Sakha families gather in Lynnwood to celebrate ancient summer festival

The first Yhyakh celebration was held at the amphitheater in Lynndale Park.

Several Lynnwood families from the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia) in Russia gathered at Lynndale Park Sunday to celebrate Yhyakh, an ancient festival heralding the arrival of summer and a new year. Participant Dr. Zoya Ivanova said that the celebration – which includes traditional music, dance, rituals and communal feasting – also means “sprinkling food, faith and joy.” 

Attendees started Yhyakh with a blessing as each person walked on a trail passing a bowl of burning sage, followed by a gathering at the park’s small amphitheater where they performed the algys, an oral tradition of poetry, prayer and blessings. Prayer is led by an algyschy, or shaman.

Several people performed their traditional dances and songs, which ended with the Ohuokhai (Sakha: оhуохай). It’s a slow, circular dance where dancers join hands, form several concentric circles and step in rhythm – always clockwise – in the direction of the sun.

“We worship the goddess of fertility from the Neolithic times,” Ivanova said. “Also we worship the sun and horse…belonging to the above world. We believe there are three worlds: above, middle and lower. We recognize that they are interconnected.” 

Ivanova said that the Sakha people celebrate Yhyaka because they endure a long winter in eastern Siberia that can be as cold as -50C for three months out of nine months of winter. “So when summer arrives, everybody is happy…that they are still alive, that we can continue life, step on the green grass,” she said. “In the [Osuokhai], we create councils and prayers for the above forces to help us to get more cattle, more horses and more children…and next winter, it will be more kind for us.”

Dr. Zoya Ivanova (in green dress) with her husband Richard Kendell to her left.
L-R: Gulnara, Aleksei and Olga Zabolotskaia perform the beginning of the algys, an oral tradition of poetry, prayer and blessing.

The three-tier worldview is based on the olonkho, a series of epic narratives of the Sakha people. They comprise long, poetic tales that recount the heroic deeds, mythology and history of the Sakha. Spatial symbolism in traditional Sakha dances is linked to the Aal Luk Mas (the World Tree), which – according to legend – extends through these three levels.

Mountlake Terrace Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Commission Vice-Chair Kerem Onat helped the Sakha families organize the first Yhyakh event in Lynnwood. He met Ivanova in 2009 through a mutual friend who was from Yakutsk. “When more Sakha people started arriving due to the war in Ukraine and forced service in Russia, Zoya became my bridge to their community,” Onat said. “A lot of the Sakha people fled so that they don’t get sent to Ukraine and are asylum seekers. I got involved right away to help them adjust to their new life in America.”

L-R: Anatolii Zabolotskii, Kerem Onat, Dr. Zoya Ivanova

Because of his Turkish roots, Onat said that the Sakha people and Turks are subgroups of the same nation: the Turks. “We are all ‘Turks,’ but due to geographical separation, our language and culture have evolved differently,” Onat said. “Interestingly, the Sakha have preserved many ancient Turkic traditions that we Turkish people have lost over time. Learning their language and culture has been fascinating for me because it provides insight into some of our own practices and traditions. 

“Being far from our ancestral homeland, the Altai Mountains, and having mixed with Europeans and Middle Easterners, we’ve lost some of the original reasons behind our customs,” Onat continued.

Sakha women perform a dance at the beginning of the celebration.
A group of Sakha men performs a song during the Yhyakh celebration.
Sakha women perform during Yhyakh .

Recently, Onat and several Sakhas formed the Sakha American Cultural Association (SACA), which was incorporated in Washington State on March 22, 2024. 

Onat said the SACA emblem contains symbols deeply rooted in the culture of the Sakha people:

White horse: Symbol of purity, strength and nobility. In Sakha culture, the horse plays a central role, reflecting the spiritual and life values of the people.

Choroon: A ceremonial cup of the Sakha people, used in rituals and everyday life, symbolizing hospitality and respect for traditions.

Serge: A traditional support for a yurt dwelling of the Sakha people, associated with the cult of the horse. The horses of the hosts and guests were tied to it, also symbolizing the World Tree, which reflects the importance of the family hearth and space for family gatherings.

Sun rays: Symbol of life, energy and renewal.

“This symbolism reinforces the association’s identity and mission while supporting the Sakha cultural heritage in the United States,” Onat said. “I’m trying to help them preserve their culture.”

The horse – tied to a serge – is revered in Sakha culture. A miniature Aal Luk Mas (World Tree) is on the right.
Aykhalina Antonova plays a khomus, a type of lamellophone native to the Sakha culture.
A Sakha girl sings a song.

The Sakha people had made a temporary footprint in the U.S. in 1820 at Fort Ross in Jenner, California. According to the 1820 census, five Sakha men lived in the fort with 260 people, working for the Russian-American Company, a fur-trading business. This fort became a melting pot of different cultures, including Russians, Native Alaskans and local Native American tribes, such as the Kashaya Pomo. The Sakha were part of the diverse workforce that supported the fort operations in areas, such as hunting, trapping, farming and construction. By 1860, there were at least 20 Sakhas living at Fort Ross before the Russian-American Company ended its North American operations in the early 1880s.

Nearly 140 years later, many Sakha people moved to the U.S. to find a new place to call home, particularly in Western Washington. Many of them who attended the Yhyakh in Lynnwood Sunday had worked in various professions, ranging from university professors to carpenters to designers. There is no data yet on how many Skaha people have arrived.

The Sakha people with some of their extended families and friends in Lynnwood. This may be the first Yhyakh celebration in North America.

Onat said that many of the Sakha are doing gig work to survive while taking English-language classes so they can interview for jobs and be part of society. He added that this may be the first Yhyakh celebration in the U.S. or even in North America.

“Sakha people want to be acknowledged,” Onat said. “That’s one reason why we created the nonprofit and registered in Washington. These people lived under Russian oppression for so long that they want to live their culture, speak their language freely without worrying about persecution and also want to be accepted. They want to be a part of the society.”

— Story, photos and video by Nick Ng

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