Lifestyle and Subsistence

Traditional subsistence activities of the Dolgan, as of the Evenki, were reindeer breeding and wild reindeer hunting and, in some districts, fishing. Seasonal movements were of two basic types. In the district of Noril'sk Lake and on the basin of River Popigay, some Dolgan did not enter the tundra, remaining in forested river valleys in the winter, and moving to less forested areas in summer. Most other groups of Dolgan lived in winter nomad camps on the forest-tundra border, from the River Pyasina until River Popigay. Following winter on forest-tundra, in spring they moved north on to the tundra for summer.

In winter, the Noril'sk and Popigay Dolgan families lived isolated from each other, often in single family camps. Other Dolgans moving through the northern part of the forest made a number of camps on the winter road from Noril'sk to Popigay and stayed in groups of 5-10 families. As reindeer required changes of pasture, winter camps were moved several times.

With the arrival of spring, Dolgans formed nomadic groups consisting of several families, tied by economic interests. With such cooperation, the number of herdsman required to look after the domesticated reindeer was reduced. In spring and summer, in the mosquito season, Dolgans took turns to tend their reindeer the whole day. In autumn, each summer nomadic group split up again into families for the winter fur trapping and hunting season in the forest.

Dolgan reindeer breeding derived from Tungus traditions, with techniques adopted from reindeer breeders of the Samodian group. Thus, Dolgans used reindeer with saddles and pack-loads in summer and harnessed reindeer to sledges in winter. Sledge types were basically similar to those used by Nenets and Nganasans, but they also used low sledges of Yakut type. The harnesses were distinguished from the Nenets type, the forward deer being controlled from the right bridle, whereas the Nenets, Enets, and Nganasans controlled the forward deer from the left bridle. The Dolgans use dogs for herding, as do the Nenets and Nganasans. The Dolgan way of riding horses is also of Tungus style.

Dolgans hunted Arctic fox, wild reindeer, bear, geese, ducks, and partridge using bows traded from the Kets, and later guns. An important custom was the autumn collective hunt, when wild reindeer were herded into rivers where they would be killed by spears or guns. In autumn, at the time of mating of wild reindeer, deer were attracted with the help of specially trained domesticated reindeer as a decoy. In winter, they hunted wild reindeer with guns and bows, often following the deer on foot or by sledge for hours. Other forms of winter hunting with guns were connected masking: the hunters crept up to the herd under cover of a shield on the sledge. In winter, hunters dressed in white sokyi with an apron of white dog fur, which allowed them to approach the deer through snow without noise; in summer, their gray clothes blended with the color of rocky tundra. In summer and autumn, until the first snow, they hunted wild reindeer with the help of hunting dogs. Dolgans living in the forest-tundra used wide skis of the Tungus type.

In spring when the tundra grasses appeared, the Dolgans hunted for migrating ducks, geese, and partridges. The geese and ducks were shot by gun, and partridges were hunted with nets and snares. Traditional autumn hunting for molting geese (who having shed their feathers cannot fly) was by herding them into nets. Ducks were hunted by stretching nets below the lake surface. Nowadays, geese, ducks, and partridges are hunted by individuals and their meat is dried to feed Dolgan families in the spring and autumn. Arctic foxes and wolves were trapped mainly for commercial needs, and the furs were sold to Russian traders.

The Khatanga River basin and tundra lakes are rich in fish (particularly whitefish and nelma or white salmon). Fishnets from 6 up to 30 m long were made of horsehair brought from Yakutia. Water transport was by boats made from wood and bark.

The major food of Dolgans was meat and fish. They boiled meat and fish, and ate fish both raw and frozen. Duck and geese, hunted in the spring, were cooked or dried for future use. They made soup from the meat of partridges, prepared with wheat and groats. They also ate some roots, which they dug out with a reindeer horn or a special wooden spade.

Dolgan dwellings were very varied. In the village of the Khatanga valley, Dolgans lived in houses of Russian type; in tundra and forest-tundra, hunters and reindeer herders lived in chum tents of Evenki type, covered with rovduga (reindeer hide) in summer and reindeer fur in winter, or in a gloom, a pyramidical wooden construction for stationary winter use.

With the coming of the Russians, balagans (the summer pyramidal dwelling on a pole) were replaced by sledge tents (baloks), a house built on the sledge. The skeleton of wooden poles is covered with many layers of fabric, from reindeer skin to canvas and plastic. Two glass windows, an iron furnace, and a table were inside, and the whole sledge was transported from one camp to another by five to seven reindeer. Sledge tents were adopted in the 19th century from traveling Russian merchants, who used them on the tundra.

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