been hunters and fishermen, but lead a more sedentary life than their northern Samoyed neighbours, the Nenets. The ancestry of the Selkup goes back to the Neolithic cultures of the 3rd Century BC. These societies were the origin of a wide range of tribes from the Eastern Ural region of Western Siberia. Today there are some 4,300 Selkups living at the watersheds of the River Ob and its tributaries, the Vasyugan in the Tomsk Region, The Pur and Taz Rivers in the Yamal as well as the Turukhan River in Krasnoyarsk Territory.

Selkup settlements were usually located on river banks and estuaries, and typically consisted of somewhere between two and ten houses. There were permanent winter villages, and seasonal summer settlements which were populated from spring to late autumn. The settlements had houses, barns, huts for keeping fishing gear, racks for drying nets and sun-curing fish. The houses tended to be placed randomly at some distance from each other and were often surrounded by trees.

In the 19th Century, after the Russians appeared as permanent settlers in the Selkups’ territory, life became increasingly difficult for them. They were charged fur tax and the Russian settlers also began hunting the Selkups’ domesticated reindeer. In the 1930s the Selkups way of life came under even more severe pressure. They were forced to re-settle in specially built townships, their religion was banned by communists, and their children were sent to boarding schools. This resulted in the children being alienated from their traditional environment and culture. From then onwards, the Selkups life was governed by strangers from far away.


The Selkup language belongs to the Samoyedic branch of the Uralic languages. It is the most intact surviving language of the Southern or Sayan-Samoyedic group. Selkup is divided into three dialects, the Northern or Taz dialect, the Central or Tym Dialect and the Southern or Ket Dialect. These dialectal differences are mainly phonetic.

Daily Life

Selkup Birch Bark Baskets
Nowadays many Selkups still live from a combination of hunting and fishing. Squirrels, sables, wolverines and other animals are all important game and their fur is used as a source of income The Ob Selkups group are also engaged in agriculture and stock-raising, while the Northern Selkups herd reindeer which they use both for food and transport. During the summer they often live in tents and use log cabins in winter.

The Selkups have a long tradition of fishing in both large and small rivers. They fish mainly for species like nelma, muksun, omul, sterlet, chir, pike & perch. They used to catch sturgeon as well, but nowadays they are protected. The Selkups use a variety of fishing techniques and equipment from stake nets, rods, long lines, drag-nets, and they also set up ‘locks’ in small rivers and canals. Fishing is so important that it is reflected in the names of Selkup calendar months: “the month of pike caviar,” “the month of nelma,” “the month of fish locks,” etc.

The Northern Selkups did not keep large herds of reindeer but in the past an average family would have kept between twenty and fifty reindeer. They also didn’t use dogs to help them when they were working with their reindeer. From time to time the reindeer were allowed to roam free and then gathered together again. The Selkups built barns for their reindeer which in summer they would light fires inside as the smoke would help keep mosquitoes and other biting insects away.


The traditional staple diet of the Selkups was fish but they also ate a lot of game like elk as well as birds: geese, ducks, blackcock and partridge. Usually fish was eaten raw, dried boiled and frozen. During the summer when fish were often plentiful they preserved them by salting it and making it into ‘pors’ (dried fishmeal) and ‘yukola’ (dried pressed fish). When salt was difficult to come by, they pickled fish in holes in the ground with cranberries and bilberries laid on top, and then covered with earth. Geese, ducks, and ptarmigan were also preserved this way. In the 19th Century, the Selkups living along the Rivers Ob and Ket began to get bread, tea and salt from the Russians. In other areas it was common for the Selkups to make tea from an infusion of honeysuckle.


Dog sleds, reindeer sleds and skiis were the traditional form of winter transport for the Selkups. In the summer they used various types of dugout boats and for long journeys

They had larger wooden boats called ‘Ilimki’ in which the boatman could either stand or sit and these could carry about 8-10 passengers. Nowadays modern forms of transport like snowmobiles and motor boats are in common use.

Traditional Beliefs

Despite the conversion of the Selkups to the Russian Orthodox faith in the 17th and 18th Centuries, they preserved many of their animistic traditions and pagan rites for a long time. This was particularly the case with the Northern Selkups. They believed that the world was divided into three spheres, the higher, the middle, and the under world. People could communicate with the higher world of spirits through shamans ‘teetypy’. Shamans healed people, predicted hunting success and made sacrifices to the spirits. The shaman’s clothing consisted of a parka with hanging iron pendants and images of spirit-assistants like snakes, lizards and other animals and birds. The Shamans conjured up the spirits using a drum. The Selkups believed in spirit-masters of nature, forest and water as well as in spirit-ancestors and they kept their images in small sacred shelters in the forest. The spirits were offered sacrifices of livestock and household items. Besides being a worship place, these small shelters were also used as special sources of help, as in hard times the Selkups would ‘borrow’ the stored items and return them later on.

The Selkups buried their dead in shallow graves, and often a boat served as coffin. They believed that the deceased travels to the ‘sea of the dead,’ and traditionally, the cemetery was always located downstream. They would put food and broken things into the coffin. Larger items such as sleds, carts, skis, teapots and kettles were left near the grave, and clothing was hung on the trees. The Northern Selkup would also kill a reindeer at the burial place. Above the grave, they sometimes built a kind of small log shelter, and on other occasions a ground sepulchre was made especially in winter. Shamans however, were entombed in trees or on raised wooden platforms.


In winter, the Selkups wore clothing made of skins and their summer clothes were sewn from fish skins of sturgeon, burbot, starlet, or pike as well as canvas woven from nettle fibre. The Selkup fishermen wore fish skin shirts and trousers up until the end of the 19th Century. The Northern Selkups wore reindeer skin clothing usually consisting of hooded parkas with the fur outside and thigh length boots. In the more southerly Selkup regions, the traditional footwear was normally leather shoes ‘chirkas’ and boots ‘luntai’ and fur ‘unty’ ‘boots for winter. During the 19th Century Russian style clothing and footwear became popular among the Selkups. They adopted Russian style shirts and trousers as well as sheepskin coats. Large ear flap fur hats, fur mittens and felt boots, were soon being worn in most areas. Selkup women wore dresses and fastened their sarafans with belts woven from coloured threads. A knife and thimble were carried on the belt.

Social Problems

As in many other northern native societies the problems in many Selkup communities are alcoholism and unemployment. These are often attributed to loss of culture.

 Text © B & C Alexander

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