The Tundra Yukaghirs live in the Lower Kolyma region in the Sakha Republic; the Taiga Yukagirs in the Upper Kolyma region in the Sakha Republic and in Srednekansky District of Magadan Oblast. By the time of Russian colonization in the 17th century, the Yukagir tribal groups (Chuvans, Khodyns, Anauls, etc.) occupied territories from the Lena River to the mouth of the Anadyr River. The number of the Yukagirs decreased between the 17th and 19th centuries due to epidemics, internecine wars and Tsarist colonial policy. Some of the Yukagirs have assimilated with the Yakuts, Evens, and Russians.
Currently Yukagir live in the Yakut-Sakha Republic and the Chukchi Autonomous region of the Russian Federation. According to the 2002 Census, their total number was 1,509 people, up from 1,112 recorded in the 1989 Census).
The Yukaghir language is a language isolate. Some scholars consider it distantly related to the Uralic languages, but this classification is not accepted by the majority of specialists in Uralic linguistics. The language is regarded as seriously endangered.
Most of the Yukaghirs at present speak Yakut and Russian.
The 13 tribes which constituted the Yukaghir group were:
The surviving three tribes are the Odul of Nelemnoe, the Vadul of Andryushkino and the Chuvan of the Anadyr river area. Of the extinct groups, the most important were the Khodynt, the Anaoul (both of the Anadyr River area), and the Omok (North of the Chuvan). Sometimes the Chuvan are considered a separate tribe. The Chuvantsy language has been extinct since the early 20th century. In 2002 1087 identified themselves as Chuvan compared to over 1300 in 1989. The Vadul are mainly involved in reindeer herding while the Odul (Kogime) are mostly hunter-gatherers. The Vadul are also known as Tundra Yukaghir. The Odul are also known as Taiga Yukaghir or Kolyma Yukaghir. The Vadul and Odul languages are as different as German is from Dutch. Both are nearing extinction, and Odul is in a much weaker state compared to Vadul. In the 1989 census, more than 700 of the Yukaghirs identified as Vadul while fewer than 400 were Odul. The Yukaghir are one of the oldest peoples in North-Eastern Asia. Originally they lived over a huge territory from Lake Baikal to the Arctic Ocean. By the time of the first encounter with Russians, Yukaghir were divided into twelve tribes with around 9,000 people. The Yukagir ethnonym is “Odul” or “Vadul”, which means “mighty”.
Tribal divisions among the Yukaghir are fading now. although in every census from 1926, significant number of tribesmen identified themselves with tribal divisions like Anaoul, Odul and Vadul rather than describing themselves as Yukaghir. The Soviet government actively discouraged this tendency and now only the most elderly identify this way. In the 2002 census, out of the 1,509 Yukaghirs, 51 identified themselves as Omok, 40 as Alais, 21 as Odul, 17 as Vadul, 6 as Khangait and 4 as Detkil.
The head of every clan was an elder or “Ligey Shomorokh”. His was the final word in all aspects of life. Hunting leaders were “Khangitche”, and war leaders were “Tonbaia Shomorokh” (the mighty man). Women and teenagers had equal voices with men. The internal life of the community was under the control of the older women. Their decisions in those matters were indisputable.
In the beginning of every summer all clans gathered together for the common celebration “Sakhadzibe”, where mutual Yukagir questions were discussed.
In the Yakut-Sakha Republic there are three nomadic extended family communities. These are “Tchaila” in Nizhnekolymsk district, “Teki Odulok” in Verkhnekolymsk district and “Ianugail” in Ust’-Iansk district.
The head of “Ianugail” is I. I. Tomsky. The community’s main activities are deer hunting and fishing.
“Tchaila” is the biggest of the three. Its head is S. I. Kurilov. They have 4000 domesticated reindeers, 200 horses, and 20 cows. The community also hunts deer and polar foxes. There is also a shop where traditional skin and fur garments are made.
The head of “Teki Odulok” is N. I. Shalugin. Their base is the village of Nelemnoe. This community is in the most difficult situation. Due to the “creative interpretation” of various perestroika and privatization laws by the local and district administration and so-called businessmen, the community has lost all their reindeer, cows and even part of its land. All they have left are about 50 horses. They have no money for supplies for hunting and fishing. 80% of all adult population is de-facto unemployed.
The highest forum for Yukagir is the all-people gathering “Suktuul”.
Alongside Russian Orthodox beliefs, Yukaghir still practice shamanism. The dominant cults are ancestral spirits, the spirits of Fire, Sun, Hunt, Earth, and Water. The spirits can act as protectors and as enemies of people. The highest is the cult of Sun, the highest judge in all disputes. The spirits of the dead go to “Aibidzi” where they are continually watching and helping. Every clan had a shaman “Alma”. After death every shaman was treated as a deity. The body of the dead shaman was dismembered and kept by the clan as relics.
The main traditional activity is nomadic and semi-nomadic hunting of deer, moose, wild sheep, and sable, as well as fishing. Reindeer are bred mostly for transportation.
The decline of traditional economic activities, the horrible environmental situation of the Yukaghir’s traditional lands and waters, and the absence of local and federal laws and executive mechanisms protecting Indigenous peoples, have all resulted in a dreadful situation for Yukagir communities. Average life span for men is 45 years, and 54 years for women. Child mortality is the highest in the Yakut-Sakha Republic.