Yukagir - Orientation

Identification. The Yukagir are one of the smallest minorities in the former USSR. Territorially, the Yukagir are subdivided into two groups: the Taiga group lives in the Upper Kolyma District of the Yakut Republic and in the Saimanchanskoi District of Magadan Province along the tributaries of the Kolyma River. The Tundra Yukagir reside in the Lower Kolyma District of the Yakut Republic between the Kolyma and the Indigirka rivers. Both groups live among numerically predominant neighbors: Yakuts, Chukchee, Even, and Russians.

Location. The region in which the Yukagir are settled is one of mountains, low ridges, and plateaus divided by valleys and covered by swamps and lakes. The mountains are covered by hardy northern trees: pine, larch, birch, and alder (good shelter for black bears, musk deer, squirrels, and mountain sheep). Aside from some dwarf birches and arctic willows, however, the northern plains and flatlands of Yukagir country support only sedge grasses, mosses, lichens, and berry-bearing bushes. Both territorial groups inhabit arctic or subarctic zones, the main feature of which is the permafrost. A cold winter with blizzards and winds gusting up to gale strength lasts about eight months. In January the mean temperature ranges from -40° F to —70°, and —90° has been recorded. Polar night (with mid-night sun) reigns in the Kolyma lowlands and the northern part of the Chukhotsk Peninsula. During the late spring and early summer, on the other hand, many plants bloom, enormous flocks of ducks and geese appear, the salmon run, and the lowlands become one great marsh. Summers are short and cool.

Demography. During the nineteenth century the population dropped drastically, from 2,350 in 1859 to 1,500 in 1897, eventually falling to below 500. Since then, according to Soviet statistics, it has changed as follows: 1926-1927: 443; 1959: 442; 1970: 613; 1979: 835; 1989: 1,112. This growth is mostly due to the high incidence of ethnically mixed marriages, the offspring of which commonly categorize themselves as Yukagir.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Yukagir language, occupying a special, isolated position among the languages of northeastern Asia, has been provisionally classified as Paleoasiatic. Recent analyses have shown that many elements of Yukagir are related to elements in the Uralic languages. The question of the genetic affiliation of the language, however, remains open. There are at least two mutually unintelligible dialects: Upper Kolyma Yukagir and Tundra Yukagir. Formerly the Yukagir practiced pictographic writing on birch bark (men recorded hunting routes and young women indulged in romantic representations). In the vocabulary are loanwords from Yakut, Even, and Russian. According to the Soviet census of 1970, the Yukagir language was spoken by 288 people. An alphabet was devised in Soviet times. Because of widespread contact with neighbors, the older generations have been multilingual for a long time. In addition to the native language, an individual would command two or more of the following: Chukchee, Even, Yakut, or Russian. In recent decades, however, such multilingualism has begun gradually to disappear. Young people today are typically monolingual or bilingual, in Yakut and/or in Russian.

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