The Korak

©Edward J. Vajda


The Korak (often spelled Koryak) are closely related in language and culture to their northern neighbors, the Chukchi. Like the Chukchi, they are divided economically into coastal and inland groups. The Korak maritime hunters called themselves Nymylan; reindeer breeders generally called themselves Chawchyw, meaning "rich in reindeer," a term illustrating how closely related the Korak language is to Chukchi (Chawchu). In fact, the Chukchi and Korak are believed to have derived from a common ancestor tribe a few thousand years ago. Interestingly, there is no strong difference between male and female Korak speech (as is the case in Chukchi). The word "Korak" itself means "people close to reindeer," but seems only to have been adopted as an ethnonym after the coming of the Russians. In the past, the widely dispersed Korak tribes had no single recognized self designation (the term "Korak" was officially adopted only in Soviet times).

Today, there are over 9,000 Korak. Most live within the Korak Autonomous District northern (non-volcanic) part of the Kamchatka Peninsula. In the past, the Korak were subdivided into nine territorial groups, each speaking a distinct dialect and often feuding with one another. Even today, strong dialectal division make the use of a literary standard for all the groups very difficult and has rendered Korak a much less viable competitor with Russian than is the case with Chukchi (a language almost free of dialects). Many scholars, in fact, consider the Alyutor and Kerek dialects of Korak to be separate languages and attempts have been made to create literary standards for them. Alyutor still has a few hundred speakers left, while Kerek is all but extinct today, with only a handful of aged speakers left. Only about 5,000 of the remaining Korak groups speak some form of their language natively, the rest having switched to Russian.

Traditional lifeways

The differences between reindeer-breeding Korak and those semi-settled on the coast were not as pronounced as was the case among the Chukchi. This is possibly because the coastal Chukchi contain a strong Eskimo substrate, while the more southerly Korak apparently do not. Most Korak tribes kept large herds of reindeer and also used the animals for riding or pulling loads. Like the Chukchi, the Koraks herded their reindeer without dogs (though dogs were used to pull sleds). Some groups had fewer reindeer and relied more heavily on fishing and sea hunting. One group of Korak, the Alyutor (thought by some to be a distinct ethnic group, although this idea was suppressed in Soviet times), combined fishing and sea hunting with reindeer breeding to an extent not seen at all among the Chukchi. Sea hunting was done mainly in the spring and fall.

The principal dwelling was the hide-covered tent--yayanga in Korak, raranga in Alyutor--the same type which the Chukchi call yaranga. The more sedentary coastal dwellers lived in semi-subterranean dugouts of a kind archeology has revealed to be similar to the earliest prehistoric dwellings found in Northeast Asia. Korak coastal villages were once fairly populous. Because of the frequent warring and raiding between clans and tribes, encampments were fortified by an earthen wall (fighting between Korak clans, as well as with the Chukchi, was endemic).

Reindeer products and meat from fishing and hunting were the primary Korak staples. Gathering berries and wild roots (often by raiding mouse tunnels to obtain the latter) was a prominent chore of the women in summer and early fall. Plant foods were used more extensively by the Korak than by the more northerly Chukchi.

Korak clothing is very similar to that of the Chukchi: sealskin pullover outer garments and double fur shirts, with the fur sides facing opposite directions. As among the Chukchi, both sea-mammal and reindeer products were used extensively for clothing. The women, who sewed most of the clothing, were forbidden to pierce reindeer hide with a needle during the hunting season (so as not to offend the spirit of the wild reindeer, whose help was needed to secure a bountiful supply of meat for the winter).

Dugout boats were used for river travel during the summers. These were difficult to navigate and two were joined together for sea hunting. A type of kayak was also used.

The family was the principal economic unit in the Korak encampments. Each family was based on patrilineal kinship, although the mother took the children back to her clan in case of divorce. Each family worshipped its ancestor spirits and sometimes other spirits who had no living ancestors might be adopted by a family.

Korak shamanism was similar to that of the Chukchi; a shaman lacked any special clothing, although sometimes the Korak shaman practiced cross-dressing or dressed in a combination of men's and women's footware or clothing (like the Chukchi). An extract prepared from the poisonous fly-agaric mushroom (often mixed with human urine) was consumed to induce hallucinogenic trances. The Korak usually cremated their dead.

The Korak revered the wolves as their wild relative and refused to kill them even to protect their reindeer. (Interestingly, the ancient Turks and Mongols also traced their descent from the wolf). Korak hunters also ceremonially asked their prey for permission before killing it (something widespread among Native American tribes). Elaborate public seal and whale ceremonies for this purpose also occured in the maritime encampments before the fall and spring hunts.

The oral folklore of the Koraks tell of trade relations as well as frequent hostile clashes with the Chukchi, Ewen and other neighbors. Unlike the Chukchi, however, the Korak were subdued by the Russian Empire in the 18th century, since they lived in an area with more fur wealth that attracted a more determined caste of Russian invaders.

The Itelmen

©Edward J. Vajda


The Itelmen, who lived in the southern (volcanic) half of the Kamchatka Peninsula, also spoke a language (actually three languages) demonstrably related to Chukchi and Korak. Yet their culture and folklore is quite different from that of their northern neighbors. The Itelmen, a term which means "living man," are thought to be the direct descendants of the ancient inhabitants of Kamchatka. In the 18th century southern Kamchatka, the most hospitable area of the North Pacific, attracted much Russian settlement, and the Itelmen language and culture has been all but wiped out. Consequently, only a few villages preserve any traditional Itelmen language and culture today. Although there are nearly 5,000 people today who trace their ancestry back primarily to the Itelmen, fewer than 100 can speak Itelmen fluently, and most of these are older generation. When the Itelmen intermarried with the earliest Russian colonists, a creole (mixed) group called the Kamchadals was created. The Kamchadals today speak a curious dialect of Russian mixed with substrate features of Itelmen. It is virtually certain that this Itelmenized dialect of Russian will soon be all that survives if the Itelmen language in everyday usage. There is no special Itelmen political district, and the southern half of Kamchatka, so overwhelmingly populated with Russians today, belongs to the Russian area of the Russian Federation.

Traditional lifeways

Because Itelmen culture collapsed during the 18th century due to Russian-brought diseases and economic exploitation, much of what we know of Itelment traditions comes from the writing of the remarkable Russian naturalist Stepan Krasheninnikov, who lived among the Itelmen in the mid 18th century. Traditionally, the Itelmen were mainly sedentary fishermen living in permanent dwellings along the seacoast or beside the numerous small rivers that flow from Kamchatka's mountainous spine down to the Pacific or the Sea of Okhotsk. They fished primarily with nets and hooks. The annual salmon run was the most important event in the subsistance pattern of the Itelmen tribes. Sea hunting was also an important occupation among many groups. Whale was hunted off southern Kamchatka with arrows poisoned with the juice of a local plant. Wild plant gathering was more important among the Itelmen than among other northern Pacific peoples. Gathering the plants was women's work, while hunting was the occupation of men. Food was cooked in wooden troughs into which red-hot stones were placed.

The Itelmen village consisted of winter and summer dwellings. The winter dwellings were semi-subterranean huts fashioned out of the bones of sea animals. Summer dwellings were a type of grass-covered tent set on wooden stilts, which the Russians called balagan.

The Itelmen used dogs for transportation, as well as dugout canoes similar to those used by their northern Korak neighbors. The dog sled of the Itelmen, Korak, and Chukchi was adapted by the Russians and spread to the Nenets and other peoples of Western Siberia in the 18th century.

The Itelmen, like the Korak and Chukchi, believed in a raven creator. But they didn't hold him in high esteem, telling amusing and even obscene storied about him. There apparently was no belief in the importance of funeral practices. Dead children were interred in hollowed logs; the corpses of dead adults were usually given to the dogs to eat.