Sakha, a Turkic-speaking people of northeastern Siberia, Russia, practice a circle dance called ohuokhai that is fueled by improvisatory song. Although it is typically bracketed by regular introductory and closing stanzas, its improvisatory middle is a communicative forum for the lead singer to report, critique, and prophesize on issues relevant to the dancers she/he leads. In Soviet times, this middle section often contained expressions of discontent masked by the linguistic complexity of the Sakha language compared to Russian. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the improvisatory texts speak to issues of the environmental crises resulting from the Soviet period and of the increasingly obvious effects of climate change on local lands, ecosystems, and Sakhas' horse and cattle breeding subsistence economy. In this article, I discuss my personal experience with ohuokhai and how it first drew me to work with Viliui Sakha, Sakha living adjacent to the Viliui river and with whom I have collaborated since 1991. My early findings detailed the circle dance's role in Sakha culture and the power it maintained through the Soviet and post-Soviet periods. In this article, I build upon the cultural and historical background I established in my previous research to highlight how ohuokhai can also be considered a perpetuator of biocultural knowledge for the Viliui Sakha. The longitudinal arc of my work with Sakha brings new understandings to ohuokhai, its ethnobiological threads, and its crucial role in transmitting biocultural heritage over generations.
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Vol. 39 • No. 3