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"Reindeer-herders' day", uktevun
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Today this festival is deemed the most important ritual event of the year. In southern Yakutia and the Amur region, it shares with the ikenipke ritual, as it was reinstated in the 1990s, the role of symbolically ensuring the groupís perpetuation.
It was initiated in the form of a sporting competition by the Soviets, the same as other occupational commemorations, like cosmonautsí day or sailorsí day. From the 1950s, the Evenk took it over and made it into a major ritual in their own fashion ñ seasonal and total ñ that fit their worldview and fulfilled all of the functions of the forbidden collective rituals. For the herders, it is a unique moment in the year when they get together in the village to remember their dead and rejoice in the births to come, arrange marriages or hold weddings, consult the shaman, agree on winter hunting or summer nomadization, and, when it is time for the sled race on the frozen river, to redefine clan relationships. This race gives the day its name, uktevun, ìmoment of the headlong raceî; the name refers to a forced pace that, in ordinary times, is spared the domestic reindeer; it also contains the idea of jumping, which evokes the wild reindeer. The festival is expected to have a sort of ìsymbolic effectivenessî. But it is also the occasion to sell reindeer or exchange animals for breeding, to sell the products of the hunt, to make all manner of indispensable purchases, or to carry out their administrative procedures.
Evenk say they have always celebrated this festival (but in the taiga) because it is indispensable for them, and because it is one of their customs. From time immemorial, their ancestors have visited each otherís camps, organized sled races on the frozen rivers to pit their reindeer against each other and bare-chested wrestling to pick out potential sons-in-law among the young men. The date has varied over the years and opinions diverge on the best time. Today villages hold their festival on different dates, in February and March, so that people can attend other festivals as well: it marks the start of the first spring, nelkini, and calving time. We have to celebrate the reindeer ìbecause they feed us, keep us warm and transport usî. ìEverything must be beautifully decorated to ëplayí this festivalî as it should be, which today includes, in addition to races and wrestling matches, a concert, sled jumping, lassooing and beauty contests (reindeer harnesses and clothing). Some of the competitions include the women. The winners are awarded prizes, but the most important thing is to take part.
The preparations are an ebullient period and begin well in advance, making sleds, ornaments and decorations, choosing the racing reindeer suruk (the best being the sterile females, vangaj, that are harnessed in the lead). Clothes-making is already a competitive event for the women, as they will be judged in their capacity as future brides. The children will be reminded of their kin relations. The dead are recalled, and commemorated, as are the births.
The herdsmen from the taiga pitch their tents not far from the village. They exchange visits and good wishes, gifts and news with the villagers; it is a time of joy, and expenditure, for to be stingy would be to wish others ill. The favorite event is the race, which involves several dozens of reindeer teams. The following days the visits and rounds continue, but more freely: these are devoted to seeing people, making marriage or hunting agreements, and to resolving conflicts.
Then the herders leave the village where, with the exception of the festival, for them ìthereís nothing to doî.

Author(s): A. Lavrillier
Date created: 2003-09-09 - Date modified: 2004-04-14


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The <i>uktevun</i> race

The celebrating public

The winner of the race


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