Altai’s Indigenous peoples – what’s in a name?

Russia officially recognizes 47 small-numbered peoples of the North, Siberia, and Far East. Roughly 23% of the almost 147 million people living in Russia (as of 2021) are not ethnically Russian.  The government classifies Indigenous peoples living in the country in three ways:

  • “Small-numbered peoples” (less than 50,000 individuals),
  • “Indigenous peoples” living in the North, Siberia, and Far East, and
  • “Peoples” living in western Russia.

Altai Republic (total population 221,000 as of 2021) has 69,000 Indigenous Altaians and roughly 4,700 individuals representing the “small-numbered” Telengit and Kumandin peoples. Other Indigenous groups–specifically, Chelkans, Tubalars, and Teleuts – are shrinking and not found in census data.  All of these native peoples historically spoke Altaian, a language now struggling to survive, especially its minority dialects. Like Indigenous peoples around the world, their lifeways, cultures, and means of sustaining themselves are relentlessly threatened.

Untangling the threads that tell the stories of Altai’s Indigenous peoples starts with the origins of their names, largely rooted in their natural surroundings. The names of geographic features (for example, mountains, rivers, and forests) in the surrounding landscapes figure prominently in place names.

Altai’s peoples are ethnographically grouped into Southern and Northern Altaians

Southern Altai is covered with mountain ranges. Its peoples live in the open steppes and narrow valleys of these ranges. Here Indigenous peoples were traditionally nomadic herders, gatherers and hunters, moving seasonally up and down the mountains. Many Altaians were and remain also excellent artisans using metal, wood, leather, stone, and other local materials.

Altaians, Telengits, and Teleuts belong to the Southern Altai category

The latter two trace their origins back to the tele (nomad-herder tribes) of the ancient Turk epoch. The Telengit self-identify as chu-kizhi (“people of the Chuya River”), since they live in the valleys along the Chuya (and other southern rivers) in Altai Republic. The Teleut were first referenced in Russian sources in the beginning of the 17th century under the name “White Kalmyk” and today, all but a handful live to the north in Kemerovo.

The Altaians are the largest people in the region, totaling about 70,000, the vast majority of whom live in Altai Republic. Also traditional and modern practitioners of semi-nomadic herding, they live throughout the region, but are not considered “small-numbered” (defined as <50,000 people) due to their large population. The word “Altaian” is also often used as a collective term to encompass all of the Indigenous peoples described here. Slava and Mergen - snow leopard protectors in Argut village

By contrast, the landscape of northern Altai is defined by mixed coniferous and broadleaf forests, known as “black taiga,” influencing historical references to its Indigenous peoples. Inhabitants were taiga hunters, gatherers, artisans, and did some limited crop farming.

Three Indigenous peoples—the Chelkan, Kumandin, and Tubalar—belong to the northern Altai group.

Historically, the Chelkan people were known as Lebedin or Lebedin Tatar, since they inhabited the villages along the Lebed’ River (in Russian lebed’ means “swan”). The Chelkan call themselves “chalkandu” (“shalkandu”) and “kuu-kizhi” (kuu is Turkish for ‘swan’). They live in eastern Altai Republic, numbering about 850 people.

Similarly, the name of another northern Altai people, the Kumandin, also has its origins in the Turkish word kuu. 2,600 Kumandin people live in southwestern Siberia, most of them in Altai Krai but quite a few in the Republic. Prior to the Russian Revolution in 1917, they were known as “Black Tatars,” another reference to the black taiga. Under Russian influence, the Kumandin referred to themselves as “Tatar Kizhi.”

Of the Altai peoples, the 1,600 Tubalar represent the largest Northern Altai population in Altai Republic. They self-identified using a number of names in the past, until their seoks were consolidated into a single geographic group and a common name arose. They call themselves Y’ysh-kizhi, which translates to “People of the taiga.” Old Russian documents refer to the Tubalar as “Black Taiga Tatars.”

Learn more about the rich history and heritage of Altai’s Indigenous peoples:

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