FROZEN COMMONS AND THE SAKHA PEOPLE

by Stanislav Saas Ksenofontov, PhD

Permafrost plays a central role for Sakha people as it controls water availability, yields structure to the land, and retains temperatures (Crate, 2012). Alas – flat thermokarst depressions resulted from thawing of ice-rich permafrost – presents a highly productive ecosystem and a source of forage for horse and cattle (Crate et al., 2017). Horse and cattle breeding are traditional subsistence economies for Sakha people which provide food, transportation, clothing, social and cultural well-being, identity as well as income (Maj, 2009). Moreover, alases are a living space for fishing which also presents an important traditional practice for Sakha people (Ksenofontov et al., 2017; Takakura et al., 2021). Permafrost serves as a traditional natural storage construction for Sakha people called buluus or ice cellars where traditional food such as horse meat, fish, game, berries and ice blocks for drinking water can be stored (Yoshikawa et al., 2016). Another traditional storing technique was syhyk, especially among wealthy Sakha, a hole in a wall caulked with clay where frozen products were placed (Suleymanov, 2018).

Ice can be used as a source of drinking water among the Sakha people (Fedorov, 2019). Sakha people extract ice from water bodies in late October – early November when the ice depth reaches 20-25 cm and place ice blocks in the yard during winter and store in buluus in spring or summer to break off necessary amount of ice blocks to melt down for drinking water (Suleymanov, 2021). Ice is actively used for traditional fishing. Kuiuur is a Sakha winter fishing which is based on catching the sleeping fish in February-March when the fish are still hibernated after the winter by making holes and catching hibernated fish from the very bottom with a special circular motion (Everstov, 2012; Crate, 2012). River or lake ice was used as a balaghan (house) window which allowed the use of short northern light and warmed the house (Suleymanov, 2021). Ice and snow serve as kyhyŋŋy suol (winter roads) from December to April as remote communities still depend on truck deliveries since air transportation is expensive and deliveries by waterway take place only during a short summer season (Argounova-Low, 2012). Moreover, frozen rivers (e.g. Lena) are important in the cold season to drive across from one bank to another as there is no bridge for vehicles.

Snow plays a crucial role in traditional husbandry in Sakha. Horses and reindeer live outdoors year-round and feed on fodder under the snow, thereby the snow preserves fodder for horses and reindeer (Crate, 2008; Dudeck et al., 2018). In spring reindeer run faster after the snow freezes at the temperature below zero, therefore herders prefer to migrate when it’s cold early in the morning, late in the evening or at night (Davydov, 2017). With the kys khaar (winter snowfall) in November when the ground freezes solid starts the idehe (cattle and horse slaughter). Slaughter takes place in November because it is already cold enough outside to store meat on the porch. In Sakha language several types of snow have been documented which describe certain consistency of snow (kömnökh khaar – thick, heavy snow flakes), snow quality (siŋe khaar – snow with water), time of snowing (kys khaar – autumn snow that remains to lie over winter and no longer melts), layers of snow (kömnökh – snow that covers tree branches and bushes) (Nelunov, 2019). These snow characteristics are crucial to support traditional practices and thus have a cultural meaning important for practicing hunting or reindeer husbandry (Eira et al., 2013). In many communities with a lack of water snow also serves as a technical water for washing, cleaning and so forth.

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