Nomadism and adaptations to a sedentary lifestyle among the Evenks of post-soviet Siberia: “playing” to live with and without shamans.

Alexandra Lavrillier. PhD Thesis
Abstract: The Evenks oročon live in Yakutia (Sakha Republic) and in the Amur basin. They perceive themselves as an integral part of the natural environment. They were partly sedentarized under the Soviet regime, and they are now to get to the market economy. They can be divided into three social types: nomadic reindeer-breeders and hunters, villagers, and city dwellers. The analysis of the different lifestyles, forms of organization, individual distinctive factors and inherited values allows us to determine the place and functions of the ritual practices and of the types of ritualists in every social type.

The main result of this thesis, based on five-year fieldwork, is a comparative analysis of rituals. The author compares the rituals she observed among the nomads with those described in the sources of the soviet period on the one hand, and with those she observed among sedentary people on the other hand. While certain individual and collective rituals described in ethnographic literature have disappeared, the traditional system of representation remains, as an unconscious knowledge that underlies new rituals and multiple prohibitions. The nomads follow their ancestors’ models, while villagers and city-dwellers multiply the modes of representation within one and the same event: fragments of traditional rituals, theatrical stagings of forgotten rituals and shamans, audiovisual documents. A new category thus appears, that of “rituals that represent rituals”. The nomads prefer not to carry out the rituals whose procedure they do not know for sure, for they fear to send their “soul” out of “the world of the living” in case of wrong manipulation. As for the sedentary intellectuals, they boldly “reinvent” rituals, maintaining that the spirits would appreciate the humans’ care for them and know how to express their gratitude.

The comparison also shows that a distinction between sacred and profane has appeared. Likewise, we should establish a distinction between an “unconscious tradition” underpinning the nomads’ life and a “conscious tradition” characteristic of the villagers and city-dwellers that make selection among former practices. In spite of these differences, two concepts allow all people to carry on with ritual actions, whether with or without shamans. These are “playing” and onnir. Onnir means a kind of “spirit load” everyone has in oneself, with which to “play” (sing, dance, shamanize, draw, etc.) in order to perform ritual action. The shaman differs from ordinary people only by the fact that “he ‘plays’ better than the others”. The partner of the games played with or without shamans is always, even for sedentary people, the natural environment Buγa and the spirits inhabiting it. While traditional shamans disappear, the Evenks “play” each in his own way; they don’t incite new types of shamans, and have recourse to other ritualists (elders, healers, imitators of shamans, “shamans-to-be”).

Keywords: nomadism – herding – hunting – settling process – post-socialism – shamanism – playing.