The Khanty traditionally supplemented seminomadic reindeer breeding with hunting and fishing. Reindeer herds ranged from several hundred animals for a rich breeder to fewer than ten for a poor one. The richest breeders had assistants, often impoverished members of their extended families but sometimes nonkin. Members of extended families usually included reindeer breeders and fishers, enabling mixed economic options to buffer dependence on local conditions. Fishers were sometimes those who had lost their reindeer or who had herds small enough to be merged with those of a brother in the summer. Families using nets or weirs on rivers were expected to take only as many sturgeon, salmon, pike, and trout as needed. Fish traps and weirs were made by the Khanty for local use, as were boats and sleds. Hunting was both for subsistence and the fur trade—furs were the medium of exchange during most of the pre-Soviet period. When valued furs such as sable and mink were depleted, Khanty turned to beaver, hare, muskrat, and squirrel. Wild reindeer, elks, bears, and foxes were hunted for their pelts, meat, and sinews and innards that could be turned into bags.
Winter trade fairs were annual events in the pastoral calendar, when families or their representatives traveled to towns such as Obdorsk or Surgut to pay the czarist fur tax and stock up on iron, cloth, flour, and other staples. Trade with Russians allowed firearms to replace bows and arrows. Khanty also hunted with self-triggering traps and, rarely, in groups that drove animals toward fences or pits. They used dogs, reindeer sleds, and horses during some hunts and to haul game home.
In the 1980s hunters used snowmobiles and motorboats to reach remote hunting territories and then tracked their animals in silence on foot. Workers receive small salaries or separate ruble payments for meeting fur and fish delivery quotas. Village workers also herd cows and horses and tend "fur farms" of caged silver foxes. The number of young Khanty choosing the strenuous life of reindeer breeding is declining, in part because it is hard to be a reindeer breeder with a family.
Division of Labor. Gender divisions were strict in the traditional Khanty household, with men obtaining furs for women to soften, men fishing as women processed previous catches, men killing animals in ritual sacrifices, and women gathering berries and tubers. Since women were believed "impure," they needed to observe many taboos, including not stepping over weapons and not preparing food during menstruation. At other times they prepared food, tended children and domestic animals, set up tents, and organized the family for travel. Men were often away on long hunting, fishing, and trading trips during which women had to be self-reliant.
Soviet economic life thrust a few women into hunting and fishing; others became fish canners, milkmaids, fur-farm attendants, nurses, accountants, librarians, and schoolteachers. Many still work at home or spend long hours standing in line at local stores. Men remain hunters, fishers, and reindeer breeders. They also work in lumbering and in the unstable energy industry, where high salaries sweeten barracks living and dangerous conditions. Some Khanty have careers in government; others are academics or writers.