The Yakuts are the indigenous people of the Republic of Sakha in the northeast of Siberia. Today there are about 400,000 Yakuts living in this vast region that covers an area of about 3,103,200 sq km, roughly five times the size of France. It’s the largest Republic in the Russian Federation and over 40% of it lies in the Arctic. It has an extreme climate and in some areas temperatures average -50° Celsius in January and can reach +39°C in July. The town of Verkhoyansk in northern Yakutia made history on 15 th January 1885 when the temperature of -67.8° C (-90.4 °F) was recorded there, the coldest temperature ever registered in the northern hemisphere.
The name Yakut is derived from an Evenki word ‘Yakolt’ meaning ‘outsiders’ or ‘strangers,’ but the Yakut, call themselves ‘Sakha.’ The exact origin of the Yakut people remains unclear. One traditional theory is that the Yakuts originally migrated from the Lake Baikal region to the basins of the Middle Lena, Aldan and Vilyuy Rivers in the 10 th or 13 th Centuries, while another more recent theory suggests that they are indigenous to the Middle Lena area. In the first half of the 17 th century the Russians began to move into their territory and annexed Yakutia, they imposed a fur tax and managed to suppress several Yakut rebellions between 1634 and 1642.
Today, you can find Yakut people involved in a wide range of occupations in government, finance, economics, forestry, diamond mining and other industries, as well as in more traditional activities like horse and cattle breeding.
The Yakut language belongs to the northeast branch of the Turkic speaking group of peoples. Unlike many other of the indigenous languages in Siberia, Yakut is not declining, virtually every Yakut speaks their own native language and there are books, magazines and newspapers published in it. There are also TV and radio programs that are broadcast in the Yakut language.
The main traditional occupations of the Yakuts were, and in many rural areas still are, cattle and horse breeding. It was generally women who looked after cattle while men looked after horses. The Yakut horse is remarkable in that it is able to forage for food outside in winter temperatures as low as -60° Celsius and doesn’t require barns for shelter. Cattle on the other hand are only put out to pasture in the summer and kept in kept in sheds during the winter with hay for fodder. Yakut cattle are able to endure the extreme climate but are relatively unproductive and only milked in summer. For Yakut people living in the North, hunting was an important source of meat. They mainly hunted elk, wild reindeer as well as forest birds and migratory waterfowl. They also trapped squirrels, arctic fox and hare.
Yakut diet was dairy products, fish and meat. Dairy products were eaten mainly in the summer and also preserved for the winter. Mare’s milk was used primarily to make ‘kumys,’ a refreshing, nutritious and slightly alcoholic drink that the Yakuts still drink readily and is very popular during haymaking and summer festivals. Cow’s milk isn’t drunk so much fresh but used to make a variety of dairy products including ‘suorat,’ a type of thick sour cream. Fish was the main source of food for poorer people in northern areas where there were no cattle. White Salmon, starlet, carp, grayling and white fish which were usually eaten raw or just frozen. Meat was eaten more by wealthy families. Horsemeat was, and still is, a particular delicacy normally eaten frozen, boiled or fried. The Yakuts also gathered and ate pine or larch sapwood, and a whole variety of greens wild onions, horse radish, sorrel, and berries.
The Yakuts travelled mainly by riding on horseback and loads were carried in pack saddles. They also used sledged that were pulled by oxen while in northern areas of Yakutia they used reindeer sleds. Yakuts also travelled on skis particulary when they were hunting in the taiga. The skis were usually lined underneath with horse hide. For the summer they had a variety of boats. They used canoes ‘tyy’ made of birch bark, dugouts, and also larger boats called, ‘karbaz,’ that had sails. Nowadays, they all kinds of modern transport from snowmobiles to four wheel drive vehicles in winter, to the factory produced motor boats in the summer. In northern rural areas horses and reindeer are still used for transport.
In former times the Yakut people believed in a spirit world and practiced a form of totemism whereby each clan or family had an animal protector which they were forbidden to kill or call by name. According to traditional Yakut beliefs the universe consisted of three worlds. The upper was inhabited by gods: Yuryung Aiyy Toyon the supreme deity, and the goddess Ieykhsit, the patron and defender of mankind, and also, Aiyysyt, the fertility and childbirth goddess. The middle world was populated by people and spirits like Baai Byanai, the spirit of the forest, Khatan Temieriye, the spirit of fire and Alakhchin khotun, the earth-goddess. The lower world was the home of ‘abaasy’ evil monsters.
The Yakuts had two types of shamans, white and black. White shamans served the gods by making different sacrifices, casting spells, and organizing the Ysyakh feast. The black shamans were supposed to fight evil spirits, which caused natural misfortunes. Horses were normally sacrificed to the gods in the upper world and cows to the spirits in the lower world. Both men and women could become shamans, but women shamans were considered to be more powerful. Every shaman had a patron-spirit, an animal double whose effigy on a copper badge was sewn onto the front of the shaman’s costume. The Yakut Shamans’ drums were oval with a wide rim and similar to those of the Evenks.
Although many Yakuts were converted the Russian Orthodox Church back in the 18 th and 19 th Centuries, today there are still many Yakuts who have maintained some of their traditional beliefs of the spirit world. The Ysakh feast is still held each summer in many Yakut communities. The climax of this festival is a ceremonial libation of Kumys (fermented mares milk) in honour of the traditional deities; prayers are made to them and there is ceremonial drinking of Kumys from large wooden goblets (choroom). This is usually followed by feasting and games and sports of various kinds.
Traditional clothing for both men and women consisted of short leather trousers and a single breasted caftan which was made of fur for winter use and horse or cow hide for summer. The caftan was pleated at the shoulders with wide sleeves that tapered at the cuff. Fabric shirts with a turndown collar were later adopted from the Russians. Men wore simple belts, rich men wore belts with silver or copper buckles. A rich woman’s dress would be decorated with embroidery and appliqué as well as silver ornaments. At weddings and other festive occasions women would sometimes wear a fur caftan and also a headdress made of sable or beaver fur which fell to the shoulders with a high top made of red or black velvet or brocade. It was decorated with beads and lace and had a large heart shaped silver plate above the forehead.
Winter footwear consisted of high boots made of reindeer or horse skin with the outside. In summer they wore suede boots with fabric-covered legs, women often had decorative appliqué work on theirs.
Text © B & C Alexander