Ket Life and Culture
Hello all, welcome back to Office Hours with the Brofessor, the Show Where I Say Things. Today: I didn’t choose the Siberian hunter-gatherer life, the Siberian hunter-gatherer life chose me.
So today we’re going to be talking about the traditional lifestyle and culture of the Ket people, past and present. We’ve already talked about the very basics of the Ket, but today we’ll go into more detail. What was important in the traditional Ket world? What did traditional Ket people do every day? Let’s take a journey through space and time and take a look at the ancient Ket way of life, the last remnant of an age-old tradition that once held sway across inner Eurasia. When we examine the Ket forest hunter-gatherer lifestyle we are seeing in modern times a cultural succession with roots that go back far beyond recorded history. It’s really cool stuff, so let’s get started. We’ll be dividing our discussion today into six parts: worldview, nomadizing, other people, animals, food and the present situation of the Ket.
Part I: Worldview
The Ket worldview and concept of space was influenced by two major features: the river and the forest. The river was a place of plenty and ease, while the forest was harsher and more austere (Vajda 2011). Geographically, the Ket positioned themselves in relation to the river. The upriver south was seen as an idyllic land of warmth and plenty, where dwelt a kind of good witch or goddess named Tomam. She’s the one who saves the Ket from starvation each spring by sending the birds on their migration north. Supposedly she lives at the Yenisei’s headwaters. I’ve been there, stood on the very banks of the Yenisei at its source, but I didn’t see her. Maybe next time. At any rate I could feel the spirit of Tomam as I stood on top of the cliffs looking over the very upper Yenisei. On those cliffs, every year, Tomam comes and shakes out her feathered cape; the down is carried away by the wind to become the birds so necessary to Ket life (Vajda 2011).
Meanwhile, the north was a place of evil, cold and misfortune. If we traveled far enough north, we would run into a very mean lady named Hosedam, The Wicked Witch of the North:
Kinda like this, but colder and no monkeys.
Hosedam’s favorite food is human souls. If we ran into her we’d be done for unless Alba, the great hero of Ket myth, came along and made her vomit the souls back up. Pretty cool.
A major part of Ket life was moving to new encampments every season. Unfortunately, a lot of people have the wrong idea that nomadic people kind of just wander around aimlessly. Not true. Nomadic migration patterns are very precisely calculated to things like weather and food availability. And they’re consistent. For instance, a Ket families tended to use their own winter hunting trails that were remembered without the use of markers or other aids (Vajda 2011).
Ket family groups had a migration for each season. In spring they emerged from the forest to camp at the riverside in birchbark tipis. With the summer come the mosquitoes, so the people would hang out on houseboats on the river, where the mosquitoes couldn’t reach. When the mosquitoes died, the Ket returned to shore; and when winter came they would go away deep into the forest. During the coldest weeks Mom and the kids would hole themselves up in an earthen shelter, while a presumably grumbling Dad and older sons would be out hunting.
Such were the patterns of the Ket year, and so did they cope and even thrive in the harsh environment of central Siberia.
In terms of interactions with other Siberian peoples, the Ket most frequently ran into two groups, the Selkups and the Evenki.
The first group, the Selkup, lived in the swampy lowlands to the west. Speakers of a language distantly related to Finnish and Hungarian, they were known to the by their word for “friend”—kind of like if, instead of saying someone was from Mexico, we just said “he’s an amigo”. The Selkup were (and are) reindeer herders, which is fundamentally different from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle of the Ket. This difference, however, seems not to have impeded the bro-level relationship (brolationship?) between the two peoples.
The Evenki, on the other hand, were on not-so-good terms with the Ket. The Evenki lived in the hilly east, their ancestors’ expansion having forced the Ket downriver from their ancient homeland. In a reference to the more mountainous territory of the Evenki, they were known to the Ket by the less-than-flattering name of “stone spirits”—a reference to the rugged topography of their home. Also less friendly were relations with the Enets, a group related to the Selkup.
A fourth group with whom the Ket frequently interacted, at least in modern times, were the Russians. They showed up every year to trade and collect the tsarist fur tax.
The traditional Ket world was of course shared with a number of animals. Dogs were the only domesticate of the Ket. According to legend, the first dog was the son of the sky god Es, who was sent to teach the people how to revive their dead. Instead he told the people to put the dead in the ground, thereby condemning humankind to mortality. For his forgetfulness he was cursed to serve humans for all eternity, sniffing and digging around in the ground (Vajda 2011).
The singularity of the dog as the Ket’s sole domesticate sets them apart from their reindeer-herding neighbors, and there’s a reason that they survived while other forest hunter-gatherers didn’t make it. The Ket had a secret ally: mosquitoes. Every summer, mosquitoes would be so thick on land that reindeer would literally suffocate on the insects that they’d inhaled. The Ket, meanwhile, would be sitting comfortably on houseboats in the middle of the river, away from the bugs and enjoying the excellent fishing. So the reindeer was never as central to Ket life as it was for others.
The other main animal in Ket life was the bear. Believed to be inhabited by human spirits, the Ket treated bears with a reverence bordering on worship. Whenever a bear what brought down in a hunt, the dead animal was considered a special guest among the people and eaten at a feast in its own honor. This tradition of “bear festivals” seems to have extremely ancient roots, as we can observe ceremonies like it across boreal Eurasia, from Finland (as mentioned in the Kalevala) to Japan (practiced among the Ainu people of Hokkaido).
The current state of the Ket people is a tragic one. Having been subjected to forced assimilation throughout the 20th century, little remains of their traditional way of life that is being actively maintained and passed to the next generation. No fluent native speakers of Ket are younger than fifty and even though kids in school get an hour a week of Ket class, that’s just not enough to make a difference in the survival of the language.
The days of birchbark tipis and bear festivals appear to be gone forever. The Ket have been entirely sedentarized, and forced into a world drastically alien to that of their ancestors. The modern situation, therefore, is tragically one of people forced in between worlds with a decimated culture, punishing isolation, and few employable skills. The results have been predictable. Furthermore, alcoholism is a serious problem in Ket communities. Domestic violence and alcohol-related illness appear, with the tremendous human suffering they entail.
This vicious cycle can only be ended by the Ket themselves, which they must be empowered to do. One step towards this empowerment is preservation and promotion of the Ket language and traditional culture. Before one rises up, one must have ground to stand on. Hopefully, by sharing with everyone that I can the awesomeness of Ket language and culture, I can help work toward this empowerment, and do my part as an ally of the Ket people.
1. Ed Vajda. “Siberian Landscapes in Ket Traditional Culture”. 2011. https://www.uaf.edu/files/anlc/2011ketlandscape.pdf