The Dolgans live on the Taymyr Peninsula in the central Siberian Arctic. They number about 7,000 and nowadays, they are mainly to be found living in settlements along the Dudypta, Kheta and Khatanga Rivers as well as the shores of Khatanga Bay. The Dolgans have the youngest Arctic culture, which only was recognised in the 19th Century. Scientists believe that the Dolgan evolved from a mixture of three other northern Siberian cultures, the Yakut, Evenk and Nenets. Their territory consists largely of open tundra and has a particularly harsh climate. The Khatanga area, for example, has an average January temperature of minus 33.8° Celsius with frequent winter storms. Just to the south of their territory in Taymyr lies the port of Dudinka and the industrial town of Norilsk whose pollutants are found right across the Arctic.
The Dolgan language belongs to the Turkik group, part of the Altaic Language Family. For many years Dolgan was considered to be a dialect of Yakut, but now it has been accepted, at least by some academics, that it is a distinct language in its own right. Most Dolgan also speak Russian which they learn at school.
Their traditional economy is based on a combination of reindeer breeding, hunting wild reindeer, as well as other game, trapping and fishing. The reindeer herders follow the common system of moving north in the spring and south in the autumn following traditional migration routes. These are changed each year, so that the group returns to the original route every fourth year, depending on the condition of the pastures. Slaughtering of domestic reindeer is normally done in November, when the reindeer are closest to the herders’ villages. Dolgan reindeer herders use baloks rather than tents. These are small huts, mounted on sled runners and insulated with reindeer skin. They have small stoves in them which burn coal that the herders bring form the villages. Most Dolgans nowadays live in settlements. Often these villages are small with only a few hundred people with wooden houses heated by coal. The facilities are usually very basic with no mains water or sewage system.
The traditional staple foods of the Dolgans are reindeer meat, geese and ducks, fish. Bread and bannock is also eaten as flour entered their diet long ago. They also collect berries and edible plants in the summer. Most of the traditional foods are eaten raw, frozen or boiled. Today, a variety of Russian foods are available in most of the shops.
Reindeer are used as the main form of winter transport by Dolgan herders. The use of modern snowmobiles has also increased in recent times, particularly used for hunting. During the summer the Dolgans use a variety of boats, some home built but more often nowadays, modern factory manufactured ones.
In former times most Dolgan held animist beliefs. At the basis of traditional Dolgan religion was the respect of nature and all the numerous spirits that could affect their hunting, their family’s health and general wellbeing. They had three types of spirits, ‘Ichchi’-invisible creatures who could inhabit any object; ‘Aiyy’ that were benevolent spirits and ‘Abaasy’ that were malicious and inhabited the underworld. Shamans (Oiun), who helped the Dolgans communicate with these spirits, existed in almost every nomadic group. They wore special costumes and used traditional shamans drums during rituals. Most Dolgan today have converted to the Russian Orthodox Christian faith, but some of the older generations continue to maintain their traditional beliefs.
During the winter months most Dolgan wear traditional hats, coats, trousers & boots made from reindeer skin, when they are out with their reindeer herd or on hunting trips. During the summer and when they are back in the villages they usually wear modern factory produced clothing, although in some villages you can sometimes see traditional clothing on small children. Bright, festive garments including multicoloured glass beads and metal buttons are worn during winter festivals and on visits to distant places.
In common with other northern native peoples in Siberia, the main social problems in Dolgan communities are alcoholism, unemployment and poverty.
Text © B & C Alexander