Kets, Khans and the Connection to Native North Americans

Kevin A. Thompson
February 15, 2024

Photo: The Ket people of Siberia once conquered northern China and gave the name Khan to the world. Here is a Ket, or Ostiak, woman in 1908.

The Ket People live on the banks of the Yenisei River in Siberia of the Russian Federation.  There is only a 1,000 or so them remaining, but their numbers are not shrinking. Unfortunately, their language base is. Only about 100 fluent speakers remain.

The Ket lived for centuries on the Yenisei River, fishing and hunting.  The region is taiga forest. There used to be more tribes in the region who spoke similar languages to the Kets, but they have all been absorbed into the more numerous Turkic tribes.

The Yenisei River itself seems to have served as the Kets cultural protector.  In centuries past, the Turkic-speaking reindeer herders avoided the Yenisei in the warm months, when clouds of mosquitoes could literally choke their herds of reindeer.

The Kets may have no linguistic cousins in their homeland, but they do have some in North America.  The Ket language is related to the Dene-Athabaskan languages of Alaska, the Yukon, along with Dine (Navajo)and Dene (Apache).

In this You Tube video are several images of modern Ket people, and an elder telling a traditional Ket story. One commentor claims to speak Apache and says it sounds “primeval , in a good way.” (Ket sounds that way to me, too, with my Creek-Altaic background.)

Back in 2010, the Arctic Athabaskan Council (AAC) of Whitehorse, Yukon Territory planned a meeting in Moscow with Ket leaders. The AAC offered to provide multivitamins for the Ket children still living in remote villages.

Of all the historical ironies is that the little-known Ket gave the name “Khan” to the rest of the world. The Ket and their Yeneseian relatives were perhaps the first of the conquering tribes from Siberia. Their term for ruler, Qayan, became Khan with the Mongols and Turkic tribes, as in Genghiz Khan.

Even before Genghis Khan, a Yeneseian tribe called the Jie conquered northern China in the year 319. After the fall of the Jie dynasty, the other Yenesians seem to have been absorbed by the larger Turkic and Mongolian nomad nations.

The Jie may have already been intermixed with some Turkic tribes even before they conquered China. There were Turkic tribes living near the Kets along the Yenesie River in the distant past, and the earliest-known Turkic writing system is called the Yenesie Script.  

By the1800s, the Kets were the only remaining Yenesie-speaking people in Asia.

But their word for ruler, Qayan, lives on in the name Khan, spread by Genghiz Khan and his descendants and now among the most popular surnames in South Asia.



Tim Argetsinger, “the Arctic Athabaskan Council and the Ket People of Siberia Renew Historic Contacts and Agree to Work Together,” April 20, 2010,

Dr. Edward Vayda,“Firelight on the River: Siberia’s Ket People and Ancient North America,” Western Washington University, 2019,

Jie People,” article in Wikipedia

 "Khan (title)", article in Wikipedia

Photo: Ostiak (or Ket) woman, drawn by Norman H. Hardy, from the book, Women of All Nations, 1908, from Wikimedia Commons