Sirenik Eskimos

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For the language, see Sirenik Eskimo language.

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 Sireniki 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 Sireniki.[1]


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


The Eskimo population of settlement of Сиреники (Sireniki), as well as part of the population of the mixed villages nearby, used to speak a special variant of the Eskimo languages. It has several peculiarities not only among Eskimo languages, but even compared to Aleut. For example, dual number is not known in Sireniki Eskimo, while most Eskimo–Aleut languages have dual,[4] including even its neighboring Siberian Yupik relatives.[5] The peculiarities amounted to mutual unintelligibility, even with its nearest language relatives.


The difference of the language (even from its neighboring Eskimo relatives) meant that Sireniki Eskimos were forced to use Chukchi language (an unrelated language) as a lingua franca when speaking with neighboring, (linguistically related) Siberian Yupik.[6] Thus, contacts between Sireniki Eskimos and Siberian Yupik meant using a different language for Sireniki Eskimos: they either resorted to use of lingua franca, or used Siberian Yupik languages. This was a different language for them, not just a dialect of their own language: they were mutually unintelligible.[7]


The mere classification of Sireniki Eskimo language is not settled yet:[8] The Sireniki language is sometimes regarded as a third branch of Eskimo,[8][9][10] but sometimes is regarded rather as a group belonging to the Yupik branch.[11][12]

Language shift[edit]

In January 1997, the last native speaker of the language, a woman named Vyie (Valentina Wye) (Russian: Выйе) died.[1][9][13] Thus, the language is extinct: nowadays all Sireniki Eskimos speak a Siberian Yupik language, or Russian.


Little is known about Sirineki history, besides some conjectures based on linguistical consideration. Sireniki 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 Sireniki Eskimo language. The peculiarities of the Sireniki 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 Sireniki Eskimo language means that now the cultural identity of Sireniki 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] Sireniki 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 Sireniki settlement has been researched as well.[18]

Spiritual culture[edit]



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.[19] The same motif is present also in Siberian Yupik folklore.[20][21]
  • The spider is a benevolent creature also in another Sireniki 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.[22]

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.[23]

Space and time[edit]

Mythology of this culture can reveal some beliefs about time and space.[24]

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. Sireniki 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).[24]

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:[25] communicate with people living there,[26] kill a big worm,[23] observe the earth from up there through a hole,[27] descend back to the earth.[28]


Several Eskimo peoples had beliefs in usage of amulets, formulae (spells, charms).[29] 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.[30] As for Sireniki 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.[31]

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,[32] 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.[33]

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).[34]

A man lived together with his daughter, Yari. Yari had also a little brother. They had many reindeer, and Yari herded them. One day, strangers took all the reindeer, together with Yari. The father remained alone with the little boy, and they fell upon the parish. The boy became a hunter. One day, a wolf waited for him, the beast recommended him to find out whether they had to own ever any reindeer. the origin of their poverty from the father. The boy followed the council, but his father denied the past, claiming that they have never had any domestic animal and they have always lived from wild deer. Soon, the boy, while hunting, met a diver waiting especially for him, and the bird gave him the same council as the wolf, but the father denied the truth again. Both animals revealed the boy the truth and promised him that they help him to retrieve the reindeer herd. They had a long way. First the boy rode the running wolf, then he rode the flying diver. They found the strangers who kept their former reindeer herd, and also the sister of the boy, Yari. The diver made rain with its cry , and the wolf called the reindeer together, the boy managed to speak to Yari, and all they began to return home, together with the herd. The strangers noticed that by have been beaten in a battle. The boy and the girl returned home with the two helper animals and the herd. The family of the boy and that of the wolf established reciprocal intermarriage link. The father of the boy felt joy upon their return, but he died later. The wolf helped to herd the reindeer regularly, and the family helped the diver to hatch her eggs in safety.[35]
Two brothers live together. The older has a son, the younger has a daughter. The two cousins lie together in secret. The parents notice that and regard it such a shame that they lie in ambush and kill the boy. The girl preserves his skull. Later the parents notice that the girl and the skull can keep conversation. They abandon the girl by deceit and move to another place. The girl remains alone, but the skull asks her to throw him into fire in a special way. After this, the skull reincarnates into his former form. Moreover, they get a large reindeer herd in a magical way. The parents visit them, but the young refuse even to notice them, the girl refuses to forgive. The parents return to the place they have moved to, and commit suicide.[36]

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.[37]

A related tale has been collected also among Ungazighmiit (belonging to Siberian Yupik). Like the Sireniki 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).[38]

Man with two wives[edit]

The author mentions the time dilation motif (mentioned above), present among several Paleoasian peoples.[24] 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.[39]

A man lived with two wives. He left his home and went into the sea. He came to the land of ringed seals, he remained there for a night and slept there with two women. The other they, he left and came to the land of other marine animals, where the same story repeated. Finally, he came to a land, where he was accepted as a guest at an old man's family. The guest liberated the old man's family from their enemies. The old man spoke aloud: "From now on, the boy be young and strong and remain strong!". the man returned home finally, and indeed, he found that his own son had become an old man during his absence, moreover, the old son died at the very moment of the return of his father.[40]

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.[41]

A father insults his daughter because she refuses to marry anybody. The affronted girl leaves him. After a hard wandering of her, two men (a brother pair) catches her and keeps her as a sister. While the men hunt, a malevolent being [the beetle, as mentioned above] deceits her and eats her brain. The brothers, returning from hunt, try to save her by implanting the brain of a domesticated deer and the brain of a wild deer in place of her robbed brain. The girl heals, but soon changes into a deer. The elder brother finds an old woman living inside a hill, and gets her help to find the deer-girl: the deer has wandered far away, and joined a herd there, far, "beyond sunrise". The man, using the advice of the old woman, finds the herd, and, by cutting up the female deer, the girl steps out of the body in her former human form. They return home. Soon, the elder brother visits the hill again to present the old woman a killed deer in gratitude, meanwhile the younger brother begins to touch and grasp the girl in the absence of the elder brother. The girl, while defending herself, kills the man. [The Siberian Yupik variants of this motif emphasize that it is an unintended accident.] Of fright, the girl hides the corpse, but the elder brother discovers it incidentally and prepares a plan to kill the girl. A benevolent being [the spider, as mentioned above] reveals the plan to the girl: the man wants to call the girl to keep a ritual for the abundance of game, and during the pretended "ritual", he wants to push the girl into a pit full of carnivorous worms. Really, everything happens so, but in the critical moment, the spider saves the pushed-in girl by pulling her up with its cobweb. The older brother, having seen this revulsion, despairs and jumps into the pit himself.[42]


Like several other Eskimo groups, the inhabitants of Sireniki 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).[43]


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.[44] The last shaman in Sireniki died before 2000, and since then there has been no shaman in the village.[45] Earlier in the 20th century, shamanistic practices could be observed by scholars in Sireniki,[46] and also a folklore text mentions a feast that could include shamanistic features.[47]

Present and near past[edit]

The Sireniki face unemployment, alcoholism,and poverty. Supply to the settlement is difficult, and medical care is poor.[45]

Some traditional economic skills have been preserved in Sireniki, compared to other Siberian Eskimo settlements; for example, the skills to manufacture the large type of skin boats,[48][49] similar to the angyapik among Siberian Yupik, and umiak among many other Eskimo peoples.


  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".
  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) – see the section on Eskimos
  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. ^ Меновщиков 1964: 161–162, 163 (= 165)
  20. ^ Menovščikov 1968: 440–441
  21. ^ Рубцова 1954, tale 13, sentences (173)–(235)
  22. ^ Меновщиков 1964: 167
  23. ^ a b Меновщиков 1964: № 12 (39)–(43), (64)
  24. ^ a b c Меновщиков 1964: 153
  25. ^ Меновщиков 1964: 153–156 (= № 12)
  26. ^ Меновщиков 1964: № 12 (15)–(40)
  27. ^ Меновщиков 1964: № 12 (73–74)
  28. ^ Меновщиков 1964: № 12 (76)
  29. ^ Kleivan & Sonne 1985: 8–10, Plate I–III, XII, XLIIIa
  30. ^ Kleivan & Sonne 1985: 6
  31. ^ Меновщиков 1964: 144 = № 8 (207)–(209)
  32. ^ English-Russian glossary of the sea-ice terms: item "fast-ice edge" (= "кромка питая")
  33. ^ Меновщиков 1964: 109–111 (= № 1, titled /paˈɣɨ l̥ɨˈɣij/ i.e. "cormorants")
  34. ^ Меновщиков 1964: 132 (= № 6 /ˈjari/, footnote)
  35. ^ Меновщиков 1964: 129–132 (= № 6 /ˈjari/)
  36. ^ Меновщиков 1964: 144–148 (= № 9, titled /aŋɨl̥xutij/ i.e. "cousins")
  37. ^ Bogoraz 1910: 28–34
  38. ^ Рубцова 1954: 329–337 (= tale № 28)
  39. ^ Меновщиков 1964: № 10 (129) (original Sireniki: p. 150; Russian translation: p. 153)
  40. ^ Меновщиков 1964: 148–153 (= № 10, titled /juɣ nuˈkɨʁɨˈl̥ɨx/ i.e. "Man with two wives")
  41. ^ Рубцова 1954: 196
  42. ^ Меновщиков 1964: 155–159 (= № 12, titled /juɣ/ i.e. "man")
  43. ^ Menovščikov 1968: 446
  44. ^ Berte n.d.: 2
  45. ^ a b York 1999
  46. ^ Menovščikov 1968: 442
  47. ^ Меновщиков 1964: 161, sentence 128
  48. ^ Callaway 2003 (Slice I): 6
  49. ^ 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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