“Oh, Lord! Help my people to acquire Your Word!”
September 2012 Newsletter on the Dolgan project

The Dolgans are a young nation. For their national identity was recognized only during the 20th century! Their language derives from Yakut and although culturally and ethnically these two peoples of the North are distinct, for many years the Dolgans were used to calling themselves “Yakut”. Only in the 1960s did scholars decide that the Dolgan language was sufficiently different from Yakut that it could be considered a separate language and not just a dialect. Thus the Dolgans became a recognized ethnic group!

However this was not a “happy ending”, but only the beginning of a difficult struggle to survive as a unique northern people with its own history, culture and traditions. The reality is that the newly recognized Dolgan national language is on the edge of extinction. Like the majority of other peoples of the Far North the Dolgans had had reindeer herding as their traditional livelihood for centuries. But after the revolution the reindeer herders’ freedom to roam came to an end. Collectives and settlements were set up and Dolgan children were sent to boarding schools where they were taught only in Russian. This resulted in a gradual dying out of the spoken language. As for a script, this language had never had one. About 30 years ago, in the last years of the Soviet ‘empire’ a Dolgan alphabet was worked out and the first written texts in Dolgan appeared. Now the language is being taught at schools, and there is a chance for its revival. There is a great need for Dolgan texts.

“My colleague in Taimyr said that the peoples of the Far North are still preparing to say their word to the whole world”, our Dolgan translator shared. “As far as I understand her she means that the peoples of the North still preserve very high moral standards of living amid the chaos of contemporary life and we do have our own ways to transmit these traditional values to the younger generations. And now just imagine! If the peoples of the North, many of whom still cherish their heathen beliefs, receive the Christian message wholeheartedly, not only will they survive, but they will transmit this message to the new generations that are still to come to our earth!”

Furthermore, among other peoples of the North the Dolgans are specially known for their gentle ways and warm hospitality. What they lack is the message of Christ in their own language so that it could be heard and received and cherished. But there was time in the 18th century when the Dolgans were Christians, having acquired faith through missionaries of the Orthodox church. Before the revolution every big Dolgan village had a church in it. After 1917 all of them were destroyed… But never, either in post-Soviet Russia or even in those pre-revolutionary days did the Dolgans have the Bible in their mother tongue.

“A new wooden church building is now built in Hatynga which is our Dolgan region”, the translator says proudly. “And it is our Dolgan population which now comprises the majority of its parishioners”.

When asked if all the necessary terms and biblical names have been preserved in the language from pre-revolutionary times, she comments,

“Ah, when very old people are praying, they are using these special words, and they even call the apostles by the Dolgan names! But nobody among the young people knows either these words or these biblical names. Why, how could we learn them if there were no written texts?.. You know, this is our national peculiarity that the Dolgans are never praying aloud. Our elderly people are all praying silently. That is why we have just never had a chance to hear! I can draw a simple parallel. When a Russian family is gathered together to have a dinner, if they are a family of Christian believers, they are reading their dinner prayers aloud at table, while the Dolgans in the same situation are praying silently; everyone is praying deeply within himself. However once I did have an exciting experience. From the middle of the 1990s to the beginning of the 2000s I was working on the radio. And once we had a guest on our program, with whom we were discussing on the air how life is hard, and how our nation is dying out, and the language is in danger of extinction, and traditions are irretrievably lost and the reindeer herding is no more, and so on and so forth… With the inevitable conclusion, ‘Everything is getting worse and worse’. And at the very end of our talk he exclaimed in Dolgan, ‘Oh Lord, help my people to acquire Your Word!’ I was shocked. It meant that there are such words in our language, he had found them, he had taken them from somewhere, he had formulated this short prayer so naturally!..”

The book “Jesus Friend of Children” in Dolgan was first published by IBT in 1997 and it has now been revised in order to be published as a Dolgan/Russian diglot which will be a great help to children in their study of the native language.

The Dolgan translator tells the background story, “Our Orthodox priest Father Evfimiy who received the first IBT editions in Dolgan tried to spread them very widely, wherever he could. He said that at first people were very glad to have a book in their mother tongue, but later as the years passed they complained that it was too difficult for them to read. Those first editions were translated by a very old and prominent person (now deceased), who was the best specialist in Dolgan and had a really good command of the language, but for ordinary native speakers who are not scholars many words that he used in the texts appeared as lost and long forgotten. Thus we had to make a full revision, while Father Evfimiy came up with the idea to make a diglot, so that people would open the book and find half of the text in Dolgan and half of the text in Russian. Such diglots are in heavy demand in Taimyr now, and all the books and textbooks are now published as diglots”.

Very soon this autumn a missionary trip of Evangelical Christians is planned to the furthest settlements of Taimyr. Missionaries always take IBT publications with them in order to distribute them among the local population of the Far North. This time it is going to be a very complicated project. The missionaries will have to take a flight to a certain settlement, make a camp there and then divide into 3 teams and fly to the three most distant villages by helicopter. The total distance between the settlements is about 1,000 km each, which means that they should all be visited during one expedition. It is impossible to visit them one by one, because it is too expensive and too far. The majority of the population in these settlements is Dolgan, and they are waiting eagerly for the new editions in their mother-tongue!

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