The lives of small indigenous peoples in Altai (PHOTOS)

Nikolai Rastorguev Foundation
These descendants of ancient nomads have kept their language and traditions, and believe in the healing powers of the taiga forest.

1. Ethnographers describe the Republic of Altai in Siberia as a “crossroad of civilizations.” It is home to numerous indigenous peoples and nationalities, the descendants of ancient nomads, yet researchers know very little about many of them due to the inaccessibility of the terrain. Altai is crisscrossed by mountains and forests, and settlements here lie many kilometers apart. Perhaps that is why locals have preserved their roots. 

2. In summer 2019, a team from the Nikolai Rastorguev Support Foundation for Film, Radio, and Multimedia embarked on an ethnographic expedition to Altai to find out how people had managed to retain their language, customs, and beliefs.

3. The most important concept for Altai people is seok (clan). All indigenous Altai folk respect their seok, and observe the traditions associated with it, such as venerating one’s elders, collectively tending to infirm relatives, and joint funerals and weddings. There remains a ban on young people marrying from within the same seok.

4. The Telengits and Teleuts (two Altai peoples that live in the south of the republic, nearer the Mongolian border) are descendants of the ancient Turkic tribe Tele.

5. Krai Bidinov, Distinguished Teacher of Russia and writer, opened a local history club in Altai in 1966, after which a Telengits history musuem was founded in the village of Kokorya near the Russian-Mongolian border. “If you don't know the history of your people, you are nobody,” he says. “Our fathers and grandfathers observed the rites of their ancestors, and taught their children to respect their region. For us, Altai is not just our homeland, Altai is our god, creator, and maker. One cannot fail to obey the laws of nature.”

6. Traditionally, the indigenous peoples of Altai worship the spirits of nature. Ethnographers call it Tengrism. The Altai mountains are a living spirit, and the Earth possesses memory and intelligence. Although Orthodoxy has had a strong influence on the Altai people (many locals were baptized in the 19th century), shamanism is still practiced in villages. Even in Soviet times, shamans performed ceremonies, albeit in secret. “Shamans can help anyone. He is created with a supernatural character. He serves the people, connects the lower and upper worlds. He can mentally traverse the whole world while sitting at home. One cannot argue with a shaman,” says Bidinov.

7. Vyacheslav Cheltuev is a hereditary shaman. “Everyone in my clan is a shaman. It’s not taught, it’s not a school,” he says. “When I was 16-17, I started receiving signs [from spirits]. I didn’t know anything at that time and was afraid, I couldn’t even sleep because everything came to me at night. In earlier times I would have been given psychiatric treatment, but I knew the future and warned people.”

8. Dobrynya Satin performs traditional Altai music. “My instrument is called a topshur, it is played by a kaichi — a storyteller who narrates the Altai epic. It helps the storyteller enter a kind of trance. Our epics are very long. Before performing, the kaichi asks the instrument to help him, and then the topshur takes him to that world.”

9. Northern Altai is home to the Kumandits, Tubalars, and Chelkans — Turkic-speaking peoples of Finno-Ugric origin. They call themselves “taiga people.” The Chelkans still use traditional fishing methods.

10. Maria Kyzaeva: “Our ancestors — the Tubalars — farmed the land. In the Soviet years, a plan was set for the number of potatoes, beets, and bird cherry trees they had to deliver to the collective farm. I remember how my mother curried skins and sewed coats and hats for me,” she recalls. “And if some misfortune occurred, they asked for help from the mountains. Our ancestors believed in the taiga, and so do I.”

11. Ivan Cherloyakov teaches history and social science in the village of Tondoshka, 120 km east of Gorno-Altaysk. “Our village is a close-knit dwelling place for cousins. The cousins ​​believe they are the descendants of people who survived the Great Deluge on rafts. They clung to the top of Salop, and as the water receded, the cousins ​​settled along its slopes.” Cherloyakov says that baptized Altaians had a rather difficult fate. “For the Russians they remained Altaian, but for the Altaians they ceased to be so. So the baptized Altaians wanted to prove themselves more Russian than the Russians themselves. And this caused the Russians to make fun of them.”

12 . In addition to small indigenous peoples, there are several Old Believer communities in Altai, among them the Uimon Valley settlers. Farms for breeding marals (Siberian stags) also flourish here.

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