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Sakha – also known as Yakuts, though Sakha is their preferred term – are one of the largest native ethnic groups in Siberia. According to the 2010 national census, there are 478,085 Sakha in the Russian Federation. Sakha have developed from a Turkic-speaking people once resident around Lake Baikal. The majority of Sakha live in the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia), formerly the Yakut ASSR, as well as Magadan, Sakhalin and Amur Oblasts.

The Sakha religion is a mixture of shamanism-animism (Tengrianism) and Eastern Orthodoxy.

Historical context

Russian penetration of the region began in the seventeenth century and a major revolt against Russian occupation occurred in 1642. In the early twentieth century a nationalist movement emerged in the area (the Yakut Union). In April 1922, the Bolshevik regime established the Yakut ASSR. In 1924, the discovery of gold in the south led to large scale Russian migration to the region. While in 1926 Sakha comprised 81.6 per cent of the republic’s population, by 1989 this had fallen to 33.4 per cent.

Russian migration produced an intensification of inter-ethnic tension and led to clashes and mass demonstrations in the 1980s. In the autumn of 1990, the Yakutia Supreme Soviet renamed the republic Sakha. Sakha has been at the forefront of the movement demanding increased control over local resources. A new Constitution for the republic has established Sakha citizenship. In April 1995 the republican authorities concluded a bilateral treaty with Moscow.

Sakha currently forms the largest subnational territorial unit in the world, and is endowed with substantial natural resources in the form of diamonds, gold and mineral ores.

Current issues

Many Sakha people still maintain subsistence livelihoods such as horse and cattle husbandry, fishing and hunting. However, Sakha have largely been excluded from the profits of the extractive companies operating on their territories and have also suffered disproportionately from ecological destruction due to resource extraction. Rich in mineral wealth and natural sources, the Sakha republic has seen a number of major confrontations between industrial developers and local communities living close to mining, logging and extractive activities. Despite the extraordinary amount of wealth this generates – around a quarter of diamonds sold worldwide come from Sakha mines – very little revenue has trickled down to the local Sakha communities.  For example, in the Sakha dominated areas of the town of Nyurba, there is no plumbing, no water filtration systems, poorly maintained roads and a host of social problems like crime and alcoholism.

Moreover, the Sakha and their smaller-numbered indigenous neighbors (Chukchi, Evenk, Even, and Yukagir) have suffered disproportionately from the disastrous ecological consequences of diamond-related development.  Diamond and gold mining operations, as well as hydroelectric engineering in the Sakha Republic, particularly in the Vilyuy region, have led to significant land degradation, water contamination, decrease in biological diversity, relocation of the local and indigenous communities, disturbance in their traditional economic activities, health problems associated with water pollution and degradation of natural environments.

Sakha and Russian are co-official languages in Sakha; the Chukchi, Dolgan, Yukagir, Even and Evenk languages have localized official status in areas where their speakers predominate. The Sakha are not considered to number among the small peoples of the north, and due to their numbers assimilatory pressures have less impact on Sakha; in fact, Sakha identity exercises an assimilatory impact on some of the republic’s smaller Turkic groups.

The proportional share of Sakha in the total population of Sakha has increased since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and according to reports, ethnic Sakha are over-represented in the republic’s political institutions – a situation that may at times have created tensions with ethnic Russian inhabitants of the region. However, there has been little active separatist sentiment in the region.