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ALTERNATE NAMES: Lygoraveltlat; Chukchee

LOCATION: Russia (Chukchi peninsula in northeastern Siberia)



RELIGION: Native form of Shamanism


Several small and ancient Paleo-Siberian groups live in Russia's extreme northeastern section of Siberia. The Chukchi are an ancient Arctic people who chiefly live on the Chukchi peninsula, or Chukotka. The Koriak also inhabit the southern end of the Chukchi peninsula and the northern reaches of the Kamchatka peninsula. The Nivkhs inhabit the island of Sakhalin and the Amur River Valley. Some scholars believe that the Nivkhs may be related to the Koriaks and Chukchi of far northeastern Siberia, and perhaps some native peoples of Alaska. This article profiles the Chukchi, the largest of the three groups.

The Chukchi who live in the interior of the Chukchi peninsula have traditionally been herdsmen and hunters of reindeer; those who live along the coasts of the Arctic Ocean, the Chukchi Sea, and the Bering Sea have customarily hunted sea mammals such as seals, whales, walruses, and sea lions. The Chukchi call themselves the Lygoravetlat (singular: Lygoravetlan ), which means "genuine people."

In 1729, Russia launched a series of vigorous military campaigns against the Chukchi. By the 1760s, the Russian government decided that the cost of getting rid of the Chukchi was too high in terms of money and troops. They ended the war on the condition that the Chukchi stop attacking Russian settlers and start paying the yearly tax that native Siberians paid in furs. In the 1930s, the Chukchi were forced into state-supervised economic collectives (group settlements where their work and pay were controlled by the government). Chukotka became a region of mines and gulags (concentration camps). The arrest of millions of Soviet citizens during the 1930s created a need for isolated areas in which to build prison camps. Later in the Soviet era, the Chukchi were the frequent subjects of ethnic stereotype jokes told by Russians.


The Chukchi presently number slightly over 15,000, all of whom live in the Russian Federation. Most Chukchi live in the Chukchi Autonomous District within the Magadan Region at the eastern tip of the country. The territory is mostly tundra (treeless arctic plains), with some taiga areas (plains with scattered trees) in the south. The climate is harsh, with winter temperatures sometimes dropping as low as 65° F (54° C). The cool summers average around 50° F (10° C ). Coastal regions, especially along the coast of the Arctic Ocean, are damp and foggy; the climate is drier the farther inland one goes.


The Chukchi language belongs to the Paleoasiatic language family. The speech of women differs slightly from that of men. The Chukchi did not have a written language until 1931. About 75 percent of the Chukchi claim to have a fluent command of their people's language.

Until well into the twentieth century, most Chukchi had only one given name. The practice of using a surname came only after the government pressured people to adopt a family name (based on the father's given name) in order make school registrations and other bureaucratic paperwork easier. Some Chukchi personal names reflect natural occurrences at the time of the person's birthfor example, Tynga-gyrgyn ("sunrise"; male) and Gyrongav ("spring"; female). Other names, such as Umqy ("polar bear"; male) Galgan-nga ("duck"; female) are the names of animals native to Chukotka. Parents sometimes give their children names that reflect a quality that they hope the child will come to possessfor instance, Omryn ("robust fellow"; male) or Gitingev ("beautiful woman"; female). Some Chukchi use Russian first names.


Chukchi folklore includes myths about the creation of the earth, moon, sun, and stars; tales about animals; anecdotes and jokes about foolish people; stories about evil spirits that are responsible for disease and other misfortunes; and stories about shamans (tribal priests) with supernatural powers. The Chukchi also have many legends about ancient battles between them and the Koriaks and Eskimos.

In one Chukchi folktale, several shamans and the storyteller are traveling on the ocean when their boat develops a leak. The boat's owner succeeds in stopping the leak with the aid of seaweed-spirits. When they approach land, he tells the seaweed-spirits to depart; the leak re-appears, and he challenges the other shamans to stop it. Their powers are weaker than his, they are unsuccessful, and they drown. The shaman who was able to master the seaweed-spirits swims to safety together with the teller of the tale.


Chukchi religious beliefs and practices are best described as a form of shamanism. Animals, plants, heavenly bodies, rivers, forests, and other natural phenomena are considered to have their own spirits.

During their rituals, Chukchi shamans fall into trances (sometimes with the aid of hallucinogenic mushrooms), communicate with the spirits and allow the spirits to speak through them, predict the future, and cast spells of various kinds. Chukchi shamanism suffered less than other religions from the Soviet government's antireligious policies. Since most shamanist activity took place in the home, there was no religious organization to attack, and so it was relatively easy for shamanism to survive underground.


The most important traditional Chukchi holidays were festivals in which sacrifices were made to the spirits the Chukchi depended upon for their survival. These sacrifices took place in autumn for the reindeer-herding Chukchi and during the summer for the coastal Chukchi.


The birth of a Chukchi child has traditionally been surrounded by many rituals and rules, although these are probably performed less often today as a result of modernization. After a woman has discovered that she is pregnant, she must go outside every day as soon as she awakens, look at the rising sun, and circle her dwelling in the direction of the sun's movement. When the time comes for her to give birth, no men can enter the sleeping chamber where she is giving birth, as it is thought that bad luck may accompany them.

Death, too, has customarily been accompanied by a series of precise ceremonies. The deceased is placed in the sleeping chamber and is watched over for a day or so in case he or she comes back to life. At this time, it is forbidden to beat drums or make other loud noises. After the watch is completed, the corpse is washed, dressed in new clothing, given gifts of tobacco and a bow and arrow or spear (for men) or sewing and skin-dressing tools (for women). The corpse is then taken into the tundra for disposal either by cremation or exposure to the elements.


Due to the harsh climate and difficulty of life in the tundra, hospitality and generosity are highly prized among the Chukchi. It is forbidden to refuse anyone, even a stranger, shelter and food. The community is expected to provide for orphans, widows, and the poor. Stinginess is considered the worst character defect a person can have.


The traditional Chukchi form of housing was the yaranga, a cone-shaped or rounded reindeer-hide tent. Inside was a box-shaped inner sleeping chamber made of fur that was large enough for several people. Some Chukchi still live in yarangas, but far more common are one-story wooden houses and prefabricated concrete apartment buildings typical of the former Soviet Union.

The coastal Chukchi traditionally used dogsleds and skin boats for transportation, while inland Chukchi rode in sleds pulled by reindeer. These traditional methods of transportation still survive, but are increasingly supplemented by air travel, motor-boats, and snowmobiles.

Medicine was unknown among the Chukchi prior to Russian contact, most likely due to the lack of medicinal plants and minerals in the Chukchi lands. Not surprisingly, disease was widespread. Smallpox and influenza, brought by infected Russians or those who had been in contact with them, were especially deadly because the Chukchi had no immunity to them. Western medicine became much more widespread during the Soviet period. Treatment was provided either free or at a very low cost; nevertheless, its availability and quality were, and still are, insufficient to meet Chukchi needs. As a result, tuberculosis and alcoholism are major problems in Chukchi communities.

One peculiar illness that is common among the Chukchi and other Arctic peoples is "Arctic hysteria." A person affected by Arctic hysteria is seized by sudden fits of rage, depression, or violence and often harms others or himself. Murder and suicide are sometimes committed in this state.


Families consisting of parents and unmarried children living in a single dwelling are now typical. Sexual activity usually begins before marriage. There is little shame attached to unwed motherhood.

Women's status in traditional Chukchi society was clearly inferior to that of men. The status of Chukchi women has improved in the twentieth century as a result of Soviet policies of sexual equality, and women now serve as administrators, teachers, and doctors.


Chukchi women traditionally wore a kerker, a knee-length coverall made from reindeer or seal hide and trimmed with fox, wolverine, wolf, or dog fur. In addition to the kerker, women also wore robe-like dresses of fawn skins beautifully decorated with beads, embroidery, and fur trimmings. Men wore loose shirts and trousers made of the same materials. Both sexes wore high boots and leather undergarments. Children's clothing consisted of a one-piece fur cover-all with a flap between the legs to allow the moss that served as a diaper to be easily changed. Present-day Chukchi wear Western clothing (cloth dresses, shirts, trousers, and underclothes) except on holidays and other special occasions.


The staple foods of the inland Chukchi diet are products of reindeer breeding: boiled venison, reindeer-blood soup, and reindeer brains and bone marrow. One traditional dish, rilkeil, is made from semi-digested moss from a slaughtered reindeer's stomach mixed with blood, fat, and pieces of boiled reindeer intestine. Coastal Chukchi cuisine is based on boiled walrus, seal, and whale meat and fat, as well as seaweed. Both groups eat frozen fish and edible leaves and roots. Traditional Chukchi cuisine is now supplemented with canned vegetables and meats, bread, and other prepared foods purchased in stores.


Most Chukchi children study in primary and secondary boarding schools, because their settlements are too small and far apart to allow a school to be built in each one. Literacy in the Russian language is now virtually universal, but because the Soviet government discouraged cultural differences, not everyone can read and write in the Chukchi language.


Since the 1950s, the most famous Chukchi writer has been Yuri Rytkheu, whose poems, novels, and short stories are written in both Chukchi and Russian. Since the growth of freedom of speech and the press in the 1980s, Rytkheu has become a visible and outspoken critic of policies harmful to Russia's Arctic and Siberian peoples.


Although both sexes share responsibility for running the household, they have different tasks. Chukchi men drive their reindeer in search of vegetation and travel to the edge of the taiga to gather firewood, fish, and hunt sea mammals. Women's work includes cleaning and repairing the yaranga (the traditional tent-like house), cooking food, sewing and repairing clothing, and preparing reindeer or walrus hides. It is considered unseemly for a man to perform work usually done by women.


Traditional Chukchi sports are reindeer-and dog-sled races, wrestling, and foot races. Competitions of these types are often performed following the reindeer sacrifices of the inland Chukchi and the sea-spirit sacrifices of the coastal Chukchi. The coastal Chukchi, like the neighboring Eskimo, enjoy tossing each other high into the air on walrus-skin blankets.


Among children, foot races and playing with dolls (girls) and lassos (boys) are the most typical pastimes. Chukchi of all ages have traditionally enjoyed listening to folk-tales, reciting tongue-twisters, singing, and dancing. Ventriloquism is a common amusement.


Sculpture and carving on bone and walrus tusk are the most highly developed forms of folk art among the Chukchi. Common traditional themes are landscapes and scenes from everyday life: hunting parties, reindeer herding, and animals native to Chukotka. In traditional Chukchi society, only men engaged in these arts, but there are now female sculptors and carvers as well. Chukchi women are also skilled at sewing and embroidering.


Pollution caused by Soviet-era mining and industry, poverty, poor diet and medical care, and widespread alcoholism have led to high rates of tuberculosis and other diseases among the modern Chukchi. In addition, pollution, weapons testing, strip mining, and overuse of industrial equipment and vehicles have greatly damaged Chukotka's environment and endangered its ability to support traditional Chukchi activities.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the Soviet government abolished many native settlements, dispersed their former inhabitants, and made Russian the language of instruction in Chukchi schools. During the 1980s, writers, teachers, and other concerned Chukchi began to criticize these policies and to participate in native-rights organizations. They have also begun to expand Chukchi-language teaching and publishing.


Bartels, Dennis A., and Alice L. Bartels. When the North was Red: Aboriginal Education in Soviet Siberia. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1995.

Forsyth, James. A History of the Peoples of Siberia: Russia's North Asian Colony, 1581-1990. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Slezkine, Yuri. Arctic Mirrors: Russia and the Small Peoples of the North. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1994.

Sverdrup, Harald U. Among the Tundra People. Trans. Molly Sverdrup. San Diego: University of California Press, 1978.

Zharnitskaia, Maria. "The Chukchee." In Encyclopedia of World Cultures. Vol. 6, Russia and Eurasia / China. Ed. Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1994.


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The Chukchi, one of Russia's "Northern Peoples," live in the northeast extreme of Russia. Most (80%) of the approximately fifteen thousand Chukchi live within the Chukchi Autonomous District; small numbers also reside in Sakha Republic (Yakutia) and Koryak Autonomous District. Historically, two general groups were recognized: inland and coastal Chukchi. Inland Chukchi herded domestic reindeer, amassing up to several thousands per (rich) family. Reindeer herding required a nomadic lifestyle: herders lived in tents and moved continuously to avoid pasture degradation. Men herded, hunted, and fished, while women gathered plant foods, sewed, cooked, and moved camp. The sociopolitical unit of the inland Chukchi was the herding camp, consisting of four to five families.

Coastal Chukchi depended on marine mammals for their subsistence, and lived in settled villages. Within villages whaling crews constituted important sociopolitical units. Coastal and inland Chukchi interacted, trading for desired products (e.g. marine mammal fat and hides, reindeer hides).

The Chukchi language is part of the Chukchi-Kamachatkan group of Paleo-Asiatic languages, and is most closely related to Koryak. Perhaps its most interesting attribute is the gender specific pronunciation: women replace the "r" sound with a "ts" sound. Animism characterized Chukchi cosmology. Both men and women served as shamans who mediated with the spirits who guided the animal world and other realms.

Nonnative peopleRussian explorers and traders, followed by American tradersbegan to penetrate Chukchi space in the seventeenth century. The Russians claimed the territory but were unable to subdue it, due to fierce Chukchi resistance. Eventually (1778), the Tsarist government signed a peace treaty with the Chukchi. It was the Soviets who brought massive change, imposing new economic forms on the Chukchi, wresting decision making from them and attempting to settle the nomadic population. Some coastal villages were annihilated and their populations moved to larger centers. Meanwhile the Chukchi homeland underwent extensive mineral exploitation, accompanied by massive immigration. In 1930, natives constituted 96 percent of the population; by 1970 the number was reduced to 13 percent. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and withdrawal of northern subsidies, many nonnatives have left. The Chukchi have established a local organization to fight for increased rights, and are attempting to revivify their traditional activities, but they are plagued by high levels of unemployment, high mortality, declining reindeer herds, antiwhaling campaigns, and a moribund local economy.

See also: nationalities policies, soviet; nationalities policies, tsarist; northern peoples


Kerttula, Anna M. (2000). Antler on the Sea: The Yup'ik and Chukchi of the Russian Far East. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Krupnik, Igor. (1993). Arctic Adaptations: Native Whalers and Reindeer Herders of Northern Eurasia. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England.

Schweitzer, Peter P., Patty A., and Gray. (2000). "The Chukchi, and Siberian Yupiit of the Russian Far East." In Endangered Peoples of the Arctic: Struggles to Survive and Thrive, ed. Milton M. Freeman. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Gail A. Fondahl

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