‘Ceok’ – Indigenous Altai Social Structure

‘Ceok’ (clan/tribe) in Altai means ‘bone’

Ceok is the word used to mean kin, clan or family. The Altai people attribute themselves to a Ceok. When they introduce themselves they normally ask each other what clan they represent. People from different clans tend to have certain characteristics in common. Ceok names date back to the Hunnish and ancient Turkic periods and represent the most ancient phase of the origin of the ethnic group from which the current Altai people descend. There are over thirty ceok in Southern Altai alone, but the largest in number are the Maiman, Kipchak, Todosh, Tölös and Irkit clans.

Children inherit the clan of their father. A married woman retains her clan but worships the places and sacred natural objects associated with that of her husband. Belonging to one and the same ceok one would say ‘Bis Karindashtar’ which means ‘we are brothers \ sisters”.

Each ceok has a sacred mountain, lake, valley, animal, bird and tree. These are the nature guardians attributed with soul and intelligence, also referred to as ‘karindash’ – brothers. The tribes Tölös and Kobok for example worship ‘Altin Kol’, ‘Golden Lake’ now referred to as Lake Teletskoe and have legends linking their origin with this area. The Maiman for example, consider the birch tree sacred and Todosh the young larch. The special tree of one’s tribe is not planted close to the dwelling nor used for fire wood.

There is a common prohibition on the use of Juniper. At the new moon only a man may take parts for smudging making a blessing to Altai and performing ‘Kuira’. Juniper is used for cleansing one’s home, a person or cattle.

Of tribal birds and animals most common are eagle, wolf, deer, dog and horse. Hunters in particular women, refrain from referring to the animal directly, using a metaphor instead such as ‘dilki’ which translates as ‘treasure’ and refers to a horse, or ‘kok taai’ which translates as ‘grey uncle on the mother’s side’ and refers to wolf.

The word ‘bai’ meaning ‘sacred’ and ‘prohibited’ is used with reference to ceok natural objects. The observation of cult prohibitions provides a moral code, the breaking of which is considered unethical and seen as a bad omen. ‘Bai’ has come to mean ‘contained’, ‘careful’ and ‘humble’. A person who over their lifetime has observed the rules with regard to elders, their husband or wife, children, birds, animals and trees is attributed the high meaning of ‘bailanchak’. Observing ‘bai’, a person becomes ‘bai’ themselves.

These prohibitions have in the past been interpreted as a religious vestige of fear before the power of the forces nature. Only recently have much more fascinating ideas come to be perceived in the ceok system such as the fact that the observation of constraint and prohibition naturally limited the use of natural resources. The imperative is essentially ethical but the impact ecological. The ceok culture reveals the relationship between a complex social, moral system inextricably linked with issues of land use, the deeper study of which I believe could be relevant and applicable in today’s society.

Nature is now for the most part excluded from the ethical realm which we tend to limit to human relationships. In other times though, the inner world of man was one that included rather than excluded and could conceive of nature as being worthy of the same respect as one’s wife or father. When a person has truly integrated respect inside themselves, then everything they touch is respected whether it is a child, a stone or an elder. The rest comes down to the question of measure. These are the values that create abundance and balance in nature and at home.

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