The Evenk


'When you hunt, take what you need today.
 Never take more. Do not waste. 
The animals are our brothers.' Evenk proverb.



What is their real name?

The Evenk used to be called the Tungus. In their language, they call themselves Evenkil.


Where do they live, and what is their environment like?

The Evenk live in Siberia, in an immense area spreading from the Arctic Ocean in the North to Mongolia and China in the South, between the Yenisei River in the West to the Pacific Ocean in the East. The taiga covers a big part of this region. The taiga is a forest with many kinds of conifers adapted to the cold, like larch, spruce, pine and fir. There you can also find deciduous trees like birch, willow, poplar and mountain ash.



There are also large marshy areas an lakes that change into vast frozen expanses for six to eight months because the climate is very harsh: -60°C (-76°F) in the winter and 30°C (86°F) in the summer. Spring is the most difficult season because of the thaw. The melting snow and ice make the land completely muddy.


How many are they?

There are 35,000 Evenk in Russia, the same number in China, and there are approximately 1,000 in Mongolia.


What languages do they speak?

Before the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Evenk language had never been written. Its alphabet was created after 1900, and the first Evenk book printed in 1928. After years and years when only Russian was taught in class, young Evenk can now study their language, though, on average, two out of three adults have forgotten it.


How do they dress?

Their clothing, made completely out of reindeer hide and, in certain groups, salmon skin, fits well and is very elegantly decorated with leather appliqué, embroidery, and beads of all colors. The women have metal jewelry. Everybody wears fur hats against the cold.


© Alexandra Lavrillier


What are their houses like?

The taiga is no one's property and anybody is free to set up their tent there. During winter, the Evenk live in conical tents whose larch frame is covered with smoked reindeer hides, while, in the summer, larch and birch bark is more appropriate. The poles are never pulled up when they change camping sites. They leave them up so it is easier to use them later.

Nowadays, their tents are made of fabric, but the Evenk have mostly become sedentary, living in houses in villages or cities. During the coldest part of the year, they cover the bottom of their tents with a thick layer of snow for better insulation. In the summer, they raise the tent flaps to create an air current which drives away mosquitoes. They are also repelled by smoke from fires lit in small buckets.

They cover the ground with a thick layer of fresh larch and fir branches. The woman and children cut the branches in the forest. The covering is changed each week so that the lodging remains sanitary and clean.


Which animals live around them?

The fauna of the taiga abounds in species of all sizes: mouflon, bear, wild reindeer, lynx, wolf, beaver, Arctic hare, wolverine, pine marten, sable are the most notable, but many species more common in our lands are also well-represented.

Many migratory birds, like the crane, the goose and the duck, stop in the taiga on their journeys between the Arctic and the warm southern regions. Native to the taiga are the cuckoo, the black grouse and, especially, the loon, the sacred bird of the shaman, who travels through the three worlds of the Evenk, the upper world, the middle world and the lower world.


What do they eat?

In winter, spring or fall, a corral is built for the reindeer in the middle of the camp. In the summer, the Evenk settle for keeping them in an area surrounded by fires. At night, they tie up the young reindeer in a pen so that their mothers do not wander off. The Evenk watch the herd to protect it from bears who might be tempted to stock up on food.

Their food is almost exclusively of animal origin: reindeer meat and fish. Reindeer bone marrow is the favorite food of the Evenk, as well as reindeer liver and kidneys. At the end of the summer, they gather forest berries, the last to ripen being cranberries, which are frozen for the winter. They also make reindeer cheese provisions.


How do they hunt?

Each family has its own clearly marked hunting territory. There is agreement between the villages about the division of land.

There is a special writing system for orientation in the taiga: a branch laid across a path means that you can not go any further, an arrow in the bark of a tree whose branches have been clipped means different things, depending on whether it points up (« I am further ahead. »), or down (« I am setting traps nearby. »), etc. There is a whole language for leaving information along the paths taken by families of nomads.

The hunter must have shelter at night: a log lean-to or a semi-cylindric tent allow him to resist temperatures as low as -50°C (-58°F), even without a fire. In the past, the Evenk used to build little log cabins with inclined rooves covered with larch bark. These houses, neither too cold nor too hot, were favored during the intermediate seasons.

For the Evenk, hunting is not predatory but it is an 'exchange' between humans and the wild animals they eat.


What are their beliefs and rites?

They believe in the power of spirits which inhabit the trees and the rocks. The shaman is chosen by his clan. He is consulted for everything, especially hunting. Just as humans eat game, the spirits of wild animals consume the vital energy of humans, devouring their flesh and sucking their blood. The sickness and death that result are therefore normal. The function of the shaman is to conduct this exchange of flesh with the wild animals. He has to obtain from them 'game promises,' that is, hunting luck. In return, he lets the spirits 'devour' him. A good shaman is one who 'takes' the most the soonest and 'gives' the least the latest.

The deceased were most often placed in hollow tree trunks or in a sort of box along with the objects that belonged to them. These boxes or trunks were raised on two two-meter poles out of reach of animals. Now they are buried in the village cemetery.


What do they celebrate?

The reindeer festival, when spring arrives, is a time for large gatherings with reindeerback, sled and ski races. It is an opportunity to visit shamans and to meet Evenks who come from campsites several days away by sled. At this time, marriages are planned, the next season's hunting agreements are settled, and hides and meat are sold.


What art do they make?

The Evenk make objects out of reindeer horn and birch, such as toy sleds, animal figurines, and doll cradles. They are specialists in leather appliqué for making rugs, hangings, bags, hats and boots, and in beadwork for their clothing. Their music consists of songs for dancing and lullabies, with a lot of improvisation and, in general, without instrumental accompaniment.


What problems do they face today?

Their traditional way of life was dramatically altered by the Russians, who governed all of Siberia. In the time of Stalin, around 1930, Evenk chiefs and shamans were persecuted and murdered. The nomads were forced to become sedentary, and their children were torn from their families to attend Russian boarding schools. There they lost their mother tongue and their way of life.

City life did not suit this nomadic people and alcoholism claimed its first victims among unemployed men. Over the last few years, they have taken action, and alcohol is now banned from their villages.

Today, extraction of oil, gas, diamonds, gold and other minerals is destroying their environment and, therefore, their way of life. The Evenk demand the right to continue to live on their ancestral lands, to be nomadic herders and to speak their own language.

RAIPON, the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, is trying to change the laws in favor of these peoples. They are fighting for the preservation of their culture and indigenous languages. The organization has a representative in each village and city, and the Russian administration is forced to take their opinion into consideration.


Translated by Jason Miller


To learn more, you may search the media center.

To visit Evenk children in their surprising school, go to the Ecoles page.

This article is based on the work of Alexandra Lavrillier, a specialist of the Evenk who has lived with them for many years.