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ALTERNATE NAMES: Koryak; Nymylgu; Chavchyvav
LOCATION: Russia (Kamchatka, extreme northeastern Siberia)
POPULATION: 8,743 (2002)
LANGUAGES: Koriak;Russian
RELIGION: Native version of shamanism


The Koriak (also spelled Koryak) are an Arctic people of extreme northeastern Siberia who inhabit the southern end of the Chukchi peninsula, or Chukotka, and the northern reaches of the Kamchatka peninsula across the Bering Sea from Alaska and the Aleutian Islands. The origins of the Koriak are obscure, but archeological evidence suggests that around 1000 ad they inhabited the west coast of Kamchatka along the Sea of Okhotsk, from which they gradually expanded into their present homeland over a period of several centuries. The Koriak who live along the coasts of the Bering Sea and the Sea of Okhotsk have traditionally fished and hunted seals, walruses, sea lions, and whales. Koriak in the interior herd and hunt reindeer. Some Koriak on the Kamchatka peninsula have traditionally both herded and hunted reindeer and hunted sea mammals.

The Koriak officially call themselves the Nymylgu (singular: Nymylgyn), which means "village-dwellers." This name originally referred only to the seacoast-dwelling Koriak. In addition to this general name, the reindeer Koriak also call themselves Chavchyvav (singular: Chavchyv or Chavchu), which means "rich in reindeer." (The reindeer breeders among the neighboring Chukchi people have also been known to call themselves "Chavchu." The word Koriak is probably derived from the Koriak root kor-, which means "reindeer."

Russian Cossacks and adventurers first discovered the Koriak in the 1640s, but Russia was still occupied with vanquishing other native Siberian peoples, so it did not begin to conquer the Koriak until the 1690s, when armed parties of tax collectors were sent to demand furs from them. The Koriak fiercely resisted the Russians and, like the Chukchi to their north, often killed their animals, their families, and finally themselves in order to avoid capture. During the second half of the 18th century, the Russian government reduced the yasak (fur tax), and conflicts between the Koriak and the Russians came to an end.


The Koriak number around 8,700. As of 1989 approximately 6,600 lived in the Koriak Autonomous District (Russian: okrug), or Koriakia, as it is sometimes called, in Kamchatka oblast (region). The capital of the Koriak Autonomous District is Palana. An additional 1,000 Koriak live in neighboring Magadan oblast. The remainder of the Koriak population lives in the Chukchi Autonomous District, in the portion of Kamchatka oblast outside the Koriak Autonomous District, and in various cities of the former USSR. The territory inhabited by the Koriak includes many different types of landscape—barren tundra, taiga forests, high forested mountains, low-lying swampland, rocky seacoasts, and meadowland—but all of it is characterized by a harsh, cold climate. The average yearly temperature in Koriakia is approximately –5°c (23°f). During the winter, temperatures can fall as low as –59°c (–74°f), and in the summer inland temperatures rarely rise above freezing. Temperatures are lowest in the interior of the Koriak Autonomous District, but they are only slightly higher along the damp, foggy coasts of the Sea of Okhotsk and the Bering Sea. Most of the Koriak Autonomous District is covered by tundra mixed with patches of taiga forest. Lichens, moss, grasses (along the coasts), and short, scrubby larches, alders, willows, and cedar are the most common plants here. The more heavily forested areas contain larch, cedar, and birch trees, blackberry bushes, nettles, and grasses. The animal life of the tundra includes polar fox, reindeer, mountain sheep, and more rarely, polar bear. Reindeer, brown bears, crows, foxes and squirrels inhabit the forested regions, and walruses, white whales, killer whales, seals, seagulls, and polar bears are to be found along Koriakia's coastline areas. The most common types of fish are cod, herring, and fresh- and salt-water salmon. Swans, ducks, and geese migrate to the Koriak lands in the summer.


The Koriak language, along with Itelmen (Kamchadal) and Chukchi, belongs to the Chukotka-Kamchatka (or Chukotic) group of the Paleoasiatic language family. One notable feature of the Koriak language is incorporation. Incorporating languages such as Koriak, Chukchi, and certain Native American tongues have the ability to combine a series of prefixes, suffixes, word roots, and other linguistic units into a single word to express a concept that would require a whole phrase or even sentence in most other languages. For example, tymainykapkantyvatyk means "I set a large trap." There are nine dialects of Koriak, but with the exception of Kerek (now almost extinct, and considered by some linguists to be a separate but closely related language rather than a dialect), there are very few differences in grammar and vocabulary between them. Koriak was an unwritten language until 1931, when the Koriak adopted the Latin alphabet. Since 1937, the Koriak language has been written in the Cyrillic (Russian) alphabet, with the addition of several extra letters for Koriak sounds that do not exist in Russian. The modern Koriak written language is based on the Chavchyv dialect of the reindeer breeders. Some 53% of the Koriak speak Koriak as their native language, with the remainder speaking Russian as their first language; all Koriak are fluent in Russian.

In traditional society, the Koriak, like the neighboring Chukchi, had only a given name. Surnames (based on the father's given name) were adopted only in the Communist period under pressure from bureaucrats who found the lack of a surname confusing when filling out school registrations, identification cards, and other official forms. Many Koriak have two given names, an "official" Russian one, such as Konstantin (male) or Vassa (female) used for birth certificates and other documents, and an "unofficial" Koriak one used among themselves. Some common Koriak male names are Yoltygyingyn, Akket, Talvavtyn, Otap, and Pepe; female names include Leqqi, Galgangav, Gylvangavyt, and Kokok.


Although the Koriak did not have a written language until the early 1930s, there is a substantial body of Koriak oral literature. Much of it dates back to deepest antiquity, and many Koriak myths and stories have themes shared by the folklore of the Chukchi, Eskimos, Itelmen (Kamchadal), and even some Native American peoples. The characters of these tales are usually animals—bears, wolves, birds, foxes, and so on—who often change their shape and size and turn into other animals or humans. Koriak historical legends tell of ancient battles between the Koriak and their neighbors. The most widely known Koriak folk tales are about Raven (Quikinnaku), the ancestor of the Koriak who gave them reindeer and dogs, taught them how to domesticate animals, instructed them in the arts of hunting on land and sea, and used his magic powers to help them win battles. In these tales, Raven appears in both human and animal form; he often plays tricks on humans and on his family and has many entertaining adventures.

In one Koriak folk tale, Raven is searching for a suitable wife for his son Ememqut. He flies to a Koriak settlement, alights on a tall tree, and waits for the local maidens to pass by. The first girl to come along is annoyed to see him hanging around aimlessly and speaks rudely of him. The next girl to appear feels sorry for him and feeds him scraps of meat and pudding. Raven decides that the second girl would make a suitable wife for Ememqut. He returns home and tells his son what has happened. Ememqut himself flies to the settlement, repeats the experiment, and has the same experience. He then marries the second girl.


The traditional religion of the Koriak is a form of shamanism. The Koriak believe that animals, plants, heavenly bodies, rivers, forests, and other natural phenomena have their own spirits, which must be respected and honored. Fire made in the traditional way—that is, by using friction instead of matches or lighters—is considered sacred. In this method of fire-making, a wooden drill is placed into a groove filled with coal dust on a wooden fireboard, which is usually carved into a human shape. The drill is looped into the string of a small bow, which is rapidly turned to produce sparks, which ignite the coal dust. The fireboard is among the most revered possessions of a traditional Koriak family, and it is frequently anointed with the blood and fat of slaughtered animals.

Shamans (tribal priests similar to Native American "medicine men") are men and women who are especially adept at communicating with the spirits. One does not choose to become a shaman; rather, a shaman is chosen by spirits who appear to the shaman-to-be in the guise of an animal—most commonly a wolf, bear, sea-gull, raven, or eagle—and command him or her to become their servant upon pain of death. The rituals of Koriak shamans take the form of chanting prayers and incantations and beating on a drum called a yayai. The yayai, like the drums of many Siberian and Native American peoples, is large and flat, held by a handle built into its reverse side, and has small iron rattles attached to it that produce a jingling sound similar to that of a tambourine.

During their rituals, Koriak shamans communicate with the spirits and allow them to "speak" through them (Koriak shamans are accomplished ventriloquists). The drums used by shamans are considered to be sacred, and the handling of them is surrounded by many rules and taboos. For example, it is forbidden to take the drum outdoors without its cover, for this will cause a blizzard; the drum belonging to one family may not be used for rituals in another family's dwelling. Koriak shamans, like those of the neighboring Chukchi, sometimes use hallucinogenic mushrooms indigenous to the region to help them fall into the trances in which they perform their rituals.

In addition to the activities of professional shamans, Koriak religion involves ceremonies performed privately within the family. Each family possesses its own drum and various amulets and charms and knows some of the most important chants, which its members use to banish evil spirits and to obtain success in hunting, herding, health, and love. Koriak sha-mans were severely persecuted by the Communist government; during Stalin's anti-religious campaigns in the 1930s, many of them were imprisoned and executed. Nevertheless, Koriak shamanism, like Soviet shamanism in general, may have suffered less than other religions. Since shamanism lacked the easily identified places of worship and the stable religious infrastructure of Christianity and other organized religions, it was harder for the government to attack it, and so it survived underground with relative ease.


The most important traditional festival of the coastal Koriak was the Yanyaenacixtitgin (whale festival), celebrated at the end of the fall hunting season and intended to honor the spirit of the whale so that more whales would return the following year. The dead whale was dragged onto the beach and greeted with sacred fires (made by friction instead of with matches) from the community's households. Branches and sedge-grass were placed into the dead whale's mouth as a symbolic meal. The members of the community, dressed in their dancing costumes—elaborately embroidered coats, trousers, and boots—sang and danced around the whale in its honor, and occasionally sacrificed a dog to it. The whale was then butchered, and its head was taken inside one of the community's homes and hung on a pole so its spirit could join the festivities. There it was "fed" with a pudding-like substance made of whale and seal oil, berries, and roots. After several days, the whale's spirit was urged to return to the sea, tell the other whales of the hospitality it had received, and subsequently come back to the village bringing other whales with it. Seals were also thus honored in places where seals were more commonly hunted.

Reindeer-breeding Koriak celebrated the return of the herd from its summer pasture when the first snows fell in autumn. The returning reindeer were greeted with sacred fires. While drummers beat on their yayais, several fawns were sacrificed, and their blood was smeared onto the sacred fireboards as an offering to Gicholan ("The One on High"), the deity believed to have created reindeer from fire. The inland Koriak also honored Gicholan by holding reindeer races and sacrificing the winning animal to him.

The Soviet government banned these sacrifice festivals because of their religious aspects, but at least one traditional holiday, Khololo, managed to survive for reasons that are not clear. Khololo consists of several weeks of festivities marked by singing, feasting, drumming, and dancing. All the spirits the Koriak depend on for food, shelter, health, and success in childbirth, economic activities, and so on are thanked for their help in the past year and asked to continue this help in the next year. Since the fall of Communism, interest in traditional Koriak holidays and festivals has grown markedly as the Koriak find themselves free to celebrate their heritage without fear of punishment.


The Koriak consider each infant born to them to be the reincarnation of a deceased ancestor, and the child is named after this ancestor. In order to properly name a child, it is necessary to discover which ancestor's soul has entered its body. This is done by reciting the names of ancestors as soon as the child is born. When the infant smiles or ceases crying, it is believed that the right name has been spoken, and the child is given this name. Alternatively, a stone tied to a stick is held up by the father and allowed to swing back and forth while ancestors' names are recited; the stone begins to move more rapidly when the correct ancestor's name is mentioned.

In traditional Koriak society, when a person died he or she was dressed in special clothing worn only by the dead and made of the finest materials. Koriak funeral clothing consisted of coats, trousers, and boots sewn by the women of the family from white fawn skin and richly decorated with strips of black and white dog fur and reindeer and seal skin sewn into elaborate patterns. A whole series of rules and taboos surrounded the handling and preparation of these garments. Funeral clothing could not be sold or given away, and it could not be taken into another family's home unless a family member had died there. Funeral clothing had to be prepared well in advance, since it took months to sew it and naturally no one could predict when a person would die. But traditional belief held that once funeral garments were completed, their intended wearer would soon die. Therefore, the clothing was made ahead of time, but with certain stages of the preparation left undone. For example, the soles were not attached to the boots, the fur edge was left off the hood of the coat, and the belt was left without its buckle. After a death, men from the deceased's family and neighbors built a funeral pyre while the women put the last touches on the funeral garments. Some Koriak dissected the corpse to discover the cause of death; if disease was responsible, the corpse was stabbed through the abdomen to prevent the soul's next incarnation from dying of the same illness. When the clothing was ready, the body was dressed, taken out to the funeral pyre, and burned. The cremation was followed by several days of drumming in honor of the deceased.


Like the neighboring Chukchi, who also live in harsh and sparsely populated lands, the Koriak prize hospitality and generosity and have customarily fed and housed strangers who appear among them. In ancient times, visitors to Koriak homes were greeted with fire from the family's hearth as a sign that they were being accepted into the family. Old people among the Koriak are held in great respect. Although the heads of households lose their formal authority over their families when they are no longer able to work, their advice is still highly prized. In the past, old people would have their younger relatives strangle or stab them to death when they became sick or feeble; this practice died out by the 19th century for reasons that are not clear.


The traditional dwelling of the nomadic Koriak reindeer herders was the yayana (called rarana in some dialects), a round reindeer-hide tent with a conical top that was large enough for several families. Each family lived in its own interior chamber separated from that of the other families by dividing walls made of reindeer-skin. Several such tents made up a village. The settlements of reindeer Koriak were limited to the number of families whose herds could be fed by the moss and other edible vegetation in a given area. The coastal Koriak lived in semi-underground houses (also called yayana or rarana) with walls and ceilings made of logs. A tall, funnel-shaped opening at the top allowed light to enter while preventing snow from drifting in. Each of these houses held two or three families, and the largest held up to forty people. Maritime settlements were much larger than those of the inland Koriak and often had populations of more than 100. Koriak houses were lit by fires or by lamps that burned reindeer or sea-mammal fat. Although traditional Koriak dwellings can still be found, they were largely replaced in the Soviet period by the one-story wooden houses common on collective farms. All Koriak settlements now have electricity, but running water and sewers are far from universal.

The coastal Koriak traditionally used dog-sleds for transportation, while the inland Koriak rode in reindeer-drawn sleds. Reindeer Koriak also occasionally used horses as pack animals in the summer. They made little effort to fully domesticate their horses, however, and left them to find their own food in the winter. Koriak horses were so wild that their owners frequently found it easier to carry heavy loads themselves than to find and catch their horses. Koriak dog- and reindeer-sleds are still used along with airplanes, motorboats, and snowmobiles.

Because few plants or minerals with medicinal qualities are found in the Koriak lands, shamanist rituals were the only medical care available prior to Russian contact. Russians or other native peoples who had been in contact with the Koriak occasionally triggered epidemics of smallpox and measles, because the Koriak had no immunity. Western medicine became much more widespread in the Soviet period. Treatment was either free or inexpensive, but it was often unavailable or of poor quality, especially in rural areas. For this reason, tuberculosis, alcoholism, and other maladies are commonly encountered among the Koriak. The mental disorder known as Arctic hysteria—characterized by sudden fits of rage, depression, or violence that sometimes lead to murder or suicide—is less common among the Koriak than among the neighboring Chukchi and other circumpolar peoples.


The traditional Koriak family was patriarchal. The father had a great deal of authority and his word on important family matters such as choosing the area where the reindeer were to be pastured was final. He also had the right to banish his wife from the household for any reason and to choose his daughters' husbands. Women were allowed to eat only after the men of the family had finished, and men always received the best portions of food. Nevertheless, wife-beating was rare, and most fathers did not force their daughters to marry against their will. Men were generally protective rather than abusive of women. Relationships between spouses were warm and close, and some men were even known to commit suicide upon the death of their wives.

Strict sexual morals (at least as far as women were concerned) were characteristic of traditional Koriak society. Women were forbidden to engage in sexual intercourse before marriage, even with their fiancés. Engaged women were frequently sent off to live with relatives to prevent this, and feuds were sometimes started between families whose unwed children had slept together. Unwed motherhood was considered extremely shameful and was virtually unknown among the Koriak. Modernization has led to freer relations between the sexes over the course of the 20th century.

In order to gain a bride in traditional Koriak society, a man had to work for his future father-in-law for several months or years, herding reindeer or hunting. The groom was intentionally given hard living conditions—little food and sleep, long work hours, and an uncomfortable bed—in order to test his commitment to the bride. The bride was kept well away from the groom and usually moved into a separate tent after the betrothal. During the wedding ceremony, the groom had to chase the bride until he caught her, cut her clothes with a knife to expose her genitals, and then touch them with his hand. The bride was expected to resist as a sign of her chastity prior to marriage and her faithfulness to follow. If she particularly liked the groom, she might run into the bridal tent, since he could overcome her more easily there than outside, but she had to at least pretend to put up a struggle. When the wedding was over, the bride almost always went to live with the groom's family. These traditional Koriak betrothal and wedding practices were replaced by civil ceremonies in the 1920s.


The traditional clothing of both inland and coastal Koriak is made of reindeer skin. Some Russian travelers reported seeing sealskin clothing worn by the coastal Koriak in the 18th century, but they seem to have abandoned it soon thereafter. Women's clothing consists of a naukei, a knee-length coverall made from fawn skin and trimmed with fox, wolverine, wolf, or dog fur; the trouser part of the coverall is sometimes made of vertical strips of dark and light fur. A long fawn-skin shirt decorated with beads, embroidery, and fur trimmings is often worn over the coverall. Men wear loose deerskin shirts and trousers. Both sexes wear suede boots and leather undergarments. In cold weather, they wear heavy hooded coats made of fawnskin. A child's keikei (coverall) is similar to that worn by women, except that it has a flap between the legs to allow diapers (formerly made of moss, but now made of cloth) to be easily changed. Traditional Koriak clothing is still worn in everyday life, especially during the cold winters for which it is best suited, but Western clothing (cloth dresses, shirts, trousers, as well as underclothes and leather shoes) has also become common in the 20th century.


The traditional foods of the reindeer-breeding Koriak are venison and reindeer-blood soup. The liver, gristle, and marrow of the reindeer are eaten raw immediately after slaughtering. The inland Koriak also hunt bears and mountain goats and fish for river salmon. The most common customary foods of the coastal Koriak are fish (particularly salmon and herring); the meat and fat of white whale, seal, and walrus; mollusks; and seaweed. Both reindeer and coastal Koriak traditionally ate cloudberries, cedar nuts, sorrel and sedge-grass roots, and raw or boiled birds' eggs. Each cultural group considered the foods of the other to be great delicacies, and they often traded. The Koriak have drunk tea since they began trading with Russians in the 18th century. In addition to their traditional foods, the Koriak now eat canned vegetables and meats, bread, and other prepared foods purchased in stores. The Koriak formerly cooked meat and fish by boiling them in metal kettles purchased from Russian traders (prior to Russian contact, kettles were made of wood or bark) and ate with their hands and knives from wooden platters. Fish was also eaten frozen or dried. Soup was eaten straight from the kettle with wooden spoons. The modern Koriak prepare their food in mass-produced metal and ceramic pots and pans and eat with knives, forks, and spoons.


Until the Soviet government began to establish schools in Koriakia in the 1920s and 1930s, virtually all Koriak were illiterate; only a few were literate in Russian, which they learned from Russian settlers or Russian Orthodox missionaries. Most Koriak teachers were trained at the Institute of the North founded in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in 1926, which is now called the Pedagogical Institute of the Peoples of the North. Because most Koriak settlements are too small and widely scattered to permit building schools in each of them, the majority of children receive their primary and secondary education in boarding schools. At first, Koriak teachers used Koriak as well as Russian in the classroom, but the Soviet prejudice against non-Russian cultures soon brought this practice into official disfavor. In 1954, teaching in the Koriak language was prohibited, and this ban lasted for at least 20 years. Ethnic Russian teachers, many of whom displayed highly negative and racist attitudes toward Koriak schoolchildren, did not attempt to learn Koriak and punished their pupils for speaking the "savage" native language instead of "civilized" Russian on school grounds. For this reason, although all Koriak are now literate in Russian, many are illiterate in Koriak. The use of Koriak in native schools has slowly expanded, however, since the 1980s.


The Koriak boast a wide repertoire of traditional dances, most of them originally performed in shamanist ceremonies. These dances, and the singing that accompanies them, imitate the reindeer, seals, bears, and other animals whose spirits the rituals were intended to honor. The musical instruments used to accompany these dances are the yayai (drum) and the vaniyayayi (jaw harp). Koriak songs and dances are usually performed by women. Traditional dance and music are still popular among the Koriak, and the Koriak national dance ensemble "Mengo" has toured throughout the former USSR and has also performed abroad.


Although ironworking was never a central part of the traditional Koriak economy, Koriak blacksmiths still managed to obtain remarkable results with the simplest tools and methods. Iron tongs and hammers purchased from other native Siberians or Russians were used to shape pieces of iron into knives, axes, spears, saws, and bracelets over fires fanned by sealskin bellows and fueled by homemade coal made from driftwood. The continued existence of native crafts notwithstanding, since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 far-flung Koriak communities have suffered from severe unemployment rates, especially among men.


Dog- and reindeer-sled races and wrestling matches are the most common traditional sports among the Koriak. Another Koriak sport is a walking race in which contestants walk as fast as they can without running to a point up to two miles away and then back to the starting line. There, the winner pulls the prize—a pouch of tobacco—down from a pole upon which it has been hung.


Although the drum (yayai) used in shamanist rituals is considered sacred, it is often beaten for entertainment. Despite the subordinate status of women in traditional Koriak society, the best drummers have often been women. The typical plaything of Koriak boys is the lasso; that of girls is the wooden doll. Leather balls, wooden tops, and toy animals carved from wood or bone are enjoyed by children of both sexes.


Coastal Koriak craftsmen, like craftsmen among the neighboring Chukchi, have long been adept at carving and sculpting bone, reindeer antler, wood, and walrus tusk. These arts are less developed among the reindeer Koriak; because their way of life demanded constant attention to the herds, they traditionally lacked the leisure time to become skilled carvers and sculptors. Common themes of Koriak art are human figures, particularly drummers and wrestlers; traditional everyday activities such as fire-drilling, sea-mammal and bear hunting, and dogsled riding; and seals, walrus, mountain sheep, shales, bears, fish, worms, birds, dogs, and other animals. The horns of the mountain sheep are carved into tiny human and animal figures. Koriak women are highly skilled at embroidery, and they use fur, beads, silk thread, and reindeer hair to sew detailed geometric patterns and pictures of animals and birds onto clothing and rugs.


The social problems faced by the modern Koriak are those common to all of Russia's Arctic peoples. These include poor health caused by alcoholism, pollution, and inadequate medical care and diet; low living standards resulting from the inefficiency of the herding and hunting collectives into which the Koriak were forced during the 1930s and 1940s, and the meager selection of consumer goods available in local stores; racial prejudice (attacks by local Russian hooligans are common); and the lingering effects of policies intended by Stalin and his successors to force northern peoples to give up their "primitive" cultures in favor of the more "advanced" Russian one. All of these factors threaten the cultural survival of the Koriak people. As a result of the decades-long ban on speaking Koriak in boarding schools, many young Koriak do not know their own language. There are still few native teachers in Koriak schools, and they are now making great efforts to expand the use of Koriak in the classroom. Dedicated native scholars at the Pedagogical Institute of the Peoples of the North in St. Petersburg are training Koriak teachers and writing new Koriak textbooks, grammars, and dictionaries. Native schools have also begun to instruct their pupils in their people's ancestral art forms—sculpture, sewing, and traditional dance and music. Koriak activists now participate in the Association of the Small Peoples of the North and other organizations that defend the Siberian peoples' economic, political, and cultural interests.


Koriak women currently face many of the same social and economic problems faced by other indigenous women of the Russian Arctic and Subarctic. Koriak women, particularly in rural areas, suffered especially severely from the economic collapse that began in the Russian North in the late 1980s. By 2002 women's life expectancy in some Koriak communities had declined approximately from 64 in 1988 to 51 in 2002, according to some estimates. At the same time, Koriak women's educational levels remained relative high. While unemployment rates among women have been generally lower among women than men, this imbalance places additional burdens upon working-age Koriak women.


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