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Ostiaks, or Ostyaks are a tribe who inhabit the basin of the Ob in western Siberia belonging to the Finno-Ugric group and related to the Voguls. The so-called Ostyaks of the Yenisei speak an entirely different language. The best investigators (Castrén, Lerberg, A. Schrenck) consider the trans-Uralian Ostiaks and Samoyedes as identical with the Yugor of the Russian annals because of their proximity to the river Yugra. During the Russian conquest their abodes extended much farther south than now, forty-one of their fortified places having been destroyed by the Cossacks in 1501, in the region of Obdorsk alone. Remains of these towns are still to be seen at the Kunovat river, on the Ob 20 m. below Obdorsk and elsewhere. The total number of the Ostiaks may be estimated at 27,000. Those on the Irtysh are mostly settled, and have adopted the manner of life of Russians and Tatars. Those on the Ob are mostly nomads; along with 8000 Samoyedes in the districts of Berezov and Surgut , they own large herds of reindeer. The Oh Ostiaks are russified to a great extent. They live almost exclusively by fishing, buying from Russian merchants corn for bread, the use of which has become widely diffused.
The Ostiaks call themselves Khanti or As-yakh (people of the Ob), and it is supposed that their present designation is a corruption of the latter name. By language they belong (Castrén, Reiseberichte, Reisebr-iefe; AhIqvist, Ofvers. af Finska Vet.-Soc. Förh. xxi.) to the Ugrian branch of the eastern Finnish stem. All the Ostiaks speak the same language, mixed to some extent with foreign elements; but three or four leading dialects can be distinguished.
The Ostiaks are middle-sized, or of low stature, mostly meagre, and not ill made, however clumsy their appearance in winter in their thick fur-clothes. The extremities are fine, and the feet are usually small. The skull is brachycephalic, mostly of moderate size and height. The hair is dark and soft for the most part, fair and reddish individuals being rare; the eyes are dark, generally narrow; the nose is flat and broad; the mouth is large and with thick lips; the beard is scanty. The Mongolian type is more strongly pronounced in the women than in the men. On the whole, the Ostiaks are not a pure race; the purest type is found among the fishers on the Ob, the reindeer-breeders of the tundra being largely intermixed with Samoyedes. Investigators describe them as kind, gentle and honest; rioting is almost unknown among them, as also theft, this last occurring only in the vicinity of Russian settlements, and the only penalty enforced being the restitution twofold of the property stolen.
They are very skilful in the arts they practice, especially in carving wood and bone, tanning (with egg-yolk and brains), preparation of implements from birch-bark, &c. Some of their carved or decorated bark implements (like those figured in Middendorif's Sibirische Reise, iv. 2) show considerable artistic skill.
Their folklore, like that of other Finnish stems, is imbued with a feeling of natural poetry, and reflects also the sadness, or even the despair, which has been noticed among them. Christianity has made some progress among them and St Nicholas is a popular saint, but their ancient pagan observances are still retained.
For the language see Ahlquist, Über die Sprache der Nord-Ostyaken (1880) and for customs, religion, &c., the Journal de la Société Finno-Ougrienne, particularly papers by Sirelius and Karjalainen, and the papers by Munkhcsi, Gennep, Fuchs and others in the Revue orientale pour les etudes Ouralo-Altafques; Patkanov, Die Irtyscli-Ostiaken und ihre Volkspoesie (Petersburg, 1900); Patkanov, Irtirsch-Ostjaken und ihre Volkspoesie (1897-1900); Papay, Sammiung ostjizkischer Volksdichtungen (1906).
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