Selkup - Orientation

Identification. Selkup ( söl'qup ) means "forest person." In the seventeenth century the Russian Cossacks called the Selkup the "Piebald Horde," probably because their clothes were sewn from the multicolored skins of small animais and birds. In administrative documents of the eighteenth to nineteenth centuries, the Selkup were called "Ostyaks" (along with the Khanty and Ket); the term "Ostyak," borrowed from Tatar, connotes "impure," "infidel" ( ostyak/estek ) , that is, non-Muslim. Since the middle of the nineteenth century, when Finnish scholar M. A. Castren established the common origin of the languages of the Ostyak-Selkup and the Samoyed Nenets, the Selkup have been known in the the scholarly literature as the Ostyak-Samoyed." In the 1930s, after the creation of the Selkup literary language by Russian scholars G. Prokofyeva and E. Prokofyeva on the basis of the Northern dialect, the self-designation of the Northern group, "Selkup," was extended to all Ostyak-Samoyeds. Other groups have different self-names: the Selkup of the Tym River call themselves "Çumul'-kup" (land person), the Selkup of the Ket River "Süsse-kum" (forest person).

Location. The Selkup consist of two main groups, the Northern and the Southern. The Northern group resides in the basins of the Taz (which enters the Ob Bay) and Turukhan (a tributary of the Yenisei) rivers, the Southern group along the tributaries of the Ob and its course between Tomsk and Surgut. The Northern group occupies the taiga, where coniferous (pine) forests predominate, rich in reindeer mosses. Among large animals are elks, wild reindeer, and bears; among valuable forbearing animals are sables, marten, otters, ermines, and squirrels. In non-swampy areas of water, white salmon, whitefish, salmo-vimba, salmo-thymallus, tutun (a type of whitefish), and net-caught types of fish abound. The Southern group has settled in the most swampy part of the southern taiga zone of western Siberia. Swamp occupies about 70 percent of the area where "dark-coniferous" (spruce and silver fir pines) and conifero-deciduous (birch and aspen) forests grow. Large fauna include elks and bears; the only animal whose fur is exploited commercially is the squirrel. Because of the abundance of swamps, there are yearly mass deaths of aquatic life owing to lack of oxygen in the water; among ichtyofauna net-caught species predominate. During January the mean temperature in the territory of the Northern group is —28° C, in that of the Southern group —21° C; in July it is 15° C and 18° C, respectively.

In the nineteenth century the Narym Selkup lived in Tomsk Province, the Tax and Turukhansk Selkup in Yenisei Province. Currently, the Narym are in the Tomsk Oblast, the Turukhansk in Krasnoyarsk Krai, and the Tax in Tyumen Oblast. The administrative separation considerably hampers the already limited contacts among the various small groups of Selkup.

Demography. According to the censuses of 1897 and 1926-1927, the total number of Selkup was about 6,000; according to the 1989 census it stood at 3,500. Within this, the number of Northerners had increased a little (from 1,500 to 1,600), whereas the number of Southerners had decreased sharply—today the Southern group is close to complete depopulation.

Linguistic Affiliation. The language of the Selkup belongs to the Samoyedic Branch of the Uralic Language Family, the sole surviving member of the South Samoyed Branch. It is dosest to the language of the Nenets (especially the Forest Nenets), Enets, and Nganasan. Among other Samoyed languages, it stands out for its multitude of verbal formations and case forms distinguishing animate and inanimate objects (perhaps because of contact with the neighboring Ket), along with phonetic particularities. There are three Selkup dialects: Taz (with the Baishen dialect that has assimilated to it), Tym, and Ket (the last two are sometimes classified together as the Narym dialect).

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