Skip to main content
Select Source:

Chukchi

Chukchi

PRONUNCIATION: chook-CHEE

ALTERNATE NAMES: Lygoraveltlat; Chukchee

LOCATION: Russia (Chukchi peninsula in northeastern Siberia)

POPULATION: 15,000

LANGUAGE: Chukchi

RELIGION: Native form of Shamanism

1 INTRODUCTION

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.

2 LOCATION

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.

3 LANGUAGE

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.

4 FOLKLORE

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.

5 RELIGION

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.

6 MAJOR HOLIDAYS

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.

7 RITES OF PASSAGE

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.

8 RELATIONSHIPS

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.

9 LIVING CONDITIONS

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.

10 FAMILY LIFE

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.

11 CLOTHING

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.

12 FOOD

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.

13 EDUCATION

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.

14 CULTURAL HERITAGE

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.

15 EMPLOYMENT

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.

16 SPORTS

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.

17 RECREATION

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.

18 CRAFTS AND HOBBIES

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.

19 SOCIAL PROBLEMS

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.

20 BIBLIOGRAPHY

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.

WEBSITES

Digaev, Albert. Chukchi. [Online] Available http://www.chukchi.com, 1998.

Embassy of Russia, Washington, D.C. Russia. [Online] Available http://www.russianembassy.org/, 1998.

Interknowledge Corp. and Russian National Tourist Office. Russia. [Online] Available http://www.interknowledge.com/russia/, 1998.

World Travel Guide. Russia. [Online] Available http://www.wtgonline.com/country/ru/gen.html, 1998.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Chukchi." Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . Encyclopedia.com. 16 Sep. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Chukchi." Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 16, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/international/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/chukchi

"Chukchi." Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . Retrieved September 16, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/international/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/chukchi

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.

Chukchi

CHUKCHI

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

bibliography

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

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Chukchi." Encyclopedia of Russian History. . Encyclopedia.com. 16 Sep. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Chukchi." Encyclopedia of Russian History. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 16, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/chukchi

"Chukchi." Encyclopedia of Russian History. . Retrieved September 16, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/chukchi

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.

Chukchi

Chukchi

ALTERNATE NAMES: Lygoraveltlat; Chukchee
LOCATION: Russia (Chukchi peninsula in northeastern Siberia)
POPULATION: 15,767 (2002)
LANGUAGE: Chukchi, Russian
RELIGION: Native form of Shamanism; Eastern Orthodox Christianity

INTRODUCTION

The Chukchi are an Arctic people who chiefly inhabit the Chukchi peninsula, or Chukotka, in the extreme northeastern section of Siberia that faces North America across the Bering Strait. Archeological and linguistic evidence suggests that their original homeland probably lay further to the south along the shores of the Sea of Okhotsk, from which they migrated to their present area about six thousand years ago. The Chukchi who live in the interior of the Chukchi peninsula have traditionally been herdsman 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." The word "Chukchi"—sometimes spelled "Chukchee"—is itself a plural form of the Russian word Chukcha (feminine: Chukchanka), which is their word for an individual Lygoravetlan. The reindeer Chukchi also call themselves Chavchu ("rich in reindeer"), whereas the coastal Chukchi call themselves the Ankalit ("sea people"). Interestingly, the reindeer breeders among the neighboring Koriak people have also been known to call themselves "Chavchu."

The Chukchi were one of the last Siberian peoples to fall under Russian rule. Russian Cossacks and adventurers in Siberia first learned of the Chukchi from the neighboring Yukagirs and Koriaks in the 1640s, but no serious attempt was made to conquer them at first. Russia was at that time occupied with subduing Siberia's other indigenous peoples, and in any event the harsh tundra lands inhabited by the Chukchi were relatively poor in sable and other valuable fur-bearing animals sought by the Russians. But Chukchi raids on nearby Cossack settlers, combined with a need to find new sources of furs after stocks in other parts of Siberia had been depleted, led Russia to launch a series of vigorous military campaigns against the Chukchi in 1729. The Chukchi put up a ferocious resistance and, when surrounded, they frequently committed mass suicide rather than surrender. By the 1760s, the Russian government decided that the cost of vanquishing the Chukchi was too high in terms of money and troops and ended the war on the condition that the Chukchi cease attacking Russian settlers and pay the yasak (the yearly tax that native Siberians paid in furs). Since Chukchi territory was quite isolated from the rest of the Russian empire and its cold, harsh climate was unattractive to outsiders, the Chukchi suffered much less than most other Siberian peoples from Russian colonization and exploitation and government interference into their way of life under the Czar-ist regime and the early Soviet period. Most Chukchi contact with the Russians came through trade, in which the Chukchi received knives, kettles, and other cooking utensils, vodka, tea, tobacco, and sugar in exchange for their fox furs and ivory. American whaling ships also participated in this kind of barter with the Chukchi in the late 1800s. This relatively independent existence came to an end in the 1930s, however, when herdsmen and sea-mammal hunters were forced into state-supervised economic collectives. Chukotka became a region of mines and gulags (concentration camps) as Stalin's campaign to rapidly develop Soviet industry increased demands for the tin and gold that lay under Chukchi soil. Furthermore, the arrest of millions of Soviet citizens during that decade's waves of mass political repression created a need for isolated areas in which to build prison camps. Later in the Soviet era, the Chukchi were culturally afflicted as the frequent subjects of ethnic stereotype jokes told by Russians.

LOCATION AND HOMELAND

The Chukchi presently number slightly over 15,000, all of whom live in the Russian Federation. About 11,900 Chukchi live in the Chukchi Autonomous Okrug (Russian for "district") within the Magadan Oblast (Russian for "region," but similar in structure to a province). Almost all of the remainder dwell in the northernmost reaches of the Koriak Autonomous District (1,500) and in the Nizhnekolymskii Raion (a Russian divisional term for "district") of the Sakha (also known as Yakut) Republic (1,300). Most of the territory inhabited by the Chukchi is tundra, with some taiga areas in the south. The climate is harsh, with winter temperatures sometimes dropping as low as –54°C (–65°F). The cool summers average around 10°C (50°F). Coastal regions, especially along the coast of the Arctic Ocean, are damp and foggy; the climate is drier the further inland one goes. In the forested regions, larch, poplar, and birch trees are the most typical form of plant life; lichens and short, scrubby alders and cedar are common in the tundra. Reindeer, foxes, squirrels, and brown bears inhabit the inland regions, while walruses, white whales, killer whales, seals, and polar bears are found in coastal areas. Cod and fresh- and salt-water salmon are the most common fish.

LANGUAGE

The Chukchi language belongs to the Paleoasiatic language family's Chukotka-Kamchatka (or Chukotic) group, which includes other languages spoken in far northeastern Siberia such as Itelmen (Kamchadal) and Koriak. The speech of women differs phonetically from that of men: for example, the sound "r" in male pronunciation becomes "ts" in female pronunciation. Thus, the word for "no" is pronounced krym by men and ktsym by women. Children of both sexes initially learn only the female forms of words from their mothers. There are several dialects and subdialects of Chukchi, but they differ only slightly from each other; the most widely spoken ones are the coastal Uelen dialect and the inland Pevek dialect. Although non-Chukchi linguists (the most famous of which was the Russian Vladimir Bogoraz, 1865-1936) used Latin and Cyrillic (Russian) letters and linguistic symbols to record Chukchi during their research, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, a few native Chukchi speakers made isolated attempts to develop a sort of hieroglyphic writing. Consequently, the Chukchi did not have a written language until 1931, when they adopted the Latin alphabet. Since 1937, Chukchi has been written in a special form of the Cyrillic alphabet that includes extra letters for Chukchi sounds that do not exist in Russian. The Chukchi written language is based on the Uelen dialect. Around 75% of the Chukchi claim to have a fluent command of their people's language, although the real percentage may actually be lower than this.

Until well into the 20th century, most Chukchi had only one given name. The practice of using a surname came only after an increased Russian presence led to pressure to adopt a family name (based on the father's given name) to facilitate school registration and other bureaucratic paperwork. Some Chukchi personal names reflect natural occurrences at the time of the person's birth—for 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 possess—for instance, Omryn ("robust fellow"; male) or Gitingev ("beautiful woman"; female). Some Chukchi use Russian first names such as Yuri (male) and Nina (female).

FOLKLORE

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 called kelet, which traditional Chukchi beliefs hold responsible for disease and other misfortunes; and stories about shamans with supernatural powers. Many Chukchi myths and stories have close equivalents among the neighboring Koriaks, Eskimos, Itelmen (Kamchadal), and even some Native American peoples. The Chukchi also possess numerous historical legends about ancient battles between the Chukchi and the Koriaks and Eskimos.

In one Chukchi folktale, several shamans (tribal priests) and the storyteller are traveling on the ocean when their boat develops a leak. One shaman succeeds in stopping the leak with the aid of seaweed-spirits. When they approach land, he tells the seaweed-spirits to depart; the leak reappears, 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.

RELIGION

Chukchi religious beliefs and practices are often described as a form of shamanism. Animals, plants, heavenly bodies, rivers, forests, and other natural phenomena are considered to have their own spirits. Fire created by friction (instead of matches or lighters) and the tools used to make it are considered sacred.

Although both men and women can become shamans (tribal priests similar to Native American "medicine men") if chosen by the spirits, male shamans are considered more powerful since they do not have to undergo the exhaustion and stress of pregnancy and childbirth. Formerly, some shamans were homosexual men and women who assumed the clothing, speech, and mannerisms of the opposite sex and took "wives" or "husbands" of their own gender. Such shamans were very rare and considered the most powerful of all. Most shamans claim to have been trained in their profession by the spirits themselves, although some learn from older shamans. During their rituals, Chukchi shamans fall into trances (sometimes with the aid of hallucinogenic mushrooms), communicate with the spirits and allow them to speak through them, predict the future, and cast spells of various kinds. Not all religious activities require the aid of a shaman. Most are performed privately within the family and take the form of drumming and chanting, which along with the magic charms and amulets carried by some Chukchi, are intended to heal the sick, punish enemies, ensure good luck in herding and hunting, and obtain wealth and love. Chukchi shamanism (and shamanism in general) may be considered to have suffered less than other religions from the Soviet government's anti-religious policies. Since most shamanist activity took place in the home, there was no stable religious hierarchy to attack, and so it was relatively easy for shamanism to survive underground.

During the late 19th century Russian state-supported missionaries succeeded in spreading Orthodox Christianity among the Chukchi, and before 1917 the Chukchi formally were Russian Orthodox. During the Soviet era anti-religious policies and initiatives were directed against both the Russian Orthodox Church and Chukchi shamans. Both of these religious traditions have reemerged since 1991, although the Chukchis have also been exposed to increased missionary activity since 1991, this time primarily from Protestant missionaries.

MAJOR HOLIDAYS

The most important traditional Chukchi holidays were festivals in which sacrifices were made to the spirits the Chukchi depended upon for success in their livelihoods. Among the reindeer Chukchi, these sacrifices took place in autumn. After shouting and firing guns to frighten away kelet (evil spirits), participants slaughtered some reindeer and used their blood to anoint themselves and their sleds. This ritual was followed by feasting (the sacrificial reindeer were eaten) and drumming. Similarly, coastal Chukchi households presented sacrifices to the sea-spirit. At some point during the summer or fall, the best hunter in the family walked down to the seashore, showed his harpoon and other weapons to the sea, and asked its spirit for success and safety in hunting during the coming year. One of the family's women gave a sacrifice of blood soup and reindeer-stomach sausage (considered a delicacy since it was not an ordinary part of the coastal Chukchi diet). Occasionally, a dog was killed and given to the sea in this ritual.

RITES OF PASSAGE

The birth of a Chukchi child has traditionally been surrounded by many rituals and rules, although the degree to which these are observed has probably lessened 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. The reindeer Chukchi anoint infants with reindeer blood several days after birth. Both the inland and coastal groups build a small tent for the afterbirth and place it in the tundra.

Death, too, has customarily been accompanied by a series of precise ceremonies. The deceased is placed naked, save for coverings over his or her face and genitals, 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. (In the latter case, the body is dismembered to allow evil spirits to leave and is left to be devoured by wild animals. It is considered a bad sign if animals refuse to eat the corpse.) The inland Chukchi sacrifice reindeer in honor of the dead or present the dead with especially fine reindeer antlers; the coastal Chukchi sacrifice dogs.

INTERPERSONAL RELATIONS

Because of 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. In general, stinginess is considered the worst character defect a person can have. For example, it is unthinkable for a Chukchi to refuse to share his tobacco if asked. There is an anecdote about a man who was killed for this very reason.

The Chukchi have great respect for their elders. During the summer, when the frozen soil melts and travel by sleds becomes impossible, elderly people who cannot walk are carried by young men on their shoulders. In earlier times, when old people asked to be killed if they became sick or feeble, this request could not be refused. (Euthanasia was usually performed by stabbing through the heart or shooting, as these methods were the quickest and hence most merciful forms of death.)

LIVING CONDITIONS

Reindeer-herding Chukchi were nomadic and lived in settlements of two or three families. The traditional Chukchi form of housing was the yaranga, a conical or rounded reindeer-hide tent with a box-shaped inner sleeping chamber made of fur that was large enough for several people. Maritime Chukchi originally lived in semi-underground houses made of earth or sod with whalebone frames, but in the 19th century they too adopted the yaranga, which they considered more comfortable. Yarangas were lit by lamps that burned reindeer or sea-mammal fat. Some Chukchi still live in yarangas, but the one-story wooden houses common in the former Soviet Union's collective farms and the prefabricated concrete apartment buildings typical in its towns are now encountered far more frequently.

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

With the exception of shamanist chants and prayers, medical care 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. Blindness and eye infections were common, particularly snow-blindness and inflammation from sweat, dirt, and exhaustion (most common among herdsmen who had to stand watch over their reindeer for long periods). Western medicine became much more widespread in the Soviet period. Treatment was provided either free of cost or for modest fees; nevertheless, its availability and quality were, and still are, insufficient to meet Chukchi needs. As a result, diseases such as tuberculosis and alcoholism are major problems in Chukchi communities.

One peculiar malady 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.

FAMILY LIFE

Traditionally, Chukchi lived in encampments of several nuclear families who were usually related to each other and who shared reindeer herds or sea-mammal-hunting equipment. Polygamy was widespread, especially among wealthy Chukchi, until it was banned by the Bolshevik government. The nuclear family with one or two children living in its own dwelling is now typical of the Chukchi. Sexual attitudes have customarily been fairly tolerant (although incest, rape, and intercourse with girls who have not reached puberty are prohibited). Sexual activity usually begins before marriage, although there is little stigma attached to unwed motherhood.

One practice formerly common among the Chukchi was the "group marriage" in which two or more male friends had the right to occasionally sleep with each other's wives. Sometimes this privilege was granted to esteemed visitors as well. The children of women whose husbands formed part of a group marriage were considered relatives and were forbidden to marry each other.

In a traditional Chukchi wedding, a reindeer was sacrificed and the couple anointed with its blood. Red ocher was substituted for reindeer blood among the maritime Chukchi. If the bride was to become part of the groom's household, she traveled to his family's home for the ceremony. On the other hand, if the groom had agreed to join his father-in-law's family, the ceremony took place at the latter's home. The marriage partner who was joining the spouse's family gave up all of his or her property to it. Weddings of this type have now been largely replaced by civil ceremonies.

CLOTHING

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 coverall 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.

FOOD

The staple foods of the inland Chukchi diet are products of reindeer breeding: boiled venison, reindeer-blood soup, and reindeer brains and marrow. One dish, rilkeil, is made from semi-digested moss from a slaughtered reindeer's stomach mixed with blood, fat, and pieces of boiled reindeer intestine. Maritime 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. The Chukchi are very fond of tea, which they have drunk since they began trading with Russians in the 18th century. Traditional Chukchi cuisine is now augmented with canned vegetables and meats, bread, and other prepared foods purchased in stores. The Chukchi formerly boiled their food in wooden, bark, or metal kettles and ate with spoons or their hands from cups, bowls, and plates made of wood, bone, and ivory. Metal and ceramic vessels and knives, forks, and spoons are used today.

EDUCATION

Prior to the Soviet period, all Chukchi were illiterate, with the exception of a handful who had learned Russian from Russian settlers or at one of the few schools run by Russian Orthodox missionaries. Education only began to take root among the Chukchi in the 1920s and 1930s, when the Soviet government launched a campaign for universal education and literacy throughout the country. In 1926, the Institute of the North (now the Pedagogical Institute of the Peoples of the North) was established in Leningrad (St. Petersburg) to train native teachers for the Chukchi and other Siberian and Arctic peoples. 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 Russian is now virtually universal, but due to the Soviet government's policy of forced assimilation, this cannot be said of literacy in Chukchi.

CULTURAL HERITAGE

In addition to their rich oral folklore tradition, the Chukchi have developed their own body of literature in the 20th century. 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. Publishing in both languages has allowed Rytkheu to make a significant contribution to the development of the modern Chukchi literary language, while at the same time making his works on themes common to all of Russia's Arctic peoples accessible to them. Since the growth of freedom of speech and the press in the former USSR in the 1980s, Rytkheu has become a visible and outspoken critic of policies harmful to Russia's Arctic and Siberian peoples.

WORK

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 in the household includes cleaning and repairing the yaranga, 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.

SPORTS

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.

ENTERTAINMENT AND RECREATION

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, besides being a staple of the shaman's repertoire, is a common amusement.

FOLK ART, CRAFTS, AND HOBBIES

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. Under the Soviet regime, Chukchi artists were "encouraged" to carve portraits of Lenin and representations of patriotic themes such as the May 9 holiday commemorating the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany. 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.

SOCIAL PROBLEMS

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. Chukchi alcoholics, like those in other parts of the Soviet Union, sometimes die from drinking industrial fluids that contain alcohol. Moreover, pollution, weapons testing, strip mining, and overuse of industrial and mining equipment and vehicles have greatly damaged Chukotka's environment and endangered its ability to support traditional Chukchi economic activities.

Although many of the early Bolsheviks advocated equal rights for the USSR's peoples and supported the preservation and development of their cultures and languages, Stalin and his successors adopted a policy of Russification intended to destroy non-Russian cultures through persecution and neglect (while, of course, denying this officially). For the Chukchi, like the other native Siberian peoples, the 1960s and 1970s were the most destructive period in this regard. The government abolished many native settlements, dispersed their former inhabitants, and made Russian the language of instruction in Chukchi schools. When the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev relaxed the USSR's policies towards censorship and the nationalities during the 1980s, writers, teachers, and other concerned Chukchi began to criticize these policies and to participate in native-rights organizations such as the Association of the Small Peoples of the North. They have also begun to expand Chukchi-language teaching and publishing.

GENDER ISSUES

Women's status in traditional Chukchi society was clearly inferior to that of men. Women could not eat until the men in the household had been served, and females received the less desirable cuts of meat. Wife-beating was also common. Nevertheless, they could own property (such as reindeer herds) and were permitted to divorce abusive husbands. The status of Chukchi women has improved markedly in the 20th century as a result of Soviet policies of sexual equality, and women now serve as administrators, teachers, and doctors.

The severe economic collapse in the Russian north strongly affected Chukchi women, who faced additional burdens in the face of chronic unemployment and economic difficulties.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Antropova, V. V., and V. G. Kuznetsova. "The Chukchi." In The Peoples of Siberia. Ed. M. G. Levin and L. Potapov. Trans. Stephen Dunn. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964.

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

Bogoras, Waldemar (sic—Vladimir Bogoraz). The Chukchee. Vol. 7 of The Jesup North Pacific Expedition. Ed. Franz Boaz. New York: AMS Press, 1975. (Reprint. Originally published: Leiden: E. J. Brill; New York: G. E. Stechert, 1904-1909 sic.)

Crossroads of Continents: Cultures of Siberia and Alaska. Ed. W. Fitzhugh and A. Crowell. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988.

Czaplicka, M. A. Aboriginal Siberia: A Study in Social Anthropology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1914.

Dunn, Michael, "Chukchi Women's Language: A Historical-Comparative Perspective." Anthropological Linguistics 42(3): 305-328.

Fondahl, Gail. "Siberia: Native Peoples and Newcomers in Collision." In Nations and Politics in the Soviet Successor States. Ed. Ian Bremmer and Ray Taras. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

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

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

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

Spravochnik lichnykh imen narodov RSFSR (Handbook of personal names of the peoples of the RSFSR). Ed. A. V. Super-anskaia and I.M. Guseva. Moscow: Russkii iazyk, 1989.

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.

Zharnitskaia, Maria and V. A. Turaev. "Chukchi." In Narody Rossii: Entsiklopediia (The Peoples of Russia: An Encyclopedia). Ed. V. A. Tishkov. Moscow: Bol'shaia Rossiiskaia Entsiklopediia, 1994.

Ziker, John P. Peoples of the Tundra: Northern Siberians in the Post-Communist Transition. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, 2002.

—revised by A. Frank

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Chukchi." Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life. . Encyclopedia.com. 16 Sep. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Chukchi." Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 16, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/chukchi

"Chukchi." Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life. . Retrieved September 16, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/chukchi

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.