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ETHNONYMS: Self-designation: Ul'ta; Uilta Wilta


The Orok are one of the indigenous peoples of Sakhalin Island. They are divided into two groups: the Southern Orok live near the Bay of Patience and the Northern Orok on the Val River. The Russians on Sakhalin have erroneously called them "Orochi" or "Orochoni" In the census of 1897, 446 Northern and 334 Southern Orok were counted. In later censuses, they were not distinguished as a separate People of the North. According to the data of ethnographic researchers during the 1970s, the Orok population stood at about 450 to 500. They continue to speak their native language, which is a member of the Manchu-Tungusic Branch of the Altaic Family. Despite the linguistic similarity of the two peoples, the Orok almost never came into contact with those Evenki who had moved over to Sakhalin in the 1860s.

Soviet linguists maintained that there are ancient Altaic residues in the languages of the Orok, the mainland Ul'cha, and the Nanai, which would point to the great antiquity of the settlement by these three peoples in this territory. It has also been maintained that in both Orok culture and language, there are many ancient autochthonous (non-Nivkh and non-Tungusic) traces. All this new information refutes earlier claims that the Orok were later settlers on the island.


The main occupations of the Orok were fishing and forest- and marine-mammal hunting, which provided them their basic foods; they used the furs and skins of the animals and fish for clothing and footwear. They exchanged the products of fur hunting for cloth, metallic instruments, and agricultural products.

The Southern Orok have abandoned their characteristic reindeer herding. Contacts with neighborsthe Nivkh and Ainu, as well as the Ul'cha and Nanai families that came over to Sakhalin from the mainlandand not infrequent jaunts to the Amur area were evident in all spheres of Orok culture. Reverse influences, however, are also noted.

Equipment similar to that of the Ul'cha and Nanai was employed in hunting and fishing: nets, harpoons, bows, spears, and snares. Hollowed-out boats were of the Nivkh type. In general, the material culture of the Orok had a characteristic lower-Amur appearance: they used Amur-specific boots of the skin of fish and sea mammals, men's frocks of freshwater seal (Russian: nerpa ) fur, "left-flap" robes, and so forth. The terminology that predominated was similar to that of the Ul'cha.

The Orok were distiguished from all other peoples of the lower Amur and Sakhalin by the practice of reindeer breeding for transport: they used reindeer under packs or saddles and they harnessed them to sleds. The system of reindeer herding and many objects associated with this branch of the economy (for example, the construction of the sled) had no analogy among other reindeer-herding peoples of Siberia and the North. The same can be said about their summer dwellings. Alongside the conical dwellinga type of Evenki tent, but covered with fish skinthe Orok used conical lean-tos with two sloping sides.

Among the Southern Orok, the types of dwellings were not distinct. This group used dogs for transport and sleds of the Amur type.

Kinship and Sociopolitical Organization

The clan makeup of the Orok was special: only one of the twelve clans was related to the Ul'cha; the remainder were autochthonous and not close to any other group.

The Orok are divided into several communities, each one uniting a number of small families. Each of the Northern groups nomadized during the winter along several closely spaced mountain rivers and engaged in forest hunting; during the summer (three to four months), all the Orok frequented one and the same bay, year after year, while nearby, members of the community pastured the reindeer and simultaneously worked the rivers and sea. In each such group there were related and unrelated families; mutual aid was characteristic among both, and intermarriage was allowed if the rule of exogamy were observed. As among the peoples of the Amur related to them, the custom existed of forming conjugal unions between different clans, including between Nivkh and Ul'cha and between Southern Orok and Ainu. Reindeer entered into the bride-price of the Northern Orok, whereas clothing and equipment constituted the dowry. The bride was brought on a reindeer sled.

As a whole, the Northern Orok were poor. In 1925 there were 1,011 reindeer among forty-six families; some families were reindeerless, and many had fewer than five head. The wealthiest possessors of reindeer exercised strong influence over the community. The power of elders was great in resolving conflicts, regardless of their material standing.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Orok religious beliefs are associated with the surrounding environment. A world-creator, Xaddáu, taught them trades, hunting, and the rules of relations. They also revered the master of the sea, Teomu; his assistants, the killer whales; and Dooto, the master of the forest. They performed bloodless sacrifices to the spirits before and after the hunt. They returned the skull, bones, and eyes of a slain nerpa seal to the sea.

Like other peoples of the Amur, the Orok revered the bear. The ritual of the bear hunt, the festival after catching the animal, the observance of a number of taboos during meals, the ritual burial of the bones of the consumed animalall this differed from customs carried out in such instances by the Ul'cha, Orochi, and Nivkh. The same can be said about the bear festival, which is held two to four years after keeping the animal in captivity (beginning as a small cub). The captivity itself was dependent on several prohibitions. They considered the bear the son of the master of the forest; deviation from the ancient rules (i.e., violation of the taboos) incurred the anger of the master and required the death of the violator or one of his kinsmen. A huge crowd gathered for the bear festival, at which reindeer races and games were organized.

Orok shamanism was most similar to that of the Ul'cha. Human spirits, the spirits of good and evil, and the neutral assistants of the shaman all came into play. The basic energies of the shaman were directed at the activity of the spirits of the sick and the spirits that try to help them. The shaman regularly fed these spirits, which were his assistants during special procedures. Sometimes he would go around in his complete outfit (special suit, drum, belt with rattles) visiting all the houses of the settlement to receive aid from his fellow villagerssustenance for the spirit helpers. The Orok buried the dead in plank coffins in high pillars (up to 2 meters). The burial, in which the shaman did not take part, was preceded by various ceremonies (there were many), whereas after the burial there were various memorials. Orok spiritual culture (folklore, ornamental art) is no less rich than that of other peoples of the Amur.

In the nineteenth century the Orok adopted Christianity. Some people, generally those possessing larger reindeer herds, traveled to Nikolaevsk on the mainland, where they traded pelts and had their children baptized.

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