Marriage. The basic social unit was the small or nuclear family, often augmented by an older relation (e.g., a surviving father or mother of the husband). Marriages were arranged by parents, usually with the consent of the bride and groom. Less frequently, the groom abducted his bride. In the former case, the groom was responsible for providing bride-wealth, usually in reindeer, or working for his future father-in-law for a period of time. The dowry that the woman brought with her to the new household approached the bride-wealth in value. Exchange of sisters as brides between two or more families was a widely practiced alternative, obviating the need for provision of goods or labor by the grooms. After the wedding (attended by up to 150 people) the woman went to live with her husband's clan. Divorce could be initiated by either party, especially in the case of one spouse's failure to provide for the family's needs.
The Soviet state forbade the customs of bride-wealth and prearranged marriages without the consent of both spouses. Increasingly, Evenki marry non-Evenki: in Yakutia 72 percent of Evenki women were married to non-Evenki men, and 66 percent of Evenki men were married to non-Evenki women in 1979. The figure for interethnic marriages is higher in urban than rural areas but still above 50 percent in some rural areas. Historically, many of the Evenki who attached themselves to Russian settlements had been expelled from clans.
Domestic Unit. The family was usually headed by the father, sometimes by a brother or grandfather, and, in the case of death of these males, by the mother or her brother. Extended families of several generations were not uncommon, but the average family size at the turn of the century was 5.5 members, and more recently, 3.7 (1979, among Evenki families in Yakutia). Marriage rates among the Evenki have fallen over the last few decades, and single-parent families of unwed mothers and children have become increasingly common. Although the proportion of extended families has declined over time, such families are still much more common among the Evenki than among nonnative residents of Siberia.
Inheritance. Items owned collectively by the family or the clan were passed from generation to generation. These included the fire (i.e., coals from the family hearth), the flint stone and hook for hanging the cooking kettle, and most reindeer. Many of the reindeer herds can be viewed as clan rather than family property; although individual families cared for the deer, the clan elders could stipulate their redistribution when the need arose to help poorer clan members.
Riding reindeer were personally owned, as were hunting and much domestic equipment. Most personal possessions, including one's riding deer, accompanied the deceased to the grave. Other reindeer would be distributed among the sons and any (male) wards after the death of the head of household. If a son wanted to set up his own household before the death of his father, the father might give him a large number of reindeer and the needed equipment. Property of the (male) head of household would not be divided at the time of his death if he left a widow. If she remarried within her husband's clan, her children became the wards of the new husband; if she remarried outside the clan, children and reindeer were distributed among the late husband's relatives. A woman leaving her late husband's clan could take only her own personal possessions (including tent cover and any reindeer she had brought with her to the marriage, and the offspring of those reindeer). At her death some of her possessions were buried with her, and small items were returned to her mother or distributed to her friends as keepsakes. Children conceived prior to marriage were kept by their mother's parents when she married.
Socialization. The Evenki valued children and cared for them fondly, for the most part avoiding physical punishment. Children were suckled for three to six years and treated very permissively; however, they were also exposed naked to the cold for brief intervals to toughen them; skin diseases and accidental freezing resulted in a very high infant-mortality rate. Although a child participated in various household tasks from an early age, she or he only gradually adopted the full work load of an adult. For instance, boys hunted for small fur animals quite early, but were not expected to participate in large-game animal hunts until the age of 17 or so; girls waited until adolescence to assist in the preparation and sewing of hides, which took much manual strength. Evenki of all ages learned from their elders, and persons with much experience of life were especially esteemed. Personal interaction was masked by decorum, with careful observance of social gradations and rules of hospitality (including a complex etiquette within the small tents and lodges).
Since the establishment of boarding schools in the 1930s, many Evenki children have spent a large part of each year away from their families. Parents complain that the children no longer learn how to live in the taiga and develop an unhealthy dependency on (largely non-Evenki) school personnel for all their needs.
Infractions of clan mores by adults were punished by lashing. Very serious violations were punished by death or by expulsion from the clan.