The Evenkis are spread out over a huge part of the Siberian taiga. According to the 2010 census of Russia, the total number of ethnic Evenkis is about 38,000, but it’s very hard, if not impossible, to estimate the exact number of actual speakers of the Evenki language. Some people name Evenki as their mother tongue just because they feel a connection to it, not because they actually speak it. Others actually speak Evenki fluently, but for some reason they say that their first language is Russian. A young linguist named Karina from the Moscow-based Institute of Linguistics spends much of her time in field expeditions in the northern regions where the Evenkis live and says that their language is seriously endangered due to the fact that there are few places where the Evenkis live compactly. There are about 50 dialects and sub-dialects of Evenki spoken over vast territories. “Only reindeer herders, who follow their reindeer in the tundra for half a year away from such major language influences as Russian or Yakut, have a real chance to preserve their mother tongue,” she concludes from her experience in linguistic expeditions.
And this is exactly what another young linguist, Matt from the United States, attempted to do: first, to follow the reindeer; and second, to spend a winter in a hunting cabin, in order not only to start learning the language, but to experience the lifestyle. Here is what Matt shared about this: “The lives of Evenki reindeer herders are so far removed from anything that people in the U.S. or in Moscow have ever experienced. Their world has its own rules, knowledge, and hierarchy. It’s not like anything I’ve ever been a part of prior to this. I met a woman from Krasnoyarsk who now lives in California and told her about my own life in Krasnoyarsk and about traveling with the Evenki. I was explaining to her their traditional way of life and saying some still live in chums (tepees) and travel around with their reindeer herds. And she said, ‘No. There is nobody in Russia who lives in a chum.’ I responded, ‘But I myself have been with people who live in a chum.’ ‘No, this doesn’t exist anymore. Such things were a hundred years ago,’ she stubbornly insisted…”
“The Evenki people have immense amounts of knowledge and skill sets,” Matt continues. “I know what hunting is, and I thought: hunters are uneducated, simple people. I am a smart guy, I have advanced degrees, it’s going to take me only a few weeks to learn everything possible about hunting. And I got out there on invitation from a local man to spend a winter in his hunting cabin with him and one more guy, and I quickly realized that I was never going to compare with what these guys know…”
The cabin was located in the vicinity of a town called Baykit on the bank of Podkamennaya Tunguska, a large branch of the Yenisei River. The average annual temperature is ‑6.3 degrees Celsius, and the minimal temperature in winter sometimes drops down to ‑56 degrees.
“No heat, no electricity,” Matt described their living conditions. “We were cutting down trees and chopping them up, and at night somebody had to get up once every three hours and put more wood into the fire. In Evenki culture it’s considered bad luck to let the fire go out, so they are very attentive to keeping it going all night long. And they are very good at it. When I was in charge of the fire, I often had to relight it, because I didn’t start it up again soon enough.” It’s not at all surprising that Matt, being a modern man, was not an expert in survival.
One of his two companions, let us call him Gennady, happened to be an atheist, and when Matt did something wrong, he always complained, “Your prayers don’t work.” Whenever he saw Matt reading his English Bible, he would say, “You are wasting your time on your prayers again” and would make fun of him. The life of these three men with very different worldviews isolated from society in a cabin in the harsh conditions of a forest in the Siberian winter seems had the potential to become very confrontational (though Matt recalls it very fondly):
“The owner of the land on which the cabin stood, Georgy (name changed), is an Orthodox Christian and kept a beautiful Russian-language copy of the Gospels with an icon of Christ on the front. Typically, the icon stood on top of a doily and leaned against the wall, the only decorative element in an otherwise primitive cabin. When I arrived at the cabin with Georgy, the Bible had been laid on the table face down. He asked Gennady, “Why is my Lord and Savior face down? He should be standing up, where we can see Him.” Gennady murmured a response and busied himself with something else. Some days later Georgy left again for a remote job. Gennady and I were repairing skis on the table. He motioned to the Bible. “Get rid of that.” He said it so harshly I suspected something more than inconvenience. “You don't like the Bible?” I asked. “No.” “Why not?” He thought for a time and said, “I get it. I'm a sinner.” I put the Bible on the shelf, but that wasn’t enough. A few minutes later he threw down the ski, took the Bible and buried it under a stack of old newspapers in the far corner, where he wouldn't even see the spine of the offending book.”
So Matt didn't have high hopes for getting Gennady to engage with Evenki Scripture when they got back to town a few months later. They had been talking about the Evenki language and looking through books on local Evenki history, and Matt decided to try showing Gennady IBT’s Evenki Children's Bible to see his reaction.
“I brought it out, expecting a bad reaction, because the Evenki word for Bible is Biblia, which is very recognizable from Russian. And so I thought I would get the same very negative reaction, but he opened it up and started reading the story of creation. And he read the first few words in Evenki and looked at me with a big smile and said, “Wow! This is ours!” And we were reading it for an hour and a half, though tired and hungry after all our long time in the woods. We read page by page, and he was explaining the story to me, explaining what was going on. He often laughed with joy as we read together, working through passages and talking about word choices. We only quit because it was time to eat. Sitting and reading with Gennady for those few hours has been the highlight of my time in Russia. It drives home the point that there is value in Bible translation work, even for those whose language is dying, even for those who prefer Russian in nearly all domains (as Gennady seemed to), and even for those whose understanding of the material being read is imperfect.”
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