ALTERNATE NAMES: Kamonikan; Suolun; Tongusi; Yakute
LOCATION: China; Mongolia
LANGUAGE: Ewenki; Chinese
RELIGION: Traditional beliefs; Lamaism; Eastern Orthodox Christianity
Until the mid-twentieth century, the Ewenki living in different areas were called by various names: Suolun, Tongusi, Yakute, and others. In 1957, they chose a unified name: Ewenki, which means "people living in the wooded mountains." The ancestors of the Ewenki lived northeast of Lake Baikal and in the forest bordering the Shilka River. They survived by hunting, fishing, and raising reindeer. In the early 1600s, the Manchus of northeast China conquered the Ewenki (known by a different name then). In the early 1700s, the Qing of China sent Ewenkis to a military post in a grassland region that would later become Mongolia. The Ewenki were allowed to bring their wives and children along, so the ended up settling there, becoming the direct ancestors of the present-day Ewenki. Modern Ewenki are hunters, farmers, or nomadic pastoralists—those who raise domesticated animals and wander with their herds in search of pasture and water.
The Ewenki number over 30,000 people. They are mainly scattered in Inner Mongolia, living together with the Mongols and Chinese. The region where they live in small, tight communities is called Ewenki Autonomous Qi County. It is a hilly grassland with more than 600 lakes, as well as a large number of rivers flowing in all directions.
The Ewenki language belongs to the Altaic linguistic family. There are three dialects but there is no writing system. Ewenki children are educated in schools set up in pastoral (rural) areas. Schools use the Mongolian language, both oral and written. In agricultural and mountainous areas, however, Chinese language and characters are widely used.
The origin of humankind is explained in the following Ewenki myth: After the creation of the sky and the earth, the god Enduli made ten men and ten women from the skeletons of birds. Encouraged by his success, he planned to make more men and women, one hundred of each. He made men first, but in the process of his great work, he nearly ran out of bird skeletons. He had to use soil as an extra material to make the women. As a result, the women were weaker, a part of their body being made of soil.
The Ewenki have a special reverence for fire. This may be related to the severe cold of their environment and is reflected in one of their main myths. A woman was injured by a shower of sparks from the household hearth (fireplace). Angered by her pain, she drew her sword and stabbed violently at the hearth until the fire died out. The following day, she tried but could not light a fire. She had to ask for a burning charcoal from her neighbor. Leaving her house, she found an old woman crying miserably, with a bleeding eye. She asked the old woman what had happened to her. The old woman said: "It was you who stabbed me blind yesterday." The woman, suddenly realizing what had happened, asked the Fire God for forgiveness. The Fire God finally pardoned her. From then on, she never failed in lighting a fire. Up to the present, the Ewenki throw a piece of food or a small cup of wine into the fire as an offering to the Fire God before meals. Sprinkling water on a fire or poking a fire with a sword while roasting meat is taboo (forbidden).
The traditional beliefs of the Ewenki are rooted in shamanism (the belief in good and evil spirits that can be influenced by the shaman or holy person) and totemism (the practice of having animals or natural objects as personal and clan symbols). Ewenki religion stresses the worship of ancestors, animals, and nature. Special rituals are performed for Jiya (the livestock god), and fire. Fire should never be allowed to die out, even when Ewenki families migrate.
In some areas, all the clans of the Ewenki have a bird totem, such as the eagle, swan, or duck. Whenever a bird flies overhead, they sprinkle a little milk in the air. Killing or doing harm to a bird is considered taboo, especially if the bird is one's own totem. Almost every clan has a shaman, who explains the cause of disease, predicts and explains fortune and misfortune, exorcises (drives out) ghosts, and dances in a trance.
In some pastoral areas, the Ewenki believe in Lamaism, the Tibetan form of Buddhism adopted by the majority of Mongols. In some areas, one finds communities belonging to the Eastern Orthodox Church, a remnant of Russia's influence in the region in earlier centuries.
Some Ewenki holidays are the same as those celebrated by the Chinese. Unique Ewenki festivals include Aobao Gathering and the Mikuole Festival.
Aobao is a Mongolian term meaning "a pile." It consists of a pile of stones and adobe bricks, surrounded by a particular number of poles from which multicolored silk streamers are hung. Some streamers are covered with sacred Buddhist inscriptions. According to Ewenki shamanic beliefs, the Aobao is regarded as the dwelling of God. In some areas, the Aoboa is a large tree. The Aobao Gathering is one of the most important festivals of the Ewenki. It is held around June or July on the lunar calendar (between June 22 and August 21 on the Western calendar). Oxen and sheep are slaughtered as sacrificial offerings. The festival includes popular sporting events such as horse racing and wrestling.
The Mikuole Festival is essentially a fair of the livestock raisers. It is held in the last ten days of lunar May (between June 11 and July 21 on the Western calendar). Horses are branded and their long manes are shaved; sheep's ears are tattooed with the owner's mark. This is a special occasion for villagers to call on each other and to gather for dinner parties. The Ewenki also celebrate the Spring Festival (lunar New Year; between January 21 and February 20 on the Western calendar), which is a common holiday for all the nationalities of China.
Regardless of gender, the young pastoral Ewenki start to look after calves at age six or seven. Boys learn to ride a horse by age seven, and are taught how to lasso and break in a horse shortly afterward. Girls learn to milk cows at age ten. The children pay due respect to their elders, saluting them by bending at the knee and cupping the hands in front of the chest. The seats and beds in a room are assigned on the basis of generation. Traditionally the Ewenki practiced tree burial (or wind burial). The corpse was placed in a coffin, or wrapped with bark or willow twigs and then hung high in a tree. The blowing of the wind, drenching of the rain, scorching of the sun, and beaming of the moon were believed to transform the dead into a star. Ground burial is now more common under the influence of the neighboring nationalities.
The visit of a guest is always a happy event. A fur cushion is offered by the host. The guest sits on the cushion wherever it is; any shift of its place is considered impolite behavior. The hostess serves deer milk, deer meat, toasted cake, and homemade wild fruit wine. The host pours a few drops of wine on the fire, takes a sip for himself, and then hands the cup over to the guest.
Hunters store their food, clothes, and tools in their storehouse in the forest, which is never locked. Any hunter is allowed to take food from the storehouse as needed without prior agreement with the owner. When he meets the owner, he should, however, return the amount of food taken.
The traditional Ewenki house resembles an umbrella framed by twenty-five to thirty poles covered with birch bark and deerskin. One side with a door is used as the living room. The other three sides are all platforms for sleeping. In the center is a fiery pit with a pan hanging over it. An opening at the top allows for ventilation. The tablet of the ancestors is attached to the top of the central wooden column.
In hunting areas, the house is a wooden cube. The walls are built by piling up logs, and the roof is made of birch bark. In some areas, Ewenki live in a Mongolian-style yurt or ger —a framed tent made of felt or hide. Construction of a ger is described in the section on Living Conditions in the "Mongols" article in this chapter.
The Ewenki live in small families that are patrilineal (tracing ancestry through the father's bloodline). Since they need to help each other hunt and search for pastures, they form nomadic villages. Villages, whether nomadic or sedentary (agricultural), have a clan structure in which each family has blood ties with the other families.
Ewenki families are monogamous. In the past, arranged marriage was common. Nowadays, the custom of "elopement marriage" is common. A young man and woman pretend to elope with the participation of both families. (The young man's family even prepares a new house for the couple ahead of time.) The couple enact a sequence of rituals with each family, honoring ancestors, asking forgiveness, and begging both sets of parents to accept their marriage. Afterward, all members of the clan congratulate the couple. A huge banquet follows, with dancing and singing.
In former times, both sexes wore a long fur robe covering the ankles, and a long coat down to the knees. The cuffs and the bottom of the women's robes were embroidered with multicolored figures and designs. They all wore fur hats. Today, Ewenki mostly wear cloth robes, and padded cotton garments in winter. The dress of urban Ewenki is similar to that of the Chinese.
The Ewenki's staple food is animal meat, including deer meat, mutton (sheep), beef, and pork of wild hog. They also eat grains such as Chinese sorghum, corn, millet, oats, and buckwheat. On account of the cold climate, vegetables are scarce. "Cooked meat held in hand" is very popular during festivals. The meat, attached to the bone, is chopped in big pieces and is half-cooked with a little salt. Gruel (hot cereal) with milk, another popular food, is also a sacrificial offering to the gods.
Most of the Ewenki were illiterate (unable to read or write) in the past. Today, primary school education in the Ewenki Autonomous Qi County has become popular. Eighteen middle schools (junior and senior) have been set up. A growing number of students enroll in the university. Compared to other nationalities, however, education is at a low level.
Ewenki folk songs, slow and loose, evoke the vast expanses of the grassland. Dancing styles vary according to region and occasion. A dance called Ahanba is performed by women at wedding ceremonies. There are no accompanying instruments; the tempo (speed) is set by the singers' voices. Each group consists of two to four dancers. In the beginning, they cry softly, "A-Han-Ba, A-Han-Ba," while swinging their arms. Then they turn face to face, and bend their knees. The tempo is gradually increased and the rhythm is intensified by the movement of their feet until they are dancing in full swing. Another dance, performed by two young men, acts out a confrontation between a hunter and a wild hog.
Ewenki literature has been handed down orally; it includes myths, tales, folk songs, and riddles.
The frequent migrations of the Ewenki over the course of history have resulted in scattered communities. Due to the significant difference of natural environments in which they lived, their lifestyle varied a great deal. There are four major lifestyles: livestock husbandry (raising domesticated animals), mixed economy (half farming and half hunting), farming, and hunting. Hunters ride deer and are thus called "deer-back-riding Ewenki."
The Ewenki start to ride, lasso, and break in horses early in their childhood. Later, they frequently gather to learn arrow shooting, high jumping, pole vaulting, long jumping, and skiing. Brave hunters and capable herders have mastered these skills by the time they are adults. Horse lassoing is a popular competition, and is a part of many festivals.
As early as 1,300 years ago, the ancestors of the Ewenki, called Shiwei, made a primitive form of skis. The skis used nowadays by the Ewenki for hunting are just an improved version of the Shiwei "snow-sliding boards."
Most of the areas where the Ewenki live have a movie theater and a television station. Film studios and television broadcasting stations have been set up in Inner Mongolia and Heilongjiang Province. Therefore, most Ewenki have access to television on a daily basis.
In remote hunting areas, old hunters are master storytellers, spinning tales about ancient and modern heroes in their fight against the harsh environment and wild animals. This is still the preferred form of entertainment.
Children enjoy outdoor activities. They use pieces of sheep ankle bone, dyed different colors, to play a kind of horse racing game. This could be compared to a homemade board game.
The Ewenki excel in designing and producing tools for daily use. They also make toys from birch bark. Painting on birch bark is a common and well-known art of the Ewenki. Canoes made of birch bark, besides their unique design, provide swift and easy transport on the many lakes and rivers of the Ewenki land.
Poverty and isolation are serious problems confronting the Ewenki. Their scattered communities, harsh environment, illiteracy, and the absence of a market economy make these problems difficult to solve.
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