views updated


ETHNONYMS: Self-designations: Nani, Orochisel


The Orochi are one of the peoples of northern Russia, inhabitants of the Far East living in Khabarovsk Krai, mainly near the month of the Tumnin River; in the past they also lived along the tributaries of the Amur and on Lake Kizi. Their population in 1989 was 915 (in 1926 it was 647 and in 1970 it was 1,089). They speak the Orochi language of the Manchu-Tungusic Branch of Altaic. Their dispersed settlement pattern led to many mixed marriages, even in the nineteenth century. At present marriages with Russians predominate. Many young people have modern professions and live in cities and towns with mixed populations. Most of the young people no longer have a command of their national language.


The Orochi lived in small settlements (usually of one to three houses; rarely, of four or five) along rivers in the taiga. Half-earthen constructs with two sloping sides served as their winter dwellings, made warm by coverings of earthen blocks, as well as carpets. Some of the Orochi lived in winter dwellings with Chinese-type stove-bench heating, analogous to the type also known among the Nanai and Ul'cha of the Amur.

Summer dwellings were located along small rivers. These homes were rectangular bark houses or conical huts with two sloping sides. During the summer they changed locations several times, depending on the success of the catch. Winter dwellings served for decades, whereas the summer dwellings were seasonal.


The Orochi engaged in fishing and in forest and marine hunting in the Tatar Strait. Every man was a fisher, a hunter, and a constructor of wooden and bark dwellings and other buildings, boats, skis, and sleds. The Orochi forged metallic objects and fashioned nets and snares, etc. They caught fish year-round, partitioning off the rivers with nets and seines and fished with spears; for marine mammals they used harpoons. In the taiga, they hunted large animals year-round with spears, bows, and guns (since the nineteenth century), luring them with fifes. During the winter they used a wide variety of snares and nets to catch smaller animals. Dogs pulled transport sleds of various types.

Women's labor was not less significant than the men's. Women preserved the fish and meat caught by the men; created stocks of wild-growing edible, medicinal, and fibrous plants; prepared vital equipment from birch; worked the skins and furs of forest and marine mammals and fish; and sewed clothing and footwear from them for all members of the family, as well as making other household articles. They also fed and raised the children.

Fish constituted the basic nourishment. To a considerable degree, dried salmon (Russian: yukola ) provided the subsistence for the family. They caught the fish during the summer and fall, stocking up yukola for the entire year. The leftovers from the preparation of the yukola were fed to the pack dogs. The fat of fish and mammals, as well as their flesh, was also an important food source.

Traditionally, specialized seasonal hunting attire was an important part of Orochi clothing. Overcoats were fashioned from reindeer and nerpa (freshwater seal) skins, whereas summer clothing was made of suede, the pelts of wild goats, or cloth. The men's nerpa-skin frocks, overcoats, short fur breastplates under the clothing, and aprons over the clothes were characteristic apparel. Both men and women wore robes of cloth or fish skin, the women's being distinguished not by their cut but by the large quantity of adornments; the long woven breastplates (similar to those of the Evenki) were another characteristic element of the female costume. They had a large variety of footwear, depending on the undertaking and season. Specific hunting caps and helmets were also worn.

The Orochi had close ties with their neighborsthe Nanai, Ul'cha, and the Udegeiwhich are witnessed in their culture. They sold furs to these peoples' traders. In the eighteenth century La Perouse reported seeing Orochi men and women wearing robes not only of fish skin but also of Chinese fabric.

In the middle of the nineteenth century Russians settled among the Orochi on the Tumnin River (Imperial Harbor). The Orochi were Christianized. They acquired various equipment for the hunt, as well as everyday items, from Russian traders. Among the Orochi themselves there was little material inequality. At the turn of the century, the Russian administration designated the most well-to-do people as the leaders.

Kinship, Marriage, and Family

Nearly twenty clans were enumerated among the Orochi, numbering from 140 persons down to two or three families. Clans lived "dislocally"; their origin was complex. Exogamy was observed, as well as the custom of mutual aid; several clan festivals were celebrated. Distinctive unions existed, consisting of four to eight clans.

The traditional territorial community held great significance in their lives and required cooperation among its inhabitants. It dictated the appropriate rearing of children and represented the preservation of the traditional culture.

The families were predominantly small, with few children; unseparated families were uncommon. Occurrences of polygamy were for the most part the result of the custom of levirate. Women had high status.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Although the Orochi have formally adopted Christianity, the ceremonies associated with the reverence of spirits of naturebelieved to reside in the taiga, the rivers, the sea, and firehave been preserved from ancient times. Many women were shamans. The costume, drum, and belt with metallic pendants resembled the equipment of shamans among the Nanai and Ul'cha. An ancestor cult as well as cults of the nerpa, tiger, killer whale, and the bear existed. The Orochi kept a bear in captivity for two to three years (as did the Amur Nivkh and the Ul'cha). At the end of this period, kin and friends gathered; the festival entailed leading the bear around the houses and was accompanied by food, sacrifices, games, and dances, ending with the slaughter of the animal, the ceremonial eating of its meat, and burial of its bones. Deceased Orochi were buried in the ground or laid to rest on planks on several pillars.

Ornamental arts such as wood carving, appliqué and pressing on birch bark, embroidery on fabric or leather, and the creation of fur mosaics were highly developed.

Orochi lore is very rich. Its genres are historical tales and legends, folktales, riddles, songs, and dances, as well as children's and young people's games.

A. B. SMOLYAK (Translated by Gregory S. Anderson)