Cultural Overview

Sakha are a non-Russian indigenous people of Siberia, at present numbering approximately 350,000. Sakha are relatively unknown in the academic and popular literature, yet they have a fascinating cultural heritage and presently inhabit one of the most progressive areas of the Russian Federation (Tichotsky, 2000). However, not unlike other areas of post-Soviet Russia, the Sakha Republic is fraught with issues ranging from environmental degradation to local political subterfuge (mafia), survival adaptation, and the local challenges of economic transformation and globalization.

Historically, the Turkic ancestors of the Sakha migrated east from Central Asia to the Lake Baykal regions of southern Siberia in the 8th century and then northward to the present day Sakha Republic in the 13th century. Being keepers of horses and cattle, they were drawn to the lush hay fields of the northern river regions of the Lena, Viliui, and Aldan, and lived in extended family units throughout those pasturelands. The climate was harsher than their previous southern residence, but they had ample hay lands in the northern regions and an abundance of hunting and fishing resources at their disposal. They kept the indigenous breeds of cattle and horses, which were hardy to the climate and could live outdoors year round, finding their own fodder under the snow. The Sakha practice of horse and cattle husbandry was their main subsistence strategy in the former southern residency and in the new subarctic home.

During the pre-Soviet time period, the dominant social structures, which Sakha depended on for their subsistence, were the single-family household and extended family-clan. Sakha had a highly stratified class system with wealthy toions (clan heads) owning most of the local herds and "employing" the local population in the husbandry of those herds in exchange for their keep. Russian efforts to colonize the area began in the mid-17th century and resulted in a demand for fur tribute, a form of taxation required of all native inhabitants. This made Sakha subsistence survival all the more challenging due to the time required to trap and hunt animals.

The policies of the Soviet era (1917-1991) were, in many ways, a conscious effort to undermine the Sakhas' extended family-clan kin systems by consolidating single family units first into collective enterprises and later into agro-industrial state farms. Soviet jurisdiction replaced the authority of kin systems as the guiding social influence in daily life. Soviet policies also worked to alter the Sakha practice of animal husbandry, in four main ways.

1. The indigenous breeds were replaced by "improved" high-producing European ones, which required foddering cows in barns for 9 months of the year and the cutting and storing of hay for that period.

2. The native populations were resettled into compact villages which resulted in the continual need to move from village to outlying areas and back again to maintain subsistence.

3. The native populations were alienated from and grew increasingly uninterested in their historically based subsistence practice owing to the influx of Soviet agricultural practices, exposure to mass media, centralized living, and higher education.

4. The health of the native floral, fauna, and human populations was (and continues to be) threatened by the contamination of local drinking water, air, forage resources, and soils resulting from Soviet-period industrialization.

In the post-Soviet context, rural Sakha have adapted to the dissolution of centralized state farm operations by developing household-level food production centering on raising cows, a lifestyle considered as the key to survival by the majority of rural agropastoralist Sakha inhabitants. Concomitantly, the dominant social structures have shifted back to an emphasis on household and family-clan networks. This move is most clearly documented by the contemporary cows-and-kin adaptive strategy wherein 55% of all households keep cows but a total of 90% of all households are supplied with cow products via cow-kin interhousehold networks (Crate, 2001). A smooth "return" to household-level food production is greatly impeded by several major factors including (1) a higher population pressure than in pre-Soviet times, placing a higher demand on limited hay and pasture land and wild food resources, (2) a different settlement pattern with concentrated village centers as opposed to scattered households,

(3) the effects of globalization, which has acted to cut off local inhabitants from access to consumer goods, and

(4) the Soviet-period shift in public values from subsistence to a consumer life, resulting in a greater desire for amenities and comforts.

The existing literature on post-Soviet indigenous peoples of Siberia shows that most are making claims to their rights for land, subsistence, and, in some cases, mineral wealth (Anderson, 1995; Balzer & Vinokurova, 1996; Fondahl, 1998; Grant, 1995; Humphrey, 1998; Kaiser, 1995; Osherenko, 1995; Wiget & Balalaeva, 1997). Today, Sakha are also making such claims and experimenting with cooperative and collective alternatives to maintain subsistence survival (Crate, 2001). In common with other native peoples throughout post-socialist Russia, their novel strategies are often jeopardized by issues of inequality and corruption. Additionally, Sakhas' ancestral landscape is rich in resource and mineral wealth—diamonds, gold, gas, and oil. In sum, Sakha, like other post-Soviet Siberian peoples, daily face unique challenges which are based in their particular historical, environmental, and adaptive context.

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