Anzori Barkalaja. Tartu

Until the 1970s, the Pirn river region was one of the areas least influenced by Russian colonialism. Lands there are rather marshy, which did not make for any remarkable economic activities. Everything changed, when oil was discovered in the region. The area was secured especially intensively and currently the drilling has reached the headwaters of the Pirn, on the territory of the newly-founded Nizhe-Sortym village dwellings. The invasion of a foreign culture has given rise to severe culture shock in the Hanti. It has lead to acculturation and demise of the traditional way of life in most places worked by the oil industry.

The culture shock has shown especially stark in the case of young Hantis and not only in Pirn region, but in Western Siberia as a whole. In czarist Russia, the authorities did not intervene very actively in the spiritual life of the Hanti and indoctrination took place largely via the church. The ancient version of Slavonic used there being unknown to the Hanti, the church could not exert any noteworthy influence on the former in the cultural plane. Schooling, likewise, failed to take root in Hanti culture, in spite of the efforts poured into it by church authorities.

The changes that arose in Hanti outlook were mostly syncretist in origin and rather sporadic. One could refer to instances of using, parallelled, icons and bear heads for protecting the house against evil spirits, also the incorporation of Virgin Mary, St. Nicholas and, at places, Jesus and St. Elijah, into the traditional religious system. Transference occurred mostly by assimilation. Thus, the Hanti interpreted Mary as Kaltash-Anki, the wife of their highest god Numi-Torum; St. Elijah was likened to the chief of the rivers living on the Salym and St. Nicholas with Christ, to Sorni-iki, the youngest son of Numi-Torum (Barkalaja 1995, 1995a). Prior to the October Revolution, Hantis also took their children to baptism - to receive gifts dispensed on such occasions. For instance, the Pirn Hantis used to take their children to Tundrino church, where in reward they received approximately 10ft of white linen and a dress for women. Coaxing Hantis with gifts was an element of the baptizing policy of the Church, also used in other regions (Sheglov 1993, 104). As for the rest, the Hanti retained their world view untouched, the icons used mostly signifying their own gods to them. The like attitude toward the Orthodox Church also prevails currently, or rather, the link has become even more lax. By way of curiosity, I saw a Santa Claus postcard set in the icon frame, supposed to act replacement for the destroyed original.

The new Soviet rule did not approach the spiritual life of its subjects as lightly as the previous, czarist one. Events especially drastic took place in 1934, in connection with the so-called Kazym war. The reasons of the conflict were many: the colonial authorities founded a kultbaza [kulturnaya baza - Russian for 'center for cultural activities'] with the purpose of enlightening the Hanti spiritually. Into its composition entered a school, to which children were congregated. An epidemic broke out there, and the children started to die. As chance would have it, the name of the cultural institution happened to be similar to that of an Hanti god, Kul, lord of the netherworld. Also, Russians set up a fishermen's society on the Hantis' and Mansis' holy lake, Numto. Although local shamans forbade going to work there, some drifters trespassed against it. The tension mounted. Release was prompted by a female schoolteacher's decision to "give battle to remnants of past religion". She went to the shrine of the local protector goddess, Kazym-imi, and started throwing out images of gods from there. Such blasphemy was too much for the Hanti. According to data gathered at the sources of Tromagan, the teacher was sacrificed to the gods. If true, this would be a very rare occasion indeed, for Hanti do not sacrifice humans as a rule. Other members of the propaganda team were also captured and most of them killed (Leete 1995).

The leaders of the Hanti in these events were the shamans. This gave the authorities a pretext for raising hue and cry for them. Its repercussions can be felt still. For example, an Hanti from the Little Ob was unwilling to tell me much about shamanism, although his parents and also his lineage were shamans. According to the same Hanti, one could come behind bars for herb healing even during Brezhnev's time. The Hanti of the Pin are closemouthed and distrustful regarding strangers, with respect to questions on shamanism.

If the Hanti folk religion had a lot of shared semantic fields relating to the Orthodox Church, these planes of contact were practically nonexistent when Hantis related to scientific atheism. As a result, there were no syncretistic consequences to the clash of two cultures, yielding "ac-culturation" as a proper designation. Children forcibly congregated in boarding schools lost much of their parents' patrimony. During the time when, living in the woods with their parents, they could have acquired value judgements and a sense of identity conveyed through folklore and mythology, instead the schools taught them to speak Russian, smoke and drink. This statement comes from the Pin Hantis, in answer to my query about their counter-school attitude. By now, the school rule has been abolished in connection with the events following the perestroika.

This is being taken advantage of mostly by the Hantis inhabiting pristine forest areas, who either do not take their children to school at all or only let them stay for three years.

Under the circumstances, the Hanti community has broadly formed three types of representatives. The first would be the forest Hanti, who consciously nurture their traditional heritage and way of life. The second are the village Hanti, who have lost their lands and are obliged to live in Russian-style villages where they do not know how to live, and have become deprived of their hitherto values, acquiring alcohol as the sole novel value. The third would be the so-called "city Hanti", who have consciously changed their lifestyle to what in their eyes appears stronger and more successful, moving to easier life in the cities, as it happened in Estonia a couple of hundred years ago. Certainly, such a division is relatively rigid and probably too linear, as all tabulations. Real cases are usually mixtures of these three types in varying compositions.

The city Hanti ordinarily have a higher, or specialised higher, education and a job that enables them to establish themselves in a rather dignified position within the context of the Indo-European urban society. Such jobs are for example: deputy head of the municipality for the native peoples, or deputy head for the native questions of a big oil firm. Normally they serve the intermediate link between the Hanti and the colonial authorities. Such a position provides one with some authority among his native folk, at the same time hopelessly expelling him from the traditional society, giving him a certain colouring of traitor in the eyes of his kinsmen. It often so happens that they make use of their position for private gain, at the expense of their fellow Hantis. Another position to give bread to the city Hanti is one in the variety of exemplary organizations in the field of culture and the national movement, checked and channelled by the colonial authorities. Such Hantis are also very rare to command popularity and standing with their folk. The few, again, who try to get something done for their people, come under attack by colonialism. An example can be served by the fact of the persecution of the Sopachin family, linked to Hanti opposition of the occupation of Tyan oil field. One of the brothers, Jossif, was deputy head of 1 the village council and used his office to fight oil companies. In the March of 1994 his brother Prokopi Sopachin, elected deputy of the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Republic, was killed in the village Russkinskoye, and an attempt made to capture himself. The raiders were local militia and the purpose to obviate a troublesome family from the way of colonial politics. It must be mentioned here, that the said family does not belong clearly to the "city Hanti".

For all practical purposes, "city Hanti" is the penultimate stage of russification, for the most part of the children do not know their mother tongue and prefer to have their nationality entered into the passport as Russian. Naturally, they have no knowledge of their grandparents' spiritual patrimony, having no command over the main channels for its learning - the mother tongue and contact with their grandparents. History repeats itself, compared to the situation in Estonia last century. Therefore, the youth belonging to "city Hanti" has mostly become russified irreversibly. They are lost for the society of their parents. Hence, we will not accord them any further consideration. However, I should relate the remark of a Pim region Hanti, regarding the fact that if earlier an Hanti had five children, usually two died; if now five should be bom, three move to city to become Russians.

There are several stratifications of "village Hanti". They are a most variant company of multifarious provenience. A common denominator in their case is mostly the fact that they have retained their Hanti identity, at the same time losing old value judgments without acquiring any new ones. Such is the lamentable conglomerate which cannot go on living the old way, but knows not of any new. In this respect, a characteristic village is the Russkinskoye, where the Tromagan river Hanti live. In the spring of 1993 our expedition conducted a survey trip around village Hanti homesteads. The picture was mostly similar - soiled rooms where attempts had been made to furnish in the tradition of the Hanti hut. Extreme poverty and filth struck the eye especially where the Hanti had endeavoured to lead the old lifestyle. Alas, they had been unable to correctly estimate the degree of environment toleration with regard to human activity. The filth that would have recycled naturally when living in woods, accumulated in the village. The homesteads where order and cleanliness prevailed were clearly furnished in the Russian style, as the Hanti themselves called it. Lifestyle had adapted to accommodate the changed environment. Such dwellings, however, belonged to school-teachers who had spent best parts of their lives in the city and had changed their life arrangement already a long time ago.

The second significant cause of the poverty in village Hanti was the lack of gainful occupation as means of winning one's bread with Hantis in general. For the most part, Hantis lived in Russkinskoye who had come deprived of their land and traditional occupation because of the invading oil industry. Being jobless and without any constant source of income has robbed the Hanti of all sense of prospect. Such families mostly occupy themselves with drinking and wandering the village. Often, tragical accidents happen to them. In most cases, accidents occur specifically to young Hanti males, on which occasion the rumoured version is often suicide. The situation in the "national village" of the city of Lyantor is similar, too. Hantis having lasting jobs and constant source of income, who have correspondingly adopted a new lifestyle, command more or less orderly dwellings. The rest are destined to drinking and poverty.

With respect to Hantis' knowledge of their folklore and religion, certain remnants persist. Mostly everyone is able to perform their personal song in more or less due style, some also those of their parents or closer relatives. A number of rituals are known and some followed, such as commemorating the dead on the ancestors' graves or bringing offerings to certain gods. Nobody is versed in mythology as a whole, the gods' mutual relationships are considered confusing, too. When we tried to record some folkloric material, the village Hantis replied, as a rule -"don't know, don't remember, our parents knew but they are dead."

There are also Hantis, mostly women, that marry representatives of other nationalities. As a rule, their children are lost to the Hanti community. An impressive example can be served by the case of the family of Pesikov, where the grandfather was a shaman, yet all the daughters married out of the nation. The grandchildren cannot relate to their grandfather in the mother tongue and do not even consider themselves Hanti. Of course, here its own role is played by the fact that until recent times an Hanti was considered a third-rate person who could be killed without incurring any responsibility. During the last year, true, a contrary effect has begun to manifest. Persons having even remote Hanti ancestry, were trying to obtain the Hanti national passport. The underlying cause for this is the recently passed law on tribal lands' ownership. These lands often ply oil reserves that the oil companies are eager to exploit. Thus, in the hands of a skillful person, having one's belonging to one or the other Hanti family or clan attested could turn out profitable.

In conclusion it can be said that the unadapted village Hanti will die out physically in a couple of generations, because mortality is very high among them. Those families that have accommodated to the conditions of the colonial society, in their turn, will become russified in the course of a similar period of time. The youth stemming from these stratifications, again, does not play any significant role in the society of Eastern Hantis.

Forest Hanti form the most vital part of the Pim and Tromagan regions, although also in their case, manifestations of acculturation can be seen, such as the loss of traditional information and destructive behaviour in meeting vitally important decisions. Yet, they hold a possibility to draw support from their traditional lifestyle and spiritual heritage. Sometimes the tradition manifests in ways surprising to the Hanti


An example can be served here through the Kanterov family from the Pim river. In the last year, 1994, they were visited with the misfortune of having the head of their family perish. "Family" here has the meaning of a familial agglomeration, consisting of several separate families living in different dwellings on clan lands and being related to one another. His duties included catering to the hlunks, the god figures of the family. New keeper was chosen by hlunks themselves, turning out to be a 23 year old young man who so far had taken no interest in his forebears' tradition. The obligation of changing the hlunk figures fell to the same period. The latter are changed every seven years. Thus, a rather interesting situation developed (Barkalaja 1995a).

The second important fact is that, in addition to the previous case, there have appeared new young shamans in the Pim and Tromagan regions. They are not so powerful as the old mythical figures, but people come to them for help all the same. The shifting of the society's crucial roles to the younger is one of the most characteristic features in this region. If earlier, responsibility-fraught "offices" were entered into at the age of 30-40, now also younger men of 20 are suitable. It should be remarked here that persons are not chosen to these roles by humans but, according to the informants themselves, by the spirits - hlunks. In the above case of hlunk keeper, one of the late household head's sons tried to influence the shaman to exert an influence on hlunks in his turn, wishing to become the next head of the house, this being the most influential position in the family. The shaman is said to have been powerless to change the will of the hlunks and the man had to acquiesce (Barkalaja 1995a).

The characteristic fact with well-nigh all younger tradition-keepers known to me is that they do not drink alcohol. If anyone still starts drinking, he will soon lose his powers. For example, when I spoke with an Hanti acquaintance about a certain old man and asked him why people no longer seek his help, one of the main arguments ran "the man drinks." In itself it hardly appears significant, yet in result of his drinking, the said person is no more adequate in performing shamanic activities and people do not trust him any more. A similar scheme obtains also in case of several other skills, for instance hunting, fishing and also musical intrument making. The latter case I came into personal contact with when I wanted to record the process of making Hanti musical instruments. For that, I had agreed on a period of recording the next year with the sole local master of the craft. Inbetween, the man took to drinking and lost his ability to make instruments. The situation seemed rather bleak, but then it turned out that the son of one of my acquaintances had all of a sudden taken it up to become instrument-maker. According to the results, the story had to have a strong basis.

Granted, such an application of the young in maintaining the traditional society is not very widespread. Most of young forest Hantis have been through the forced boarding school on the Pim and the Tromagan and this has estranged them from their parents' culture. A rare some of them have still shown interest for the old tales and myths, especially during the recent years, in connection with tradition-gathering expeditions by Estonian etnographers.

If one were to try and wrap the whole thing up here, it could be stated that the Russian colonial invasion has left indelible traces in the everyday life of the Pim and Tromagan Hantis. Where the Hanti have been fully uprooted from their old environment, as in Russian-styled villages, it has been followed by complete acculturation and fast extinction. In areas yet untouched by the oil industry traditional lifestyle, and with it, old outlook still persist. From the point of view of the traditional outlook, the more sturdy stock is represented by the forest Hanti, yet even in their case the inter-generational transmission of tradition shows strong strain. Still, the old culture manifests an unexpected vitality here, accommodating to the novel conditions and incorporating unconventionally young Hantis into the roles and offices essential to tradition-keeping. An explanation to such occurrences could be found in the fact that the older generation lacks in eligible candidates, chiefly on grounds of excessive alcohol consumption. Although it cannot be asserted that the novel tendencies will rescue the Hanti traditional culture from extiaction, it can still be remarked that these express a restrictive function in the process.

Translated by Meelis Leesik


Sheglov, I. 1993: Khronologicheskij perechen vazhneishikh dannykh iz istori Sibiri. 1032-1889. Severnyi Dom. Surgut.

Unpublished sources

Barkalaja, A. 199 5: About Hanti Folk Belief and Its Connections With the Orthodox Church. Diploma dissertation. Manuscript. Barkalaja, A. 1995a: Continuing of Tradition: Exchanging of Spirit Dolls at the Pim River Hantis. Paper at the Walter Anderson Conference in Tartu Nov. 1995. Manuscript.

Leete, A. 1995: Notes About Kazym War. Diploma dissertation. Manuscript.