The Even—formerly called the Lamu—are one of the “small peoples” of the Russian Far East. They live in small groups across a broad region that extends from the Sakha Republic (Yakutia) in the west to parts of the Chukchi and Koryak regions in the east. According to the 1989 census there were 17,000 Even in these territories. The Even language belongs to the Tungus branch of the Tungus-Manchurian languages. In our language, we call ourselves eben or evesil.
The Even have a complex history. Their ancestors came from the mountainous taiga-covered regions west of Lake Baikal, from the Amur River basin, and Manchuria. Turkic-speaking cattle herders who moved to the Baikal area around the first century B.C. were perhaps the first cause for the eastward migration of Tungus-speaking hunters. The unification and strengthening of the Mongol tribes in the 10th-13th centuries A. D. forced the Tungus tribes, who by that time had acquired herds of reindeer, to move further east and north into the subarctic tundra. Both the Even and the closely-related Evenk emerged from Tungus interaction with local indigenous groups.
When the Russians came to northeast Siberia between 1638 and 1650, the Even occupied a vast territory from the Lena River in the west to the Okhotsk shores in the east, and from the Aldan and Ul’ia Rivers in the south to the shores of the Arctic Ocean. According to Russian documents, the Even population was reduced in number almost twofold in the period between the middle of the 17th and the 20th centuries. Tribute payments (yasak), a corrupt Russian administration, and frequent epidemics of deadly illnesses, especially smallpox, led to further dispersion of the already mobile population.
Christianization was another part of colonial tsarist policy. Together these events make up a complex and controversial period in the history of the peoples of the north. During this time, the Even went through drastic changes in political, economic and spiritual life. Russian Orthodox missionaries were the first to begin the suppression of shamanism and religious beliefs, and their course was continued by the Soviet state.
Dancers at Anadyr', Chukchi Peninsula, 2005.
Photo courtesy of D'Anne Hamilton "Paaniikaaluk."
Traditionally, the Even spent most of the year hunting for moose, caribou, mountain sheep, and musk-deer. Furs from squirrel, ermine, lynx, wolverine, sable, fox, and marmot were sold to buy goods, guns and bullets. The hunting of large animals during the summer was strictly regulated by tradition. It was prohibited to hunt female animals with calves, or to take more animals than strictly necessary. Doing so was a sin, which could cause the spirit of hunting—binken—to turn away.
In the past all Even families migrated according to a specific route within the territory of their clan. In early April the majority of families would return from winter-spring hunting to gathering places where they would meet their relatives. Domesticated reindeer had their calves in these places, and so in the Even language April is tugucheek ulaanni (“the month when reindeer give birth”).
Our reindeer are taller, stronger and have more endurance than those of the Chukchi and Koryak. Reindeer for riding (saddle deer, or uchok) were indispensable for traversing mountainous taiga zones in any season. Some saddle deer are fast and frisky, and can handle going up in the mountains. Reindeer for women and children are quiet and obedient. Children were traditionally carried in cradles (bebe) until the age of three and then until the age of five or six they rode in a special child’s saddle (on’ee). Reindeer that carry loads of gear are called inuche.
After the reindeer had their young in the spring, hunters began their travels to summer pastures in the mountains. The herds were guarded all through the summer. The watch was divided into day and night shifts, and the duties of the herders were strictly defined. At the end of the mosquito season, in early August, many Even families would take their personal saddle deer and go to hunt for wild caribou and mountain sheep.
Religious celebrations that united all the clans, such as Evinek, Bebd’ek and others, were celebrated through the 1930s and in some places even later. According to the Even traditional calendar, the new year was celebrated on June 21 with a ritual to welcome the sun. Adults and children performed an old tribal dance called seed’e. There were several variations of this dance, such as d’eberije and neberije. D’eberije is not only a poetic description of nature expressed in song and dance, but also a philosophical meditation about the search for the land of happiness and abundance and the unavoidable victory of justice. In d’eberije one can see the world view and understanding of life that the Even have developed throughout centuries. For nomads, living at one with nature meant survival. They understood that her laws are identical for all and that one cannot change them according to personal will.
Nomads especially understood the fact that everything in this world is interconnected—the stars and the sun, land and mountains, sea and rivers, animals and plants, insects and people. The traditional circle dance encodes the philosophical foundations of nomadic life and the moral principles that were observed by all Evens.
For as long as I can remember, our family migrated between the mountains and the taiga. I remember my grandfather and my grandmother. I remember how we hunted and fished. When I was little, it seemed as though we were the only ones who lived in this world, us, the reindeer people.
Life went on. In the fall and winter we studied at a boarding school but in the summer we eagerly went back to the reindeer herds of our parents. Once in the summer of 1964 my father and other parents came to pick us up. By evening, we left the village. I still remember how happy we were that we were going home. Late at night we went up to the mountain pass, riding our saddle reindeer. We saw an amazing panorama before us. There were the blue tops of endless mountains, everywhere the eye could see. Mountains, people, deer and the huge sun seemed as one at that moment. I stood there stunned by the beauty of my Motherland—Sebiania, the land of Evenia. How beautiful are the reindeer, the people surrounding me, this endless world! I’m proud that I’m an Even! Proud that I’m a small part of this huge beautiful world! Proud that I’m among the reindeer people, that I hear and understand the voices of nature!
Childhood passed so quickly, falling into eternity, and different times came. The culture of my small people is weighed on the scales of history and time. To be or not to be; to preserve the culture, to choose another way of life, or to disappear forever under the forces of a technological civilization.
The fate of the northern peoples, including the Even, depends completely on the revival and development of the spiritual values. These values are tied by unseen threads to the far-away past. These treads must not break. Let our gods and spirits help us in this!
This article was translated by Irina Dubinina and condensed by Aron Crowell from Perekrestki kontinentov: Kul’tury korennykh narodov Dal’nego Vostoka i Aliaski [Crossroads of Continents: Cultures of the Indigenous Peoples of the Far East and Alaska]. Perekrestki kontinentovwas was edited by Valérie Chaussonnet, with Russian language editor Igor Krupnik and Russian translator P.A. Aleinikova (Arctic Studies Center, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, 1996).