20. 04. 2013
Life of ethnic minorities in the USA and Russia: Aleuts and Evenks
Evenks and Aleuts Today
It is commonly known that nowadays, almost in every country, ethnic minorities face a multitude of various problems. In this paper, I would like to analyze and compare the lifestyle and living conditions of Aleuts in Alaska and Evenks in the Sakha (Yakutia) Republic and the difficulties they have to withstand.
There are 16, 978 Aleuts in the USA1 and the majority of them occupies the southwestern part of the state of Alaska, for instance, the Aleutian Islands and the Pribilof Islands. The majority of Russian Evenks live in the Sakha (Yakutia) Republic – it is the 2nd largest Yakutian indigenous ethnic group. There are 18, 323 of them2 and their biggest settlement is called Iengra. This settlement is situated close to my hometown, Nerungri, and that is why a part of this paper is based on my personal experience of communication with the representatives of this ethnic group.
Nowadays, both of these ethnic groups face an extremely important dilemma. On the one hand, they want to preserve their unique cultural identity and their traditional activities. But on the other hand, in order to survive, they have to modernize their lifestyle and abandon their traditional activities that can’t provide them with money.
Aleuts’ lifestyle can be characterized as rather modern. Many modern Aleuts are determined to get a higher education and the majority of them prefer modern occupations to traditional activities. Still, they manage to combine it successfully with preservation and transmission of their language and culture. In schools, children are taught their native language, traditional arts and crafts, Aleut songs, dances and legends.
The situation with Evenks is much worse. Though some of them try to get a higher education and a well-paid job, the majority of them still cling to the traditional crafts and reindeer-herding. Therefore, they cannot make a lot of money and their standard of living is very low. That means that even if children graduate from high school, their parents can’t afford their getting a higher education. So, the majority of children can only confine themselves to what their parents do for a living – reindeer herding, carving figurines and selling them to rarely-coming to Yakutia tourists.
The economic situation for these two groups is very different. The major activities of Evenks – reindeer-breeding and hunting usually fail to supply them with money and it is evident that many of them live below the poverty level and their income is very low3.
Traditional Aleut activities are, practically, the same but, as I have already mentioned, more and more Aleut people these days take part in other activities – tourism, and retail trade and community services, in order to make money. Handicrafts, state government jobs, and transfer payments are other sources of income but they are relatively insignificant.4
Evenks typically live in clan communities – closed groups that are dominated by ethnical principles. They unite into small villages and live there, having little contact with other ethnic groups.
Aleutian villages are concentrated in the southwestern part of the USA and there is a very small number of Aleuts in other parts of the country. They live in small groups, isolated from the rest of the country and that is why they have to rely a lot on each other – according to Dorothy M. Jones, “Aleuts are very cooperative – they still tend to share products with their relatives, friends, and neighbours. This may also be proved by Aleuts' tendency to feed the hungry and provide homes for the homeless”.5
The material culture of Aleut villages is quite modern. Nearly all the villages have an aircraft landing field. Air travel is the main form of transportation as there are no roads in the Aleutian area. They have electricity, washing machines, indoor plumbing, running water and television. The Indian Health Service provides emergency care in Anchorage, 500 to 1,000 miles away from the villages, and itinerant medical care in the villages. Day-to-day health care is provided by village health aides, trained by the Indian Health Service.
In most Evenk villages the facilities are the same. In every village there is either a railroad or a motorway. Daily medical care is provided by the therapist working in the village and also there is itinerant medical care provided by a medical brigade from the closest town.
Speaking about education, I must say that in Census areas with 50 percent or more Alaskan Native population, educational attainment is significantly lower than in census areas with lower percentages of Alaskan Native population. According to the statistics, 79, 5% Aleuts6 graduate from high school. 29, 9 % Aleuts have an associate’s degree and only 7, 9% of them have a bachelor’s degree or more.7
Almost 98% of the children of indigenous ethnic groups (Evenks, Evens, Dolgans, Yukagirs, Chukchis) in Yakutia graduate from high school. However, only about 1645 of them are studying at university or a vocational school and this number constitutes about 27% of school graduates.
Therefore, even though the percentage of Evenks graduating from school is higher than the percentage of Aleuts who get a secondary education, less of them continue their education.
There are two major types of schools in major Evenk villages like aforementioned Iengra, where children of Evenks and other indigenous ethnic groups can study. First of all, there are boarding schools. The biggest school of this kind is called “Arctica” and it is located in Nerungri, a town near Iengra.
Secondly, there is a specific kind of schools that exists only in Yakutia - nomadic schools. This kind of educational institution was introduced to ensure the receiving of secondary education by the members of small indigenous ethnic groups, including Evenks, for they live in small monoethnic communities far away from major Yakutian cities. All in all, there are 10 nomadic schools in Yakutia8 and each of them is created on the base of a clan community. Nomadic schools are based on the usual ones, and the learning process is organized either with the help of teachers who travel with the community, or via the Internet. Such schools try to concentrate on teaching children their native language, culture, traditional values.
While Yakutia suffers from the lack of schools, Aleutian schools suffer from the lack of pupils. Many schools in the Aleutian area have been closed, and many are on the edge of disappearance. If there is less than 10 pupils, the state cuts funding, and there is not enough money to provide the school with all that it needs. For example, the little Nikolski school has been closed because it had only 9 students 9and 1 teacher. All in all, there are now 2 schools that constitute the Aleutian School District and they serve 14 pupils each.10
Aleutian schools, just like boarding schools and nomadic schools in Yakutia aim at the preservation of native language (children have a 45-minute class each week), culture and traditions of Aleuts.
There are no colleges in the Aleutians Islands Borough and for Evenks situation is the same – the closest university is in Yakutsk, the capital of Yakutia.
To draw the bottom line I’d like to say that both in Russia and the US the situation with the indigenous population is very difficult. As you can see, Aleuts and Evenks have a lot of problems that are basically the same.
The lifestyle of Aleuts is a successful combination of modern and traditional and that is, probably, the reason why their living conditions are better. Still, I think that they should pay more attention to the secondary education.
Speaking of Evenks, I must say that the Russian government should try to improve the living conditions of Evenks so that they could, if they wish, get a higher education and a modern job or do what they parents did for a living and be paid well, because I believe that the traditional activities like reindeer-herding and carving should be preserved.
1. The American Indian and Alaska Native Population: Census 2000 http://www.census.gov/prod/2002pubs/c2kbr01-15.pdf
2. «Информация о количестве проживающих в Республики Саха (Якутия) представителей коренных малочисленных народов Севера в динамике за последние 10 лет, о реализации права изучения ими родных, языках обучения» http://sakha.gov.ru/node/18739
3. «Эвенки». Сайт ассоциации коренных малочисленных народов Севера, Сибири и Дальнего Востока Российской Федерации. http://www.raipon.info/narody/narody-severa-sibiri-i-dalnego-vostoka-rf/295-2009-08-31-14-43-03.html
4. Dorothy M. Jones, “Contemporary Aleutians”// AuthorsDen.com. http://www.authorsden.com/visit/viewArticle.asp?id=60995
5. “We the People: American Indians and Alaska Natives in the United States: Census 2000 Special Reports”. http://www.census.gov/prod/2006pubs/censr-28.pdf
6. Закон республики Саха (Якутия) о кочевых школах республики Саха (Якутия) iltumen.ru/sites/default/files/upload/1375.doc
7. William Yardlay, “Alaska’s rural schools fight off extinction”// The New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/26/us/26alaska.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0)
8. “Nikolski’s school might close”// Unalaska community broadcasting - kucb 89.7 fm - channel 8. http://kucb.org/news/article/nikolskis-school-might-close/