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ETHNONYMS: Chuvantsy, Etel


Identification. "Chuvans" is an official and popular name of the small group of creolized natives in Pacific Northeastern Siberia who are occasionally listed among the twenty-six titular Soviet Arctic and Siberian minorities (the so-called Peoples of the North). The group was formed through the mixture of a former Yukagir tribe with a similar ethnic name and a few families of other Yukagir, Even, and Koryak ethnicities, and people of Russian peasant and Cossack descent.

The sedentary creole population of the Anadyr Valley contributed its support and enthusiasm to the establishment of the new Soviet power in the early 1920s. Dozens of local Chuvans, literate and fluent in Russian, were active in the collectivization process as administrators and functionaries at the village and district level. With the wave of economic centralization that started in the 1940s to 1950s, several smaller villages were relocated and their residents were removed to the larger settlements of Markovo, Chuvanskoe, and Lamutskoe. Markovo, with its current population of 2,200, is the main center in the inland part of the Anadyr Valley, and is expected to become a small Arctic town of standard multiapartment buildings. Most of its current residents are Russian newcomers, who quickly assimilate local creole families through intermarriage. The Chuvans in Markovo are mainly engaged in commercial fishing, small-scale gardening, and community services. Smaller villages, such as Chuvanskoe, Lamutskoe, and Slautnoe, are more native in their ethnic composition of mixed Chuvans and even Chukchee and Koryak families. Resident Chuvans are mostly reindeer breeders; their surnames resemble those of the Chukchee and the Koryak, and they speak Chukchee or Koryak fluently as their second or even main language. The separation between these two subgroups of Chuvans is accelerating as the reindeer breeders become culturally closer to their native neighbors and the Markovo residents mix with Russians and become more acculturated, although they still preserve some traces of creole culture.

Location. The majority of Chuvans currently live along the Anadyr River and its tributaries, in the villages of Markovo, Tavaivaam, Chuvanskoe, and Lamutskoe of the Chukchee Autonomous Okrug, or district (recently declared the Chukchee Republic). During the 1910s several Chuvan families moved southward from the Anadyr River to the valley of the Penzhina River, where their descendants can be found in the villages of Aianka and Slautnoe of the modern Koryak Republic (the former Koryak Autonomous Okrug). This whole area lies between 63° and 65° N and 168° and 178° E. Although geographically close to the Pacific coast, the area has an inland Siberian appearance: a hilly river plain covered with larch, willow, and poplar forests in river valleys and tundra shrubs on the hillsides and watershed uplands. The area, which is generally flat and marshy, is crossed by numerous streams connected to the main river systems of the Anadyr and Penzhina. As an ecosystem, it most closely resembles the Yukon-Kuskokwim plain of central and southwestern Alaska; the area was a portion of the same continuous ecological zone before the submersion of the Beringia Holocene land bridge. The climate of the Anadyr and Penzhina valleys is markedly continental and cold, although made slightly milder by the nearby Pacific Ocean. The average yearly temperature is about 8 to 7° C; winters can be as cold as 22° C, with heavy snowfalls and periodic tempests, but summers average +13°, with occasional highs at about 21 to 27° C. Rivers are usually frozen from October to early mid-June, but the growing season proved to be long enough to support small-scale Russian gardening introduced in the twentieth century.

Demography. The approximate size of the original mid-seventeenth-century Chuvan population was 500 to 600 people. It declined with the installation of Russian administration in the Anadyr Valley and particularly during the Russian-Chukchee wars in the early mid-eighteenth century, when the Chuvans and the other Yukagirs allied themselves to the Russians and suffered heavy losses in raids by the nearby Chukchee. When the Chuvans recovered in the Anadyr Valley in the second half of the nineteenth century, this time as a mixed creole group, their number was again about 500, of whom about 350 were sedentary fishermen and hunters and the other 150 reindeer herders. This population grew slightly, reaching 700 to 750 in the 1920s, and dropped again in later decades because of flu epidemics in the early 1940s. Their present number of 1,511 (Soviet census of 1989) is the result partly of natural increase, but mostly of the recent trend among old local Russian residents of mixed origin to register as members of a "native" group to gain the benefits of subsistence quotas and affirmative-action policies.

Linguistic Affiliation. The original language of the Chuvans, which was preserved as a single short word list recorded by a Russian expedition in the 1820s, was a branch or dialect of Kolyma Yukagir. Since the mid-1800s the Chuvans along the Anadyr River have spoken only Russian, with the exception of a few elders who still remembered isolated words in their original language in the 1890s. The Russian spoken by the Anadyr Chuvans was, however, a peculiar local creole dialect, with many local words, native and Russian archaic forms, and highly distinctive phonetics. This dialect is still preserved in the area by a few local families and folklore groups. The reindeer Chuvans used to speak mostly the Chukchee or Koryak of their respective nomadic neighbors. Their younger generation is currently shifting to standard Russian, as are most native peoples of the Anadyr River Basin.

History and Cultural Relations

The Chuvans of the mid-seventeenth century lived in the remote and mountainous area north of the Anadyr Valley, as reindeer hunters and fishermen or as small-scale reindeer pastoralists. The Russians, who arrived in the 1640s and 1650s, imposed a general annual fur tax (iasak ) on each able-bodied man between 15 and 50 years of age. Tax registration and annual payments were made at an Anadyr fortress built and equipped by a Russian military garrison. With the beginning of the Chukchee expansion and the Russian-Chukchee hostilities in the 1700s, the Chuvans moved closer to the fortress and to the Anadyr Valley, losing most of their domestic reindeer and becoming gradually mixed with the remnants of other Yukagir bands already subdued by the Russians. Northern groups of Chuvans left in their home area were assimilated by the Chukchee during the eighteenth century. Both their original Chukchee names (Chavan, Chaun) and the Yukagir label "Sholilayi" (the Russian form of "Shelagi") are still found in some modern place-names (e.g., Chuan Bay, Chaun River, and Cape Shelagski on the East Siberian Sea shore). The Anadyr Chuvans were totally destroyed by the Chukchee by the 1770s. After the abandonment of the Anadyr fortress they fled to the Russian settlements along the Kolyma and Penzhina rivers. Some of their descendants returned to the Anadyr Valley between 1820 and 1850, already a creole population mixed with Russians, Tungus, and Koryaks, who spoke Russian, bore Russian family and first names, and were converted to Orthodox Christianity. They settled around the abandoned fortress and along the nearby rivers to create a mixed community with a few Russian families of peasant and Cossack origin. This creole community received new names, "Anadyrtsy" or "Markovtsy" (after their main village of Markovo), under which they were recorded in pre-1917 sources. A small group of Chuvans in the late nineteenth century turned to reindeer pastoralism and came to resemble the reindeer Chukchee and Koryak.


The settlement system of the sedentary Chuvan (and of the whole group of Anadyr River creoles) was centered around the main village of Markovo with its 300 to 350 residents, local school, Orthodox church, etc. It included five to seven other, smaller hamlets of three to five families (fifteen to forty people) each and a network of summer fishing and hunting camps (Russian: letniki ) occupied for a few months a year. When the Anadyr River and its tributaries became ice-free in mid-June, the residents of Markovo abandoned their main village for dozens of camps that were bases for salmon fishing and reindeer hunting. They returned to their village log houses in September. Reindeer Chuvans lived in nomadic camps of some two to four families, each settled in a movable skin tent, like the nomadic Chukchee and Koryak.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Indigenous Chuvans of the seventeenth century were mainly mobile caribou hunters and fishermen, but they also had small stocks of domestic reindeer for transportation. Their creole descendants of the nineteenth century had a mixed economy based on salmon fishing, caribou and other land-game hunting, dog breeding, commercial fur trapping, and trading. Net fishing for king salmon was practiced during the summer runs in July and August; the annual catch was about 2,000 to 3,000 salmon per family in the 1880-1890s. Wild reindeer (caribou) killed with rifles and/or with lances from boats at river crossings during annual spring and fall migrations was the staple game resource. The reindeer runs in the Anadyr Valley terminated by the 1900s, owing to overexploitation and natural population cycles, making local residents even more dependent on fishing. In summer Chuvans hunted for birds (mainly for moulting geese) and collected and stored plants and berries. Black bears, wolves, red and Arctic foxes, wolverines, Arctic hare, ermines, and marten were the main fur animals pursued both for subsistence and commerce. Bears and wolves were hunted with rifles, foxes and wolverines were trapped with wooden traps of Russian-Siberian style (Russian: past', kleptsa, kulyoma ), and hare and ermines were caught with snares. Reindeer Chuvans lived mostly by pasturing their herds and slaughtering domestic reindeer; the meat and skins were both for their consumption and for trade with sedentary neighbors.

Industrial Arts. Sedentary Chuvans and other Russian creoles were skilled in blacksmithing; building dog sledges; making wooden canoes and utensils, birch-bark containers, and decorated boxes; and processing reindeer skins.

Trade. Before the 1870s the Anadyr River valley was one of the major crossroads in the Russian-native trade network in northeastern Siberia, as local nomads and hunters moved there annually in search of manufactured Russian goods. Chuvans and other creoles were then very active as middlemen in the exchange of Russian tobacco, tea, flour, metal objects, and ammunition for furs, reindeer and sea-mammal skins, and walrus tusks brought by the natives. When American whalers and traders established themselves in the Bering Strait area, this pattern of local trade was disrupted and the amount of goods exchanged decreased by one-half. Creoles became mobile traders, traveling in dogsleds during the winter and exchanging products of their domestic industries, like homemade metal and wooden objects, for furs. This pattern survived until the 1920s and 1930s, when Markovo residents became active participants in the Chukotkan exchange of Arctic fox furs for American and Soviet manufactured goods, food supplies, and ammunition.

Division of Labor. Hunting, fur trapping, and fishing traditionally were the predominantly male occupations, whereas women were active in sewing, reindeer-skin processing, and housekeeping. During the summer salmon and caribou runs, family members usually worked together in close cooperation, although men were more involved in butchering reindeer carcasses and women were preoccupied with skinning and preserving fish. Plant gathering was done mainly by women.

Land Tenure. Each creole family possessed preferential rights to its traditional summer letnik, which it usually occupied for years and sometimes even decades. Although the idea of individual ownership of hunting and fishing grounds was never fully developed, cabins, rafters, and fish- and caribou-meat dryers were used as personal markers of site ownership to prevent use by unauthorized intruders.


The creole Chuvans' kinship system has never been fully described. Most of its unique features reflect the mix of the dominant Russian Orthodox tradition and the original Yukagir one. Kinship terminology, as revealed through isolated references, was generally of the Russian style, with strict terminological separation of consanguineal and affinal lines. Descent was usually patrilineal. As Chuvans received Russian-style family names (such as D'iachkov, Kobelev, Petushkov, Shitikov, Sobol'kov, etc.) through Orthodox conversion, children born of parents who were duly wed were registered under their fathers' names and tax-tribute statuses. Those born out of wedlock or in widowhood bore the names of their mothers (that is, the name of the mother's father). Major kin groups were formed by extended families, easily incorporating relatives from both sides and in-laws, because of the indigenous Yukagir tradition of matrilocal residence and of specific obligations of the son-in-law toward his wife's relatives.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Although the Russian (Orthodox) pattern of marriage and family was generally the dominant pattern and normally both men and women tended to marry in their early twenties, a significant portion of the community members avoided fixed marriage ties. Illegitimate births were rather common (10 to 30 percent), and unwed women and widows bore numerous offspring, fully approved by their extended families. Whole genealogical lines were recognized by their incidental biological progenitors or even under their matronymic names formed on the first name of the older matriarchs. No marriage restrictions are recorded, other than the standard Orthodox regulations (which were generally not respected in temporary affairs and unions). When planned, marriage was arranged through family envoys (Russian: svaty ). The wedding ceremony followed the Russian Orthodox ritual, augmented by wide collecting and exchange of gifts, ceremonial shooting, and the special role of the bride's younger brother or of any adolescent male relative as a symbolic middleman in the bride's transfer to the groom through marriage.

Domestic Unit. According to records of the late 1800s, a household or a residential family had an average of 7 to 7.5 members and consisted of two or, more often, three generations. Both Russian and traditional Yukagir residence patterns, the former patrilocal, the latter matrilocal or at least bilocal, incorporated in-laws and distant consanguineal relatives from both sides as approved coresidents.

Inheritance. Patterns of inheritance were never specifically recorded. As among other Siberian creole groups, they were mainly patrilineal, particularly regarding hunting and fishing implements, hunting rights, camp sites, etc. Because of the lack of fixed patrilineal kin groups (except for tribute payment), mixed or even matrilineal inheritance was possible in the absence of close male relatives.

Socialization. Nuclear and extended families and the village community as a whole were the main channels for socialization and group identity. Although several authors reported tensions, sexual looseness, and low manners of the Russian creole communities, family relations were generally cordial and cooperative. Traces of traditional Yukagir patterns of intrafamily avoidance survived into the late nineteenth century, particularly between in-laws (father/daughter, father/son, brother/sister, etc.), between married brothers, and between parents and their married sons.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Social organization in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was based on the bilateral kin groups. The nucleus of a local band, usually of some fifty to sixty members, consisted of patrilineally related men, although in-law male relatives with their families and some sort of "subordinates" were widely listed in early Russian reports. Modern Russian authors present the Chuvans as a "tribe" of some twelve to fourteen "clans," but the real nature of in-group social relations is still unclear, given bilateral filiation, frequent matrilocal residence, and adoption of in-laws and outsiders. In administering the collection of iasak (tribute), the Russians retained the former band division and labeled each band a separate "tribute clan" under the name of its leader. Through the decades of clashes, famines, and administrative pressure, these original tribute groups have decreased in number and lost their inner clan bonds. In several cases, fragments of these tribute clans were later rearranged by the authorities into purely "administrative clans"; the only remaining obligation common to the entire group was to pay regular fur tribute.

Political Organization. Political organization of the creole Chuvans in the second half of the nineteenth century reflected these artificial social divisions. People of patrilineal Russian descent were registered as "peasants" or "petit bourgeoisie" (meschane ) to pay respective taxes, whereas the descendants of native genealogical lines continued to pay iasak, according to former administrative-clan filiation. By the 1890s the highly mixed creole population of the Anadyr Valley was reorganized into five status "communities" (two Russian and three native, the largest one called Chuvanski), each with its elected "community elder." This affiliation was used in the 1920s to 1930s as the base for a new Soviet ethnic labeling, which again separated local mixed "Russians" from the so-called natives, including Chuvans. For a short time the latter gained the protected status of an Arctic minority group and a new official ethnic label, "Etel" (which was their standard name in Koryak and Chukchee). Both new privileges were canceled in the late 1930s, because of the creole image of the Chuvans, their lack of a native language that could be used in Soviet schools, and administrative policies. The Chuvans were then excluded from the list of twenty-six Soviet Arctic minorities and were not registered as a distinct ethnic group in the Soviet censuses of 1959, 1970, and 1979. Their minority and ethnic status was restored in the 1980s.

Social Control. Public opinion, intervention by elders, and appeals to traditional practices were the most efficient mechanisms of conflict resolution before the establishment of a permanent Russian administration in the Anadyr Valley in the late 1890s. Since that time the district supervisor and local police officer have been in charge of keeping order among the sedentary creole population, which was always obedient and loyal to the district officials.

Conflict. Since the early nineteenth century, with the end of Russian-Chukchee hostilities, no clashes have been recorded in the Anadyr Valley between the Chuvans and any of their neighbors. Local conflicts over hunting regulations, land, and inheritance claims were solved mainly through village community meetings, which followed the pattern of self-government of Russian peasant communities. In cases of confrontations over land and game rights with outsiders, the usual pattern was to submit appeals to district and province administrators, who sided mostly with the native residents.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The sedentary Chuvans of the Anadyr Valley were devout Orthodox Christians and followed religious practices similar to Siberian Russian peasants and other Russian-speaking creole groups. The village of Markovo, the largest in the area, was a center of Orthodox activity. The main practitioner, the local priest, held regular services there and kept parish duties and records.

Arts. Sedentary Chuvans, like other Russian and creole residents in general, were skilled in several crafts, such as the making of decorated skin clothing, embroidered bark and and wooden boxes, and bead jewelery. They were and are famous for their unique folklore, which preserved archaic Russian songs, tales, legends, and epic stories. A modern amateur choir and dancing group of the Markovo village, established in 1955, still performs some Russian songs of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries at local and district festivals.

Medicine. Healing practices of the sedentary Chuvans developed as an amalgamation of the Siberian Russian and several local folk traditions. Folk practitioners were mostly older women; they used Russian treatments based on different "plant teas" (water boiled with local plants, tree bark, and leaves) combined with the use of animal fats and sea-mammal oil. On recovery after serious illness, the Chuvans usually changed their names, as did the Chukchee and the Siberian Eskimos.

Death and Afterlife. The same mixture of Russian peasant and local native traits was typical of burial practices (which mainly followed the Orthodox rite) and beliefs in an afterlife. Chuvans have adopted the Chukchee and Eskimo idea of reincarnation by way of newborn babies within the same family. Ascertaining the name of the "returned" (reincarnated) person was seen as essential to the newborn's survival. Any illness or early death was therefore attributed to the wrong guess.


Bogoras, W. (1904-1909). The Chukchee. Memoirs of the American Museum of Natural History, 7. 2nd ed. 1975.

Gurvitch, I. S. (1966). Etnicheskaia istoria severo-vostoka Sibiri (Ethnic history of northeastern Siberia). Trudy Instituta Etnografii, 89. Moscow.

Jochelson, W. (1926). The Yukaghir and the Yukaghirized Tungus. Memoirs of the American Museum of Natural History, 9. 2nd ed. 1975.