Our latest trip to Altai coincided with the ‘all Russian Census’ which began on 14th October. The 2010 census and related issues of ethnic status have been hotly discussed in Altai over recent years. The census debate has brought up the issue of identity. There has been some opposition between emphasizing ‘national’ identity (closer to regional, civic identity) or ethnic identity (more congruent with local, autonomous identity).
Minority native peoples
Obviously, more than numbers are at stake…… Russian law embodies no notion of indigenous peoples as such. However, it does recognise MINORITY native peoples who according to Russian Law are described as: ‘peoples living on lands traditionally inhabited by their ancestors, preserving a traditional way of life, economic livelihood and trade, numbering no more than 50 000 within the Russian Federation and considering themselves to be independent ethnic community’.
According to Soviet ethnographic tradition, groups such as the Altai-Kijhi, Telengits, Teleuts, Tubalars, Chelkantsi, Kumandintsi and Shortsi were considered sub-ethnic groups of the Altai people. However, in the late twentieth century and the year 2000 various groups including the Telengits, Teleuts, Tubalars, Kumandintsi and Chelkantsi applied for minority status in the hope of receiving various rights and benefits.
A political issue
As a consequence, the debate has arisen as to the political consequences of dividing up the Republic’s ‘title’ ethnic group. In particular, if the remaining Altai people should as a result, number less than 50 000 they would automatically fall into the category of a minority people which could bring the political integrity of the Altai Republic as a subject of the Russian Federation into question.
Unity more congruent with historical past
The Altai Parliament has requested that indigenous minority peoples be included in the census as ‘Altai-Telengit’, ‘Altai-Tubalar’, etc the political line being that these peoples represent a common Altai people with a single Altai literary language; a line which is claimed to be more congruent with the historical past and present.
‘Coek’ – indigenous social structure
The debate concerning the status of sub-ethnic groups seems nonetheless, to be limited to political issues rather than to genuine concerns for identity. This is no doubt because the notion of ‘coek’, from the Altai ‘bone’ is for many much more central to one’s identity than one’s sub-ethnic group per se. The soek, a patrilineal, exogamic system appears to be the single, most powerful non-governmental structure that functions powerfully among the Altai people. From the point of view of ethnographic research, it would be highly significant if the dynamics of the ‘ceok’ were in some way reflected in official statistics.