Ket - History and Cultural Relations

The Bökli mentioned as mourners in the memorial epigraph of the Turki prince Kül Tigin in A.D. 715 are unquestionably Buklintsy, a Kott-speaking people of seventeenth-century Russian accounts. They also appear to be the Bila of contemporary Chinese annals who "lived directly north of the Turki .. . in the mountains .. . where there was always snow.... They plowed with horse traction .. . but did not ride horses although they drank mare's milk.. .. They often fought with the Khakas but spoke a different tongue. They tied logs .. . and covered them with birchbark .. . for their dwellings. Each community had its own chief independently of others" (Bichurin 1950, 350).

The next mentions are early in the seventeenth century, when the Russians advanced to the Yenisei from Mangazei in the north and the Keti River in the south. Tribute lists of this century indicate a total Yeniseian population of 5,630, almost three-fourths in the southern Kott groups.

Accounts from the 1770s relate that the Arin were living in birch-bark tipis in the summer and felt tents in the winter. They were traveling upstream twice a year by birchbark canoe for pedestrian hunting and trapping. Ski-shod, they were killing moose, reindeer, and sables in their great February rounds. In the summer they primarily fished, but a few were small-scale farmers with horses and oxen. Accounts from 1790 report that the now-Christianized Yenisei Ket were migrating with portable birch-bark tipis for hunting and fishing, wearing Russian clothing in the summer and reindeer-hide articles in the winter, and traveling by canoe in summer and by dogsled in winter. Those living on the Keti River kept horses. Yenisei Ket betrothals included offerings of bride-gifts in Russian trade items, notably copper cauldrons. Betrothals, once agreed upon, were solemnized in church (all of the Ket are Christians). The Turukhansk area included 1,205 Ket (652 males, 553 females) out of a total population of 4,878. Some Ket lived near the town and others in remote camps, in harmony with each other and the Russians. They traded furs for grain and other needs, as well as to pay tribute.

After 1800 the Kott were largely assimilated; in the 1840s the linguist Castren found only five Kott speakers. The Ket became commercial squirrel hunters or Russian-hired fishermen. They migrated extensively, especially up the Kureika, where they adopted reindeer nomadism and trapped arctic foxes. Migrations broke up localized patrilineal clans and attendant ceremonial centers, although exogamous moieties persisted. Christianization strengthened monogamy, widened marriage prohibitions, and reduced former age and descent-line distinctions in the kinship terminology. Elected elders replaced traditional leaders but shamanism continued.

Until the 1920s Ket life remained largely traditional. Humanitarian concerns and the importance of furs for Soviet foreign exchange motivated the establishment of marketing cooperatives, improvements in emergency stocks, and first steps in education and health services. But ethnographic research in 1926 reported the continuation of traditional, kin-negotiated marriages and influential shamans. In the 1930s collectivization and the establishment of base settlements were largely accomplished. Hunters were better equipped, as were the fisheries. Reindeer breeding, hitherto very marginal, was modernized.

By 1966 Russian-type log cabins housed the Kets in their periodic visits to central settlements. These had a store, post office, club, and medical center. But most of the year the population was dispersed in hunting areas. Children went to boarding schools. Many boys became hunters without finishing even the eighth grade; girls, with largely urban opportunities, stayed in school longer. Almost all school children retained their native tongue. As late as 1971, community bear ceremonies were being practiced.

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