The self-designation is sel'ku, which mean 'country', 'land' and kup - 'man'. Thus the Selkups refer to themselves as country people, as the Estonians and several other Finno-Ugric tribes do. The term has been in official use since the 1930s. The former and more widespread name was the Ostyak-Samoyeds, coming from Russian. The Russians called many unexplored Siberian peoples Ostyaks. Outside the ex-U.S.S.R. the Selkups are even now referred to as Ostyak-Samoyeds. The general term Samoyeds has also been introduced via Russian. It is supposed that this derives from the Selkup word samatu ~ somatu denoting the Enets. It may also be a word of unknown, non-Russian, origin. The Russian popular interpretation (Samoyed - '/a man/ eating himself') probably has its origins in folk etymology and/or contemptuous attitude.
The first written record of the Samoyeds appears in Monk Nestor's A Tale of the Times Past. The Eastern Samoyeds beyond the Ural mountains are mentioned by Plano Carpini, the legate of Pope Innocent IV, in connection with his trip to 'the land of the Mongols' in 1246.
The Selkups live by the River Taz and between the middle reaches of the Ob and the Yenisey in Siberia. Administratively, they belong to the Tomsk Region (the Narym Selkup), the Krasnoyarsk District (the Baishen Selkup) and the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Area of the Tyumen Region (the Taz Selkup). In the Krasnoselkup District of the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Area they form a majority of the population.
Anthropologically, the Selkups are representatives of the Uralic race, being rather similar to the Ob-Ugrians. They are of small stature (men below 160 cm) and have a short skull. The hair and eyes are dark. Mongoloid traits are less conspicuous than in the Northern Samoyeds, the colour of the skin is fairer. The Selkups are unique among the Samoyeds as they are bearded.
The Selkup language belongs to the Samoyedic branch of the Uralic languages. It is the best-surviving language of the Southern or Sayan-Samoyedic group, where the Karagas, Koibal, Motor, Taigi, Soyot and quite recently Kamas languages have become extinct. The Selkup language is divided into 3 dialects: a) the Northern or Taz Dialect (the Rivers Taz, Turukhan, Yeloghuy and Yenisey), b) the Central or Tym Dialect (the Rivers Tym, Narym, Vakh and Vasyugan), c) the Southern or Ket Dialect (the Rivers Ket and Ob). The dialects in their turn branch into local vernaculars. The dialectal differences are mainly phonetical. The best-preserved are the Northern and Central dialects.
It is believed that the common language of the Samoyedic ancestors began to branch in the 1st millennium BC. Inhabiting mainly the areas west of the Urals, the Samoyeds began to move east, northeast and southeast. According to another opinion the ancestors of the Samoyeds already inhabited the area between the Urals and the Yenisey river in the distant past.
In the 13th century, at the latest, the Selkups and other Southern Samoyeds came under Turkic-Tatar rule and were subject to taxation. The Russian conquest of Siberia began in the late 16th century. When the Krasnoyarsk fortress was erected in 1628, it meant the end of the Tatar overlordship and the subjugation of the Selkups and other Southern Samoyeds to the Russian rule. Until the 17th century the majority of the Selkups had remained on the banks of the Central Ob. Now they began a retreat into the Taz, Turukhan and Yeloghuy basins. Still, they were unable to free themselves from the Russian tax-collectors. In the uprisings against the Russian rule the Samoyeds joined the Ugric peoples, but were powerless against the firearms. In general they adopted a strategy of withdrawal, moving aside and away, until exhausted. There was no exhaustion among the pursuers. As elsewhere in Siberia, the Southern Samoyeds had a well-known legend concerning the coming of the white man, which was predicted by the appearance of a birch tree. Suicide was often preferred to a life in slavery. The people dug a cave, then cut through the supporting props and were buried alive.
The Turks brought the Islamic faith to Western Siberia. Orthodox Christianization of the Selkups began in the 18th century. More attention, however, was paid to their formal russification than Christianization. The Selkups were given Russian names. Still they were not too much influenced by either of the religions -- shamanism persisted until very recently. K. Donner has also found in Selkup folklore traces of a prose epic relating the fight of their ancestor It with a man-eating monster called Pьnegeze and with Christ. It was defeated but he promised to return in order to free his people from foreign subjugation.
The Selkups have traditionally been hunters and fishermen, but have nonetheless led a more stationary life than the Northern Samoyeds. In summer they lived in conical tents, in winter in log cabins. Squirrels, sables, wolverines and other fur animals were important game. Reindeer were mainly used mainly as draught animals. Since the 19th century, when the Russians appeared as permanent settlers in the national territories of the Southern Samoyeds and took to hunting their domesticated (!) reindeer, reindeer-breeding has grown more difficult for the Samoyeds.
The Russians introduced a lot of improvements in everyday life and culture. But, at the same time, the Selkups were also exploited by the Russians who used alcohol, fraud and force. In Soviet period the economic dependence of the Selkups was aggravated because of the planned economy and the collectivization. In addition there was ideological pressure and political surveillance. In 1931 mobile stations, the so-called red tents, were introduced for Northern minority nations which were designed for the campaign of fighting illiteracy and the dissemination of political propaganda. In the 1930s the Selkup way of life was badly shattered: they were forced to settle, shamanism was ousted by militant atheism, their children were assembled in boarding schools (which meant their alienation from traditional environment and occupations), local life was governed by strangers from far away, etc.
In the postwar period the survival of the Selkups as a national entity has come under a threat. They have adopted a settled way of life, prefer consumer goods (clothes, furniture, tools, household appliances bought in the shops), both the Russian language and the Russian-language mass culture are widespread. The assimilation processes would have been even quicker but for anthropological distinctions of the Selkup people. The destruction of the traditional way of life has resulted in the decreasing adaptibility of the Selkups. They are not able to adjust to new living conditions and employment requirements, which has resulted in increased unemployment and large-scale alcohol abuse. They Selkups are also racially discriminated against.
Writing. The sacred texts published in the 1870s in the Selkup language by the missionaries are the oldest records in the Samoyed languages. However, the result was not a written Selkup language. The spelling book compiled by N. Grigorovsky in 1897 was also a solitary venture. The written language was created in Latin script on the basis of Taz dialect in the course of the literacy campaign in 1931. Selkup was the second written language of the Samoyed languages. Textbooks (a spelling book, a reader, etc.) were compiled and translated. In 1940 Selkup began to be written in Cyrillic script. In 1986 a new Cyrillic Selkup alphabet (40 letters) was created by N. Tereshchenko on the basis of the 1930 alphabet. The first-hand data of how the written language is used is not available. In any case, the impetus has come from the outside.