English translation from the official periodical of RAIPON “Мир коренных народов живая арктика” (Indigenous Peoples’ World Living Arctic) No. 5, 2001

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History and culture of the Bikin Udege

N. Pionka

The Udege are a people of the Manchurian language group. The settlements of the Bikin Udege in the Primorskiy Kray are situated in the Pozharsk District (Krasnyy Yar, Verkhnyy Pereval, and Olon).

In the domestic ethnographic literature of the 19th century, the Udege are known by the ethnonyms Kyakla, Oroch, Orochon, and, at the beginning of the 20th century, Udikhe, Udige. The neighboring peoples knew the Udege by various names. The Chinese referred to them as Yui-Pkhi-Da-Tzyn or Tazy, which means «fish-skinned strangers», or «people wearing clothes of fish skin»; Koreans, Uchika; Manchurians, Kyakala; Orochi, Kyaka; Negidal, Olchan (Peoples of the World, 1989, p. 537). In the mid-1920s, the Udege were referred to as the Udekheitsy. Subsequently, in scientific publications on the history and culture of the Udege, the Udege ethnonym began to be applied.

The Udege language is one of the languages without a written form, and it is close to the Amur group of the Tungus languages, particularly, the Oroch and the Upper-Amur dialects of the Nanai language. There are some clear-cut distinctions in phonetics; while vocabulary and morphology are similar (Linguistic Dictionary, 1990, p. 223).

The question of Udege ethnogenesis was studied in the 19th and 20th centuries, two hypotheses being advanced. The first hypothesis was based on a southern origin of the people; and the second, on a northern.

Arsenyev wrote: «Who are the Ude(khe)? In terms of the language, they are Tungus; their physical features are mixed; ethnographically (religious cult artifacts), they are Americanoids. I come to the conclusion that they are paleo-Asians with numerous Manchurian accretions. For the last two years, I have been searching for Paleo-Asiatic features in the Udege and found them not only in ethnographic relicts, but also in the language» (Arsenyev, 1949, p. 183).

Hunting was a very important occupation of the Udege. They hunted from the age of 12 years until old age. The outfit of the hunter was the bow (ben), arrows (gada ben), a spear (gida), a big knife on a long handle (khokdo) and a stretcher to carry cargo as well as skis and sleds. In the course of hunting, the Udege relied on spears rather than firearms. V.K. Arsenyev wrote that «when the snow is deep, that weapon is safer and more reliable than a Tula rifle, because one can hit an animal more efficiently and quicker than with a bullet» (Arsenyev, 1947, p. 136).

The Udege hunted all year round, even during the breeding season. But it was not allowed to harvest more animals than one family needed for the near future. «That appears to be a very wise ban, which does not admit greediness and useless killing of animals», emphasized V.K. Arsenyev (1947, p. 138).

The hunting products were fully used: ungulate meat was consumed, and the hides served for the production of clothes and footwear. Udege hunting was individual, or, rarely, collective. Hunting was efficient thanks to the knowledge by the Udege of the habits of every animal species and physiographical and meteorological conditions of the territory. By scars left on tree trunks, dents on the grass and footprints on the earth, and even by odor, they would recognize a presence of the animal, its age, sex and direction of movement.

The Udege were skilled at a wide variety of hunting techniques. The most ancient hunting practice is chasing the moose, Manchurian wapiti, or wild boar through deep snow or the spring ice crust. When the snow was deep, the hunter would move on kamus-lined snowshoes (sugala) to readily run down the prey and kill it. [Kamus is the skin from a reindeer leg.] In spring, after thaw and subsequent frost, when the snow was covered with ice crust, the Udege would chase prey on lining-free skis to spear it.

Hunting ungulates involved traps. The simplest and the most ancient trap was a hole which was dug in autumn and used in winter. In spring and in summer they were filled with dead wood so that the animals would not fall into the trap by chance.

A common hunting tool was a snare. It was used to catch wild goats and musk deer. V.K. Arsenyev wrote that one Udege family would set 100–300 snares for roe deer on their paths (Arsenyev, 1947, p. 140).

They also used crossbows (beisigu). It comprised five parts: a bow (bei), an arrow with an arrowhead, the stock across which the bow and arrow were fixed (sala), a cock and a thin cord to which a ring (goiptini) was connected. This ring, made from tendons, would link the stock and the tip of the cock to hold the bowstring and arrow (Startsev, 1983, p. 31).(join up with preceding). The type of prey determined the size, method of setting, and the type of arrowhead of the crossbow. There were two types of crossbows (sengmi) with an arrow having a bidentate arrowhead for fur-bearing mammals (sable, Siberian weasel, fox) and middle-sized (pou) with a lanceolate arrowhead for musk deer, wild goat and other animals. The crossbows had a similar design (Startsev, 1983, p. 32).

The advent of firearms brought about some new methods of hunting. Formerly, it was only possible to hunt the Manchurian wapiti or moose when the snow was deep, or on the spring ice crust or at river crossings, whereas today they are harvested in all seasons.

In autumn, the Udege hunted large ungulates by stalking. The animal was often chased by dogs, which delayed it and made it possible for the hunter to come within shooting distance. In summer, the Manchurian wapiti was stalked in salt marshes. Normally, at such sites hunters would construct a labaz (dosyuga), a small platform on a tall tree. The hunter would hide there waiting for his prey.

Whereas formerly the Manchurian wapiti was taken for its skin, meat, and tendons, the animals are currently harvested for their antlers. The Udege have been utilizing the wapiti in this way since the mid-19th century. The price of the antlers is 80 – 175, or more, rubles,. The antlers which were best suited for medicinal purposes were taken in late May to early June.

The harvest of fur-bearing mammals was of special importance in economic practices. Before the hunt, the Udege would weave nets, make arrows and sleds, and asked the Taiga Host for luck in the upcoming hunt.

Hunting began at night with a raccoon harvest. The hunters would fix bells on the necks of two to three dogs. An Udege would take 5 - 8 raccoons per night. After the first snowfall, raccoon hunt was discontinued and hunters moved over to the mountains for the sable.

Extensive sable harvest started in the 1870s-1880s when fur merchants appeared in the territory. Depending on the weather, snow conditions and available traps the sable is harvested in different ways. Using the most ancient method, the hunter would drive in a sable under a stump to catch it with a small net sleeve (nyuke adili), up to one meter long. The hunter would set the sleeve and wait for the the sable to get out of the burrow and into the trap. Occasionally, the sable was forced out from under the stump with a fire made at the other burrow exit. If the sable got into a hollow, the hunter would cut the tree down. The sable would not escape because it was afraid of noise. After he cut down the tree, the hunter would stop up the hollow. «After that the hunter would chop out a small hole in the upper part of the tree to cover it with a net. The sable either gets out of the hollow on its own or is driven out with fire. In either case, the animal gets into the sleeve», wrote V.K. Arsenyev (1947, p. 180).

If the sable vanished into stone fields, the hunter would give up and set out in search of another sable’s tracks. Another method was the crossbow hunt. Finding a track repeatedly used by a sable, the Udege would set a crossbow on that track.

The Udege used three types of deadfall sets: kafalu, nani, dui. The kafalu was set in a tree hollow situated several dozens of centimeters above the ground. The nani was set on the ground near the sable of Siberian weasel track. The dui was set on the deadwood on which the sable crossed the river.

All types of snares (lat, langi) were used in the snow-free period. The prey was immediately skinned. A sable was skinned when it was still warm. If the sable is frozen in the trap, its head was wrapped up in a rag and it was warmed up. Otherwise, the Sable Master Nyuko Azani would not send sables to the hunter, the Udege believed.

The skin of the sable was put on the frame (kanagu), fur facing inside. The frame comprised two twigs connected at the base, whose tips were fixed with a belt. They were often adorned with carving, and the base was bear-, sable- or fox-shaped. The pelt would not be stretched. Due to that the dark axis of the pelt became more pronounced and looked better. After drying up the pelt was kneaded until it became soft. It was kept in this condition until it was sold.

Game birds – hazel grouse, black grouse, waterfowl, mallard, garganey, etc. – were harvested all year round.

In the early 19th century, money trade replaced exchange trade. To obtain greater profit, merchants demanded more furs from the hunters. The latter depended on the buyers economically and had to gradually expand the hunt (Sukhomitrov, 1976, p. 25). They hunted fur-bearing mammals both in autumn and in spring.

Merciless hunting and frequent forest fires in the taiga brought about a sharp reduction in commercially important animals, particularly, the sable. While at the end of the 19th century an experienced hunter took 97 sables, in 1904, not more than 14; and in 1909, about 9 sables.

The dramatic decline of fur-bearing animals led to an enactment of the law of 1912 banning sable hunting for three years. V.K. Arsenyev did not believe this was an effective solution. «The law-maker had good intentions, but he achieved the opposite results. The fact is that for natives mammal hunting and trapping is as essential sustenance as is fishing. Deprived of sable harvest, they suffer as acute need as farmers banned from farming do, and, hence, a ban alone would not stop sable hunting» (Arsenyev 1947, p. 179). After the ban on sable hunting, the harvest actually doubled. And, that, in its turn, brought about a dramatic decline of numbers of the sable and other fur-bearing mammals.