I am frequently frustrated by our culture’s lack of good ethnonyms. Take “Hispanic.” It just means “someone who speaks Spanish or whose ancestors spoke Spanish.” It includes everyone from Lebanese-Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim to Japanese-Peruvian Alberto Fujimori, from Sephardi Jews to native Bolivians, from white Argentinians to black Cubans, but doesn’t include Brazilians because speaking Portuguese instead of Spanish is a really critical ethnic difference.*
*In conversation, most people use “Hispanic” to mean “Mexican or Central American who’s at least partially Native American,” but the legal definition is what colleges and government agencies are using when determining who gets affirmative action. People think “Oh, those programs are to help poor, brown people,” when in reality the beneficiaries are mostly well-off and light-skinned–people who were well-off back in their home countries.
This is the danger of using euphemisms instead of saying what you actually mean.
Our ethnonyms for other groups are equally terrible. All non-whites are often lumped together under a single “POC” label, as though Nigerian Igbo and Han Chinese were totally equivalent and fungible peoples. Whites are similarly lumped, as if a poor white from the backwoods of Georgia and a wealthy Boston Puritan had anything in common. There are technical names for these groups, used in historical or academic contexts, but if you tell the average person you hail from a mix of “Cavalier-Yeoman and Cracker ancestors,” they’re just going to be confused.
With the exception of Cajuns and recent immigrants who retain an old-world ethnic identity (eg, Irish, Jewish,) we simply lack common vernacular ethnonyms for the different white groups that settled the US–even though they are actually different.
American ethnic groups are not just Old World ethnic groups that happen to live in America. They’re real ethnicities that have developed over here during the past 500 years, but we have failed to adopt common names for them.
Woodard’s map implies a level of ethnic separation that is probably not entirely accurate, as these groups settled the American frontier in waves, creating layers of ethnicity that are thicker or thinner in different places. Today, we call these social classes, which is not entirely inaccurate.
Take the South. The area is dominated by two main ethnic blocks, Appalachians (in the mountains) and Cavalier-Plantation owners in the flatter areas. But the Cavalier area was never majority wealthy, elite plantation owners; it has always had a large contingent of middling-class whites, poor whites, and of course poor blacks. In areas of the “Deep South” where soils were poor or otherwise unsuited to cultivated, elite planters never penetrated, leaving the heartier backwoods whites–the Crackers–to their own devices.
If their ancestors spoke French, we recognize them as different, but if not, they’re just “poor”–or worse, “trash.”
Southern identity is a curious thing. Though I was born in the South (and my ancestors have lived there for over 400 years,) I have no meaningful “Southern identity” to speak of–nor do, I think, most southerners. It’s just a place; the core historical event of going to war to protect the interests of rich elites in perpetuating slavery doesn’t seem to resonate with most people I’ve met.
My interest in the region and its peoples stems not from Southern Pride, but the conventional curiosity adoptees tend to feel about their birth families: Where did I come from? What were they like? Were they good people? and Can I find a place where I feel comfortable and fit in? (No.)
My immediate biological family hails from parts of the South that never had any plantations (I had ancestors in Georgia in the 1800s, and ancestors in Virginia in the 1700s, but they’ve been dead for a while; my father lives within walking distance of his great-grandparent’s homestead.)
As previously discussed, I don’t exactly feel at home in cities; perhaps this is because calling my ancestors “farmers” is a rather generous description for folks who thought it was a good idea to move to Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl.
(By the way, the only reason the prairies are consistently farmed today is due to irrigation, drawing water up from the Ogallala and other aquifers, and we are drawing water from those aquifers much faster than it is being replenished. If we keep using water at this rate–or faster, due to population growth–WE WILL RUN OUT. The prairies will go dry and dust storms will rage again.)
To be fair, some of my kin were successful farmers when it actually rained, but some were never so sedentary. Pastoralists, ranchers, hoe-farmers–they were the sorts of people who settled frontiers and moved on when places got too crowded, who drank hard and didn’t always raise their children. They match pretty closely Richard Sapp’s description of the Florida Crackers.
From a genetic standpoint, the Crackers are either descended from borderlanders and Scotch-Irish (the pink region on the map at the top of the post,) or from folks who got along well with borderlanders and decided to move alongside them. I find it amazing that a relatively small place like Britain could produce such temperamentally different peoples as Puritans and Crackers–the former hard working, domesticated, stiff, and proper; the latter loud, liberty-loving, and more violent.
Peter Frost (evo and proud) has a theory that “core” Europe managed to decrease its homicide rates by executing criminals, thus removing them from the gene pool; the borderlands of Scotland and Ireland were perhaps beyond the reach of the hangman’s noose, or hopping the border allowed criminals to escape the police.
“The third American Revolution reached its climax in the years from 1779 to 1781. This was a rising of British borderers in the southern backcountry against American loyalists and British regulars who invaded the region. The result was a savage struggle which resembled many earlier conflicts in North Britain, with much family feuding and terrible atrocities committed on both sides. Prisoners were slaughtered, homes were burned, women were raped and even small children were put to the sword.” …
i’ve got a couple of posts related to those rambunctious folks from the backcountry whose ancestors came from the borderlands between england and scotland. libertarian crackers takes a quick look at why this group tends to love being independent and is distrustful of big gubmint — to make a long story short, the border folks married closely for much longer than the southern english — and they didn’t experience much manorialism, either (the lowland scots did, but not so much the border groups). did i mention that they’re a bit hot-headed? (not that there’s anything wrong with that! (~_^) ) see also: hatfields and mccoys. not surprising that this group’s war of independence involved “much family feuding.”
Less manorialism, less government control, less executing criminals, more cousin-marriage, more clannishness.
During the experiment, a confederate bumped some subjects and muttered ‘asshole’ at them. Cortisol (a stress hormone) and testosterone (rises in preparation for violence) were measured before and after the insult. Insulted Southerners showed big jumps in both cortisol and testosterone compared to uninsulted Southerners and insulted Northerners. The difference in psychological and physiological responses to insults was manifest in behavior. Nisbett and Cohen recruited a 6’3” 250 lb (190 cm, 115 kg) American style football player whose task was to walk down the middle of a narrow hall as subjects came the other direction. The experimenters measured how close subjects came to the football player before stepping aside. Northerners stepped aside at around 6 feet regardless of whether they had been insulted. Un-insulted Southerners stepped aside at an average distance of 9 feet, whereas insulted Southerners approached to an average of about 3 feet. Polite but prepared to be violent, un-insulted Southerners take more care, presumably because they attribute a sense of honor to the football player and are normally respectful of others’ honor. When their honor is challenged, they are prepared and willing to challenge someone at considerable risk to their own safety.”
(The bit about honor is… not right. I witnessed a lot of football games as a child, and no one ever referred to the players as “honorable.” Southerners just don’t like to get close to each other, which is very sensible if people in your area get aggressive and angry easily. The South also has a lower population density than the North, so people are used to more space.)
As my grandmother says, “You don’t get to pick your ancestors.” I don’t know what I would think of my relatives had I actually grown up with them. They have their sins, like everyone else. But from a distance, as an adult, they’re fine people and they always have entertaining stories.
“Oh, yes, yet another time I almost died…”
As for racial attitudes, if you’re curious, they vary between “probably marched for Civil Rights back in the 50s” and “has never spoken a word, good or bad, generalizing about any ethnic group.” (I have met vocally anti-black people in the South; just not in my family.) I think my relatives are more interested in various strains of Charismatic Christianity than race.
It seems rather unfortunate that Southern identity is so heavily linked to the historical interests of the Plantation Elites. After all, it did the poor whites no good to die in a war fought to protect the interests of the rich. I think the desire to take pride in your ancestors and group is normal, healthy, and instinctive, but Southerners are in an unfortunate place where that identity is heavily infused with a racial ideology most Southerners don’t even agree with.
> Be white
> Be from the south
> Not into Confederacy
> Want an identity of some sort
> Now what?
In my case, I identify with nerds. This past is not an active source of ethnic identity, nor is the Cracker lifestyle even practical in the modern day. But my ancestors have still contributed (mostly genetically) to who I am.
Well, this was going to just be an introduction to today’s anthropology selection, but it turned out rather longer than expected, so let’s just save the real anthropology for next week.
We started this adventure Into Siberia at the request of one of you fine readers for more information on the Yakuts, a Turkic-speaking people who live primarily in Russia. Erman writes:
“In Kantinsk, seventy-seven versts from Peskovsk, and in the following stages, the Russian population is mixed with more than an equal proportion of Yakuts. These are far more successful fishers and hunters than the Russians, and we were always sure of finding in their yurts a good stock of carp and other fish. Many of them have grown rich by barter, while the Russians here, by their own confession, find a miserable subsistence. …
“[The fish] are taken in the lakes belonging to the Yakuts on the northern side of the Lena, and, consequently, the Russians on the river have only as many of these fish, as those original and more practised lords of the soil allow
to escape to them. The latter, however, carry many hundred poods of this fish for sale into the upper part of the valley. …
“Sunduki and Nyuis are likewise Yakutian villages, with a small share of Russian population. The dwellings here are extremely neat, and both the food and clothing of the people bear witness to their comfortable circumstances. The women, generally, wear in the house, a gown of some coloured web; the men wear short over-coats of reindeer skin, with the hair turned in, and the outside leather-coloured … in fact, the envy which the opulence of the Asiatic has usually awakened in the minds of the European invaders, takes here the deceitful appearance of esteem. …
“An old Russian, from the vicinity of Murom, who had been banished to Yerbinsk some fifty years before for homicide, complained to me, with laughable impudence, of the progressive improvement of the Yakuts. Formerly, these people paid for every pound of flour, with the finest furs, but now they hardly paid as much for a pood; and so it sometimes happened that they laid up a stock of flour, and then, in the winter, retailed it to the Russians. Indeed, when he first came here, every Russian passed with the Yakuts for a superior being, — they have even stood to salute him at a respectful distance; but matters were at last nearly come to that pass that he would have to bow to the Yakuts. …
“We came in the evening to the yurts of Nokhtuisk, fifty-five versts from Kamenovsk, which are inhabited by very thriving and intelligent Yakuts. Several of the men whom we met in the post-hut spoke Russian fluently, and were proud of this advantage. One of them, who had travelled several times to Irkutsk, entered into an argument with Mitltyev respecting the age of Yakutsk and Irkutsk. The Yakut maintained, and with reason, that the former of these capitals was first founded; but it was not till he said to the Eosak, “Siberia was conquered 250 years ago, umler the Tsar, Ivan Yasilevich,” that his learning was formally eulogized with the words, “Now I see that you have read the history of Siberia.”* The same Yakut said, in reply to a question of mine respecting the relationship existing between his nation and the Buraets, that they were both of one descent, and that their languages were still very much alike. In saying this, he referred only to the present inhabitants of the sources of the Lena, whom he had seen himself; and in confirmation of his statement, we find that in the beginning of the seventeenth century, (1630,) when the Yakuts were just beginning
to make the acquaintance of the Russians, they preserved the tradition, that they had dwelt at one time in the upper valley, close to the Buraets and Mongols, and were at length separated, in consequence of a war, from those neighbours and kinsmen, and driven back into their present abodes.
* This man had probably received instruction in the public school of Yakutsk.”
In the 1620s the Tsardom of Muscovy began to move into their territory and annexed or settled down on it, imposed a fur tax and managed to suppress several Yakut rebellions between 1634 and 1642. The tsarist brutality in collection of the pelt tax (yasak) sparked a rebellion and aggression among the Yakuts and also Tungusic-speaking tribes along the River Lena in 1642. … The Yakut population alone is estimated to have fallen by 70 percent between 1642 and 1682 because of the Grand Duchy of Muscovy expeditions.
In the 18th century the Russians reduced the pressure, gave Yakut chiefs some privileges, granted freedom for all habitats, gave them all their lands, sent Orthodox missions, and educated the Yakut people regarding agriculture. The discovery of gold and, later, the building of the Trans-Siberian Railway, brought ever-increasing numbers of Russians into the region.
As explained in the previous post, the Yakut (Sakha) people have adapted more easily to the demands of the Russian state, and of modernity more generally, than most other indigenous peoples on Siberia. The relative success of the Yakut is best understood historically. Relative newcomers from the south, the Yakut moved into central Siberia with a more advanced technology and a more complex social order than those of the earlier indigenes of the region. …
Yakut legends put their homeland near Lake Baikal in south-central Siberia, an area now occupied by the Mongolian-speaking Buryats. The two people must have interacted extensively, as roughly one-third of the Sakha vocabulary is of Mongolian origin. Relations were not always cordial; the Yakuts tell stories of their ancestors being driven into the northern forests by the Buryats. Scholars have suggested dates for the migration ranging from the early 11th to the 13th centuries. Their exodus was no doubt traumatic; before their displacement, the Yakut raised horses, cattle, sheep, goats, and camels, but only horses and cattle survived the transition. They originally seem to have had knowledge of the Old Turkic script (“Turkic runes”), but literacy was not maintained. Sophisticated metallurgy, however, was, giving the Yakut an advantage over other Siberian peoples (groups such as the Evenks could work iron, but could not smelt it from raw ore). Military knowledge was also retained. The armored Yakut cavalry met by the first Russian interlopers were said by some to resemble the knights of medieval Europe. …
But pines also provided basic sustenance … The crucial pine resource is the inner layer of bark, or phloem. Although many peoples have traditionally eaten phloem, the Yakuts took the resource much farther than most. As Jordan-Bychkov and Bychkova Jordan explain:
In June, the “month of the pine”, women went into the woods and cut down young trees, peeled off the layers of new growth, dried it, and ground the sapwood into powder. They then mixed it into the milk products as a kind of flour, and the chemical action of the lactic acid broke down the cellulose fibers. (p. 54).
A variety of wild roots gathered from the alas meadows were another important source of food. They too were often ground and then dissolved in sour milk. Even fish and other animal product—including bones—were sometime dissolved in the mixture. The resulting product, called tar, formed a staple of the traditional Yakut diet. Large blocks of milk tar would be stored as simple frozen slabs immediately outside of the winter dwellings. Russian prisoners exiled to Yakut villages had a difficult time adapting to such fare.
The GeoCurrents article is very interesting and I encourage you to read it all. Continuing with Erman’s account:
“At Delgeisky the next stage, an old Yakut told me many particulars respecting the present manners and customs of his people. Here in the neighbourhood of the Russians, every one contents himself with one wife; but, among the families of the northern tracts, polygamy is as prevalent as ever. The old custom is kept up … for which every Yakut buys his wife. This is usually a number of cattle, to the value of 200 or 800 roobles; but as the family of the man are not always in a condition to pay the stipulated amount at once, it is customary to affiance the boys already in their twelfth year. The betrothed girls may be visited in their parents’ yurts by their intended husbands, but cannot be taken home by the latter till the payment of the koluina is completed. The sum thus paid goes wholly to the father of the bride, who carries only a few presents with her to her new home. Match-makers, male and female … are indispensable as witnesses in settling the price of the bride.
“Many of the Yakutian words, written from the lips of this man, showed no essential agreement with the equivalent
terms of the Sabaikalian Buraets … On the other hand, I remarked in the yurts here many remarkable resemblances to the manners of the Ostyaks on the Obi. Thus the fire-place, the most important part of all northern dwellings, is constructed by both tribes after the same idea, for it consists here, as on the Obi, of a wicker frame plastered over with clay. The only difference is in the position of the apparatus … This deviation from the Ostyak mode of construction is evidently advantageous, for here, the moment the fire is kindled, a strong and audible draught is perceptible, with a bright flame; but in the yurts on the Obi there is more frequently pungent smoke with a dull fire. …
“The tract of country which follows is well peopled with Yakuts, whose winter dwellings always stand alone, in wide grassy lawns, in the midst of the prevailing pine woods. Here, too, the rectangular wooden huts are flat-roofed and plastered with cow dung; and the doors, for want of planking, are covered over with hairy ox hides. Flakes of ice fill the windows, yet in some of the yurts, bladder is used instead of these. The Yakutian sledges, which we met with continually, were, like those of the Buraets, drawn by oxen, on one of which the driver rode. At the same time horses have been used here for riding from early times, as is proved indeed by the peculiarities of the Yakutiain horse furniture. Their saddles have unusually thick stuffing, on-which the rider sits, squeezed in between two high and perpendicular boards…
“I felt the most violent longings awakened as I listened to the accounts of the practical roads, by which the Tunguzes of the Lena may, in one and the same year, receive information from China, then meet in Turukhansk with Samoyedes who have seen Obdorsk, and there learned from eye witnesses what was going on in Archangel. …
“The Yakuts in Namana, and along the road onward for 110 versts… live still quite in their ancient, original fashion. … The thick flakes of ice, which serve as window panes, were here also held against the wall from the outside, by a slanting pole, the lower end of which was fixed in the ground. In the night, when the fire goes out, this ice is covered, like glass, with an opaque and snow-like hoar-frost, which, in the daytime melts away, as well as a considerable portion of the ice itself, from the heat of the yurt, and the flakes, which are, at first, a foot thick, require to be renewed four or five times in the course of the winter; a provision of suitable ice always lying before the yurt.
“The parts of these dwellings which are directly heated by the fire, attain a temperature of [20 to 25 degrees C or 65 to 77 degrees F] We found the children in them, of both sexes, quite naked ; they were, nevertheless, running about in this state to-day, when the thermometer was as low as [- 13C or -10F], and even in the open air. In the clothing of adults, there is manifested a strong predilection for bright colours, for the women in the house, as among the Buraets, wore clothes of green or other bright Chinese stuffs; while the men had on tight-fitting, short frocks, which closely resembled the esquires’ tabards in the middle ages. They were almost always made of white linen, with blue borders. At the lower end, behind, was a perpendicular slit, to prevent their incommoding on horseback. Even the fur caps of these people were covered with white linen, and adorned with squirrels’ tails, and other black furs.”
EvX: The Exp.No.Where article, Yakut People and their Customs, has several photos of Yakuts in their strikingly white garments during a Summer Solstice celebration.
“Here on the lowlands were again seen, in great numbers, the separate yurts of the Yakuts; and seemed to be in great abundance. All the sledges are drawn by oxen, the driver always riding on one of them; but they can dispense with the vehicle, and we now met with many men and women riding on oxen. The trot of these animals was so lively and constant, that one could not help soon forgetting the European prejudice
against the use of horned cattle for such purposes. …
“The Yakuts living in the 62d degree of latitude, have far more trouble in keeping their cattle, than any other people devoted to the same kind of husbandry. They make long journeys to collect hay for the winter, yet they do not always find enough of it, but are often obliged to feed their oxen, from March to May, only on the willow and birch twigs, which they procure on the islands in the Lena. The further we examine into particulars, the greater must be our surprise, when we behold here for the first time, a thriving cattle-husbandry in the midst of deep snow and under terrible frosts ; we involuntarily ask ourselves, how it came to pass that the Yakuts attached their existence to a domestic animal which is found nowhere else in Asia, under the same circumstances of climate. They have themselves a tradition, that they once brought their herds down the Lena, in boats from the sources of the river : but this is assuredly no explanation; it is only a proof that they are themselves sensible of the contrast between the climate they dwell under, and the nature of their domestic animal.
“I might more reasonably hold the cattle here to be a bequest from a preceding period ; that is to say the remnant of a “wild breed, which, in earlier periods of the earth’s history, occupied this region in particular. The skulls of wild
cattle are found very often in the Lena, and the lakes in the neighbourhood. Living and untamed individuals are to be seen beyond Behring Straits, on the coasts of Hudson’s Bay; and doubtless, those dead cattle, as well as these living remnants, all belong to an age of the world, when the northern parts of the earth had a much milder winter than at present. There remained here, instead of the long-haired American bison, the scattered bones of that original breed, and, thanks to the care of the Yakuts, their degenerated herds.”
EvX: According to Wikipedia:
Yakutian cattle are of a relatively small size. These cows stand between 110 and 112 cm high at the withers and reach a live weight of 350 to 400 kg, bulls reach a height of 115 to 127 cm and weigh 500 to 600 kg. They have short, strong legs and a deep but relatively narrow chest. The dewlap is well-developed. …
A number of further traits, such as a thick winter coat, a small, fur-covered udder or scrotum, efficient thermoregulation, and low metabolic rates at low temperatures, lead to the Yakutian cattle’s extreme tolerance towards freezing temperatures. A compelling example of this is the case of several cows which survived on their own in the taiga forest for three months in late 2011 in deep snows and temperatures reaching as low as –40 °C (–40 °F)...
Yakutian cattle belong to the East Asian Turano-Mongolian group of taurine cattle. This group of cattle may represent a fourth Aurochs domestication event (and a third event among Bos taurus–type aurochs) and may have diverged from the Near East group some 35,000 years ago. Yakutian cattle are the last remaining native Turano-Mongolian cattle breed in Siberia, and one of only a few pure Turano-Mongolian breeds remaining worldwide.
… Studies of autosomalDNA markers show a high genetic distinctiveness and point to a long-term genetic isolation from other breeds; geographic isolation beyond the normal northern limit of the species range can be assumed to be the cause. …
The Yakutian cattle is descended from the indigenous Siberian cattle breeds. The Sakha (i.e. Yakuts) brought it from the southern Baikal region to the lower reaches of the Lena, the Yana, the Indigirka and the Kolyma rivers when they migrated northward in the 13th century. Together with the Yakutian horse, it was the basis of the Sakha culture of meat and dairy livestock in the harsh conditions of the Russian Far North.
Yakutian cattle were purebred until 1929, but then an extensive crossbreeding with the more productive Simmental cattle and Kholmogory cattle began. While many other landraces were lost in this era, the Yakutian cattle was saved by traditional cattle breeders and individual scientists. …
Currently there are approximately 1200 purebred Yakutian cattle, all of them in the Sakha Republic (Yakutia) of the Russian Federation. The breeding population consists of only 525 breeding cows and 28 breeding bulls, the rest are mostly dairy cows. Consequently, the Yakutian cattle are classified as an endangered breed by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).
Back to Erman:
In Ulakhansk, sixty-one versts from Toyon aruin, I met in the yard where we alighted a noble chieftain of the Yakuts, who was on his way to a judicial inquiry. … I admired this man’s frock, made of blue cloth with red facings and white metal buttons) it had an old-fashioned European look, and was, doubtless, made in imitation of some suit of honour presented to one of his predecessors by the Tsar. He gave me to understand, however, with national pride, that his genuine Yakutian cap was better worth looking at and more valuable also. It was lined with squirrelskins, and outside was very artificially made up of sable, otter, and black fox furs; it had, moreover, very odd-looking appendages made of the fur of the glutton, which hung down over his back.
“This chief’s feelings respecting the dignity of his nation, and above all, of his own dignity, displayed themselves throughout all his conversation, which he carried on in broken Russian. — Thus, he always named Yakutsk “the city of the Yakuts;” and he congratulated me on my prospect of soon visiting its rich yurts. He told me that the administration of justice, and the general internal management of society among the Yakuts, are still left in their hands. Their immediate chiefs and magistrates are still of their own nation, just as I have already related of the Bashkirs. The whole race has been divided, from time immemorial, into certain tribes; each of which is again distributed into Ulusi, or communes. The heads of the latter are chosen by the Yakuts, from the chief families, for life. They are called Toyoni; which the Russians very properly translate by … prince. But it is extremely unbecoming, on the other hand, to put these nobles and other heads of tribes on an equal footing with the mayor of a Russian village, and so entitle them merely gölova! These principal dignitaries remain in office only three years; the Yakuts always choose them from the number of their acknowledged princes, and they are therefore not inferior, certainly, to a Russian governor; and, particularly, because the charge of public administration among the Yakuts is defrayed by that people themselves.”
EvX: I am growing tired, so we shall quit for today. Please join us next week for more on the Yakuts.
“As soon as the bays along the shore and the mouths of the rivers are frozen over, the Ostyak and Samoyed inhabitants of the West quit their tents on the sea-side, and withdraw with their reindeer to the mossy tundras of the interior. On the island of Vaigatz indeed, which is known to the Samoyedes only by the name of Khäyodeyä, and is celebrated as their chief place of sacrifice, many owners of reindeer remain the whole year round; other natives, and Russians also, go over to it in summer both to fish and hunt.”
The name of the island translates from the Nenets as “alluvial shore”. Until the 19th century, the island was an important shrine of the Nenets people. There were polycephalic wooden idols painted with blood of holy animals, primarily reindeer. Some of their sacrificial piles, consisting of drift-wood, deer’s horns and the skulls of bears and deer, have been observed by travellers. In spite of their conversion to Christianity, the Nenets still regard these piles with superstition.
The website Arctic Russia Travel has some more information on Vaygach Island, and would like to sell you a tour.
“The Samoyedes, on the other hand, are praised by all their neighbours around for the great Variety of produce which they bring back from their hunting excursions. They take the fur animals, not only by the ordinary artifices of traps and weapons adapted to every circumstance, but also by putting themselves as much as possible on an equality with the animals pursued, going on all fours and imitating the brutes in voice and clothing* They contribute by far the largest portion of the skins of the Polar bear brought to the fair of Obdorsk; and in consequence of their more intimate acquaintance with these animals, they do not regard them with the same dread as Europeans.”
EvX: The modern Samoyed people are more commonly known as Nenets, while “Samoyed” is reserved for the fluffy dogs. They speak a language related to Estonian, Sami (Lapp) and Hungarian. Erman opines that the current fad for seeking the origins of the Hungarians in Tibet is obviously flawed, as they obviously share a common linguistic origin with these wanderers of the north.
Of course two groups (say, African Americans and Maori of New Zealand,) may speak the same language with out being closely related at all, but the linguistic evidence here is not entirely without weight, whereas there’s no particular reason to seek Hungarian origins in Tibet besides the nation having been faddishly popular. But see this post if you want a more complete run-down of the Finno-Ugric language group.
“About eight o’clock in the evening, the dogs, of which about four hundred are kept here by sixty inhabitants, commenced a loud and mingled howling. It is hunger which daily calls forth, at the same hour, these passionate outbreaks, and then the dogs are sure to chime in together, as soon as one has begun the howl; otherwise they are quite silent, and never bark nor cry, unless at starting on their course when yoked in the sledge, or on coming across a reindeer sledge in their journey. Even during the severest cold, the dogs require no protection from the weather.
They sleep outside round the houses to which they respectively belong, in holes which they have thawed in the snow by their own warmth. The Ostyaks look upon it as a sign of bad weather when the dogs lie very quiet in their icy grottoes; and, indeed, the truth of this prognostication seemed to be confirmed today. Here, as everywhere else along the Obi, they are fed with nothing but fish, which, for this purpose as well as for human food, is first dried in the sun, and then being pounded, bones and all, it is stored up under the name of porsa.”
On the economic logic of keeping different domestic animals:
“It is easy to understand why the dogs kept in Obdorsk should be much more numerous than those in Yeresov ; for in the latter place it is still possible, and usual, to keep horses, but in Obdorsk reindeer take the place of horses, and their increase is incompatible with a settled town life; for although reindeer are to be found at some fixed habitations higher up the river than Obdorsk, where they find suitable and sufficient pasture in the neighbourhood of the yurts, yet in these instances the herds are small, as their owners are few in number. Moreover, every yurt has its dogs, as well as its reindeer, and this is the case, without exception, wherever fishing forms a regular occupation of the people. A fishery, indeed, is an indispensable condition for the keepings of dogs; and hence it is, that the Samoyedes, whose chief business
is the chase, and who obtain their store of fish only by bartering with their neighbours, keep only reindeer. As to the dogs here, it is estimated that they can draw five poods (200 pounds) each, in the loaded nart; but the Ostyak mode of yoking them hardly admits of the employment of more than two at a time, and in this respect it differs essentially from the Tungusian …
“Madness [rabies] among the dogs would be, in this country, a most formidable scourge, and would infallibly cause the destruction of whole races of men; but every one here assured us that the disease is wholly unknown to them. Steiler has stated the same thing respecting the dogs of Kamchatka; so that hydrophobia would seem to be one of the European results of living in towns.”
Music, art, and religion:
Music, poetry, and a very well-developed kind of pantomimic art, are here inseparably united, but as to the constant
connection of all three with the popular religion, it can be affirmed only so far as every feeling partakes more or less of the religious character. …
In general, the traditional- preservation of a poem seems to be rare among the Ostyaks, and their songs are for the most part improvisations, which they produce at the spur of the occasion, and always accompany with pantomimic action. It sometimes happens, that the same incident continues to be the favourite theme for years together, being treated, however, in various ways according to the individual taste of the singer. Thus, a bear having once dug up from the grave and devoured the body of a child, the Ostyaks, it is said, used for many years to describe in their songs this shocking occurrence, imitating with the greatest fidelity the growling of the bear, with its gestures and looks towards its pursuers, who were endeavouring to drive it from the corpse.
“The wolf and the bear, being looked upon as powerful and highly gifted beings, figure quite as much as men in the Ostyak songs and pantomimic shows, and, like the latter, are sometimes the subject of tragic representation, but much more frequently of droll caricature. And with respect to the rank which these two beasts of prey bold in the estimation of the Ostyaks, it may be observed, that the homage rendered to them is not merely poetic, but assumes at times a decidedly religious character. When one of them has been killed, its skin is stuffed with hay, and the people gather round their fallen enemy to celebrate the triumph with songs of mockery and insult. They spit upon it and kick it, and that ceremony performed, they set it upright on its hind legs in a corner of the yurt, and then, for a considerable time, they bestow on it all the veneration due to a guardian god. …
“The outward forms of religion, which are thus handed down among the Ostyaks from father to son, appear to be in themselves worthy of attention; for it is only by the attentive examination of them that we can hope to arrive at a probable explanation of the doctrines on which they were originally founded ; but, independent of this consideration, I feel myself bound to produce all that I know upon this subject, in consequence of my having discovered, the following year, on the north-west coast of America, and having thoroughly learned, by repeated observation, a system of religious observances identical with this in every particular. In reference, therefore, to the most important of the Ostyak solemnities, for the performance of which they purchase arms, as already stated (p. 33,) I here give the literal translation of a statement made to me in writing by a Russian who witnessed them, and can most conscientiously assert that there is not in this statement the slightest trace of supplementary addition, or of any thing more than the representation of the fact; for this is attested by the complete agreement between the usages prevailing at Obdorsk and those which I subsequently witnessed … among the Kolyuses at Sitka:
The Ostyak Shamans, like the taduibui, or priests of the Samoyedes, bedeck their fur clothing with metal figures of birds, fish, and wild beasts, with the teeth and hones of sea-animals, and with whatever, in short, seems calculated to give them a terrific appearance. Their ceremonies of divination are performed before a fire, round which they go, crying as loudly as possible, and writhing as if possessed. They beat at the same time a kind of drum, and rattle their metal ornaments, while the bystanders also add their lusty shouts, and contribute to the clatter, by beating pots, or other such utensils with their weapons. After the din has lasted some time, the Shaman falls to the ground, whereupon the bystanders throw a cord round his neck, and cover him with skins, by which they would have it understood that he is in communion with the spirits. Two men then take the ends of the cord, and pull it with all their might, while the Shaman, under the skins, slips his hands to his neck to prevent his being strangled. When at last he has had enough of the struggle, he makes a sign that the spirits have left him, and communicates forthwith to the company the required predictions.
In 1805, it happened that a Shaman was in fact strangled in this way, and the affair was brought before the provincial tribunals. He was obviously too slow in placing his hands between his neck and the noose.
On the 27th December 1821, (old style,) the Ostyaks kept a solemn festival in the yurts of Pashirtzof, five versts from Obdorsk, in honour of their god Yelan, and I obtained permission to be present at the ceremonies… The ceremonies began about eight o’clock in the evenings and lasted till two in the morning. At first, children ran round to each yurt, to call the Ostyaks to the divine rites. In so doing, they screamed in all manner of wild notes, and seemed as if quite beside themselves: this went on while the people were assembling in the yurt selected for the proceedings. On entering this, each of the Ostyaks turned round three times before the idols, and then took his place on the right side of the room, in the recesses, or on the floor. They talked to one another, or otherwise employed themselves as they pleased.
The recesses on the left side were concealed by a curtain, behind which went certain persons, who on entering the yurt, turned round, like the rest, three times in front of the idols. At length, when all were assembled, the Shaman began rattling with the sabres and iron-headed lances, which had been previously heaped together before the images. He then gave each person present, (excepting the women, who were also behind a curtain,) a sword or a lance, while he took himself a sword in each hand, and placed himself with his back to the idols. The Ostyaks stood in rows lengthwise in the yurt, or packed in the recesses. They then all turned round three times, holding their swords stretched out before them. The Shaman struck his two swords together, and so they all began to scream out Heigh! in different tones, as led by him, at the same time bending their bodies from side to side. This cry was sometimes repeated at wide intervals, some-
times in rapid succession; and with every repetition of the height came the bowing movements, to the right and left; the swords and lances, in the mean time, were sometimes sunk to the ground, sometimes stretched upwards. This … lasted for an hour, by which time the men became excited to such a degree, that I could not look without terror even in those faces which had at first appeared to me to be engaging.
“After they had screamed their fill, they became silent all at once, and ceased too from their oscillations; then turning round before the images, as at the commencement, they gave back the swords and lances to the Shaman, who restored them to their original position. The Ostyaks having settled themselves, some in the recesses, others on the floor, the curtain rose which had concealed the women, and now both sexes joined in dancing to the music of the dombra. The dance … it was often very indecent also, and continued a long time. Next came forward some buffoons and posture makers, in various droll attire, and repeated the chief movements of the dance. At length the Shaman distributed again the swords and lances; the Ostyaks again reeled from side to side and cried Heigh, then turning round three times at the conclusion, and striking three times on the ground with the swords and lances, they gave the arms back to the Shaman, and went off to their homes.
“I shall refrain from any further observation on these Ostyak usages till I come to relate the surprising rediscovery of them in America, where many details of the rites, as I witnessed them myself, — the remarkable dress, for instance, of the Shamans, — appeared in a more characteristically defined and significant light.”
EvX: I assume this further exploration is in Volume 3, though I am having trouble tracking it down (perhaps it has a different title than the others?)
“It may be remarked, however, that an inquiry into the origin of the armed dance, which is usual in some parts of Hungary, seems very desirable … By means of it, and through the intermediation of the Ostyaks, we might be able to arrive at a remarkable and characteristic point of contact between the Hungarians and the American Kolyuzes, and be led even to reflect on the relationship pointed out by Beregszaszi, between the language of the Hungarians and that of the Algonquins.”
EvX: Personal anecdote: A Hungarian-American acquaintance told me the kids at school used to call him a Navajo.
But who are the Kolyuzes? A Google search returns only two hits, both of them this book. However, after a bit more research, I think the Koyukon of Alaska are probably the same people. The Koyukon speak an Athabaskan language.
To sum: The Ostyaks are now the Ket and the Khanty; the Samoyeds are the Nenets. Khanty and Nenets speak a language related to Finnish, Sami, and Hungarian. The Ket effectively speak a language isolate that is speculated to be related to the Athabaskan (aka Dene) language family. Erman describes religious similarities between Ostyaks and the Kolyuzes, who appear to be the Koyukon, an Athabaskan-langauge speaking people.
(This is why I complain about ethnonymic creep.)
Obviously people see patterns and relationships where they want to, and not necessarily where they actually are, but we have a pretty good idea that Native Americans actually did cross into the Americas from northern Russia, so a connection of some sort is totally reasonable. I would not expect much of a genetic connection (Hungarians are more closely related to their neighbors than their co-linguists, due to the conquering by the Magyars not having resulted in much population replacement, just language adoption. The same may be true for the other groups in question (eg, the the Ket and Khanty, for example, are probably more closely related genetically than linguistically; the Navajo likely absorbed other peoples during their migration from Canada to New Mexico.) But a cultural connection seems entirely possible.
The popular view of the scientific consensus on the peopling of the Americas, which perhaps does not reflect the actual current state of the field, is that sometime around 12-40,000 years ago, a single pulse of people crossed a temporary landbridge across the Bering Strait, moved into the Americas, sat down and never moved again. Today we know that the picture is more complicated than this–the Inuit (Eskimo) at least arrived far more recently, and definitely without the aid of a land-bridge. The Aleuts (denizens of the Aleutian Islands) also managed to get here without a land-bridge. I suspect that whenever we get a full picture of the history, we’ll find not just several major pulses of people, perhaps via multiple different routes, but also a low level of continuous trade and contact with north Asian peoples over centuries.
Anyway, back to Erman:
“About 5 o’clock in the afternoon, when there was a very faint twilight, we saw, on the western sky, (N. 56^ W.,) a very bright ball of fire fall downwards, with a greenish light. …
I had already had occasion to remark, at different yurts, the remarkable longing which reindeer have for man’s urine, but I had never seen it exhibited so distinctly and decidedly as to-day; for just to gratify this desire, some of these shy animals had spontaneously come close to the tent, and, as soon as any one went out to make water, they ran up in full trot to catch the stream in the air, with their under lip protruded; and if the first were driven hack, then others hastened forwards and kept licking with avidity the wetted snow. It is manifest, therefore, that it is not the warmth of the fluid, but its saltiness which awakens this desire, as we sometimes observe it in our he-goats; but in so extraordinary a degree, that the taming of the reindeer, or the power of habituating them to their masters, seems to depend essentially or perhaps wholly upon it. In no other case do they lay aside their natural shyness or their apparent aversion to man; for they will not eat from the hand, however good the fodder, and if fresh moss be plucked and thrown to them on the snow, they only smell it and turn away. …
“It is remarkable that the very composed and grave manner of the inhabitants of this part of the world [Samoyeds] never deserts them, either in familiar intercourse, or in the midst of their enjoyments; for, although we admit that, in general, men who are not far removed from a state of nature laugh less than Europeans, yet, even in this respect there is a wide difference between the seriousness of the people here and the lively gaiety of the Tunguzes, or the ever-cheerful and very refined irony of the Kamchadales. …
“These tent-Samoyedes employ reindeer alone for draught, and a number of little dogs which I saw with them here were not intended for harness, but only for the women, who kill them for the sake of the skin. They were all still young, and though from this circumstance it was impossible to form a judgment as to the regular, full-grown size of the variety, yet it was obvious that they belonged to a breed totally different from that of the Ostyak dogs. They had all long hair, of a fox-red colour, which I had never seen among the dogs of the Obi. They differed from the latter in their behaviour also, for they flew at strangers and kept yelping at them in shrill tones. It can hardly be doubted that this breed is derived from foxes,’ and not, like that of the Ostyaks, from wolves. …
“On my arrival, too, I was asked for my stock of tea, and other articles of food, which were laid by in the general depository till wanted for use.
“The reindeer calf which we had got on the way was killed and cut up in front of the tent, a few minutes after our arrival.
The men now brought the bleeding and reeking flesh into the tent, and began devouring it immediately, quite raw, with the heartiest appetite. The old man was satisfied with sucking the brain from the head, while each of our younger comrades gnawed away a limb of the animal, even to the bone. They laughed at the amazement which my good-humoured Estonian attendant expressed at their blood-stained faces; and when he gave them to understand, through the interpreter, that they were no better than wolves, they seemed quite unprepared for such a reproof; and replied, gravely, that they were at the same time no worse than the wolves, since they shared honestly with them, and left the bones and some scraps of fish merely for their sakes. …
“The Samoyedes whom we had met with in the course of our journey, had all come from the coasts of the Polar Sea; and among the articles in their possession were to be seen many of the productions of that region. The traces of their reindeer, and many other of their leathern moveables, were made of dolphin skin or furred seal-skin; and the mammoth-teeth, with which when carved they ornament their sledges and drinking vessels, are looked upon by all the indigenous tribes here as products of the sea coast, for they are more frequently thrown up by the waves wherever the sea breaks on slopes of alluvial land, and are consequently sought for by the Samoyedes chiefly in those situations.”