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Conversations on
The Okinsky Tuvan National Rayon
and Ethnic Identity

In 2000 we were privy to email conversations on the creation of a Tuvan National Rayon in the Buryat Republic; we have posted the discussion here to foster further thought on an interesting topic.  Here is the email trail, in order.

Nov 29 21:35:00 2000 +0800
To: "kerryy"
From: "Julie Stewart"
Subject: Okinsky Tuvan National Rayon

Dear Friends of Tuva

You may or you may not have heard the news that the region formerly called Okinsky Rayon, the westernmost part of the Buryat Autonomous Republic located in the Sayan Mountains directly adjacent to Tuva, has been re-designated the Okinsky Tuvan National Region because it is a Tuvan-majority region. This implies radical changes for an extremely remote and impoverished region.

I am writing on behalf of school administrators from the Okinsky Rayon who must very quickly obtain books from Kyzyl for teaching of the Tuvan language to the children of this region because they have not taught Tuvan in the schools up to this time. Now that Okinsky Rayon is officially recognized as being a Tuvan region it is now required that Tuvan be taught to children in the schools from the first grade onward. The government of this region does not have the money needed in order to have these books available in time for the beginning of the next school year when the teaching of the Tuvan language is to begin.

Would the Friends of Tuva be interested in helping to establish the connections needed in order to make this happen and possibly be able to help the Oka people in some monetary way so that the revival of Tuvan language teaching in this region would be able to happen in a timely manner? Your reply would be much appreciated.

best regards

Sarangerel Odigon


From: Masahiko Todoriki
To: Julie Stewart
Cc: Ralph Leighton ; Kerry Yackoboski
Sent: Thursday, December 07, 2000 2:21 PM
Subject: Okinsky Tuvan

Dear Julie Stewart

I'm a Friends of Tuva, TODORIKI Masahiko, have been migrating to Siberia every year, in this ten years. "Okinsky Tuvan" sounds me Tofa people. If so, I suspect they speak Tofa-dyr, Tufa language, that received as a dialect of Tyvan. As far as I guess, the message said only Russian have been taught in school there. I have a xerox copied Tofa text, and I will try to get the copies from them.

Basically it should be necessary, the fee for make such books and for transport, when I carry those there. I am not quite sure who Sarangerel Odigon, and I want to know what can I do for them. I'm still doubt bit this is just a kind of assimilation, and I do not want bad influence cause of this for the people. So please let me know more detail, before I apply this for some foundation. Of course if there is some suggestion, please let me know.

Thank you
and Truly yours


Subject: Re: Okinsky Tuvan
Date: Fri, 8 Dec 2000 17:31:43 +0800
From: Julie Stewart
To: Masahiko Todoriki
CC: Ralph Leighton, "Yackoboski, Kerry"

Dear Miss Todoriki

The people in Okinsky Rayon are self-identified as Soyot and speak a language very close to the Tuvan spoken in the Tuvan Republic. My friend can go to Kyzyl and be perfectly understood. The Tofa people are located on the opposite side of the Eastern Sayan Mountain chain across the border in Irkutsk Oblast. As far as I know there are no Tofa or Tofalar people in the Akha region at this time. At this time the Okinsky Rayon is about 60% Soyot, 40% Buryat and 0% Russian. The primary spoken language among all is Buryat and schools are bilingual Buryat-Russian. The Soyot language is mostly spoken by older people while the young people's primary language is Buryat.

The governor of the Okinsky Rayon is Soyot himself, if you are interested in learning more about the people of this region you can write to him:

Russian Federation
Buryat Republic
Okinsky Tuvan National Rayon
Orlik Village
Head Administrator Mongolov, Valery Radnayevich

There is supposed to be a Tuvan Cultural Heritage Festival next summer in Orlik, if you are interested I can pass on information as I get it. I will be there myself to film the event.

If you wonder about the name Sarangerel, that is my professional name as a shaman. Not only am I fond of the Sayan Mountains region but my mother's family is from there--I have relatives in Orlik and in several other places in the Okinsky and neighboring Tunkinsky region. I am a practicing shaman, writer, and throat singer. It is my ongoing work to raise consciousness about the Eastern Sayans region and I and my students and followers are working on some projects to help the terribly impoverished rural schools of that region.

Thank you for your response and interest. As you know the Tuvan/Tyva/Tofa/Soyot people are very widely scattered in the Altai-Sayan region and face many challenges of cultural and language survival. In the Akha region at least ethnic identity is strong but the language has suffered greatly, that is why the government there wants to quickly adopt a trilingual education and restore what has been lost. If you have any further questions please write to me or to Mr. Mongolov, I am sure that he would be most happy to make contact with your organization.

best regards,



Subject: Re: fw:Okinsky Tuvan National Rayon
Sent: 12/8/20 10:23 PM
Received: 12/9/00 12:12 PM
From: Brian Donahoe
To: Ralph Leighton
CC: Masahiko Todoriki

Hey Ralph, and Hello Riki!

The people in Okinsky are not Tofa. Tofalaria is in Irkutsk Oblast, and Okinsky is in Buryatia. Of course, those are modern geo-political constructions, and don't necessarily conform to any sort of ethnic distribution, so of course it's difficult to determine who's Tofa, who's Soyot, and who's Tozhu. And then how do we separate Tozhu people out from Tyvan people? Yet, clearly the Russian government considers the Tozhu-Tyvans as a separate people, as they've been declared one of the "Small Numbered Peoples of the North," but Tyvans in general haven't.

As far as Riki's metaphysical questions about ethnic identity are concerned, I think such questions are entirely appropriate under the circimstances but unanswerable in any sort of satisfactory way. Ultimately, ethnic identification is a matter of self-identification, not to be determined by outsiders like us. For example, I'd say the Tozhu-Tyvans are closer ethnically and probably even linguistically to the Tofa than they are to the steppe Tyvans of southern Tyva, yet they consider themselves first and foremost Tyvan. In the same way, which language would be more appropriate for the people of Okinsky is a question for them, not us. As to which language would be more appropriate, well. . . .

According to the letter we've all read, this Sarangerel person seems to imply that the Okinsky region will somehow become affiliated with Tyva, a politico-administrative issue, in which case they'd have to start learning Tyvan, even if Tofa would be closer to their former language. If the question is not political but purely ethnic, then as a return to former language, I suppose the Soyot language would be most appropriate. But that has completely died out without any sort of "textbook" (there are some obscure technical grammatical and linguistic materials in archives). The Tofa language is moribund, and as far as Tofa language teaching materials go, there is only a small children's dictionary, a sketchy Russian-Tofa dictionary, and a children's reader in the Tofa language, all of which we (our project team) have. We've just returned from a trip to Tofalaria (Alygdzher, the main Tofa village), where Tofa is taught for one hour a week to kids in grades 1-3, by a teacher who barely speaks the language herself, who conducts the class in Russian, and who is basically pretty uninspired and uninspiring. The other two villages (Nerkha and Gutara), where there are reportedly more Tofa speakers, don't have schools. Their kids are sent to boarding schools in Nizhneudinsk, the nearest town. From a purely logistical standpoint, Tyvan would probably be the best choice if they want to start teaching it in schools, because of the availability of materials and a long-standing tradition of teaching it in schools.

However, as our project team has realized, once a language has been reduced to a subject in local gradeschools, and is no longer spoken in the home, it's pretty much on its way out. But this is all very stimulating and interesting, and I'd be delighted if the Okinsky community itself took the initiative to try to revive their language, whatever they determine that to be, and would love to help in whatever ways I can.