Preserving tradition – Siberia’s tribes meet the 21st century

They may live thousands of kilometres apart but Finns, Hungarians and Estonians are actually close ethnic relatives of the Siberian indigenous peoples, the Khanty and Mansi. Around 300 representatives of the Finno-Ugric peoples have gathered in Russia’s S

The presidents of Russia, Finland, Hungary and Estonia are also attending the forum and one of the issues on their agenda is be how to combine the benefits of globalisation with their traditional lifestyle.

For Semyon Aypin, a native elder from Siberia, making things with an axe is part of his everyday life. He and his family usually spend the entire summer in the woods making boats, sleighs for their deer and even cradles for their grandchildren.

They belong to the indigenous Khanty tribe that has lived in Siberia for several thousands of years, breeding deer, fishing and hunting. This family still tries to live the way their ancestors did, but globalisation has already reached their remote Siberian settlement.

“Most elders in our settlement still speak the Khanty language but the youngsters, they know some of it but they usually speak Russian,” said Lyubov Aypin.

The Khanty and another indigenous tribe, the Mansi, account for less than two per cent of the Khanty-Mansiysk region’s population. Almost two thirds of them have already traded their traditional houses for life in the big city.

Khanti-Mansiysk is Russia’s oil capital, with about 60 per cent of the country’s oil produced there. But what has been a blessing for the population at large has proved to be a curse for many of the native people. When the wells were first drilled there in the 1960s, many indigenous tribes were forced to leave their habitats. This brought an end to the nomadic lifestyle.

Now, however, things are turning around. Aleksandr Novyukhov, a prominent Khanty activist, says energy companies are legally bound to agree their development plans with the native people and to provide compensation for the use of their land.

“Oil companies used to provide aboriginals with snowmobiles as compensation but now indigenous people are starting to ask for a pair of deer instead of a snowmobile. As one of the Khanty elders put it, when we trade our deer for machines, we are putting one foot in a grave of our culture,” he said.