views updated


ETHNONYMS: Giliak, Gilyak; Giriya(a)ku, Nibuhi, Nikubun (Japanese). Forms with final -i as in Nivkhi and Gilyaki are Russian plurals.


Identification. The Nivkh live along the lower Amur River, especially near its estuary and on the island of Sakhalinadministratively a part of Russia. They call themselves "Nivkh" (Amur dialect) and "Nighvng" (South Sakhalin dialect), which means "human being, person." The ethnonym "Gilyak" comes from the name of a continental Tungusic group (Kil-, Gil-) that lived near the Nivkh when they were first discovered by the Russians as they were pushing toward the east.

Location. The present-day location of the Nivkh (approximately 53° N, 142° E) has probably been their home since Neolithic times. It is likely that, before contact with the Manchu and the Russians, the Nivkh occupied a larger, inland, area along the lower Amur and perhaps along the coast of the Sea of Okhotsk.

Demography. In 1989 there were 4,631 Nivkh. Of these, 1,199 (or 25.9 percent) claimed Nivkh as their first (native) language. About half of the Nivkh live on the continent and half on Sakhalin.

Linguistic Affiliation. The language is an isolate (not demonstrably related to any other). It is classified as Paleosiberian (with Ket, Yukagir, and Chukchee-Koryak-Itelmen), an artificial remainder-group of North Asian languages. There are two main dialects: one spoken on the continent and in the north of Sakhalin and the other in the rest of Sakhalin.

History and Cultural Relations

The earliest settlers of the island of Sakhalin came from the Amur region in two waves, around 2000 b.c. and 1000 b.c. A Neolithic people, they are thought to have been, in part, the ancestors of the Nivkh. Today's Nivkh, therefore, are an amalgam of earlier and later populations. Another early group on Sakhalin were the Ainu, who came from present-day Japan, in the south. (The Nivkh names for the Ainu are "Kui" and "Khughi"; the Chinese name of the island of Sakhalin is "Ku-ye-dao," where dao means "island.") Beginning with the thirteenth century, Chinese historical records mention tribes by the name of "Ji-li-mi" and "Qi-li-mi." These references are probably to the ancestors of the Nivkh or their early neighbors. The earliest mentions of these people in Russian sources are in travel accounts from the seventeenth century.

The Nivkh were fairly well studied by the middle of the nineteenth century: there had been a large expedition to the area (under Leopold von Schrenck) from 1854 to 1856. This was followed by economic exploitation, the arrival of political exiles, and the visit of the famous author Anton Chekhov, who also mentions the Nivkh (Gilyak) in his book on Sakhalin (The Island, first published in 1893-1894). On the mainland, the closest neighbors of the Nivkh were various South Tungusic tribes; on Sakhalin they were in close touch with the Orok (also a South Tungusic tribe) and with the Ainu. Until 1917 only weak attempts were made to integrate the Nivkh into the imperial Russian economic and social structure. From 1905 to 1945 Japan owned the southern half (south of 50°) of Sakhalin. Japan also controlled portions of the economy in northern Sakhalin from 1918 until about 1940. In 1945, when the USSR occupied the entire island, there were about 100 Nivkh on the Japanese (southern) half of the island.

An alphabet for the Nivkh language, based on the Latin script, was created in 1931; books (mostly primers) were published in 1932; campaigns to encourage hygiene, collectivization, and general education were launched at about the same time. An alphabet based on the Cyrillic script replaced the one based on Latin in 1940. By 1990 there were two orthographies, to accommodate the two dialects. At present the Nivkh are integrated into the Russian economy and culture, with the degree of acculturation high and increasing; yet many Nivkh continue to engage in traditional occupations (seal hunting, fishing) and are aware of their heritage, which they are eager to perpetuate.


Traditionally, up to about twenty dwellings constituted a hamlet or a village. Such settlements resembled those of other Siberian groups and had about 100 inhabitants. Villages (wo, vo ) were generally near estuaries or along protected stretches of coastline. As seminomads, the Nivkh are impelled by their fishing activities to move about in groups during certain parts of the year, depending on the location of resources and on the season. Their houses (tyf, taf ) are now above the ground (wooden, rectangular, with raised floor and gabled roof) but were semisubterranean (with a flat, earth-covered roof) in earlier times. Conical temporary shelters called prshy can vary in size; they were traditionally made of fish skin and erected on the shore in the autumn, during periods of intensive fishing. The term nyo refers to a storehouse or plain house built on pillars.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities . At least 50 percent of Nivkh subsistence activity consisted of fishing (with nets and seines) along the coast and along estuaries for Siberian and humpback salmon. In the spring, the Nivkh usually also hunted sea lions and seals, using harpoons and clubs. Hunting for land mammals (bears, marten, sables, otters) during the fall, after the fishing season, was and still is a secondary activity. The only traditionally domesticated animal is the dog. It served mainly as a draft animal but still plays a ritual role in religion. The domesticated reindeer was introduced after intensive contact with the Tungus; it serves as a draft animal. (Reindeer terminology, including words connected with castration and the names given to individual reindeer, is still transparently of Tungusic origin.) There was a limited amount of activity (about 15 percent) devoted to the gathering of small plants and the trapping of animals. Agriculture was introduced at the time of the disintegration of the native economy toward the end of the nineteenth century. It persists along with limited cattle breeding.

Industrial Arts. The Nivkh have always built sleds, woven rope, fashioned weapons for hunting and the equipment used in fishing and sealing, and made cooking utensils. Even before contact with the Russians there were blacksmiths among them, who reworked and reprocessed Chinese, Japanese, and Russian knives and weapons. Metallurgy never developed into an art, but there was work with copper (inlaid spear tips) and silver.

Trade. Before contact with the Russians, the Nivkh (especially those on the continent) had close commercial relations with the Chinese, in all likelihood mainly through Manchu merchants. Some Yakut seem to have moved to Sakhalin during the nineteenth century. In the twentieth century a great many Koreans came there as well. At present much of the Nivkh economy is collectivized. They are only marginally integrated into the petroleum industry in the northern part of Sakhalin.

Division of Labor. Traditionally, the women processed the skins of fish, seals, reindeer, and dogs; worked with birch bark; gathered plants; and sewed. They prepared food, raised children, and, to a large extent, perpetuated certain artistic genres (songs, tales, ditties). Men hunted, fished, and built boats, canoes, and houses; during the late nineteenth century some men hired themselves out to Russian entrepreneurs. There was a limited amount of slavery: slaves were relatively free and mostly did housework (fetching water, chopping wood); they are mentioned in native epics.

Land Tenure. Land tenure concerned mainly fishing and grazing grounds that were used seasonally. These grounds passed from father to son.


Kin Groups and Descent. There are several dozen Nivkh clans. Each clan is defined by clan exogamy and by payment of blood money and bride-price, and the expenses for burial, the bear festival, and clan-controlled storehouses. Clans are patrilineal. Yet anthropologists have noted and theorists have emphasized some important unique features, such as a man's relationship to his maternal uncle (ritual gifts, ransom money); some posit that these features point to an earlier matrilineal or matrilocal system. The bear, the hearth (fire), and the flint stone (for ritual fire) also symbolized the clan.

Kinship Terminology. For cousins, kin terminology followed the Iroquois system: father's sister's children are called by the same names as mother's brother's children (as contrasted with siblings and parallel cousins). Another kinship term that has two meanings is err (in the South Sakhalin dialect). It can mean both "my wife's father" and "my mother's older brother." Both of the persons designated by "err" are one generation older than the speaker and both are from the same clan.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. The preferred (and traditionally required) model was matrilateral cross-cousin marriage: a man married his mother's brother's daughter. This manlet us say, of clan Btook his wife from clan C (i.e., his mother's brother's clan) and gave his daughters in marriage to males of clan A. The groom paid the bride-price in goods to the bride's kin. Marital residence was patrilocal.

Domestic Unit. The basic group was the independent nuclear family. Monogamy was the rule, but there was a certain amount of polygyny. Group marriage among the Nivkh was reported late in the nineteenth century by L. Shternberg; it attracted the attention of Friedrich Engels, who published a note on it in 1893.

Inheritance. Local headmanship was inherited patrilineally; the designated heirs had precedence over sons. Movable property was divided equally among the sons. Those members of a clan who were unable to work were supported by the clan.

Socialization. Traditional family life was intimate. Children were weaned relatively late. The separation of the sexes was not rigid, except for the postpartum segregation of the mother. Maxims and sayings played an important part in perpetuating traditional social behavior. Hostility was easily expressed, but equally easily allowed to dissipate. Education was introduced in the 1930s by the Soviet regime. The traditional ethos forbade sexual relations for unmarried women, at least theoretically.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Age, among the Nivkh, is associated with wisdom and accorded respect. The shaman, however, may have more prestige and command more respect than an elder clansman. Traditional everyday life-style was dictated by the economy and the division of labor that was associated with it. Slavery was rare (see "Division of Labor").

Political Organization. Clans were also political units in the sense that it was the clan that dictated alliances and arbitrated settlements through the payment of blood money. During the periods of czarist and Japanese economic exploitation, there was little room for political organization, action, or expression. With the advent of the Soviet period, the Nivkh gradually melted into the new economic and political system after an initial period of hesitancy. A very small ethnic group that never posed a threat to the Soviet ideology or economic system (or to any other group in the area), the Nivkh were in a privileged position: they could exploit their political or cultural aspirations, if these were feasible and reasonable. Thus, even during periods of officially proclaimed and enforced atheism, the Nivkh enjoyed relatively more religious freedom than larger groups, which threatened Soviet ideology.

Social Control. Clan cohesion and a pyramidal system based on age allowed for a tight system of control. The payment of blood money replaced an earlier form of the vendettaobligatory vengeance along clan lines. The rites connected with the payment of blood money were regulated by the members of a neutral clan, who also officiated at the ritual: confrontation, ritual duel, ritual killing of a dog, and payment of the sum.

Conflict. Sympathies and antipathies toward coterritorial groups (traditionally Tungusic and Ainu) are not pronounced. Relics and fragments in Nivkh folklore tell of "wars," but it is difficult to find empirical evidence of these. Nivkh armor is considered a treasure and seems to have been used mainly to make payments or for other obligations rather than in combat.

Religion and Expressive Cultures

Religious Beliefs. The Nivkh conception of nature is pervaded by animistic beliefs. There are vague notions about a god and about gods, but on a more explicit level, the mountains, the sea, and the rivers were all believed to have their "masters" (yz, yzng ), who provided sustenance to humans. Because each clan also had a specific relationship to the bear and the bear was an yz, the bear festival, which was essentially a religious festival, also strengthened both clan cohesion and the perpetuation of beliefs. The island of Sakhalin was interpreted anthropomorphically, with geographic regions corresponding to parts of the human body. One cosmogonic myth invokes a flood and a reversal: today's mountains were seas and the seas were mountains. The Nivkh believe that certain animals are invested with supernatural powers and that some humans are capable of transforming themselves into foxes. Humans are admonished not to mistreat parts of fish left over after cooking and eating lest they offend the "sea master." Sixty-eight percent of the Nivkh counted in the 1897 census were reportedly Russian Orthodox; it is very likely that these people accepted baptism nominally, without an understanding of Christian doctrine.

Religious Practitioners. The shamanwhose main function is to diagnose and cure diseaseis the intermediary between humans in this world and the gods in the other worlds. The shaman, who may be male or female, has both worldly and otherworldly assistants on the trip to the other worlds and in those worlds. During the shamanistic séance, the shaman beats a drum (ghas ). The noise that results, as well as the noise from the appendages on the shaman's belt (which are often of metal), symbolize the shaman's trip and negotiations with higher powers. The shaman's payment is in goods.

Ceremonies. At a certain mythic level of discourse, the bear is kin to the Nivkh. The prime religious ceremony is, therefore the bear festival. It usually takes place in the winter and (like a drama) consists of a series of events: the receiving and feeding of the guests (of a determined clan), the teasing of the bear, the ritual feeding of the bear, the mock shooting followed by the real shooting of the bear, its dismemberment, the ritual exchange of gifts, the banquet, and the feeding of sacrificial dogs, which are then killed. During the festival there is also dancing and the performance of various games and sports.

Arts. Along with decorative arts (sewing, carving), there are verbal arts: folk tales, riddles, sayings, and epics. Epics are recited (generally by a respected bard) and contain sung portions. The bard is periodically encouraged by utterances of encouragement ("yes" or "carry on") from the audience. Music is pentatonic and has mainly four notes (G, C, D, E), with embellishments. Most songs (lu ) are lyrical and depict a state of the soul or of nature. The Nivkh have a one-stringed instrument and the Jew's harp, made of metal or of bamboo. Ditties are recited by women toward the end of the bear festival; their recital is accompanied by the rhythmical striking, with sticks, of a specially prepared and decorated tree trunk. A viable and active national intelligentsia has developed since 1917. Since 1989 there has been a Nivkh magazine, published partly in Nivkh and partly in Russian.

Medicine. Disease is thought to be caused by the breaking of taboos. It is the shaman's task to drive out evil spirits and to negotiate with higher powers on the patient's behalf. Along with the shaman's intervention there is a very large array of plants and plant matter (and also some animal parts) that are used either to cure diseases (remedies) or to prevent diseases (talismans).

Death and Afterlife. Death is believed to be caused by evil spirits (called milk and kinr or kins). One of the shaman's functions is to combat these. After death, the soul wanders off to the underground world (mly-wo ). The Nivkh both cremate and bury their dead. The clan's function is again evident (as in the case of the bear festival, which is in part connected with the cult of the dead) in that the inte ent must be carried out by clan members. It is accompanied by various rites, such as the breaking of the deceased's kettle, gun, and sled and the killing of dogs. The remembrance of the dead calls for the construction of a ritual miniature wooden house (raf ) into which is placed a memorial tablet (ghag ). The Gilyak cult of dead twins has attracted much attention.


Black, Lydia (1973). "The Nivkh (Gilyak) of Sakhalin and the Lower Amur." Arctic Anthropology 10:1-110.

Engels, Frederick (1893). "A Recently Discovered Case of Group Marriage." In The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, 238-214. Reprint. 1972. New York: International Publishers. (Contains a translation of Shternberg's note published in Russian in 1892.)

Ivanov, S. V., M. G. Levin, and A. V. Smolyak (based on data by A. M. Zolotarev) (1964). "The Nivkhi." In The Peoples of Siberia, edited by M. G. Levin and L. P. Potapov, 767-787. Translated by Stephen P. Dunn and Ethel Dunn. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Originally published in Russian in 1956.

Taksami, Ch. M. (1967). Nivkhi: Sovremennoe khozaistvo, kul'tura i byt (The Nivkhi: Present-day economy, culture, and mode of life). Leningrad: Nauka.