Native Peoples of Russia's Maritime Province

©Edward J. Vajda

Introduction: The Russian Far East

The strip of Russian territory on the Pacific coast from the Amur delta south to the Korean border is called the Russian Far East (or the Maritime Province). Like Kamchatka and the Chukchi Peninsula, the Maritime Province is not considered part of Siberia. For one thing, it has a warmer, wetter climate. And instead of the coniferous taiga, the well-watered land supports hardwood forest similar to those found in eastern China and the eastern United States.

What is today Russia's Maritime Province was long under the influence of the rulers of China, and some of the native tribes paid tribute to the Chinese emperor before the area was ceded to Russia in 1860. Several native peoples--all related rather closely to the Ewenki in language and customs--lived in this area during the 17th century. Several of these still exist there as small but distinct ethnic groups: Nanai, Ulchi, Negidal, Oroch, Orok, and Udegei, all of which are closely related in language and culture (being Tungus-Manchu speaking invaders from the taiga and related to the Ewenki and Ewen peoples).

The Nanai (Goldi)

©Edward J. Vajda

The largest Tungusic-speaking people of the Russian Far East are the Nanai. They live along the middle reaches of the Amur river valley, and adopted much from the aboriginal Nivkh-related population, including fishing techniques and the manufacture of fishskin clothing. The Nanai show a mixture of Tungusic (Ewenki), aboriginal Nivkh, as well as Chinese-Manchu elements in their culture and language. The Nanai language, which is still spoken by about 5,000 of the remaining 12,000 Nanai, is closely related to Ewenki. An additional 1,500 Nanai live on the Chinese side of the Amur River. The Nanai in the People's Republic of China are called Hezhen, and speak a somewhat different dialect than those of Russia's Maritime Province. The Hezhen could thus be considered a separate ethnic group. Many elements of the group's original taiga reindeer-breeding culture were retained in traditional Nanai culture, demonstrating that the Nanai are relatively recent invaders from Siberia. The ethnonym "Nanai" comes from the word nani, which simply means "local people." The Russians formerly called them Goldi, a Nanai clan name. A famous Russian film Derzu Uzala portrays the life of a Nanai tribesman in the late 19th century.

Traditional Nanai Lifeways

The Nanai caught Siberian salmon in the rivers from late August through September. During this time the entire population was engaged in netting, preserving and storing the catch. Among the Nanai settled on the smaller tributaries of the Amur, forest hunting was of greater importance. Most hunting was done in winter, when groups of men went out on long treks.

Staple foods, of course, were fish and to a lesser extent wild meats. Under the influence of Chinese culture, some Nanai practiced grain and vegetable growing, as well as a rudimentary form of animal husbandry.

Nanai summer dwellings were of various forms, including the conical pole tent of the taiga, as well as a spherical bark hut. Winter dwellings included semi-subterranean timber huts. Chinese influence showed up in the large number of cupboards, as well as in the heated benches. Large iron cauldrons imported from China were heated over an adobe-style hearth. More wealthy Nanai also could afford Chinese silks and other articles.

Nanai men also adopted the Chinese (Manchu) custom of shaving the head except for a long pigtail (the queue); this was a mark of submission to the Manchu Emperor. Married women wore their hair in two pigtails, unmarried women in a single braid. Tattooing with Chinese ink was widely practiced.

The Nanai were very skilled at building sleds and plank boats. They also wove baskets and mats, made birchbark vessels, etc. The ornamentation on these items was obviously influenced by Chinese designs.

Nanai social relations were patriarchial, but the mother's brother also played an important role (some scholars see in this custom evidence for an earlier matriarchal stage). Each clan had its own sacred objects and a common clan fire. The patriarchal Nanai clans were exogamous.

Nanai religion was shamanistic, with a great reverence for the bear. They believed that the land was originally flat until great serpents gouged out the river valleys (interestingly, the Chinese call the Amur River "Heilongjiang", which means "Black Dragon River"). In Nanai belief, inanimate objects were often personified. Fire, for example, was conceived of as an old woman whom the Nanai referred to as Fadzya Mama. Young children were not allowed to run up to the fire, lest they startle Fadzya Mama. And men always were courtious in the presence of a fire.

The Nanai also believed in a variety of spirits who wandered independently throughout the world. Some were good, others evil. Among the latter where thought to be the busyu, or ghosts of suicides, slaves, and any person who had violated the exogamy rules.

Shamans officiated between the real world and the spirit world, Nanai shamans, like those of all the other Tungusic-speaking Amur peoples, had characteristic clothing, consisting of a skirt and jacket; a leather belt with conical metal pendants; mittens with figures of serpents, lizards or frogs; and hats with branching horns or bear, wolf, or fox fur attached to it. Bits of Chinese mirrors were also sometimes incorporated into the costume.

Burial took place in the ground, except in the case of a child who died before the age of one year; such a child was wrapped in a cloth or birchbark covering and buried aloft in the tree branches (the so-called "sky burial").

The Ulchi

©Edward J. Vajda

The Ulchi are closely related to the Nanai and in fact also call themselves Nani. The name officially used in Russia, "Ulchi," derives from an Ulchi word meaning "reindeer people." Today there are over 3,000 Ulchi, but fewer than 1,000 have preserved fluency in the language. Some linguists regard the Ulchi language as a dialect of Nanai. The surviving Ulchi live along the Amur between the Nanai and the Nivkhs, who live at the very mouth of the river.

Ulchi Traditional lifeways

Like their Nanai cousins, the Ulchi are also Tungusic forest people who settled in the Amur basin and adopted a way of life centered on fishing. Salmon and carp were caught in the summer with rectangular or sack-like float nets and small throw seines. Much of the catch was immediately dried and stored for winter use. Hunting was also practiced, though it was of secondary importance to the Ulchi economy. Winter hunting was done on wide skis that allowed the hunter to walk on top of the ice-encrusted snow. Summer hunting was often done from canoe, with the hunters catching deer and other animals unawares as they fed by the riverbank. Meat from the hunt was communally distributed.

The use of fishskins for clothing material was very widespread among the Ulchi. The skins were worked to make various robes and gowns ornamented with designs adapted from the Chinese south. Fastenings were always down the right side.

Winter dwellings were chiefly a type of wooden cabin; hunters retained the small portable tent of conical design used by all the taiga peoples.

The Ulchi were divided into exogamous patrilineal clans. Each clan shared a belief in a common male progenitor, as well as in special clan spirits and guardians. Blood vendettas between clans were not uncommon. Prosperous Ulchi might have several wives.

While Ulchi social relations were nearly identical with those of the Nanai and other Tungusic peoples, Ulchi religious practices more strongly resembled the Nivkh. The shamans did not play a great part in most group rituals; instead, clan masters officiated at such events as the bear festival. But unlike the Nivkhs, the Ulchi clan master could eat the flesh of the sacrificed bear.

Ulchi buried their dead in the forest. Twins and the mothers of twins were given special burial rites. Ulchi beliefs of the afterlife combined those of the Nivkh (the soul transmigrated into a dog) and the Nanai (the shaman carried the spirit away into the kingdom of the dead). Most shaman rituals among the Ulchi are similar to those of the Nanai.

The Negidal

©Edward J. Vajda


The Negidal are one of the Tungusic tribes who are the western neighbors of the Nivkh. The tribe's self designation is El'kan beyenin or Elekem beye, which means "local people." The ethnonym Negidal is a Russification of the Ewenki term ngegida, which means "coastal people."

The Negidal are closely related in language and culture to the Ewenki and Ewen tribes, and are believed to be the descendants of Ewenki tribes who settled by the seacoast several hundred years ago. The Negidal language, spoken today by fewer than 200 of the 600 or so Negidals, is practically a dialect of Ewenki. Negidal culture also shows clear evidence of being a taiga reindeer culture that was later adapted to coastal conditions. There is also evidence of intermarriage with the more ancient Nivkh inhabitants of the area and of borrowing certain fishing techniques from the Nivkhs.

Traditional lifeways

Already before the coming of the Russians, the Negidal were influenced by Chinese and Manchurian clothing and furniture designs. Residual influence from the tribe's past appears in the conical design of their tents, in their forest hunting techniques, and in their marriage ceremonies, which were identical to the Ewenki in nearly all respects.

The basis of the Negidal economy was hunting and fishing. The importance of fishing increased the nearer one came to the coast and mouth of the Argun River (a tributary of the Amur). Humpbacked salmon, carp and sturgeon were the principal quarry. The fishing season began in April and continued through the fall. Nets were made from nettle or wild hemp fiber spun with a type of spindle, cooked in ash and tinted with larchbark to make it more invisible in the water. Larger fish were speared from canoes. The catch was usually dried and smoked. Fish and to a lesser extent venison were the staple foods. A type of jelly called mosin, which was boiled up from fish skins was used with wild garlic and other greens. The Negidal also made some of their clothing from fish skins.

The upriver Negidal had a few reindeer (a holdover from their migration from the taiga), which they harnessed to sleds much like their Ewenki cousins.

The Negidal summer dwelling was a wooden hut made of poles, as well as smaller conical tents of the Ewenki type. Conical tents were used more in winter, as were a type smaller board hut which contained heated benches (khagdun), a feature borrowed from the Manchus to the south in the Chinese Empire.

Like all of the Maritime Tungusic peoples, the Negidal were divided into exogamous patriarchal clans. Wives were generally taken from the groom's mother's clan, after the appropriate bride price had been paid by his father's clan. Levirate marriage was practiced (a man married his dead brother's widow); there was also no compunction against great age differences among marriage partners, with 20-year old women sometimes marrying six-year old boys, and vice versa.

The Oroch

©Edward J. Vajda

The Oroch (or, as some local Russians call them, the Orochen), are another Tungusic nationality of the Amur basis closely related to the Ulchi and Nanai; in fact the Oroch, like the Ulchi, call themselves Nani. The ethnonym Oroch is thought to derive from the Manchu word "oro" which means reindeer. Oroch origins, language and lifeways are generally like those of the Nanai, Ulchi and other Tungusic peoples of the Far East. At present there are nearly 1,000 Oroch, though fewer than 200 can speak the language fluently.

Oroch Traditional lifeways

Fishing was the basis of Oroch economic life. Sturgeon and carp were caught in winter, salmon during the late summer and fall. Fish was dried or smoked for winter storage. Winter was also a time for hunting elk and Manchurian deer in the forests; these animals were lured with a special type of birchbark horn. Some Oroch also went to sea in plank boats to hunt seal. Oroch hunted in groups of 6 to 8 per boat. They also built artificial breeding grounds for seals out of logs and ambushed their prey at these sites.

Summer huts were made of wood with long sloping roofs ending in rafters which served as racks for drying fish. The winter dwellings were similar, except that they had an extra covering of larch bark. Forest hunters used portable conical tents.

Oroch clothing, like that of their close relatives the Ulchi, consisted of fishskin robes which opened to the right. These robes were decorated with a rich array of Chinese inspired designs.

The Oroch were originally divided into exogamous patriarchal clans. Fathers had absolute rights over wives and children. Polygamy was also practiced. The age of marriage partners varied considerably (just as it did among the Negidal).

Traditional Oroch religion involved belief in various master spirits. The Oroch believed in an afterlife and buried their dead in a wooden coffin equipped with items needed in this life. It was thought that the dead walked to the otherworld (instead of being transported there by the shaman's tambourine).

The Orok

©Edward J. Vajda

Another Tungusic people closely related to the Ulchi are the Orok, who call themselves Ulta, which means reindeer people in their language. The Orok live on Sakhalin Island but probably moved there from the Amur basin as recently as the 17th century. Their legends tell of a time when they displaced the aboriginal Ainu population from central and southern Sakhalin. In 1946 about half the Orok on Sakhalin were evacuated to Japan, were their language and culture were lost. Today there are fewer than 200 Orok on Sakhalin and only about 95 speak the language.

Orok Traditional lifeways: reindeer herding nomads

Interestingly, the Orok of Sakhalin Island preserved more of their taiga culture than other Amur Tungusic tribes despite the fact that physically they were farthest removed from the Siberian taiga. During the winter, reindeer herding was the chief occupation. The Oroks nomadized together with their herds, using reindeer to transport their portable bark and pole tents and belongings. During summer, the reindeer were allowed to forage freely, while the Orok settled near the rivers or coast to take up fishing. Seal hunting also played an important role in the economy. Summer encampments were permanent villages with up to 10 wooden dwellings.

The Orok were divided into exogamous patrilineal clans. Orok religious belief holds that the dead were transported to the afterworld by a reindeer-drawn sled. This and other elements in the culture indicate that reindeer breeding among the Orok is of ancient origin and is shared by Ewenki clans in Siberia.

The Udegei

©Edward J. Vajda

The Udegei (their own self designation, later adopted by the Russians) live along the slopes of the Sikhote-Alin in villages scattered over a large area of Russia's Maritime Province. Today there are about 2,000 Udegei, but only about 500 still speak the language.

The Udegei are thought to have lived in their homeland for centuries before the coming of the Russians. But their lands had been thoroughly infiltrated by Chinese merchants and settlers, and the Udegei were already a minority in their own country. The Udegei traded ginseng root and furs to the Chinese for various utensils and trinkets. The Chinese were gradually displaced by Russian settlers after treaties (in 1858 and 1860) ceded the Far East to the Russian Empire.

Udegei Traditional lifeways

The Udegei subsisted primarily by hunting and fishing. Unlike the economy of the Tungusic peoples of the Maritime Province (the Nanai, Ulchi, Oroch), fishing was of only secondary importance. Deer, elk, bear, as well as waterfowl made up the bulk of the diet. The tiger was considered sacred and only could be killed in self defense. Bears were hunted in the spring during the fish runs. Some Udegei in the south had adopted rudimentary millet and vegetable farming under Chinese influence.

The Udegei were essentially settled people who lived in small villages of rectangular huts covered with bark. Their dress was similar to that of other Far Eastern native tribes, and included fishskin robes. During winter the Udegei wore short deerskin jackets with three pairs of laces tied in front.

The Udegei were divided into patriarchal exogamous clans. Disputes between clans were settled by interclan courts composed of male elders. Marriages were arranged and the family of the groom was expected to pay a high bride price. Many poor young men could not marry because of this.

Udegei religion involved a cult of master spirits, the most honored of which was the bua, or spirit of the taiga. The tiger was also revered (even more than the bear). Shamanism was widespread and included not only the typical rites of healing and propition, but also a unique ritual called duni. This involved the shaman touring all the encampments along a given river by boat. As he went, the shaman was joined by members of each encampment. The duni culminated with the ritual sacrifice of a pig. All members took part in the ensuing dance and ritual.

Udegei art and design was heavily permeated by Chinese and Manchu influence.