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LOCATION: Russia (extreme southeastern Siberia), China (Heilongjiang Province)
POPULATION: 12,160 in Russia (2002), 4,640 in China (2004)
LANGUAGE: Nanai, Russian, Chinese
RELIGION: Shamanism


The Nanais are an indigenous people of extreme southeastern Siberia (also called the Russian Far East) who inhabit the shores of the Amur River and its tributaries. Anthropological, linguistic, and archaeological data suggest that people similar to the Nanais in ethnicity, language, and culture have continuously inhabited the Amur region and supported themselves by fishing and hunting since the Neolithic era (that is, for more than 3,000 years). The Nanais were formed from a mixture of these local groups with migrants who gradually arrived from the north, west, and south (i.e., from Siberia and Manchuria).

The Nanais' name for themselves is Nanai (plural: Nanaisal), which means "local dweller" and is derived from the words na (place, land) and nai (person). The Nanais were previously called Gol'dy in Russian ethnographic literature. This term is the word for "Nanai" in the language of the Ul'chi, another Amur people who are closely related ethnically and linguistically to the Nanais. (The name Nani has also been used by both the Nanais and the Ul'chi to refer to themselves.)

For several centuries prior to their absorption by the Russian empire in the mid-19th century, the Nanais maintained trade relations with the Russians, Chinese, and the Manchus who conquered China in 1644 and established the Qing Dynasty. They exchanged fur, ginseng, and reindeer antlers (used in a powdered form as an aphrodisiac by the Chinese) for guns, iron, tea, flour, tobacco, vodka, grain, and textiles. Russian explorers probably made contact with the Nanais as early as the 1640s, but the Manchus claimed the Amur region as their own because it was adjacent to their homeland. In any event, the border drawn between the Russian and Chinese empires in 1689 left the Nanais under the latter's control. The Manchus levied taxes upon the Nanais and the other Amur peoples, appointed elders for their villages, and formed marriage alliances between Manchu officials and local clan leaders; many Nanai village and clan leaders became very wealthy in this way. After Russia gained control of the Amur region from China in the 1858 Treaty of Aigun and the 1860 Treaty of Peking, the Nanais became Russian subjects. Tens of thousands of Russian colonists began to pour into Nanai territory; this process was encouraged by the tsarist government, which considered the Amur River basin to be a strategic area and feared Chinese encroachment on it if it were left sparsely populated by non-Russian aborigines. These colonists settled on Nanai hunting grounds, seized the best fishing areas, and used both dishonest commercial methods and the threat of violence to cheat the Nanais out of land and other property. The Nanais became a minority in their own land, and their standard of living greatly declined. By the early 20th century, the ratio of colonists and their descendents to Nanais was 90 to 1. The Amur peoples suffered greatly from the destruction and bloodshed of the Civil War that followed the Bolsheviks' seizure of power in October 1917. The Amur River basin was the scene of intense fighting among the Communist Red Army, the anti-Communist White Army, and Japanese troops who hoped to take advantage of the chaos to extend Japan's influence in the region.

Conditions among the Nanais improved in the 1920s after the end of the Civil War. Bolshevik-sponsored cooperatives allowed Nanai fishermen and hunters to pool their scarce resources, and the new government took steps to develop education and Western medical care. The Nanais' fortunes worsened, however, after Stalin's rise to power in 1929. They were forced out of their widely scattered traditional villages and crowded into a smaller number of large settlements, which the government's economic planners considered more efficient. Moreover, Stalin and his successors intensively developed mining, logging, and industry in the Amur region without taking environmental consequences into account. This resulted in serious ecological damage to Nanai territory.


As of 2002 there were slightly more than 12,640 Nanais in the Russian Federation, and almost all of them live in the Russian Far East near the Chinese border. As of 1989 about 11,600 Nanais resided in Khabarovsk Territory (Russian krai), chiefly in its Khabarkovsk, Nanai, and Komsomol'sk Districts (Russian raion). Some 400 more Nanai lived along the Ussuri River in the neighboring Primorskii (Maritime) Territory, and an additional 170 dwelt on the island of Sakhalin off the Russian Federation's eastern coast. In addition, as of 2004 there were about 4,600 Nanais in the northeastern reaches of the People's Republic of China, primarily in Manchuria, where they are known as the Hezhen.

The climate of the Nanais' territory is somewhat different from much of Siberia and the Russian Far East. For example, its summers are relatively warm, with July temperatures averaging between 16º and 20ºc (60.8º and 68ºf). Monsoon winds from the Pacific bring heavy rainfall in late summer and early fall and sometimes result in severe flooding. Winters are severe: heavy snows and high, chilly winds are typical, and January temperatures range between -28º and -20ºc (-18.4º and -4ºf). Most of the territory inhabited by the Nanais consists of low-lying valley lands along a 700-kilometer(420-mile) stretch of the Amur River. Marshlands, sometimes containing larch groves, are common at the lowest elevations, and the banks of the Amur and other rivers are dotted with small islands separated by rivulets. The northernmost reaches of Nanai settlement are more mountainous the further one goes from the Amur. Larch, yew, birch, maple, lilac, honeysuckle, and swamp grasses are the most typical forms of vegetation in low-lying areas. Mountains are mostly covered with mixed forests of larch, spruce, fir, ash, lime, maple, and walnut (with larch predominating in the foothills). At the highest elevations, cedar and lichens are the most common plants. Rivers have traditionally been rich in aquatic life, particularly salmon and otters, although overfishing has seriously reduced stocks in recent decades. Squirrels, foxes, bears, sables, hares, boars, Siberian tigers, elks, grouse, and deer are the most widespread fauna on dry land.


The Nanai language belongs to the Altaic language family's Tungusic, or Tungus-Manchu, branch. Its closest relatives are tongues spoken by other peoples of the Amur region (Oroch, Ul'chi, and Udegei), Manchu, and the language of the Xibei people of northwestern China's Xinjiang Province (who are the descendants of Manchu frontier troops). The languages of the Evenki and Evens of eastern and northeastern Siberia are also closely related to Nanai. In addition to borrowings from other Tungusic languages, the Nanai vocabulary includes loan words from Russian and Chinese as well as Nivkh (an unrelated language spoken in the Amur Region and on the island of Sakhalin). Nanai is divided into several regional forms that differ from each other to varying degrees. The classification of these forms of Nanai as dialects or subdialects (minor variants of dialects) has long been a matter of controversy among linguists specializing in the study of the Tungusic languages, and there is still no scholarly agreement on this issue. Prior to the Soviet period, the Nanai language did not have a written form except for the academic transcriptions of linguists. A Nanai writing system based on the Latin alphabet was adopted in 1931; five years later, it was replaced by the Cyrillic (Russian) alphabet, which is still in use. The modern Nanai literary language is based on the Naikhin dialect (the most widely spoken form of Nanai). Diacritics and special letters are used to reflect Nanai sounds that are absent in Russian, but their use is not always consistent. For example, Nanai, like other Altaic languages, differentiates between "long" (stressed) and "short" (unstressed) vowels. In some writings, a diacritic shaped like a short line is written over a vowel letter to indicate that it is a long vowel, but in other books, double letters are used. (See the titles of the two Nanai dictionaries in the bibliography for examples of variant spellings.)

Some Nanai personal names are very ancient, and their sources and original meanings remain a mystery to ordinary Nanais and linguists alike. This is the case with the male names Bamba and Gibi and the female names Dekhe and Iaota. The etymologies of other traditional names are clearer. Some, such as Orokto ("grass," male) and Sunke ("beetle," female) are the words for plants and animals in the Nanai environment Others-for example, the male name Aka ("strong or brave man") and the female name Bulke ("gentle")-refer to positive characteristics that parents wish a child to possess. During the 20th century, Russian personal names such as Anna (female) and Fyodor (male) have become widespread.

The use of surnames based upon the name of a given family's clan (Kilen , Gair , Oninkan , etc.) has been common since the 1930s. It is interesting to note that the spelling of many clan-based Nanai surnames often differs from the actual Nanai pronunciation of these names: this is most likely due to mistakes made by Russian bureaucrats while filling out personnel forms and other paperwork when the use of surnames was first required. Thus, the surname of the Nanai cultural anthropologist and native-rights activist Evdokiia Gair is written Gaer ; the surnames of the linguists Sulungu Oninkan and Nikolai Kilen are spelled Onenko and Kile , respectively.


Nanai folklore includes legends and stories (telungu or ningman) about the origins of the universe, the earth, humans, animals, and local mountains, rocks, and lakes. Some telungu and ningman narrate the feats of shamans and the exploits of hunters and warriors; others tell the histories of the various Nanai clans and the animals or plants (tigers, bears, hawks, birches, etc.) from which they descended. Generally speaking, a legend or story is called a telungu if its events are believed to have occurred in remote antiquity; otherwise, it is called a ningman. There are also numerous tongue twisters (deuruen), and riddles (nambokan).

In traditional Nanai society, folklore was not only a form of entertainment, but also an important tool of socialization. Many works of oral literature indirectly taught the young proper behavior, useful hunting and fishing techniques, and the mythology and religion of the community. Given Nanai folklore's didactic aspect, it is not surprising that many tales concern human shortcomings such as laziness and vanity. One ningman tells the story of Aioga, a beautiful but extremely vain girl. One day, Aioga's mother asked her to go fetch some water, but Aioga refused, preferring instead to sit admiring her own reflection in a shiny copper pan. A neighbor girl offered to go in Aioga's place, and Aioga's mother rewarded her with a scone, but did not give one to Aioga. Enraged, Aioga fled from her mother in a rage and sat down to pout on the bank of a nearby stream. Aioga stared at her reflection in the water, now and then glaring at the neighbor girl, who sat on the opposite bank eating her scone. Suddenly, Aioga's neck began to grow. Noticing this, she flapped her arms in anger, and they turned into wings. She then fell into the stream, where she turned into a swan. She forgot how to speak Nanai and could only remember her name, which henceforth became the call of the swan: "Ai-oga-ga-ga! Ai-oga-ga-ga!"


Traditional Nanai religion includes shamanistic practices. Nanai shamanists believe that fire, mountains, stars, constellations, forests, and rivers have spirits (endur) that humans must respect in order to survive and prosper. The most revered nature-spirit is the sky-god, whose names are Sangiia and Boaendurni. Certain animals, such as bears and Siberian tigers, are also considered spiritually powerful and are eaten only at ritual meals. Lesser spirits or ghosts, called seven or busyu, are capable of helping or harming humans. The Nanai shaman (saman), like the Native American "medicine man," is a man or woman skilled at communicating with all these spirits during rituals that involve chanting and singing prayers and beating an ungchukhun (a large, flat, round drum). Nanai shamans use their rituals to heal the sick, improve believers' fortunes, and foretell the future. The most powerful shamans, called kasaty-saman, accompany the deceased to Buni, the World of the Dead. (A kasaty-saman must always be a man.) Although the profession of shamanism is hereditary, not all sons and daughters of shamans follow the path of their ancestors: they must be chosen by the spirits themselves. Each shaman is guided and protected by a personal helper-spirit, or aiami . If the shaman is a man, his aiami is a woman; the aiami of female sha-mans are always male. A shaman's aiami is considered his or her spouse, and the two have sexual intercourse during the shaman's dreams. The shaman is respected but never envied. It is believed that a shaman's life does not belong to him or her, but rather to the aiami. Therefore, no Nanai wishes to become a shaman, and a person chosen by the spirits often resists the call for years. After the Nanais' homeland passed under Russian control, missionaries from the Russian Orthodox Church effected their conversion to Christianity. Although many were formally baptized, they continued to practice their ancient religion along with Russian Orthodox practices. Nanai shamans, like those of other Siberian native peoples, suffered imprisonment and execution during Stalin's anti-religious campaigns and as a result shamanism was driven underground. Since Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev ended the Soviet government's persecution of religion during the 1980s, the Nanais have begun to practice shamanism more openly.


Most traditional Nanai "holidays" are not celebrated at the same time every year, as they are essentially shamanist rites performed for specific purposes. Among these are the ritual blessings of hunting and fishing gear by shamans and the monthly wakes held by bereaved relatives and friends for several years after a person's death. Some holidays do, however, have a more or less set date. The most important of these is the nengnemeni enei , a spring gathering held in the last days of April and the first few days of May to celebrate the breaking up of the river ice and the beginning of the spring fishing season. During the nengnemeni enei , dozens of members of related families set up camp together on the riverbank and celebrate the end of winter with dancing, games, storytelling, singing, and feasting. Ritual offerings of food, drink, and tobacco are made to the water and fire spirits. Centuries-long contact with Chinese traders and settlers has led the Nanais to adopt the Chinese New Year, which is marked by family feasts. During the Soviet period, the Nanai celebrated communist holidays such as May Day (1 May), the anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany (9 May), International Women's Day (8 March), and the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution (7 November).


In traditional Nanai society, childbirth was surrounded by numerous rules that had to be observed to ensure the child's survival. As soon as a Nanai woman discovered that she was pregnant, she had to observe certain taboos. For instance, she could not sew or use glue in her housework during the last stages of pregnancy or the fetus would be "stuck" to the womb and the delivery would be difficult. She could not attend funerals or she would have a miscarriage. (If she could not avoid attending a funeral, she had to first gird her loins with a protective rope or net). Chopping tree branches could cause deformities or induce an expected boy to be born as a girl. A pregnant woman was also forbidden to eat certain foods. If she ate the hearts of large game animals, her heart would not withstand the delivery. Consuming the eyes of roast fish might cause the child to be born with a sore on its eye, while squirrel's brains could cause hyperactivity. Husbands of pregnant women also had to observe certain taboos. For example, they could not hunt on the eve of a birth or the child might be born with a harelip. Activities that required driving stakes into the ground (for example, building fences) were also to be avoided close to the expected date of birth, since they too could harm the fetus. Delivery took place in a temporary shelter near the house, access to which was forbidden to all save the birthing mother, a midwife, and female relatives or friends. After the child was born, special measures were taken to conceal its identity from malevolent spirits by confusing them in various ways. No public celebration was held, and family members spoke vaguely when informing others of the fact of the birth. Additionally, the child was ritually given to a couple from another clan or even another nationality, against whom the spirits were harmless; In addition, it was temporarily given a name intended either to disgust harmful spirits, such as Polokto ("moldiness") or Lebe ("vomit or trash"), or to frighten them-Nekte ("wild boar") or Kachakta ("prickly salmon"). For the last few decades, delivery has taken place in hospitals, and many traditional taboos relating to childbirth are no longer observed.

The most ancient means of disposing of the dead among the Nanais and other Amur peoples is internment in wooden or bark coffins raised on platforms. Infants who died before their first birthday have traditionally been wrapped in cloth or birch-bark and placed in the hollows of trees. As a result of Russian influence, burial in the ground has replaced platform and tree burial. After a person has died, he or she is placed on a flat board called a dirkinche . The corpse's face is covered with a cloth, and its feet are tied with a white braided string and held in place by a stone, lest the soul of the deceased kick the souls of his or her relatives. Food, drink, a pipe, and tobacco are placed next to the body. After several days have passed, the body is dressed in fine clothes that have been kept for the occasion, put into a coffin, and taken to a cemetery, where it is buried. (Personal possessions that have been broken or torn to allow their owner's spirit to escape from them are placed into the coffin along with the body. Men are buried with hunting and fishing tools, and women with sewing pouches containing needles and thread.) On the seventh day after death, a shaman performs a ritual to lead the soul of the deceased to the World of the Dead (Buni) . Traditional Nanai burial practices have been preserved to a much higher degree than birth rituals.


Among Nanais who follow traditional rules of behavior, it is a sign of respect to bow upon meeting someone. Th ere are certain protocols that must be observed when deciding whether or not to bow. For example, one never bows to a younger person or to a person of the same age. Men always bow to older men and older women, but women do not bow to older members of either sex. There are no special rules for bowing to shamans: one bows to them only if they are male and older than oneself.


The ancestors of the Nanais originally lived in dugouts with log frames and roofs, but for centuries the most typical Nanai dwelling has been the dio, a large, one-room rectangular house whose design shows strong Chinese and/or Manchu influence. The walls of the dio are formed by a lattice-type frame of willow or alder branches; this frame is then covered on both sides with thick layers of clay. The dio is heated by several adobe stoves. Benches around the walls of the dio serve as both seats and beds, and a large platform in its center is used for storing hunting, cooking, and fishing tools and other items of everyday use. The windows were formerly covered with fish skin or Chinese wax paper, but now glass is more common. Wealthy Nanais furnished their homes with lacquered cupboards and chests-of-drawers manufactured in China. Although the dio has not entirely vanished, most rural Nanais now live in the one-story Russian-style wooden houses characteristic of collective farms throughout the former Soviet Union. Nanais in Komsomol'sk and other urban areas dwell in typical Soviet concrete apartment buildings.

Since fishing has long been the chief occupation of most Nanais, boats have naturally been the most important means of transport. Canoes are made either by hollowing out logs or by attaching panels of birch-bark or wood to a wooden frame. Nanai canoes are usually propelled by double-headed paddles (similar to those used with kayaks), although sometimes long poles are used to push the canoe along from the river bottom in shallow water. Skis and dogsleds are the most common means of traditional transport on dry land; certain groups of Nanais have also traditionally used horses for riding, carrying loads, and pulling sleds. Motorboats, trucks, bicycles, and motorcycles-along with buses and automobiles in urban areas-have become commonplace in recent decades, but they have not entirely crowded out customary Nanai means of transportation.

In traditional society, the Nanais relied almost exclusively on herbal remedies and the incantations of shamans, although they occasionally purchased pharmaceutical remedies from Russian or Chinese traders. Western medicine has become widespread during the 20th century, as the Soviet government provided free or low-cost universal health care to all its citizens. Still, Western medicine has not eliminated traditional Nanai forms of treatment. Clinics are sometimes too far away, and they usually offer only the most rudimentary forms of medical assistance. Moreover, Nanai herbal medicines are often quite effective, as they are the products of hundreds, (perhaps thousands), of years of investigation and practice.


Traditional Nanai society was based on small households consisting of a man, a woman, several children, and perhaps a few elderly parents. Wealthy Nanais often had more than one wife; this practice was abolished during the Communist period, although anthropologists encountered a few elderly polygamous families as late as the 1950s and 1960s. Each household belonged to one of 20 or so clans (khala) that varied considerably in size: the smallest clans had only a few dozen members, while the largest had more than 900 members. Marrying a member of the same clan was forbidden. Small clans sometimes formed inter-clan alliances by the marriage of a member of one clan to a member of another clan; these alliances were called dokha. Custom forbade marriage between members of the same dokha, although exceptions were occasionally made on grounds of economic hardship (for example, when a widow needed to remarry in order to survive and could not find a suitable partner outside her dokha). Members of the clans and inter-clan alliances aided each other in times of need, held courts that judged members accused of wrongdoing, and took revenge upon other khala and dokha whose members had caused harm to their people. The social functions of the clans and dokha in everyday life have lessened in importance over the course of the 20th century, although certain features (for example, the ban on intermarriage) are still observed.

The work of men and women in traditional Nanai economic activities is strictly defined by custom, although the contributions of each are equally valued. Men's work includes fishing, hunting, and making and repairing the weapons and tools used in these activities. Women cure meat and fish, prepare animal and fish skins, sew, clean, care for children, and cook. Women also fish when their husbands are absent. Since the Soviet period, men have also worked in forestry, while medicine, teaching, and work in the service sector has largely been performed by women.


The traditional Nanai garment for both men and women is the tetue , an ankle-length robe fastened on one side with buttons or hooks. Winter tetue are made of fish skin that when cured produces a soft, and light but warm leather; summer garments are made of boar skin. (In the prerevolutionary period, wealthy Nanai men and women also wore silk robes, hats, and shoes imported from China.) Both sexes wear the tetue with a belt (omol) , short trousers (peru) and leggings (garon) . Women wear a breastplate (lele) festooned with metal pendants. Low boots (ota) made of fish or boar skin lined with soft grasses are worn with cloth or leather stockings (dokton) . The most distinctive type of Nanai headgear is the men's rounded cap (korbochi) worn with earflaps (siapton) and a white cloth veil (garmaso) that falls over the neck and shoulders from the back of the head. (This design was originally conceived to protect hunters from the gnats and mosquitoes common during the damp Amur summers.) Present-day Nanais usually wear Western clothing (cloth dresses, shirts, trousers, stockings, socks, and underclothes, and leather shoes), except on holidays and other special occasions.


The most common food in traditional Nanai cuisine is fish, particularly salmon. The Nanais usually prepare fish by boiling, smoking, freezing, or drying. Salting fish and other meat was unknown prior to Russian contact but is now a common method of preparation. Fish is sometimes eaten raw as well. Favorite Nanai dishes include boda, a porridge made of salmon roe and millet; taksan, which is made by boiling a mass of fish in their own oil and fat; and tala, thin chips of frozen fish. Berries, mushrooms, and edible grasses are eaten fresh or preserved for later use by drying them in the sun and wind. Flour is used to make scones and pancakes. Squirrel, elk, venison, pork, and boar, although consumed less frequently than fish, are also part of the traditional Nanai diet. Prior to the 20th century, most Nanais ate with their hands or wooden spoons from bark, horn, or wood plates and bowls. (Wealthy Nanais used porcelain dishes of Chinese manufacture). Traditional dishware and utensils have largely been replaced with Russian mass-produced metal knives, forks, and spoons, enamel pots and pans, and porcelain dishes. Canned vegetables and meats, bread and pastries, vodka and other alcoholic beverages, and sweets have become established ingredients of the Nanai diet.


After the Russian acquisition of the Amur region in the mid-19th century, Russian missionaries established schools that combined the teaching of the Russian language and general educational subjects with instruction in Russian Orthodox Christianity, but their influence on the Nanais was slight. The Soviet government began to establish public schools among the Nanais in the 1920s. These initially used only Russian textbooks, as linguists did not perfect a Nanai alphabet until 1931. Today all Nanais attend primary school and at least some secondary school, and many attend college. However, alongside these indisputable benefits, the manner in which education developed among the Nanai has threatened their cultural heritage, because Soviet policies toward minority peoples after the 1920s tended more and more to suppress their cultures and languages. Between the 1950s and the 1980s, the use of Nanai in the classroom both as a means of instruction and as an academic subject was all but eliminated, and Nanai culture in general was disparaged in favor of Russian culture. As a result, although all Nanais are fluent in Russian (a prerequisite for higher education), many have at best a dim understanding of their own people's history and traditions, and only 44% speak Nanai as their native language. Since the 1980s, native teachers and scholars have achieved some success in expanding instruction in native folklore, language, and crafts in Nanai schools.


Although the Nanais did not possess a written language until the 20th century, oral literature has been a highly prized part of the Nanai cultural heritage since time immemorial. Folklore was customarily recited by male and female bards called ningmanso (ningmasu in some dialects). Men's performances (khuse nai ningmani) often included singing passages, but tradition forbade women to sing in the presence of men, so the female bards' performances (ekte nai ningmani) consisted entirely of spoken recitations. The ningmanso have all but disappeared from Nanai society, due not least to Soviet officialdom's policies aimed at suppressing non-Russian cultures, which it viewed as "backward" and "anti-Soviet." Nevertheless, scholars managed to collect and publish valuable folklore materials both in Nanai and in Russian translations during the Soviet period; this work has continued since the fall of communism, although in extremely difficult conditions. The growth of Nanai literacy has allowed a creative intellectual class to form during the 20th century. The poems, short stories, and novels of Grigorii Khodzher, Kisa Geiker, Vladimir Zaksor, Akim Samar, Andrei Passar, and Georgii Bel'dy have been published in both Nanai and Russian. On a worldwide level probably the best known Nanai figure is Dersu Uzala, the hero of the 1975 film of the same name by Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. Kurosawa's film was based on the memoir by early 20th century Russian explorer Vladimir Arsen'ev, whose book Dersu the Trapper describes his Nanai guide who accompanied Arsen'ev during his explorations of the Maritime Province.


Fishing and, to a lesser degree, hunting have been the mainstays of the Nanai economy for thousands of years. The phenomenal richness of the Nanai language's vocabulary in terminology relating to fishing tools and techniques attests to the important place fishing has occupied in Nanai daily life. The Nanais obtain fish by hooking, netting, trapping, and spearing. Most salmon fishing is done between July and September, when the salmon are spawning; carp, pike, and catfish are caught year-round. Otters, foxes, lynxes, and martens are hunted for their fur, which has traditionally been used in trade and clothing manufacture. These animals are caught by dead-falls, nets, and small self-firing bows and arrows called dengure that are rigged to shoot animals that disturb them. Meat is obtained from elk, deer, and boars, while squirrels provide both meat and fur. Game animals are either trapped by the same methods used to catch fur-bearing animals or are killed with spears or bows and arrows. Traditional Nanai economic activities greatly changed during the Soviet period: individual hunters and small hunting groups were replaced by state-run fishing and hunting enterprises. The use of firearms, which became common after Russian colonization began in the 19th century, has become universal in the 20th century, although rifles and shotguns have not eliminated traditional weapons.


Many traditional Nanai sports are based on fishing and hunting. For example, boat and ski races not only provide entertainment, but also teach young Nanais the skills necessary to travel to fishing spots and to pursue game animals. (Such races also allow older Nanais to maintain and refresh these skills.)

In one children's winter sport, khasigboan ("catch"), a small boy chosen for his speed and cunning plays the role of "deer," while three to five older boys pursue him on skis in the capacity of "hunters." (If there are more than five "hunters," there must be two "deer.") The "deer" sets off from the starting point alone, and the "hunters" follow 15 or 20 minutes later. The "deer" must return to the starting point without being caught by the "hunters," who attempt to find him and "shoot" him by symbolically touching him with a ski pole. The first "hunter" to thus shoot the deer is declared the winner and receives the title of " bongo khasigboan " or "best pursuer."


Nanai children of both sexes enjoy playing with dolls. Girls' dolls are made of birch-bark and paper and represent people; boys' dolls are made of animal bones and hair and birds' beaks and represent bears and other animals. A popular form of entertainment among adult Nanais is arakap , a board game similar to chess. Arakap uses a wooden board (undene) upon which are drawn five vertical and three horizontal "roads" (pokto) or lines. The game's two players move five "soldiers" (pikte) around the board in an attempt to outmaneuver each other. (Unlike chess, the "soldiers" in arakap are placed on the intersections between the "roads" rather than inside the squares formed by them.) If a "soldier" belonging to one player is backed into a corner and surrounded by two or more "soldiers" belonging to the other player, it is removed from the game. The player who loses all his "soldiers" first is the loser.


Nanai women are skilled at decorating items of clothing with appliqué and embroidery and fashioning containers from birch bark. Men carve decorations into knife handles, door posts, window sills, and other items of daily use. The clothing of shamans is particularly elaborate; it is usually decorated with pictures of trees, dragons, humans, birds, insects, snakes, and other animals. Spirals and waves are the most common geometric designs in Nanai folk art. Dragons (a result of Chinese influence) are also quite common. Wood is carved into statues representing spirits and amulets intended to bring their bearer good fortune. During the 20th century, secular wood sculpture, usually of human and animal figures, has also become common.


The modern Nanais face a variety of social problems that are shared by all native Siberian peoples. For example, many Nanais suffer from poor health brought about by heavy drinking, inadequate medical care and diet, and air and water pollution caused by Soviet-era mining and industrial practices. Nanai living standards are often low, due not only to the Soviet system's economic inefficiency (particularly in the distribution of consumer goods), but also to ethnic and racial prejudice as well: indigenous Amur peoples are often either paid less than Russians for equivalent work (even in fishing and other traditional economic activities) or confined to the lowest-paid jobs. The wasteful harvesting of the Nanais' natural resources by Soviet industry has resulted in the depletion of fish and other animal stocks and the destruction of more than 30% of the Amur region's forests. Issues of Nanai cultural survival have also come to the fore in recent years as a result of the lingering effects of policies intended by Stalin and his successors to force the Nanais and other non-Russian peoples to give up their "primitive" cultures in favor of the more "advanced" Russian one. Since the Nanais' arts, oral literature, folkways, and language were excluded from the local mass media and Nanai schools for decades, many young Nanais have been robbed of their cultural heritage. Nanai scholars, both in local teachers' colleges and in St. Petersburg's Pedagogical Institute of the Peoples of the North, are now making great efforts to expand knowledge of the Nanai language by training Nanai teachers and writing new textbooks and dictionaries for Nanai children. The relaxation of Soviet nationality policy under Mikhail Gorbachev allowed the Nanais to express pride in their cultural heritage without fear of being labeled "anti-Soviet," and Nanai music and dance festivals began to be held more frequently during the late 1980s. Nanai political activists, led by the cultural anthropologist Evdokiia Gaer, 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 before the Russian government and the public.


A strong division of labor and defined gender roles characterized relations between the sexes in traditional Nanai society. During and after the Second World War Russian Nanai society became strongly integrated in Soviet society and the Soviet economy. Among the Chinese Nanais, or Hezhens, their integration into the People's Republic of China began already in 1945, as the Nanais were one of the first minority nationalities to come under Communist control. For Soviet Nanai women traditional gender roles eroded quickly, and many Nanai women were able to benefit from educational possibilities the Soviet integration afforded. As a result among the Nanais, as among several other small Siberian peoples, women constitute a particularly active force in the preservation of Nanai culture and in advocating for the interests of Nanai communities.


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—revised by A. Frank

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