The Chukchi

©Edward J. Vajda


The Chukchi are the largest group of the northeastern Paleoasiatics, and speak a language related to that of their more southerly neighbors and relatives, the Korak and Itelmen. There is some evidence that the Paleoasiatic languages are distantly related to the languages of the Eskimos and Aleuts, with which they share a number of structural and lexical features. Chukchi, however, is unique in having a sharply different pronunciation when spoke by women, on the one hand, and men, on the other.

Traditionally, the Chukchi were divided into two groups according to their means of subsistence. The first included coastal hunters, who called themselves Anqallyt, which means seaside-dwellers. Anqallyt lifeways shared many common features with that of the neighboring Yupik Eskimo. In general, the aborigines of the North Pacific coast were sedentary marine hunters. The second group of Chukchi were tundra reindeer breeders, who called themselves Chawchu, which means "reindeer people" (and from which the Russians derived "Chukchi"). In general, the inland peoples of the Far East as well as Siberia were wandering hunter-gatherers. Both economic groups of Chukchi speak the same language with very little dialectal differentiation and consider themselves to be a single people (intermarriage is common). The Chukchi word Luoravetlan, which means "real people," was also sometimes used with reference to both groups of Chukchi, especially in the 1920-30's, but today it has fallen into disuse.

It was once thought that the Chukchi migrated back into Asia over the Bering Strait from Alaska. For this reason they (along with their relatives, the Korak and Itelmen) were called "Americanoids." Ethnographers today reject this notion and consider that the Chukchi most are probably the descendants of the earliest reindeer breeding nomads to move northward toward the North Pacific coast (possibly due to competition from more southerly Tungusic neighbors). The Chukchi then displaced the maritime Eskimo as they went, blending with them to form the coastal Alqallyt culture. Although Chukchi folklore tells of frequent clashes with the Eskimo, it is probable that the seaside Anqallyt are Chukchi who intermarried with Eskimos and adopted their way of life. Seaside Chukchi speech does in fact show some substrate influence of Yupik Eskimo. Archeological evidence, too, indicates that most of the Chukchi range before the Russian invasion was former Eskimo territory.

Today there are over 15,000 Chukchi, making them one of the most numerous groups of Native Siberians, in contrast to their former neighbors, the Yukagir, who today are on the verge of ethnic and linguistic oblivion. In fact, the Chukchi have the distinction of being one of the only native groups to resist Russian colonization with some success. In fact, they were never completely defeated in war (the even wiped out a whole regiment of cossacks led by one Pavlutsky, in a battle very much reminescent of General Custer's ill-fated Battle of Little Big Horn. Thanks to the inaccessibility and inhospitable nature of their tundra home and their legendary warlike character, and perhaps most of all to the lack of furbearing animals in the Far Eastern tundra, the Chukchi Peninsula was only declared annexed to the Russian Empire toward the end of the 18th century, well after the rest of Siberia had been thoroughly subdued. Even up to the 20th century, the Chukchi never really paid yasak; instead, they traded with both Russians and American whalers as they pleased and never formally accepted Russian overlordship.

Today, at least 10,000 Chukchi still retain their native tongue. The Chukchi language is practically free of dialects and Soviet linguists found it easy to establish a literary standard. Chukchi is therefore likely to survive and expand rather than die out. In fact, many neighboring peoples, including Russians, speak Chukchi as a second language. The Chukchi thus have expanded their numbers through linguistic assimilation, even though Chukchi, like all the minority languages, is under some threat by Russian.

There is one other interesting footnote to the development of the modern Chukchi nation. One tribe of the Yukagir called the Chuwan assimilated to the Chukchi in the 19th century and once spoke a mixed dialect of Chukchi-Yukagir. Today, their descendants number over 1,700. Although only a small portion have retained their mixed language, the Chuwan consider themselves to be a separate ethnic group.

Traditional lifeways--reindeer Chukchi (Chawchu)

The nomadic reindeer-breeding Chukchi lived in the tundra areas of the northernmost Far East. The size of Chukchi herds was on average larger than that of their neighbors. Herding was done without the aid of dogs (unlike the reindeer herding of more southerly Turkic peoples). The herdsman was compelled to keep watch on all the reindeer by himself. Since the reindeer were not very tame (even draught reindeer often had to be subdued with the aid of a lariat), and attacks by wolves and other predators would often scatter the herd, this was a difficult task. The Chukchi castrated a reindeer by catching the animal with a lariat; then two Chukchi would hold it down while a third crushed the animal's testicles with his teeth.

The reindeer Chukchi used a type of tent called a yaranga. This yaranga consisted of reindeer pelts arranged on a pole tent. One tent was used by the herdsman and moved from day to day; the bulk of the population of a tribe, housed in up to 10 yarangas, would follow in a more sporadic pattern, changing camp several times a year. Tents were arranged in a line running from the east to the west, according to social status, with the wealthiest family living in the easternmost tent (probably an ancient hunter-gatherer custom retained also by the Ket).

Food chiefly consisted of reindeer products. The Chukchi used not only the meat, fat, and brain, but also the blood and the digesting contents of the stomach. The stomach contents (ril'keil') were stored up and used as breakfast food.

The products of reindeer breeding were frequently exchanged with blubber and other products produced by the coastal seahunters. Sometimes, a tundra Chukchi would settle down in a sea village; conversely, a sea hunter might acquire reindeer and change to a nomadic life in the tundra. So the two economic groups of Chukchi were a single ethnos (in other words, the Luoravetlan, or "Real People," as opposed to Ewen, Yukagir, Eskimo and others, who were not quite "real people.")

Traditional lifeways--seaside Chukchi (Anqallyt)

The semi-sedentary Chukchi hunters of the northern Pacific seacoast (the Anqallyt) shared much in their way of life with their Yupik Eskimo neighbors. The hunters took whale and several species of seal, their main weapon being a type of harpoon. The Chukchi used dogs to locate breathing holes in the winter ice. At such a hole, a seal would be caught in a net, dragged onto the ice and bludgeoned, its body hauled back to camp on a dogsled. Whale and walrus were hunted in the open sea by parties of hunters in walrus-hide canoes called baidarkas. A whale or walrus harpoon was attached to an air-filled bladder which made the wounded animal struggle harder to dive back into the sea. Fishing was also important in the summer, as was bird hunting. The Chukchi used a special type of knotted cord, which they hurled at a flock of birds, entangling some of the birds. Sea birds were caught in special noose traps made of reindeer tendon bartered from the tundra Chuckhi.

The principal food of the coastal Chukchi was the flesh and blubber of walrus and seal. Meat was stored by being sewn into the skins of seals and buried in frozen ground. The result was a type of fermented meat (kopal'gyn) which was eaten all winter. The Chukchi used no salt in food preservation. Fish was generally eaten raw, but could also be sun dried and stored for winter use.

Though agriculture was virtually impossible in the extreme north, Chukchi women and children did use a type of curved horn implement to dig wild roots during the short summer season. Wild roots were often obtained from mouse burrows. The young leaves of certain species of willow trees were eaten and used as garnish with meat.

Like the reindeer Chukchi, the coastal Chukchi lived in yarangas, except that walrus skins were substituted as the covering for the tent (These walrus pelts were traditionally cured with human urine, a practice which rendered the interior of Chukchi yarangas unpleasantly smelly for Russians and other European visitors. A village might consist of up to 20 tents. The coastal tent, which didn't need to be moved very often, was larger and sturdier than that of the reindeer breeders. The yaranga was heated and lit with seal oil lamps. The interior of a large yaranga might be divided into three or four compartments. According to legends (substantiated by archeological evidence), the coastal Chukchi once lived in semi-subterranean dwellings made from whale and walrus bones; tthe yaranga was a later adaptation.

Coastal Chukchi travelled by dogsled, while the reindeer Chukchi rode their reindeer. Both groups also used freight sleds during moves.

Chukchi dress was of the pullover variety, with no lenghthwise slit to button or fasten-- a style of clothing used by both reindeer and coastal Chukchi. This outer garment was made from young reindeer pelts or sealskins. As an inner garment, men wore a double fur shirt (known in Russian as the kukashka) on their bare bodies. The inner portion had the fur directly in contact with the skin, while the outer portion positioned the furry side external to the body. In rainy summer weather (rain and dampness were a constant feature of the short north Pacific summers) the coastal Chukchi wore a waterproof covering made of walrus intestine.

The Chukchi practiced tattooing as a form of amulet. Customary tattoos consisted of several lines on the chin for women (believed to guard against infertility) and small circles at the corners of the mouth for men.

Traditionally, both groups of Chukchi seem to have consisted of patriarchal groups. The basic socioeconomic unit of the coastal Chukchi was the so-called baidar party (a baidar, or baidarka is a type of big, ocean-going canoe), the members of which hunted together in the same baidarka. The basic socioeconomic unit of the reindeer Chukchi was the hunter encampment. Every family group maintained its sacred fire obtained by rubbing a special fire stick. Persons belonging to the same patrilineal kinship group were called "people of one fire." Ongoing vendettas, precipitated by murders or interclan disputes of various sorts, were very common. Crimes such as murder within the Chukchi community were also sometimes punished by enslavement of the guilty party. Before the 20th century, the Chukchi also raided their neighbors for slaves. According to traditional Chukchi belief, only those who died a voluntary death (in contrast to being murdered or dying from an accident) were accorded a privileged place in the afterlife. This belief gave rise to a curious practice: sick or older Chukchi would often announce their death intention to relatives, who then strangled them. Suicide was also a very common means of avoiding death at the hand of an avenging clan during the frequent and violent intergroup warfare. Corpses were dressed in burial clothes and either cremated or exposed in the tundra.

The Chukchi were animists, with shamans having a special place in the society. Shamans did not have special costumes, but could be distinguished by the numerous amulets and tassels sewn into their clothing.Men or women could become shamans, and effeminacy in young boys was taken as a sign that the child was meant by the spirits to become a shaman.

The principal festivals of the reindeer Chukchi were associated with the autumn and early winter slaughter of the animals. Reindeer were sacrificed to the spirits to insure future success and protection of the herds. The principal rituals of the coastal Chukchi involved sacrifices to the sea and the festival of the baidarka. These festivals involved placating spirits who would then protect the hunting parties out at sea. The wolf and killer whale were believed to be one being, and it was taboo to kill or offend either, even when wolves attacked the reindeer herd.