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The tribelands are not a nation, but the homeland of the different tribes of the Sarkan people – or at least of the Northern tribes, as there is a smaller tribal population further south in Ustern as well. The Sarkan steppes are officially a part of the Kingdom of Rhyrghia, but due to the immense sociocultural differences between the Sarkans and the Rhyrghians and the very limited influence of the High King, this affiliation is mostly limited to the official titles and a few symbolic tributes the tribesmen pay.
The desert and its surrounding plains are the lands of the Sarkan horsemen and they have kept their culture more or less intact during the magocracy and its aftermath. The Sarkans are a clannish people, and have little intertribal organizations. Each tribe controls a vast area and travel with their herds – mostly cattle, but also a large breed of domesticated ostriches – through their territory. This lifestyle requires vast territory since Sarika is a harsh country and the herds need large pasture areas. This need for space often leads to conflicts between different tribes about pasture grounds and water holes, but also with the Rhyrghian farmers or the expansionist settlers from the Eastern League.
This form of sustenance also limits the size of tribes, and tribes that grow too large have to split up to guarantee its survival. Sometimes, these split tribes start to feud quickly with each other, others form long-going alliances with each other, only ambivalence between these tribes is rare. In the last years, the territory of the Sarkans grew smaller through an increase of settlers in their traditional homelands, this process doesn’t work as well anymore, because the necessary space for the tribal groups is just not sufficient anymore. Therefore, young Sarkans have begun to migrate southwards and either become assimilated into the societies of Rhyrghia or Thuria, or serve as mercenary troops almost everywhere.
The only higher form of organization is the Tribal Council that meets every seven years and debates about topics of importance for all tribes. In rare cases, the Council can elect a Great Chief to unite all tribes under one leader, but in the history of the tribes, this has only happened a dozen times, and often for a very short time. The most common reason for such temporary unity is an overwhelming outside threat, something that the tribes cannot deal with individually.
Sarkan tribes are bound to travel, and their social order and culture are affected by this. Mobility and the ability to ride are seen as elementary skills, even though the majority of the tribes – the elderly, children and women – do not usually travel on horseback but in the large carriages of the tribes. The Sarkan society is based on strong gender roles – men are hunters, herdsmen and warriors if needed. Women are housekeepers and craftsmen. Despite these traditional roles, both sexes are considered to be equal, and even though tribal chiefs are almost exclusively male, the traditional council of elders who counsel the chief and act as the tribe’s jurisdiction usually consists of as many male and female representatives. In addition, exceptions in the gender roles are usually accepted if the talents or interests of a young man or woman do not cope well with the traditional roles, and while “weaving men” are often mocked, “riding women” are often highly respected and idealized wives. As the old Sarkan saying states, “a man whose wife rides well is a lucky man.”
In the south, the Sarkans are probably known best for two of their cultural features: The masks the tribesmen are wearing and the ritual cannibalism the Sarkans are infamous for.
The creation of the individual mask of a Sarkan is a part of a coming of age ritual, and the often colorfully painted masks are meant to show the “true face” of the wearer, which is usually hidden between words and the like. The Sarkans wear these masks or similar ones they produce when their life radically changes, during most important events in their lives, when this is possible. Many outsiders though have the impression that the masks are a permanent item, mostly because the Sarkans rarely deal with outsiders and therefore deem their sheer presence as something special and therefore a mask-worthy event. The Sarkan riders also have another kind of masks, which are worn during raids or warfare. These war masks are often designed to be as gruesome and ugly as possible to intimidate enemies and are often combined with a leather helmet. A well made war mask is not only a ritual item but also protects the face and the skull of its wearer.
The cannibalism is another custom which is often thought typical for the Sarkans and which is often blown out of proportion in the public image. Many tales about the Sarkans speak of an insatiable hunger for human flesh and raiders who attack villages to capture tasty peasants, but the truth is far from these horror stories.
Ritual cannibalism is a part of the Sarkan burial ceremony; when a family member or a beloved person dies, a small part of its meat is given to the family and closest friends, to make sure that the dead remains with them for all times. The more famous and more popular a particular Sarkan was, the more people want such a token of remembrance, and the more people come to the burial feast. Often, the rest of the carcass is then grinded and mixed under the food of the tribe’s horses, or scattered on the fields in the case of the few sedentary tribes. For a Sarkan, this is a high praise and form of respect (and a common boast is that too many people to taste will come to someone’s burial) and they rarely if ever take a remembrance from a foreigner. There is only one exception, in warfare. When a Sarkan warrior kills a competent and respectable foe, taking a bit of its blood on the lips is a gesture of greatest respect for the other’s skills and abilities and a gesture that isn’t taken lightly.
The Sarkan tribal lands are not a territory where many non-humans live. Beastfolk are common in the eastern parts of Sarkan Lands, but the farther west you come, the rarer they get. The largest Beastfolk populations are around the large city states of the east, especially around Sakarat.
Physically, the Sarkans are a bit smaller than the average human, but also a bit stocky. They have light skin (even though not as pale as the Rhyrghians) and often blond or red hair. One common feature among Sarkan men is the often only very weak growth of facial hair, and beards are very rare among them. Generally, Sarkans have also only very little body hair.
Because of the disparate nature of the tribal lands, and the relatively low population density, Sarkan tribes tend to resolve disputes either through raiding parties making reprisals against each other, or with ritual combat between tribal heroes. When a hero vanquishes another, for rights to grazing land, say, or use of a source of water, the tradition is that this victory will last for a generation, at which point new heroes will have arisen, and it is possible for the defeated tribe to re-assert itself by calling for another ritual combat. Of course, in the intervening time, it is common for competing tribes to raid each other's lands, steal livestock and so on. This is simply seen as business-as-usual, and is not taken to be an 'act of war' or the like, as long as the raiding occurs on a limited scale, and as long as the focus is stealing rather than slaughter. In these raids, cleverness counts for more than prowess in combat, and one-upmanship between young tribesfolk is the name of the game.