Through the Years:Land Rights Among the Evenkis of Southeastern Siberia

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Traveling up the Tokko River from the Native village of Tyanya (Olekma County, Sakha Republic, Russia), you may occasionally spot the ephemeral swirl of smoke rising above the dark larch forest. Guide your boat shoreward and a scramble up the bank will find you in a small camp of Evenkis. A family, maybe two, a canvas tent, a corral, a rustic log table, and a blackened teakettle suspended over a fire comprise the camp. A child stares shyly from behind a parent’s leg. Perhaps a herd of reindeer, bunched downwind of the campfire, seek respite from mosquitoes.

Anticipating visitors as soon as the drone of the outboard motor was heard, the camp’s matriarch has rinsed some mugs and fetched a bowl of beaten reindeer milk to whiten the potent tea or spread on the village bread you bring. The visit is brief; you share tea and news—hers of the hinterland, yours of the village and wider world. You then head up the river; in an hour or two’s time, another plume of smoke appears, and again, you head for the shore. Courtesy dictates that you stop; courtesy also dictates that your stop be honored with tea, and, if available, a bite to eat.

Today, such small Evenki reindeer camps, few in number and inhabitants, still pepper the taiga lands of southeastern Siberia. These vestiges of traditional Evenki reindeer herding represent a persistent, if tenuous, way of life: nearly self-sufficient, isolated, humble, yet valued by many who pursue such a land-based living. Indeed, they represent a renaissance, in a way, of such life. Following several decades of distorted land relations under Soviet rule, the Evenkis have begun to reinstate their former territorial relations, even in the face of a rapidly transforming and globalizing economy.

Contrary to popular conceptions of nomadic lifestyles, the Evenkis have never lacked a sense of attachment to their lands. Prior to Soviet rule, a group of families who nomadized and pursued their herding and hunting activities together (an obshchina) enjoyed possession of and stewardship over a discrete territory and its resources. Other obshchinas recognized their rights to this territory and used it only with permission. Boundaries, while not impermeable, existed as guidelines for resource management. Clan elders reallocated obshchina territories when changes in Evenki or reindeer populations dictated the need. Land tenure, however flexible, existed among these nomads—though it was often unnoted by outsiders.
Bounding Evenki Lands

Russians reached southeastern Siberia before 1650 and land tenure changed mainly as a result of settlers dispossessing Evenki families of part of their territories when the land proved useful for agriculture or mining. Not until Soviet power penetrated the remote corners of southern Siberia in the late 1920s did land tenure begin to change drastically. The Soviet agenda was multi-pronged: The Evenkis, along with other aboriginal groups, were to be “civilized” through sedentarization, collectivization, and formal schooling for children. Traditional economic activities such as reindeer husbandry and hunting would be “rationalized” through the introduction of technology and scientific practices, and the production of these activities would benefit the state. The Evenkis were to participate as citizens through the establishment of local government and Communist Party organizations.

These initiatives produced significant changes in Evenki relations to their lands. The state built villages and encouraged women, children, and the elderly to settle down. Schooling of children in boarding schools removed them from a life on the land—and from the transmission of traditional ecological knowledge related to reindeer husbandry—for a substantial part of the year. Women had to choose whether to remain nomadic with their husbands or settle with their children; if they chose to settle, their ties to their traditional lands were also partially severed.

In order to tighten its control over economic activity, the state required Evenki to register as members of collective farms. They were forced to turn their reindeer over to these farms, to be owned by the farm (and later the state), and to be herded by brigades rather than by families. Each farm had allotted lands, and brigades could use only those lands. The flexibility of the pre-Soviet obshchina boundaries, so important in cases of forest fires, reindeer epidemics, and other natural disasters, was forfeited.

In addition to farm boundaries, the Soviet government established new political boundaries between republics and provinces, and within these units between counties (rayony). It then sought to restrict movement between such units. These confines often sundered ties between neighboring Evenki groups, who ended up on different sides of the newly enforced boundaries. The government limited pasture options and flows of information about reindeer health, trade, and social intercourse. For instance, the Evenkis of southern Olekma County had previously interacted with those farther south. Now their southern neighbors found themselves in the Chita Province, while the Olekma Evenki were located in the Yakut (current Sakha) Republic. Travel and intercourse across this boundary was discouraged, a function of the state’s interest in surveillance and control of its population.

When reindeer numbers began to decline under the Soviet-style management, officials blamed the lack of discrete, enforced pastures. A report from the 1950s noted that prior to Soviet power “there were no hard-and-fast boundaries of the reindeer-herding brigades.” (Svedeniye) Officials equated such lack of boundaries with lack of herders’ personal responsibility over pasture quality—and blamed the herders for a concomitant fall in reindeer numbers. Herders viewed the absence of hard-and-fast boundaries in a different light: “Each herder had his own territory, there was not a problem with the creation of boundaries, as it is big country. … There was always enough land, so herders used the best lands.”1 Interested in maximizing production of calves and meat, officials changed herders’ territorial organization. Pastures were increasingly bounded, and detailed plans for seasonal migration theoretically directed the moves of the brigades.

Perhaps the most critical change regarding land rights was in the minds of the first generation of Evenkis born during Soviet power. Steeped in the ideology of state ownership of land, they often disregarded the concepts of territoriality maintained by their parents: “Our father told us where our lands were. We didn’t pay attention to this,” said one Evenki elder in August 1999. Given the relatively brief history of Sovietization, however, this information was not completely lost. In the post-Soviet period, reindeer-herding families have obtained reindeer, pursued land claims, and reinitiated a neo-traditional type of herding. (Pika)

In 1992 Russian president Boris Yeltsin issued an edict that land be transferred to aboriginal obshchinas for “permanent and free-of-charge use” and that federal legislation be drafted toward this end. The edict suggested the revival of the traditional obshchina as a means for organizing territorial relations as well as economic activities. It set the stage for future federal legislation, which would provide for Native rights, the creation and operation of Native obshchinas, and other Native territorial rights.
One Family’s Story

The upper reaches of the Tokko River, which flows through the southern part of the Olekma County in the southeastern corner of the Sakha Republic, were in pre-Soviet times obshchina lands to the Kulbertinov family, a noted reindeer-herding and hunting family. Ivan Kulbertinov was decorated for his successes as a sniper on the front during World War II. Prior to the war, Kulbertinov’s family, along with the other Evenki reindeer-herding families in the region, were encouraged to settle in the village of Tyanya. Many did, and the Kulbertinov children were schooled there. However, Ivan Kulbertinov himself remained on the obschina land for most of his life.

When land claims became a possibility in the early 1990s, Kulbertinov’s son-in-law, Mikhail Bagaev, petitioned Olekma County for permission to set up an obshchina and for a parcel of territory on which the obshchina would carry out activities such as reindeer herding. Twenty-five families (60 people) joined Bagaev in this initiative, resolving to leave the state farm and form an obshchina, which they named Cheroda. Yet receiving land was no easy task. Other villagers from Tyanya feared that transfer of state lands to individual obshchinas would limit their hunting and herding activities. Bagaev recounted a meeting in the early 1990s: “I called a general meeting of the population [of Tyanya]. But here each person had her or his opinion, for example, and hot arguments arose, as the land was the state farm’s, everyone hunted on it, and now, ‘Bagaev will receive the land and we won’t be able to set a foot there; a boundary will be established, and that will be it.’ There were many arguments.”

Eventually the county’s land reform committee agreed to award Cheroda a 1.3 million-hectare parcel of land on Kulbertinov’s traditional lands, far up the Tokko River from Tyanya. However, some families soon left Cheroda to join other obshchinas formed among Tyanya’s population. Some Evenkis complained that too much land was controlled by the Cheroda obshchina. At their urging, the county government issued a decree repealing the Cheroda land grant to accommodate the founding of new obshchinas. As one villager related: “Then the head of the county collected us and said: ‘Find a common language. Create an association [of obshchinas] and I will transfer the land act [of Cheroda] to the association of obshchinas. The obshchinas should have the territory of the Tyanya township, to use the land with equal rights. I will give the land act to the chairperson of the association; you can then conditionally divide it up as you wish, but the land act I will give over completely to the chairperson of the association.’”

While Bagaev still disputes the legality of this move, the Association of Obshchinas now controls the allocation of the lands of Tyanya among obshchinas. By 1999 the association consisted of five obshchinas, including Cheroda. Despite contention in town meetings and county offices over land allocation, the issue melts away when the Evenkis are interacting on the land itself. Currently, enough land is available to meet the needs of the Evenki herders and hunters. Reindeer herds have declined since the demise of the state farm and organization of obshchinas. Interestingly, the allocation of land to the association may be facilitating a return to the pre-Soviet flexibility of land use; those who need pastures most may enjoy reallocation and still have some assurance that their sustainable use of the land will make pasture resources available in the future.
Cheroda: Success and Challenges in Re-Territorializing Homeland

When asked if she would participate in establishing an obshchina again, given the hindsight of the prickly land disputes, Bagaev’s wife Polina did not hesitate: “Yes, no question! Because in the obshchina, we resolve our own problems, we achieve our own goals.”

In the depths of the taiga, some four hours’ boat-ride up the Tokko from Tyanya, the Bagaevs and several other families have constructed a new settlement, Bekit-Cheroda, at the site of the birth and burial of Ivan Kulbertinov. Perched on the bank of the Tokko River, this outpost includes several cabins, a kitchen, a baking stove, a garage, and a one-room schoolhouse. Garden plots of tomatoes, cucumbers, and various other vegetables snuggle close to the kitchen building, with plastic covering to provide greenhouse conditions as necessary during the brief growing season. A family of goats provides milk that supplements that available from nearby reindeer herds. This central node serves a number of reindeer-herding camps, strewn upstream and downstream along the Tokko.

The elementary school (grades one through four) represents one of Sakha Republic’s first attempts at reintroducing the nomadic schools popular in the 1930s. While not truly nomadic, it was built to serve the local reindeer herders who choose not to send their children to school in Tyanya (one consequence of the demise of the Soviet Union has been a breakdown in the enforcement of compulsory education, especially in remote areas). The curriculum is designed especially for Native youth, with emphasis on Native language and culture as well as training in mainstream subjects. The pupils learn about their land-based traditions, including skills such as processing reindeer hides and lassoing deer. The school closed for the 2000-2001 academic year due to lack of students, but those involved in previous years touted its successes. In fact, one of the school’s four graduates skipped a grade on entering the regular program in Tyanya.

Successes have been less notable with reindeer husbandry. By 1999, a mere 82 head of reindeer remained. Cheroda’s experience mirrors that of dozens of obshchinas that lack access to the means to fight wolf predation and fund veterinary visits and medication, and have been forced by perilous economic situations to consume significant parts of their herds. Yet many herders remain committed to their profession, and do the best they can in the face of vastly diminished state aid.

Acknowledging the downturn in reindeer husbandry, the obshchina is looking toward diversification of its economy. It has explored the possibility of exploiting some of the mineral resources on its land base, including the semi-precious charoite and dionite, which would receive primary processing locally. Bagaev stresses that funds from such activities would be used to support reindeer herding, which he sees as viable but requiring capital to ease the difficulties confronting the herders and to provide veterinary and other services for the deer that the state no longer funds.

Indeed, neo-traditional reindeer herding among the Evenkis of southeastern Siberia hangs by a precarious thread. The tension on this thread is eased by recent Native land rights improvements; it is amplified by the instability of economic transition and the loss of state subsidies providing critical services to herders and their deer. Reindeer herding currently provides a modest, indeed meager, livelihood. But it is a livelihood that exploits resources otherwise unused and offers personal freedoms and cultural conservation. Its ability to persist through the Soviet period speaks encouragingly to its future perseverance; yet at the periphery of both a globalizing economy and the ecological boundary of reindeer husbandry, Evenki herding faces grave challenges. Perhaps most promising is the tenacity of the herders’ ties to their land, and their flexibility in accommodating change.
1. All quotes are from interviews with Evenki individuals in the Tyanya township (village and hinterlands), carried out by the author and her colleagues, Olga Lazebnik, Tamara Andreeva, Greg Poelzer, and Antonina Avvakumova, in August 1999. Funding for this research was provided by the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, and the University of Calgary-Gorbachev Joint Trust Fund.
Gail Fondahl is assistant professor of geography at the University of Northern British Columbia. She has studied reindeer systems and the legal geographies of Native land and resource rights in northern Russia for the past decade.
References and further reading
Fondahl, G. (1998). Gaining Ground? Evenkis, Land, and Reform in Southeastern Siberia. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Fondahl, G., Lazebnik, O., Poelzer, G. & Robbek, V. (2001). Native ‘land claims’, Russian style. Canadian Geographer 45:4. Pp 545-561.
Pika, A. (1999). Neotraditionalism in the Russian North. Indigenous Peoples and the Legacy of Perestroika. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press.
Sirina, A.A. (2002). Katangskie Evenki v XX veke [The Katanga Evenki in the 20th Century]. Moscow-Irkutsk: Ottisk. (Preface and summary in English, Pp 20-33; 261-263.)
Svedeniye o Kompleksnoy Brigade [Information on the Integrated Brigade]. (no date). State Archive of Olekma County, f.16, op.2, n.92.

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