Koryaks and Kerek

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Koryaks and Kerek

ETHNONYMS: Chavchuvens, Nymylan


Identification. The Koryaks are the main aboriginal population of the Koryak Autonomous District (okrug, the center of which is Palana), a part of Kamchatka Oblast in Russia. A small number of Koryaks live in the Chukotsk Autonomous District and North-Evenk Territory: both are parts of the Magadan Province of Russia. In the past Koryaks did not have a general name for themselves. They are divided into two groups distinguished by economic activity: Chavchuvens (nomadic reindeer herders) and Nymylan (settled fishermen and sea hunters). The largest tribal groups of Koryaks are Al'utor (inhabiting the area of Korfa Bay, east coast of Kamchatka), the Palan (west coast of Kamchatka), and the Karagin (Litke Strait, east coast of Kamchatka). A small number of Kereks who live on Chukotka Peninsula in the Beringov Territory of Magadan Province (on the coast of the Bering Sea) are not considered by all experts to be related to the Koryaks. The material culture of the Kereks is similar to that of the Nymylans.

Location. The territory occupied by the Koryaks (including the Kereks) stretches from the Gizhiga River to the east, including the basins of the Paren' and Penzhina rivers (both of which flow into the Sea of Okhotsk), up to the coast of the Bering Sea (the area of Cape Navarin). In the south Koryaks are spread across Kamchatka to the middle of the peninsula, where the administrative boundary of Koryak Autonomous District lies. The modern neighbors of the Koryaks are Yukagir, Even, and Chukchee to the west and north and Itelmen to the south. The environment is tundra, plateau, and, on Kamchatka, mountainous. The climate is oceanic on Kamchatka, and continental in the mainland areas in the north and northwest, where the average annual temperature is below 0° C.

Demography. The aboriginal population of the Koryak Autonomous District (Koryaks, Itelmen, Even, and Chukchee) is a little more than 20 percent of the entire population of the district. The total number of Koryaks is about 8,000. According to estimates in the 1960s, about 90 percent of the Koryak population could speak their native language. This number is much lower today and it is constantly decreasing. During the last decades some of the less populous ethnic groups, like the Itkan and Apukin, have been combined with the larger groups of Koryaks. Kereks have been assimilated by the Chukchee. In 1990 there were only three men who could speak the Kerek language. The entire Koryak population is rural.

linguistic Affiliation. The Koryak language is classified as belonging to the Chukotko-Koryak Group of the Paleoasian languages. The Paleoasian languages are not historically related. For example, the Itelmen language is classified with the Chukotko-Koryak languages but is historically isolated, whereas the historical connection between the Chukchee and Koryak languages is unquestionable. The Koryak language has four distinct dialects: the language of the nomadic reindeer herders (Chavchuven), the language of the Nymylan of the western coast of Kamchatka (Palan), the language of the Nymylan of the eastern coast (Al'utor), and the language of the Karagin (Nymylano-Itelmen contact zone). The language of the Kereks, who are separated geographically from other Koryaks, is also distinct. The written Koryak language was introduced in 1931. It was based on the Chavchuven dialect. First the Roman alphabet was used, and then, from 1937 on, the Cyrillic alphabet.

History and Cultural Relations

The Koryaks and the Chukchee are related to the Arctic peoples whose culture developed in northeastern Siberia. Their material and symbolic culture was influenced significantly by Eskimos. These influences are evident mainly among Kereks and other groups of settled Koryaks. For nomadic Koryaks the primary traditional economic activity was reindeer herding; for settled Koryaks it was fishing, sea-mammal hunting, and the fur trade. There were exchange relations between nomadic and settled Koryaks. Reindeer production was conducted in accord with ancient and, for the Koryaks, unchallenged traditions. It helped to preserve existing social structures.

In the past the nomadic movements of Koryak reindeer herders extended beyond current administrative boundaries. Before the arrival of the Even on the northern coast of the Sea of Okhotsk, Koryaks were in contact with the northern groups of Nivkh, as evidenced by the similarity of their material cultures and languages (lexical similarities). Koryak contact with the Even began later, a fact recorded in legends and historical documents. The Koryaks came into contact with Yukagir during their migration from the source of the Gizhiga River to the headwaters of the Omolon and Korkodon rivers. Christianization began with the arrival of Russians in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and affected mostly settled Koryaks. The nomadic reindeer herders as well as Kereks were Christianized "on paper." For the most part they have kept their own, non-Russian names.

Until the beginning of the twentieth century, elements of a primitive communal system were preserved among the Koryaks. Nevertheless, the reindeer herding and crafts of settled Koryaks were gradually drawn into the market, and the role of private property increased. Soviet control of Kamchatka and Chukotka was established in the 1920s. The collectivization of reindeer herders was accompanied by the inescapable deculturation that brought passive Koryak resistance. They attempted to leave, to "dissolve" into the expanses of the tundra. In December 1930 the Koryakskii National (now Autonomous) District was founded. All Koryaks were brought together in fishery collectives, reindeer farms, and agricultural collectives. The reindeer herders were converted to the settled way of life. In the postwar period, a policy of enlargement of the villages took place. It harmed traditional craft production and promoted the "lumpenization" of part of the population. In 1954 teaching of the Koryak language was prohibited. The prohibition lasted for twenty years, and its consequences have yet to be completely overcome. Estimates in 1988 listed only thirteen schools in the district that were teaching the Koryak language. The development of democratization in Russia, following perestroika, encouraged Koryaks to act independently in the struggle to maintain their identity.


The traditional dwellings of nomadic Koryak reindeer herders were portable frame houses that were covered by a tarp of reindeer hides, with internal compartments used as sleeping chambers. The settled Koryaks lived in semiunderground huts with an upper entrance. They had the same type of construction in both Chukotka and Kamchatka. Koryak summer dwellings were huts on stilts. In the nineteenth century settled Koryaks started to build Russian-type frame houses.

In the largest settlements of the Koryak Autonomous District (including the district center, Palana), Koryaks are a minority. They predominate in villages that are connected with reindeer herding, such as Sedanka, Lesnaiia (the western coast), Aianka (the northern, continental part of the district), or in the less noteworthy (from the point of view of new arrivals) Tymlat (the eastern coast). All Koryak villages have electricity and radio (television is spreading), but they do not have running water or sewer systems.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities . The traditional productive activities of the Koryaks, reindeer herding by the nomadic Koryaks and fishing and hunting of sea and furbearing animals by settled Koryaks, continued to develop in the Soviet period. In the seventeenth century, metal objects came to the Koryaks through Russians. In the eighteenth century there was a well-known Koryak forge in Paren' (a village on the coast of Penzhinsk Bay), where they even made metallic armor. Since the nineteenth century, dairy farming and horticulture have been developing in the regions where settled Koryaks live.

The Koryaks had reindeer and sledge dogs as means of transport. For travel along rivers, Koryaks used boats that were hollowed from the whole trunk of a tree. On the sea they used single-seat and multiseat kayaks (matew ) that were covered with sealskin. Modern means of transport include planes and helicopters and Caterpillar tread vehicles.

Industrial Arts. The majority of Koryaks are occupied in traditional spheres of production. There are currently a number of Koryaks with higher and secondary education who are administrators, teachers, doctors, veterinarians, mechanics, etc. In the district center, Palana, there is a vocational training school that prepares specialists in reindeer breeding, cattle breeding, and raising of animals for furs. There are also pedagogical and music schools.

Trade. The exchange of products between Koryaks, especially between nomadic and settled Koryaks, as well as with neighboring peoples, was rather intensive. Today Koryaks who are working as hired and office workers purchase goods from state stores.

Division of Labor. Men's tasks were traditionally reindeer herding, fishing, and hunting. Women's tasks were making clothes, housekeeping, and gathering, the latter of which was replaced by gardening in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Land Tenure. The concept of land ownership has always been alien to Koryaks.


Kin Groups and Descent. The basis of Koryak social organization was the patriarchal family community. But unlike, for example, the Even, who carried the names of genealogical clans, Koryaks were named mainly after the place of residence, usually by the name of a river. Ancestor cults were widespread. All ethnic groups of Koryaks had special sites for sacrifices. Settled Koryaks had these sites near their villages. Nomadic Koryaks located such sites in the places where their ancestors and relatives had been cremated.

Kinship Terminology. The fixed system of kinship terms seems at first glance not to show any special deviations from the system that, for example, Russians have. Yet, for example, there is preserved the term "family" (Chavchuv: yaicyin, or Nymylan: rair?in ) and the term "large family"that is, evidently, "community" (vaiat or varat ), which is interpreted in modern usage as "people."

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Traditional marriages were endogamous. Among almost all groups of Koryaks, not only were marriages between cousins possible, but also marriages between siblings. The distinguishing feature of marriage was working for one's future wife in her father's home. The period of work was indefinite and could last from several weeks to several years. The wedding ceremony included the "grabbing of a bride," in which the bridegroom had to touch the bride's genitals while she and her relatives attempted in every possible way to prevent him from doing so. Mixed marriages (with members of neighboring groups such as Even, Yukagir, etc.) were not prohibited, especially among the reindeer herders, but settled Koryaks and Kereks were more conservative in this regard. Today civil marriages are performed according to the laws of Russia, and mixed marriages are not condemned.

Domestic Unit. The main unit of traditional economic life was the community. It consisted of parents, their children, grandchildren, and other relatives. A community of settled Koryaks lived in one semiunderground hut; its members hunted together at sea in a single boat; the catch was communal property. The patriarchal community of reindeer herders also lived in a single dwelling. The bases of its existence were a reindeer herd, the products of gathering, and supplemental activities. The communities were led by elders who directed all economic and social life, represented the community in interethnic relations, and performed religious-cult functions. There were several families in a community. By the second half of the eighteenth century these communities had started to disintegrate, especially among settled Koryaks. This brought about the economic isolation of the family. Nowadays all Koryaks live in families no different in organization from those of the Russian population.

Inheritance. Koryaks did not own land. The main form of property of reindeer-nomads were reindeer herds that were inherited in the male line. In the Soviet period the problem of inheritance lost its significance.

Socialization. Infidelity was the transgression that, above all others, merited a social reaction in the community. It was punished by execution or exile. Respect for elders was secured by the ancestor cult, which was preserved until the Soviet period.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. If the whole multilevel administrative system of Russia is taken into consideration, Koryaks have autonomy at the lowest level. Even this 0autonomy is more nominal than real, however, because Koryaks are a minority in their autonomous district and cannot influence political and economic life in it.

Political Organization. There were Koryaks who were members of the Communist party of Russia, party activists, and administrative workers. One or two Koryaks were permanent representatives in the Supreme Council of Russia.

Conflict. The history of the Koryaks, especially those who were nomadic, is filled with conflicts with neighboring peoplesEven, Yukagir, Chukchee, and keimen. The word "war" (tan'nicetyijnin ) is etymologically related to the word "stranger" (tan'nitan ). The Koryaks were usually defeated by the Even, but they pressed the Yukagir rather mercilessly. In the first half of the eighteenth century, fighting between Koryaks and Chukchee, who continually seized reindeer herds and captives from Koryaks, had a bitter character. Reconciliation with the Chukchee took place in the second half of the eighteenth century. Hostilities with the Even were resolved at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The Koryaks sought help from the Russian administration, and it played an active role in all these events. Nevertheless, the Koryaks carried out separate revolts against Russians and attacks on Russian strongholds (Russian: ostrozhki ). In the first third of the nineteenth century the location of Koryaks who were pressured by Even and Chukchee was stabilized within the modern northern boundary of the Koryak Autonomous District.

On the southern boundary, Koryak reindeer herders penetrated with their herds down to Cape Lopatka (the southern extremity of Kamchatka). This penetration brought resistance from the keimen who were, however, not able to force the Koryaks out of Kamchatka. The situation stabilized after the arrival of Russians. The smallpox epidemic that descended on Kamchatka in 1768-1769 did not spare Koryaks. The modern southern boundary of the Koryak Autonomous District includes the territories that are inhabited by remaining keimen of the western coast.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The cult of the Raven (Qujgin'n'aqu or Qutqin'n'aqu in Kerek-Qukki), a demiurge and creator of life on earth, was present among Koryaks, as among other northeastern Paleoasian peoples. Sacrifices were made to kind as well as evil spirits, with the goal of propitiating them. Among the kind spirits were the ancestors, who were worshiped at special sites. Settled Koryaks had guardian spirits for their villages. A dog was considered the most pleasing sacrifice for the spirits, especially because it would be reborn in another world and serve the ancestors. Koryak religious ideas and sacrificial practices were preserved among nomad reindeer herders (and Kereks) and survived until the establishment of Soviet rule, and in fact into the 1950s.

Religious Practitioners. Koryaks carried out sacrifices themselves, but when they could not overcome the machinations of vicious spirits, they resorted to the assistance of shamans. The shaman, either a man or a woman, was a curer and seer; the shamanic gift was inherited. The tambourine (iaiai or iaiar ) was indispensable to the shaman. Kerek shamans apparently did not use tambourines.

Ceremonies. Traditional Koryak holidays have remained in the people's memory. One example is the autumn thanksgiving holiday, Hololo, which lasted several weeks and consisted of a great number of successive ceremonies. The Koryak-Karaginets still celebrated this holiday in the 1960s and 1970s. Today a yearning for the reconstruction of ethnic self-identity is strengthening.

Arts. Koryak folklore is represented in legends, tales, songs, and dances. The State Koryak Ensemble of Folk Singing and Dancing, "Mengo," is well known not only in the former Soviet Union, but in other countries as well.

Medicine. Originally the curer was the shaman, and this practice continued until the 1920s-1930s. Today Koryaks are included in the public health system of the district.

Death and Afterlife. Koryaks had several methods of burial: cremation, burial in the ground or at sea, and concealment of the dead in rock clefts. Some groups of settled Koryaks differentiated the method of burial according to the nature of the death. Those who died a natural death were cremated; stillborn infants were buried in the ground; those who committed suicide were left without burial. Kereks had a custom of throwing the dead into the sea. Reindeer herders preferred cremation. All the utensils and objects that the deceased would need in the other world were placed on the funeral pyre. Accompanying reindeer were intentionally harnessed incorrectlythe Koryaks believed that in the next world all things had a form diametrically opposite to things in our world. Contemporary Koryaks bury their deceased in the Russian manner, whereas reindeer herders still cremate the dead.


Antropova, V. V. (1964). "The Koryaks." In The Peoples of Siberia, edited by M. G. Levin and L. P. Potapov, 851-875. Translated by Stephen P. Dunn and Ethel Dunn. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Originally published in Russian in 1956.

Jochelson, Waldemar (1905-1908). The Koryak. Parts 1-2. The Jesup North Pacific Expedition. Memoirs of the American Museum of Natural History. Leiden and New York.

Krasheninnikov, S. P. (1949). Opisanie zemli Kamchatki (A description of the land of Kamchatka). 4th ed. Moscow and Leningrad: Izd-vo Glavsevmorputi. Translated as Explorations of Kamchatka, 1735-1741. 1972. Portland: Oregon Historical Society.

Leontev, V. V. (1983). Etnografia i folklor kerekov (Ethnography and folklore of the Kerek). Moscow: Nauka.

Vdovin, Innokentii S. (1973). Ocherki etnicheskoi istorii koriakov (Studies in the ethnic history of the Koryaks). Leningrad: Nauka.

INNOKENTII C. VDOVIN AND ALEXANDR P. VOLODIN (Translated by Ann Kremer and David C. Koester)