Sirenik Eskimos

Sirenik or Sireniki Eskimos are former speakers of a very peculiar Eskimo language in Siberia, before they underwent a language shift rendering it extinct. The peculiarities of this language among Eskimo languages amount to the extent that it is proposed by some to classify it as a standalone third branch of Eskimo languages (alongside Inuit and Yupik). The total language death of this peculiar remnant means that now the cultural identity of Sirenik Eskimos is maintained through other aspects: slight dialectical difference in the adopted Siberian Yupik language;[1] sense of place,[2] including appreciation of the antiquity of their settlement Sirenik.[1]


At the beginning of the 20th century, speakers of the Sirenik Eskimo language inhabited the settlements of Sirenik, Imtuk, and some small villages stretching to the west from Sirenik along south-eastern coasts of the Chukchi Peninsula.[1] As early as in 1895, Imtuk was already a settlement with mixed population of Sirenik Eskimos and Ungazigmit[3] (the latter belonging to Siberian Yupik).


The Eskimo population of settlement of Сиреники (Sireniki, plural of Sirenik) formerly spoke an Eskimo language with several peculiarities not only among Eskimo languages, but even compared to Aleut. For example, dual number is not known in Sirenik Eskimo, while most Eskimo–Aleut languages have dual,[4] including the neighboring Siberian Yupik relatives.[5] The peculiarities amounted to mutual unintelligibility with Siberian Yupik and Sirenik Eskimo's nearest language relatives. The language is now extinct.

Language differences (even from its neighboring Eskimo relatives) meant Sirenik Eskimos had to speak either Siberian Yupik or Chukchi, an unrelated language, to communicate with the neighboring (linguistically related) Siberian Yupik.[6] These were distinct, mutually unintelligble languages, not just dialects.[7]

The linguistic classification of Sirenik Eskimo language is still under debate.[8] It is sometimes regarded as a third branch of Eskimo (along with Inuit and Yupik),[8][9][10] but is also sometimes classified as a Yupik language.[11][12]

The last native speaker of Sirenink Eskimo, Vyie (Valentina Wye) (Russian: Выйе) died in January 1997.[1][9][13] Thus, the language is extinct, and today Sirenik Eskimos speak Siberian Yupik language and/or Russian.


Little is known about Sirineki history, besides some conjectures based on linguistical consideration. Sirenik Eskimo culture has been influenced by that of Chukchi (witnessed also by folktale motifs[14]).


Sireniki is an old settlement; it has existed at least for 2500 years. It is the only Eskimo village in Siberia that has not been relocated, even during the assimilation policy. This fact is a part of establishing recent cultural identity of Sireniki Eskimos.[1]

Diachronic linguistics[edit]

Little is known about the history of the Sirenik Eskimo language. The peculiarities of the Sirenik language may be the result of a supposed long isolation from other Eskimo groups,[15][16] and contact with speakers of unrelated languages for many centuries. Influence by Chukchi language is clear.[6]

There are evidences that this small language had at least two territorial dialects in the past, although the number of its speakers was very few even at the end of the nineteenth century.[1]

Cultural identity[edit]

The total language death of Sirenik Eskimo language means that now the cultural identity of Sirenik Eskimos is maintained through other aspects:[1]

  • Some of these factors are still of linguistic nature. Although during the language shift the language of Ungazigmit (one of Siberian Yupik languages) has been adopted, but they speak it with some variation, making a dialect.[1]
  • Younger generations do not speak any Eskimo language (neither that of Ungazigmit), they speak Russian. But the cultural identity is maintained not only through linguistic factors,[1] there is also a "sense of place" concerning their village.[2] Sirenik is the only Eskimo settlement in Siberia that has not been relocated,[1][17] thus it has preserved its 2500-year-long anciency.[1]

The cultural identity of other ethnic groups living in Sirenik settlement has been researched as well.[18]

Spiritual culture[edit]

At one time, traditional spiritual practices were prohibited by authorities, still, some knowledge about these ways survived.[19] The last shaman in Sireniki died around 1990. Since then there has been no shaman in the village.[20] Scholars observed shamanic practices among the Sireniki in the early 20th century.[21] A folklore tale text mentions a feast that could possibly include shamanic features.[22]



In their folklore, we can find the motif of the benevolent spider:

  • In many tales, the spider saves the protagonist from peril with its cobweb, capable of lifting the endangered hero up to the sky.[23] The same motif is present also in Siberian Yupik folklore.[24][25]
  • The spider is a benevolent creature also in another Sirenik Eskimo tale, where she (personified as an old woman) desires the gift of eternal life for people: old age followed by rejuvenation. In this question, the spider is standing in debate with the beetle: the latter proposes, that human life should end in death.[26]

Also some other animals can be presented in folklore as helpers of people: loon, fox, wolf, mouse, deer. As for malevolent powers, devils (/tunʁaki/) belong to such dangers, they can feature in the shape of human, animal or fantastic beings. As mentioned, beetle can be presented as malevolent for people.[14] Folklore can feature man fighting with a big worm.[27]

Space and time[edit]

Mythology of this culture can reveal some beliefs about time and space.[28]

Temporal dilation motif[edit]

There is a motif in some Paleoasiatic cultures: wandering people, after a long absence, observe that they have remained young compared to their children who remained at home. Sirenik Eskimos have such a tale as well: the protagonist, returning home after a long travel, must face with the fact that his son has become an old man (while he himself remained young).[28]

More familiar examples of folklore from the world presenting such kind of temporal dilation motifs: Urashima Taro and (without remaining young) Rip Van Winkle.

Celestial motifs[edit]

Another tale presents the sky as an upper world where people can get to and return from, and experience adventures there:[29] communicate with people living there,[30] kill a big worm,[27] observe the earth from up there through a hole,[31] descend back to the earth.[32]


Several Eskimo peoples had beliefs in usage of amulets, formulae (spells, charms).[33] Furthermore, several peoples living in more or less isolated groups (including many Eskimo ones) understand natural phenomena on a personal level: there are imagined beings resembling to human but differing as well.[34] As for Sirenik Eskimos, in one of their tales, we find the motif of the effective calling of natural phenomena for help in danger: an eagle is pursuing people on the ice, and a woman begins to talk about calling wind and frost, then at once the river freezes in, and the eagle freezes onto the ice.[35]

Some tale examples[edit]

Only their short summaries follow. Quotation marks refer not to literate citation, they just separate remarks from tale summaries.


An animal tale, taking place on a cliff near the so-called fast-ice edge,[36] narrating a conflict between a cormorant and a raven family. The raven wants to steal and eat a child of the a cormorant pair by deceit, but one of the cormorants notices the trick and turns it against the raven so that the robber eats its own child unknowing.[37]

The sample of a loon's cry is just an illustration. It is not linked to any ethnographic record, it is only of ethological relevance.

This tale shows Chukchi people influence, moreover, it may be a direct borrowing. It is an example of the "[domesticated] reindeer" genre, presenting conflicts among different groups for seizing reindeer herds. The tale features also magical animal helpers (the wolf and the diver).[38]


A Chukchi tale contains almost the same series of motifs (except for the incest and the infanticide at the beginning). The Chukchi tale begins with the girl's finding a skull incidentally. Besides that, in the Chukchi tale, the girl, just after having been abandoned by her parents, begins to accuse the skull and push it with her feet rudely. And on the visit of her returning parents, she seemingly forgives them, but kills them by deceit.[41]

A related tale has been collected also among Ungazighmiit (belonging to Siberian Yupik). Like the Sirenik variant, also the Ungazighmii one begins with the incest of cousins and the following infanticide, but it is the father of the girl who wants to kill his own daughter, and the father of the boy persuades him to kill the boy instead. At the end of the tale, the girl shows no sign of revenge, and it is the boy who initiates something that petrifies the parents (literally).[42]

Man with two wives[edit]

The author mentions the time dilation motif (mentioned above), present among several Paleoasian peoples.[28] The text of the tale itself does not contain a direct mentioning of time dilation caused by travel or absence: the protagonist's remaining young seems to be rather the result of a bless, spoken by the old man the protagonist has saved.[43]


The same or similar motifs can be found also among Ungazigmit, moreover, an Ungazigmi tale extends the story with the further life of the girl after having been pulled up to the sky by the benevolent spider.[45]


Like several other Eskimo groups, the inhabitants of Sirenik had beliefs prohibiting certain activities, that were thought to be disadvantageous in a magical way. Carrying an uncovered drum on the street was thought to trigger stormy weather. Bad weather was the supposed effect of burning seaweed on campfire, too. A great deal of the taboos (like several other beliefs) were thought to serve chances of survival and sustenance, securing abundance of game. Several of them restricted the exploitation of resources (game).[47]


Like Eskimo cultures themselves, examples of shamanism among Eskimo peoples can be diverse.

During the Stalinist and post-Stalinist periods, shamanism was prohibited by authorities. Nevertheless, some knowledge about shamanistic practices survived.[19] The last shaman in Sirenik died before 2000, and since then there has been no shaman in the village.[20] Earlier in the 20th century, shamanistic practices could be observed by scholars in Sirenik,[48] and also a folklore text mentions a feast that could include shamanistic features.[49]

Recent history and today[edit]

The Sirenik Eskimo maintain traditional subsistence skills, such as buildings large skin boats.[50][51] similar to the angyapik among Siberian Yupik, and umiak among many other Eskimo peoples.

Poverty, unemployment, and alcoholism challenge their community. Medical care and supplies to the settlement can be inadequate.[20]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Vakhtin 1998: 162
  2. ^ a b Binns n.d.: 1
  3. ^ Меновщиков 1964: 7
  4. ^ Меновщиков 1964: 38
  5. ^ Меновщиков 1964: 81
  6. ^ a b Menovshchikov 1990: 70
  7. ^ Меновщиков 1964: 6–7
  8. ^ a b Vakhtin 1998: 161
  9. ^ a b Linguist List's description about Nikolai Vakhtin's book: The Old Sirinek Language: Texts, Lexicon, Grammatical Notes. The author's untransliterated (original) name is "Н.Б. Вахтин Archived 2007-09-10 at the Wayback Machine".
  10. ^ Языки эскимосов. ICC Chukotka (in Russian). Inuit Circumpolar Council.
  11. ^ Ethnologue Report for Eskimo–Aleut
  12. ^ Kaplan 1990: 136
  13. ^ Support for Siberian Indigenous Peoples Rights (Поддержка прав коренных народов Сибири) Archived 2007-11-03 at the Wayback Machine – see the section on Eskimos Archived 2007-08-30 at the Wayback Machine
  14. ^ a b Меновщиков 1964: 132
  15. ^ Меновщиков 1962: 11
  16. ^ Меновщиков 1964: 9
  17. ^ Aynana, Lyudmila Ivanovna. ""Yupik" Society". Indigenous Peoples of the Russian North, Siberia and Far East.
  18. ^ Kerttula 2000
  19. ^ a b Berte n.d.: 2
  20. ^ a b c York 1999
  21. ^ Menovščikov 1968: 68
  22. ^ Меновщиков 1964: 161, sentence 128
  23. ^ Меновщиков 1964: 161–162, 163 (= 165)
  24. ^ Menovščikov 1968: 440–441
  25. ^ Рубцова 1954, tale 13, sentences (173)–(235)
  26. ^ Меновщиков 1964: 167
  27. ^ a b Меновщиков 1964: № 12 (39)–(43), (64)
  28. ^ a b c Меновщиков 1964: 153
  29. ^ Меновщиков 1964: 153–156 (= № 12)
  30. ^ Меновщиков 1964: № 12 (15)–(40)
  31. ^ Меновщиков 1964: № 12 (73–74)
  32. ^ Меновщиков 1964: № 12 (76)
  33. ^ Kleivan & Sonne 1985: 8–10, Plate I–III, XII, XLIIIa
  34. ^ Kleivan & Sonne 1985: 6
  35. ^ Меновщиков 1964: 144 = № 8 (207)–(209)
  36. ^ English-Russian glossary of the sea-ice terms: item "fast-ice edge" (= "кромка питая")
  37. ^ Меновщиков 1964: 109–111 (= № 1, titled /paˈɣɨ l̥ɨˈɣij/ i.e. "cormorants")
  38. ^ Меновщиков 1964: 132 (= № 6 /ˈjari/, footnote)
  39. ^ Меновщиков 1964: 129–132 (= № 6 /ˈjari/)
  40. ^ Меновщиков 1964: 144–148 (= № 9, titled /aŋɨl̥xutij/ i.e. "cousins")
  41. ^ Bogoraz 1910: 28–34
  42. ^ Рубцова 1954: 329–337 (= tale № 28)
  43. ^ Меновщиков 1964: № 10 (129) (original Sireniki: p. 150; Russian translation: p. 153)
  44. ^ Меновщиков 1964: 148–153 (= № 10, titled /juɣ nuˈkɨʁɨˈl̥ɨx/ i.e. "Man with two wives")
  45. ^ Рубцова 1954: 196
  46. ^ Меновщиков 1964: 155–159 (= № 12, titled /juɣ/ i.e. "man")
  47. ^ Menovščikov 1968: 446
  48. ^ Menovščikov 1968: 442
  49. ^ Меновщиков 1964: 161, sentence 128
  50. ^ Callaway 2003 (Slice I): 6
  51. ^ Asiatic Eskimos – Economy




  • Меновщиков, Г. А. (1962). Грамматиκа языка азиатских эскимосов. Часть первая. Москва • Ленинград: Академия Наук СССР. Институт языкознания. The transliteration of author's name, and the rendering of title in English: Menovshchikov, G. A. (1962). Grammar of the language of Asian Eskimos. Vol. I. Moscow • Leningrad: Academy of Sciences of the USSR.
  • Меновщиков, Г. А. (1964). Язык сиреникских эскимосов. Фонетика, очерк морфологии, тексты и словарь. Москва • Ленинград: Академия Наук СССР. Институт языкознания. The transliteration of author's name, and the rendering of title in English: Menovshchikov, G. A. (1964). Language of Sireniki Eskimos. Phonetics, morphology, texts and vocabulary. Moscow • Leningrad: Academy of Sciences of the USSR.
  • Рубцова, Е. С. (1954). Материалы по языку и фольклору эскимосов (чаплинский диалект). Москва • Ленинград: Академия Наук СССР. The transliteration of author's name, and the rendering of title in English: Rubcova, E. S. (1954). Materials on the Language and Folklore of the Eskimoes, Vol. I, Chaplino Dialect. Moscow • Leningrad: Academy of Sciences of the USSR.

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