Date: 1896

[Social Life in an Arctic Environment]

The Yakuts inhabit a territory in North-east Siberia which is roughly 1,300,000 square miles in area, equal to about two-fifths of the area of the United States without Alaska. It all lies north of the parallel of 60 and is colder than any other part of the inhabited globe. The Yakuts number a little over 220,000. . . . .

The economic unit amongst the Yakuts, taking the whole territory into account, consists of four persons—two grown labourers, one youth, and one boy or old man incompetent to do full work. Ten head of cattle are regarded as indispensable for the maintenance of such a group. Above that norm the Yakuts think that comfort begins, and below it, poverty. In those districts where fish can be obtained as an adjunct, those who have ten head of cattle are well off; but where neither hunting nor fishing offers additional resources, fifteen or twenty head of cattle are indispensable to secure the existence of a family. The latter is the case in the north, on account of the duration of the winter and the badness of the meadows. . . . . In the south where tillage is available as an important subsidiary industry to maintain life, and where it is easy to find wages occupations in winter, the limit of independent means of existence falls to one and a half head of cattle per soul. In spite, therefore, of the wide difference between the absolute amounts of wealth indicated by these limits—from six to twenty head of cattle, i. e., from 120 to 400 rubles ($60 to $200) of capital—all the households that are at the limit stand on the verge of distress. The least accident overthrows the security of their existence, and the least subsidiary resource gives them a chance to live and grow. Such households constitute the great mass of the population. In one Nasleg taken as a specimen, of 248 households, 101 are at the limit; 10 have no cattle; 74 have one head, or one and a fraction, per soul; 54 have from 3 to 9 head per soul, that is, are well-to-do in different grades; one has 12 and one has 18 head for each soul in the household. The author knows only one man in the whole Yakut territory who has 500 head of cattle. There are but two or three persons in the whole country who have at their disposition from 100,000 to 200,000 rubles of capital. Such persons have won their wealth by trade, and their capital consists in wares, money, and various credits.

The limit is set to the growth of households which depend on herding alone. In the first place by the small supply of wages-labourers, and secondly by the communal ownership of land. The point is that the family consisting of four or five souls, of whom three ate productive labourers, with a subsistence capital of three head of cattle per soul, constitutes an organisation which can maintain itself with hired labour. The best Yakut mower and two female rakers can make in a summer from 1,200 to 1,800 puds (22 to 32 tons) of hay, according to the season. This amount is sufficient to carry through the winter from twelve to fifteen head of cattle. Any household in which the above-described organisation is incomplete must hire labourers, or buy hay, or keep its cattle in a half-starved condition. On the other hand, those who have less than one head of cattle per soul must hire themselves out for wages. Under this organisation the most common and striking phenomenon is that the more independent ones get a higher price for their time and their products than those who are in distress.

The rate of wages is almost everywhere nominally the same. The men get from 35 to 40 rubles per annum with board, if they are able-bodied mowers; and women who rake, or tend cows, get from 20 to 24 rubles, with board. The rations are determined by custom; those of the men are better than those of the women. Only a small part of the wages is paid in money; generally the employers give wares, sometimes such as the employé does not need and which he must sell at a loss. It is still more customary to pay with cattle, especially with horses, either slaughtered or living. The employers try to keep the employed in debt to themselves, and to this end even encourage them in vice—for instance in gambling. Often an employer retains a portion of the wages and threatens not to pay it at all if the labourer does not consent to work for him still another year. It is not difficult for rich men to execute such an injustice as this, on account of the power which they possess in all Yakut communities. The scarcity of labourers is the cause of this conduet of the employers, but it also causes them, when once they have hired persons to treat them well. In families in moderate circumstances employés are taken in on an equal footing. In the north, even in the richest households, if no strangers are present, the employé sits at table with the family. He takes part in the conversation and in household proceedings. His intercourse with the members of the family is simple and free from constraint. The Yakuts are generally polite in their intercourse and do not like haughtiness. Employés expect the customary courtesy.

The favourite form of labour contract, from the side of the labourers, is piece-work with payment in advance, although the rate of discount for this advance is very excessive. They think it a disgrace to lend money on interest. Probably these prejudices are due to ancient customs touching economic relations, such as lending out cattle to be fattened upon a contract, or lending out milch cows and mares for a milk return.

The Yakuts dislike to hire themselves out for wages. They return to independence if the least possibility offers. For those who are poor the struggle for independence is so hard that it is useless to talk about their laziness or lack of forethought. If they have less than one and a half head of cattle per soul, they suffer from hunger nearly all their lives. When dying of hunger, they refrain from slaughtering an animal, from fear of losing their independence. The author knows of cases in which the authorities have forced people to slaughter their cattle that they might be saved from death by starvation. Hunger periods occur in every year, during which two-thirds of the Yakut population suffers from semi-starvation for a longer or shorter time. This period is not longer than a few weeks for those whose cattle during the winter were tolerably well nourished, so that in spring they quickly recovered their vigour, or for those who have such a number of cows that the latter produce calves at different times. The poor, however, suffer hunger for months, during which they live by the alms of their more fortunate neighbours. For them the most interesting subject of conversation is, Whose cow has calved? or, Whose cow will soon do so? Sometimes it happens that all the cows in a certain neighbourhood calve at the same time; then, if there is in that district no tillage, or if the grain harvest has failed, famine ensues. Poor people when asked how they manage to live through those frightful months said, "We go to bed and cover ourselves with the coverlet." They drink brick-tea and a decoction of various herbs, and eat splinters of larch and pine, if they still have a stock of them. They cannot obtain them in winter. No axe could then split the wood, which is frozen to the hardness of stone, Where they plant grain, and the harvest is fair, the circumstances are less stringent. On the whole therefore, the dependence on chance is almost tragical. If things that must be purchased rise in price to the slightest degree, if one neighbour has deceived another, or the merchant has cheated in weight, or if calves have died, any of these incidents come as heavy blows upon the barely established equilibrium of the family budget. A few such blows throw the household into the abyss of debt, from which it rarely, or with great exertion, emerges. Two-thirds of the families are in debt; one half of them for small amounts which can be repaid, but the other half are hopelessly indebted, the debts consuming the income year by year. Even amongst those who are called rich, the expenditure rarely surpasses two or three hundred rubles per year, and this they cannot win without hired labour, because the care of the herds which are large enough to produce this net amount far surpasses the power of an average Yakut family; therefore, only a large one, with well combined forces, can get along without hired labour. There are but few such families, and any co-operative organisation is strange to the Yakuts. They prefer to work individually at their personal risk and chances. Even individual handicraftsmen do not organise regular artels on the Russian type.

. . . . The size of the sib group has always been determined by economic facts. By virtue of an economic shock only does the sib begin to split up, and then first do the notions about blood tie make themselves felt to an appreciable degree. This they do in the following manner:—Two brothers, and still more, a father and son, cannot fall into two different sibs; nor can grandfather and grandson, or uncle and nephew in the male line and the first degree, do so during the life of the elder. But grandsons in the male line may belong to different sibs, especially if the grandfather is dead. We have an especially good opportunity to observe the significance of economic motives in dividing up the sibs, and also to observe the insignificance of kin motives in the case of the sibs that are still complete, but in which new sib centres can already be perceived. These new centres are defined by the relations which are forming about them, although they have not yet acquired new names. They are all separated from each other by greater or less distances in space, and their territorial advantages vary. Also an important part of the property in these new group centres (house, garden, stock of hay, petty household wares and furniture), in case of the death of the owners, have no value except for members of the group in which they are. It is impossible, or not worth while, to transport them, and it is not possible to sell them, since there is no market.

In former times, when the chief wealth of the Yakuts consisted in droves of horses, the size and the conditions of subdivision or combination of the sib groups were entirely different. In that distant time we must believe that the consumption on the spot of products which had been obtained from the droves, or from hunting, served as the external condition of the existence and size of a sib group. Many traditions point to this fact. For instance, they tell us that if a Yakut slaughters an animal, the viscera, fat, and entrails are divided into portions of different size and worth, and distributed to the neighbours, who, having learned that the slaughtering was to take place, generally take turns in visiting the owner. To fail to give any neighbour a share is to make an enemy. To pass anyone over purposely is equivalent to a challenge, and will put an end to friendly relations between families. We are convinced of the antiquity of this custom by tradition, mad by its dying out nowadays. In the places where civilisation has advanced the most it has lost much of its power. That it was a sib custom, we are convinced by certain usages at marriages and ceremonies of reconciliation. Distributions of meat are now a part of marriage ceremonies, and the chief dishes served at marriages consist of meat. The formulas of language employed in connection with this use of meat are reminders that the ceremony has created relationships between the participants.

The strength of this custom was proved by a case observed by the author, who saw the gladness of a good-for-nothing fellow, who up to that time had done nothing but receive large shares, but who suddenly, by chance, drove a fat wild reindeer into a swamp, and so in his turn was enabled to make presents to his neighbours of portions of meat. No comparison would do justice to the self-satisfaction of this individual, when he at last served up the game which he had won. He reserved for himself almost nothing. Other things which are subject to immediate consumption, and can be distributed into small portions, are shared in the same way, especially dainties, like sugar, cookies, or other rarity. Vodka is always divided amongst all who are present, even the children getting a drop. Tobacco also is subject to this custom. It is not degrading but honourable to receive a gift of food from one who is eating, especially if he is an honoured person. It is a violation of etiquette to give little to a rich man and much to a poor man. The opposite is the rule. If one man’s cow calves earlier than those of the others, custom requires that he shall share cream and milk with those neigh-bours who at that time have none. This explains the interest with which, in the spring time, when the cows give no milk, the Yakuts calculate mad distribute information about anyone of the rich whose cow is about to calve. This also explains how the poorest people live through the starvation months. When the population is substantially equal, it is evident that these customs are not burdensome, and this is why they prevail especially amongst people of a middle class. The Yakuts would not believe the author when he told them that, in his country, there were rich and populous cities in which people sometimes died of starvation. They asked why anyone should die when he could go to eat with his neighbours?

The circumstances are in all respects more archaic in the northern provinces and more advanced in point of culture in the southern. In the latter the custom is already coming in to sell food to travellers, and even to neighbours, but ha many parts of the north they consider it a shame to trade with food. Even the poorest think it an offence if it is proposed to them to take money for lodgings or food. Travellers in winter take hay from the stacks on the meadows, with which to feed their animals, and it is regarded as right. These customs all give some coherence and permanence to the petty groups of the Yakuts which wander in the woods. When travelling, so long as they are in inhabited districts, they need not fear hunger, though they take no provisions with them. The custom constitutes a system of mutual insurance against the misfortunes of life.

. . . . Care for the poor and unfortunate has always been regarded as an obligation of the sib. Impoverished families are cared for in their houses, while the helpless and paupers go about amongst the householders and take their places at the table with the members. Trifling tasks are given them to perform. The author found that the poor and middle class people treated them better than the rich did. According to the notions of the people, it is sinful to despise the unfortunate, who are, however, distinguished from professional beggars living on alms. The latter often are not poor, and it is the belief of the people that the beggars often beg out of greed. The provision for the poor, however, is of a very wretched kind, for the object of the sib is to organise persons of equal power and equal right, and not to provide charity.

. . . . The custom of distributing fresh meat, and other things, which has been described, was convenient and perhaps necessary in a certain state of the society. The groups remained in close neighbourhood in order to realise those advantages. . . . .

The kumiss is spoiled in winter by the frost and in summer by the heat, and it does not bear transportation. The Yakuts have never known how to preserve meat by drying or smoking. Hence it was in the highest degree convenient for them to live in groups of such a size that the kumiss and the meat obtained from the cattle and horses could be used as soon as possible. They even have a tradition that horse thieves in ancient times tried to organ-ise themselves into bands large enough to divide an eat up, in a night, the animals they had stolen. We must believe that in ancient times the fundamental grouping of the people consisted of bodies constituted upon the basis of a convenient consumption of the product of a proportionate number of animals. . . . . Hence the distribution of kumiss and meat served as a symbol of peace, friendship, and union in the sib.

. . . . Right of private property in the house evidently did not exist amongst the ancient Yakuts. Even now they are inclined to regard the dwelling as a common good. Anyone who enters may stay as long as he will. A traveller has a right, according to their notions, to enter any house at any hour of the day or night, and establish himself so as to drink tea or cook food, or pass the night. The master of the house does not dare to drive out, without some important and adequate reason, even one who is offensive to him. In former times they had scarcely any permanent dwellings. They were nomadic, and carried with them all of the house but the framework, which later comers, in their turn, might use. The land belonged to nobody. The herds were considered the property of each separate nomadic group. The nominal owner was the head of the group.

. . . . When the Russians first came in contact with the Yakuts, the sib organisation had reached its highest development, and the headship of the sib was a dignity exclusively for war and the administration of justice. The groups were then just about what we now see. The elected government was even more nominal than it is now. All questions, as well economic as jural, were decided by a council of the elders. Even now the most independent individuals avoid making any important changes in their industry or sales or expenditures, without taking the advice of older relatives. Such conduct is approved.

. . . . The subdivision of property, and its consequence, the internal subdivision of the sib groups, became possible with the gradual introduction of horned cattle, which could be kept independently and in small groups. A drove of two or three head of horses had no sense; horses must be united into droves which could roam about the neighbourhood. No distance and no care could prevent them from roaming. Therefore no Yakut family of four individuals, at the minimum, could tend a drove of ten horses, which we may regard as the minimum. Moreover, the time necessary for the constant changes of position, protection, and care of such a petty drove is not a bit less than for one, two or three times as large. We may take it as a rule that the larger the drove, the more the power of the group which owns it is set free for subsidiary occupations, hunting, fishing, and handicraft, and the better they are provided with food and implements. The social habits of the horses, which love to live in large droves, were a natural cause of the union of their keepers. The size of the droves depends at last on the size of the pastures, which vary much in these districts. Hence the differences in size of the sib groups amongst the Yakuts, as they are described in the traditions, consequences of which are not to be found, and which astonish us by their apparent arbitrariness. The case was changed when they moved from the grand and unbroken steppes to the small expanses broken by forests, their dwelling of to-day. In the latter places, the droves are comparatively broken up. Hence the unions of the men cannot endure. This difficulty is intensified by the necessity of speed in changing position, and of frequency in movement from meadow to meadow, when the herds are large. Consequently the economic arrangements come into strife with the traditional instincts of the sib and the community. We may take a drove of ten or fifteen head, consisting of five mares, one stallion, one two-year-old, one one-year-old, and two suckling colts, for the minimum unit herd of horses. We may take for the maximum herd, for a district amongst the Yakuts, from three hundred to five hundred head. The minimum would hardly suffice to keep from distress a family of four souls. The maximum would allow a community of fifty souls to live in comparative ease. Within these limits, the effort of the Yakuts to sub-divide and scatter over the country must be bounded. Some of their traditions and customs lead us to think that once there was a much greater concentration of people and accumulation of wealth amongst them than now, and that they were spread over the country even less regularly than they are now. In their legends, large expanses of territory are spoken of as being empty, while in others large numbers of people, with their cattle, are described as existing.

Out of the minimum unit drove of horses consisting of five mares, one stallion, one two-year-old, one one-year-old, and two suckling colts, only one grown horse could be killed per annum, and the kumiss would not suffice for four souls. The requirement of kumiss is from 15 to 20 litres per person per day; one mare gives that quantity only in summer, and then she is considered a very select specimen; a middling one gives only half so much. In winter many are for a time not milked, and older ones, even if the food is adequate, give in winter not more than 3 or 4 litres a day. Consequently each person needs in a year from 5,475 to 7,300 litres of kumiss. One mare gives in a year from 2,000 to 2,500 litres, if she is milked the whole year around. Hence there is needed for a grown person two and a half milch mares, and for the three grown persons in a Yakut family, seven and a half milch mares.

The largest number of settlements contain four or five huts, with twenty or thirty souls. Occasionally one is met with in which there are forty or fifty huts, and some hundreds of souls. The winter houses for the most part stand separately, and at some distance from each other, but near to the hay-stacks. In this detail the influence of the later economic system dependent upon hay is to be seen. The summer dwellings, on the other hand, seem to represent more nearly the ancient mode of life. The summer group consists of many huts which stand quite close together, although not apparently in order, but distributed according to the convenience of water and the pleasantness of the place. They are distributed so that the sibs stand together, which is probably an ancient feature.

In the populous nomadic settlements of ancient times, whether in the south or the north, the Yakuts arrived at the basis on which their civil existence is based. This basis was the breeding of horses. There their best instincts were nourished; arts and handicrafts took their origin; songs and legends were composed; the system of their group-life was developed and strengthened. There they acquired the custom of enduring misfortune and conquering hardships in friendship and in common.

In everything that they did in those times we seem to see a reflection of the character of the powerful animals which then constituted their chief wealth and the basis of their existence. The breeding of horses demands special qualities of mind and special knowledge, especially knowledge of geography and physiography, very careful power of observation, and sagacity in the selection of places and in the regulation of the wanderings, so as to secure good adaptation to the facts of climate, season of the year, distribution of water, and depth of snow. It demands of the drovers cleverness, courage, decision, and a knowledge how to execute quick and complicated evolutions, so as to direct, arrest, or drive on to the proper place the obstreperous herds. Hence the custom of discipline and of group-wise action, which is to this day observable amongst the Yakuts.

. . . . In all their legends and traditions, the stealing of women and cattle is presented as the cause of war. Not less frequently the occasion was the obligation of blood-revenge. The blood of a man, if spilt, required atonement. The children of the murdered took vengeance on the children of the murderer to the ninth generation. In ancient times the responsible person having been captured, was not killed at once, but horribly tortured.

The Yakut meeting, with ceremonies for reconciling quarrels, has to this day a sib character. Gifts are made for the entertainment of the blood relatives, a small part of which comes into the hands of the injured party. Many surviving customs show how strong was once the solidarity of the sibs, and how deeply the feeling of responsibility for the conduct of its members had penetrated into the sentiments of the sib. The Yakuts are very zealous for the honour of their sib comrades. They like to hear the praises of their tribe, sub-tribe, or sib. When they hear blame of the same, they feel sorrow. Hence the wonderful righteousness of the Yakuts within the sib, which often excites the astonishment of the observer. A man who is entirely indifferent when he sees quarrelling, cheating, robbery, oppression and extortion, will take them very seriously to heart if he sees them happen within the sib, or so that a sib comrade is the victim, especially if the guilty person belongs to another sib; on the other hand, they will often shield evident wrong-doing by sib comrades. Their tribunals are comparatively just in sib affairs, but between members of their own and another sib they decide on behalf of their comrade. One of them explained this very easily by saying that, in a certain case, the thing at stake should have been divided equally, but that one of the parties belonged to another tribe: "Could we, for his sake, harm one of our own?" In modern times, however, in the same measure as the sib groups have broken up the convenience of tending herds, and have scattered themselves more widely, the active exchange of mutual services between the members has declined. The need of mutuality has disappeared; they have come in contact more rarely; their feelings have become hardened, and there remains only a dim reminiscence of a common orion.

. . . . Mass meetings, or popular assemblies, are held, in summer, in the open air, not far from the meeting-house of the sib. The oldest and most influential sit in the first rank, on the bare ground, with their legs crossed under them. In the second rank sit or kneel the independent but less wealthy heads of households. In the third rank are the youth, children, poor men, and often women, for the most part standing, in order the better to see and hear. In general it is the first row which decides affairs; the second row sometimes offers its remarks and amendments, but no more. The third rank listens in silence. Sometimes the passions are aroused, and they all scream at once; but the decision of the question is always submitted to the first rank. It conducts the deliberation. The orators come from its ranks. Oratory is highly esteemed, and they have some talented orators. The first rank are distinguished for riches and energy. They can submit or withhold questions; but decisions are never considered binding until confirmed by a mass meeting. According to their traditions, in ancient times, a promient rôle in these assemblies was played by old men, who must, however, have distinguished themselves, and won prestige, by good sense, knowledge, and experience. They decided questions according to the customs, and gave advice when the sib was in any difficulty.

. . . . The divisions of the Yakuts are the Ulus, the Nasleg, and the aga-ussa (= sib). Taking into account three provinces or districts, the author shows that two Naslegs consist of only one aga-ussa, fourteen of two, fifty-eight of three, fifty-nine of four, seventeen of five. The number of those that contain more aga-ussa is small, but there is one each containing thirteen, fourteen, nineteen, thirty-four, and forty-three.

. . . . Re-allotments of land between the Naslegs within the same Ulus, occur frequently; between the aga-ussa of the same Nasleg, still more frequently; and between the allotments of the same aga-ussa almost every year, with the purpose of equalisa-tion. There is in every aga-ussa a sworn functionary, chosen for a number of years, whose name is a corruption of the word deputy. Anyone, rich or poor, may be deputy, if he is a just and sensible man. He must understand all about the advantages and disadvantages of land. He has the difficult task of equalising the allotments. If he is incompetent, he makes mistakes. Sometimes he cheats intentionally, whence arise quarrels and fights. Sometimes the deputies fight, if they meet to decide a question between the aga-ussa of a Nasleg. Each Nasleg selects an officer, who has the oversight over the deputies in order to allay their disputes. The Yakuts say that the allotments to the Naslegs, within a Ulus, ought to be readjusted every forty years. The allotment is made by an assembly of all the officers and head men. Within the Naslegs the re-allotment takes place at undefined periods, when some new necessity arises; for instance, from the necessity of setting off a glebe for the church, or when meadows have been spoiled by a freshet. Nowadays the deputies act only administratively to execute the decisions of the sib assembly. Individuals are constantly asking for a readjustment of allotments, upon all sorts of pleas. Leaving out of account the bits thus added or subtracted, it may be said in general that individuals dispose of their allotments without limit of time, and even give them in inheritance. In the north, a certain part of the meadows is apportioned to certain homesteads. These are regarded as the inalienable property of the householder. Only gores and strips which lie further off, or are purposely left for that purpose, are subject to division. By means of them equalisation is brought about.

. . . . Pastures and woods almost everywhere are in the undivided use of all the inhabitants of a locality, without regard to the aga-ussa or Nasleg to which they belong. It is true that rich men in many places have divided amongst themselves separate cattle ranges out of the common lands, and have fenced them, but their sib comrades look upon such land-grabbing with disfavour, and if the rich man dies or loses influence, they try to break down his enclosures and throw open the land again. There is a strife of interest between cattle owners and tillers; the latter enclose their lands; the former drive their cows home three times in the day. The enclosures make this journey longer. In general the sib group reconciles itself to the individual disposal of a plot of land which has been won by clearing woods or meadows, or of mowing lands obtained by drying up swamps and ponds, when it has been established by prescription, and even if the appropriated land is made inheritable, provided that the plot is not large and is all utilised by the owner. But if the size is great, or the owner rents any of it, the sib asserts its rights. The only question then is whether the owner has won back from the land a remuneration for the labour and capital expended by him upon it. Often they undertake large clearings or drainages communally. Those who have a share in the land thus won are, first, those who lived there before; then all the aga-ussa of a Nasleg in proportion to their share in the work, and their need of land. . . . .

. . . . It is established beyond a doubt that when the Russians came in contact with the Yakuts, polygamy existed amongst the latter. They had a word for all the offspring of one man, and another for his offspring by a particular wife, if the interpretation is correct. If it is it would entail the inference that once the mother family existed amongst the Yakuts. This is confirmed by the tradition that many sibs with father descent, and even whole Naslegs, got their names from women. The Yakuts have no special word for the precise designation of a family group consisting of a man, with his wife and his children. The current word is Kergen, but this is an ambiguous word; most probably it means dwellers. In answer to inquiries, the most various statements were given. The author heard this word used in the sense of all those whom the head of the household was bound to maintain, including temporary inmates.

The son of the house was no longer considered a Kergen when he married and established a house of his own, but all inmates and labourers, no matter what their status or relationship, are considered Kergen. [The author so uses the word; he does not say members of the Kergen.] The marriage customs and legends in which there is reference to the stealing of wives in no distant past, seem to point to an origin of this house-group from slavery. There are even direct evidences of this, for an ancient word, synonym of Kergen-Chahar, meant slave or cowboy, and seems to have gone out of use on that account. In the Kergen, the younger are subjected to the elder, and all are subject to the head, whether it be a father, older brother, grown-up son, or, in rare cases, a mother, if she is a clever and energetic widow. Custom does not seem to admit sisters or aunts. The head can give away and squander everything, if he chooses. He can even give away his children as labourers to outside persons.

. . . . Such is the declaration of all Yakuts; nevertheless, at the present time, these statements describe only a fictitious system. In fact, the Yakut family presents now a different picture. The subjection of the young and of women comes under a more general law; the subjection of the weak to the strong, and of those-who-have-not to those-who-have. The author knows of many cases in which the father, older brother, or the uncle forced the younger members of the family into marriage, or put them out to work for others under very hard conditions, taking to himself all the payment, and also other cases in which the father disposed of the property of the son, took away from him his axe and canoe, and sold hay, mown and saved by him, completely independently. The son complained of his hard fate, but could do nothing. He also knows of a case in which parents sold their eight-year-old daughter to a Russian official who was travelling through. He saw and heard of many cases in which elders cruelly beat members of the household, especially women and children, yet he knows of an equal number of cases of an opposite character,—cases in which younger brothers played a more important rôle in the family than older brothers, in which a wife, unrestrained by the presence of strangers, behaved rudely to her sick husband, even beat him, and openly kept a lover in the house; in which a daughter, knowing that she was the only one in the house able to labour, did not obey her parents, did whatever she chose, refused an advantageous marriage, and went about with the young men before the eyes of all; in which old people did not clare to sell a pound of butter or a load of hay, or to buy anything for themselves, without asking the consent of a grown son. All these cases were not considered by anybody unusual, and did not call forth from the community any more condemnation than cruel or unjust treatment of children.

. . . . There is no such thing as any strictly patriarchal relationships, or any deep-rooted or cultivated feeling of respect for the old, amongst the Yakuts. A young Yakut said: "They not only do not feed, nor honour, nor obey, but they scold and often beat the old people. With my own eyes, I have more than once seen Yakuts, poor and rich, bad and good, beat their fathers and their mothers." They behave especially badly with decrepit and feeble-minded parents. Their chief object in dealing with such is to wrest from them any bits of property they may still retain. Thus, as the old people become more and more defenceless, they are treated worse and worse. It was no better in ancient times. Force, the coarse force of the fist, or the force of hunger, rules in the modern Yakut family, and seems to indicate the servile origin of that family. Once the author saw how a weak old man of seventy beat with a stick his forty-year old son, who was in good health, rich, and a completely independent householder, who had just been elected to an office in the sib. The son stood quietly and did not dare even to evade the blows, but that old man still had an important amount of property at his disposition, and he ruled the family by fear that he could deprive any recalcitrant one of a share in the inheritance.

. . . . In well-to-do families, where there is a great quantity of cattle, or where the right to large advantages from land, or the possession of well-established trade, provides an opportunity to win from hired labour, and so an important revenue is obtained, independently of personal labour, the rule of the father and mother as proprietors, especially the rule of the father, is strengthened and maintained for a long time, namely, to the moment when the old people become decrepit and lose the capacity to comprehend the simplest things. Generally they die before that time. This state of things is maintained by the spread of Russian ideas and laws. In the old-fashioned Yakut family, the economy of which is founded almost entirely on cattle-breeding, and in which constant personal supervision is required, thus making personal strength and initiative indispensable, the moment of the transfer of rule into the hands of the son is reached much earlier. It occurs still earlier in poor families which live exclusively by hand-labour and by the industry of the strongest and best endowed. The old people strive against this tendency in vain. The young people naturally strive to avail themselves as fully as possible of the results of their labour, and as soon as they feel strong enough, they begin to struggle for their rights. The parents are dependent on the sons, who could go away to earn wages. Hence they say: "It is more advantageous for us Yakuts, in this frozen country of ours, to have many children than to have much money and cattle. Children are our capital, if they are good. It is hard to get good labourers, even for large wages, but a son, when he grows up, is a labourer who costs nothing; nevertheless, it is hard to rear children." The author knew of cases in which wives put up with the presence of mistresses in the house, considering that an inevitable consequence of their own childlessness. The death of children is accepted coldly in populous districts, but in the thinly settled ones is sincerely bewailed. Sometimes they take to drink or to idleness when they have lost their children.

The greatest number of suicides are old people who fear a lonely old age. The treatment they receive fully accounts for this.

If the parents, on account of their own deficiencies, or the exceptional hard-heartedness of a son, have not been able to discipline him, then sooner or later a strife arises in the family. The women are in such cases more yielding. They are physically weaker and have scarcely any rights. As members of the sib, they have no rights to land, property, or independent existence. They surrender very soon. Most frequently they make no attempt to resist: there is no place for them outside of the family. It is another matter for the boys. They accustom themselves to form judgments on communal questions; they quickly acquire a knowledge of the rights of men, and become saturated with the communal spirit which refuses to acknowledge any privileges except personal superiority and work. In proportion as the quantity of labour accomplished by them increases, and in that way their cleverness and skill in the arts of life are proved, they demand more confidently and persistently that attention shall be given to their voices in the family, and that their wishes shall be fulfilled. If not they are not willing to perform the labour which is required of them, or do it so negligently, while tormenting their elders with constant reproaches, that the latter gradually yield. As soon as a father perceives this disposition in his son, he hastens to give him a separate allotment, if his own circumstances will possibly admit of it; otherwise the power inevitably goes over to the son. Sometimes the elders continue to hold a nominal authority; sometimes the son allows this consolation, as long as they live; but nothing is really done without the sanction of the actual sovereign of the family. The young man takes the place of the old one as the object of attention and obedience, and he makes himself master, as well of the parents as of the labourers who are without rights or voice in the family. A man who was reproached for his behaviour to his mother, said: "Let her cry; let her go hungry. She made me cry more than once, and she begrudged me my food. She used to beat me for trifles."

. . . . In a family in which the rights and powers have been reduced to equilibrium, so that all the relations of the members are established, the dominion of the head, whoever he is, over the labour and the property of the members is unlimited. The organ-isation is really servile. Especially pitiful is the position of the women who play no rôle in the sib, and therefore can expect no protection from anybody. The author advised a woman to appeal to the sib, when she complained that her husband exploited her labour and that of her half-grown son: that he was extravagant and wasteful, so that he was likely to reduce them to pauperism. "The head!" said she, "how often I have complained to him! he listens and says nothing, and after that my husband is still more quarrelsome and more perverse." Another woman said: "The man is the master; it is necessary to obey him; he works abroad and we at home." This work abroad consists for the most part in taking part in the village assemblies and in constant loafing from house to house. It is true that the man acquires information about wages and prices; but he also keeps to himself the monopoly of all external relations, and even for the absence of any of the housemates without his consent he demands a strict account. To acquire an extra gain, win food or money, or earn something by outside work is considered more desirable than to follow heavy daily labour which would maintain the life of the family from day to day. If the head of the household has grown-up children, the amount of work which he does is very insignificant. He works like the others only at the hay-harvest; the rest of the time he wanders about, looking out, it is true, for the external interests of the family to which his care is now restricted, although formerly it extended to the sib. Inside the house he is treated with almost slavish respect and consideration. His presence puts an end to cheerfulness, the excuse for which is that he must maintain respect.

It is a custom, the reason for which seems to be the desire of the father not to lose power in the house, that he often gives allotments to his sons and takes into the house in their place a grandson, or a nephew, or a hired man. These persons, after they have lived some years in the house, and worked in the family acquire the same right to a part of the inheritance as if they had been children. The Yakuts say that a father may deprive a son of his inheritance, but the author never knew an example of it. He knew of cases in which sons sued fathers, alleging that the allotments which they received after many years’ labour were not as large as they should have been. . . . .—W. J. SUMNER, "The Yaknts," Journal of the Anthropological Institute, 31:65–78 [whole paper, 65–110]. Abridged from the Russian of Sieroshevski. (, published by the Imperial Russian Geographical Society, St. Petersburg, 1896, 1:720 ff.)


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Chicago: "[Social Life in an Arctic Environment]," Yakuty in Source Book for Social Origins: Ethnological Materials, Psychological Standpoint, Classified and Annotated Bibliographies for the Interpretation of Savage Society, ed. Thomas, William I. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1909), 75–88. Original Sources, accessed September 29, 2023, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=QX23D48FKPS6WJT.

MLA: . "[Social Life in an Arctic Environment]." Yakuty, Vol. 1, in Source Book for Social Origins: Ethnological Materials, Psychological Standpoint, Classified and Annotated Bibliographies for the Interpretation of Savage Society, edited by Thomas, William I., Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1909, pp. 75–88. Original Sources. 29 Sep. 2023. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=QX23D48FKPS6WJT.

Harvard: , '[Social Life in an Arctic Environment]' in Yakuty. cited in 1909, Source Book for Social Origins: Ethnological Materials, Psychological Standpoint, Classified and Annotated Bibliographies for the Interpretation of Savage Society, ed. , University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp.75–88. Original Sources, retrieved 29 September 2023, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=QX23D48FKPS6WJT.