Who are the Evenki?
The Evenki are an ethnolinguistic continuum of reindeer herders across the taiga, or boreal forest, of central and eastern Siberia. Form a cultural middle ground between the steppe pastoralism of the Mongols and the Taiga hunting/gathering of the Yeniseic peoples. Although we refer to them as reindeer pastoralists, a more accurate description of their economy may be, to quote a lecture by Edward Vajda, “reindeer-augmented hunting and gathering”. Their world, then, is not entirely alien to the Ket, whom we’ve previously studied. Much of their culture—for example, shamanism—while having adopted elements of pastoralism, would be recognizable to the Ket. Unfortunately, the Ket and Evenki have not gotten along historically, and the adoption of reindeer breeding by the Evenki and others led to their forcing the Yeniseic peoples out of their ancestral homeland to the south. In fact it is probable that the tysdeng “Stone People” against whom the folk hero Balna fought were in fact Evenki warriors.
Speakers of a North Tungusic language, which shares many features with Mongolic and Turkic, leading some to believe that they form the Altaic Macrofamily; however, this is widely disputed and may just as likely be the result of millennia of contact between the three language families.
About 3-400 years ago, certain Evenki tribes migrated south of the Amur, and continued their reindeer pastoralism in the far north of Inner Mongolia, at the very edge of the taiga. Some of them left the forests and adopted a steppe lifestyle more similar to that of the Mongols; some of them began to speak a Mongolic variety known as Khamnigan, while a few continued to speak Evenki. These steppe Evenki speakers were the group among whom I conducted my research.
After the communist revolution and, more importantly, the Sino-Soviet Split, the Evenki of China were forcibly resettled further from the border in order to keep them from nomadizing into the USSR, and subjected to ethnic cleansing by means of planned Han Chinese migration. A result of this can be seen in the “Evenki Autonomous Banner” which in practice is an average Han community. Most Evenki living there are in the remote and inaccessible steppes outside the city, and even then they only number about 6% of the total population.* During my time in the district I encountered only one person with any knowledge of Evenki.
Unfortunately, before I could get from this individual any detailed information, I was found by the Chinese police and escorted under guard back to the city. While the Chinese government claims to respect ethnic autonomy and honor their cultures, it is highly fearful any actual interaction between ethnic minorities and laowai (outsiders). Paradoxically, while it sees the Evenki (and other minorities, not least the Tibetans, Uighurs and Mongols) as a sort of living tourist attraction, they are represented to society by individuals who neither speak Evenki nor live a traditional Evenki lifestyle; indeed, often by people who are not themselves Evenki. To the PRC government, minorities are useful only as cheerfully-dressed dancers who entertain tour groups and willingly submit to the “benefits” of Sinicization and cultural genocide. Any academic hoping to do unsupervised—and uncensored—research risks deportation from the area, and even detention, the latter of which I experienced in the late summer of 2010.
Therefore, perhaps the only area in China steppe Evenki can be observed as a living language is the Evenki Ethnic Sum of Hulunbuir Prefecture, Inner Mongolia. In this region ethnic Evenki may in fact constitute a plurality or slight majority*, and Evenki-style steppe pastoralism is a surviving tradition.
The Evenki Ethnic Sum is located on a subarctic steppe about an hour’s drive north of Hailar, the nearest town. The land is shared by Daur Mongols and some Han Chinese, who form a de-facto elite living in the administrative center.
During this time I was able to compile a short wordlist with 64 entries, and compare them with Wiktionary’s general “Altaic” wordlist. Before I post these findings, I will write a post detailing my experiences in the region, as I feel that this will prove useful to understanding the situation of China’s Evenki, and for those of my audience interested in travel stories.