The Chukchi are a people who have traditionally herded reindeer on the tundra and lived in coastal settlements on the Bering Sea and other coastal polar areas. Originally they were nomads who hunted wild reindeer but over time evolved into two groups: 1) Chavchu (nomadic reindeer herders), some of whom who rode reindeers and others who didn’t; and 2) maritime settlers who settled along the coast and hunted sea animals.[Source: Yuri Rytkheu, National Geographic, February 1983 ☒]
The Chukchi (also spelled Chukchee) speak a Chukchi-Kamchatka language as do the Koryak and Itelmen. Otherwise the Chukchi language is unrelated to any other language. The Chukchi and Eskimos have a long history together. The Chukchi have traditionally been land oriented and settled while Eskimos have been more sea oriented and nomadic. Chukchi technically refers to people who herded reindeer while Eskimos refers to those who hunt.
There are around 15,000 Chukchi. They live mostly on the Chukotka peninsula, which is only 55 miles from Alaska. Some also live in the Lower Kolyma District of the Yakut Republic and in the north of Koryak Autonomous District. The call themselves Luoravetlan (“genuine people”).
History of the Chukchi
People are believed to have arrived in Chukotka from Central Asia about 2,500 years ago. They lived in underground houses insulated from the cold and moved in seasonal hunting camps. It is believed that these early people may have been the source of both Eskimos and the Chukchi. Later the culture of these two people was tied closely together. They often fought, with the Chukchi starting most of the fights. Eskimos regard the Chukchi as hot tempered and emotional and themselves as good-humored.
The first reference to the Chukchi are in historical records from the 1640s, when they were already divided into two groups. In the 17th and 18th centuries they began penetrating into areas traditionally dominated by the Eskimos and fought with the Russians. In the 19th century they crossed the Kolyma River and began settling in Yakutia.
In the 1920s, the Soviet tried to settle the Chukchi by providing them with jobs, wages, imported food, houses, schools, clinics and coal for heat. The Soviets also jailed shaman and outlawed native whaling. Whales were caught by the Soviets with big whaling ships and the Chukchi were given the job of slicing up the carcasses to feed to foxes and other fur animals. Young Chukchi began smoking, drinking vodka and marrying ethnic Russians. They began speaking Russian and eating bread and macaroni and forgot how to hunt and live off the land.
In 1930s and 40s so many Russian anthropologists came to study the Chukchi it was said a typical Arctic family consisted of a mother, father, two children and over there in the corner of the hut, a researcher. In the early 1950s, the Chukchi were organized in cooperatives and permanent settlements. Their lifestyle was dramatically changed. Many got jobs in mines that opened up in these areas. ☒
When the Soviet Union broke up, supply ships with the food and coal stopped. Villages shrank as people moved to the cities, There were high rates of suicide, disease and alcoholism. In some places the life expectancy dropped to 37 years.
Chukchi Religion and Shamanism
Traditional Chukchi religion was shamanistic and revolved around hunting and family cults. Illness and other misfortunes were attributed to spirits known as kelet that were said to be fond of hunting humans and eating their flesh.
Many Chukchi myths are similar to those of Eskimos, Itelmen, Koryaks and North American Indians. The Chukchi believe they go the realm of the Polar Star when they die. They also believe that what ever is buried with them will accompany them to their version of heaven. The Chukchi writer Yuri Rytkheu witnessed the burial of old women who was an excellent seamstress. Her husband has passed away a few year before. In her coffin were needles thread, sharp knives, thimbles, porcelain cups and an electric sewing machine. Rytkeu asked what if there were no electric outlets in heaven. "I do not think," an old man said, "that all these years the husband has been sitting been in the Realm of the Polar Star with folded hands, doing nothing...the deceased will have somewhere to plug in her sewing machine."☒
Chukchi shaman participated in festivals and small rituals performed for specific purposes. They sang and shook a tambourine while whipping themselves into an ecstatic state and use a baton and other objects for divinations. On a Chukchi shaman, Yuri Rytkheu wrote in National Geographic: "He was the preserver of tradition and cultural experience. He was meteorologist, physician, philosopher, and ideologist---a one-man Academy of Sciences. His success depended on his skill at prognosticating the presence of game, determining the route of the reindeer herds, and predicting the weather well in advance. In order to do all this , he must above all be an intelligent and knowledgeable man." ☒
Chukchi use amulets, such as charm strings kept in a leather pouch worn around the neck, to ward off evil spirits. The inland Chukchi hold a large festival to celebrate the return of the herds to the summer grazing grounds. It is believed to that men are oppressed by evil spirits and one of the main purposes of the festival is to dispel them.
Chukchi Families and Marriage
The Chukchi have traditionally lived in large extended families. In the old days polygamy was practiced even though there was a shortage of females. At that time days fights arose among men because of the women shortages.
Marriages were traditionally arranged by parents, some at birth. The marriage process began when the family of the groom gave presents to the family of the bride. The young man then worked at the girl's parents home and helped with hunting for 12 months to prove he was an able provider. During the 12 months sexual relations were permitted between the couple.
After the 12 months was up the couple was considered married. Often no formal ceremony was performed. Other times the bride accompanied by close relatives traveled to the bridegroom’s residence by reindeer and a reindeer was slaughtered to honor her and blood was used to make a mark of the bride’s family on top of a mark of the groom’s family. After that the couple lived at the home of the father of the groom. Sometimes the groom allowed his wife to have sex with men who helped in the hunt.
Chukchi Culture and Sports
The Chukchi are regarded as skilled and talented folk artists. Traditional arts include carving and engraving bone, applique on fur and sealskin hides and artistic applique. The Chukchi used to wear suits of armor made from steel slats tied together with sinew.
History and folklore has traditionally been handed down orally from one generation to the next through clan elders. Storytellers were held in high esteem. Good ones could tell stories for hours without being interrupted and were called upon to provide entertainment during the long winters. After literacy was introduced by the Soviet a Chukchi intelligencia was formed. Works by the Chukchi writer Yuri Rytkheu have been translated into several languages.
Chukchi, Koryaks and Eskimos have running races between 25 and 30 kilometers. these races are derived from the need for herders to cover long distances with their reindeer herds to protect them from wolves. The races are often run on snow and ice over frozen tundra, lakes and rivers. Chukchi also like to play Yakut sports.
Reindeer herders perform a series of dances that call on various spirits to help them. They often incorporate imitations of animals in their world. Among these are the “Dance with Grimaces” and the “Dances of the Trembling Knees” and “Fight of the Reindeer Bulls.” Certain dances have traditionally been performed on specific holidays.
Performed at festivals, the dances of the coast Chukchi were associated with the sea animals they hunted. Among these were the “Walrus Hunt” and “Workdays of the Housewife.” One of their most popular dances was simply called “For the Sake of Having a Good Time.” The “Wheezing Throat” featured guttural singing from the dancers. Chukchi women perform graceful dance movements even when they wear heavy costumes made from fur and hide. They are skilled at moving their necks in various directions.
These dances were traditionally performed to music made by instruments made of whale bone, willow and bone. One kind of tambourine was made from teeth. The Chukchi also held some unusual singing contests.. There was one for wheezing in which winners were judged on the basis of their effort.
Chukchi and Reindeer
Reindeer have traditionally supplied the Chukchi with food, hides for clothing and fat for lamps. Their footwear and their tents have traditionally been made with reindeer hides. They also supplied transportation and a means of moving their possessions.
Men have traditionally herded the reindeer while women stayed in the camps performing various chores, They used dogs to keep help keep the herds together but sometimes the herders themselves spent long periods in the freeing cold, with no shelter or fire, or even food, to make sure their animal could get sufficient food.
Chukchi reindeer herders spent most of their time on the tundra. Many lived on Arakamchechen Island in the Arctic ocean. The island is better suited for reindeer than many other places in the Russian Arctic, namely since the summer winds blow the swarms of mosquitos out to sea. The island was controlled up until the 1920s by powerful shaman. The last remaining one, a man named Akkr, hung himself when the Soviets collectivized the island.☒
Life of Chukchi Reindeer Herders
Nomadic Chukchi herders traditionally didn’t not live in permanent settlements. Rather they lived in camps with two to seven families and seven to 30 people in cylindrical and conical reindeer-hide tents known as yarangas and tipis, Each camp. was a self sufficient unit. Often contact with others was limited and friendly. Different groups periodically joined together for festivals. The yarangas were collapsible and transportable. Inside were beds consisting of large sacks made from the sewn together hides of young reindeer. In the winter a box was formed inside the yaranga from reindeer skin and thin poles. People slept in here, with light and warmth provided by reindeer fat lamps.
Reindeer herders traditionally spent a great deal of time extracting roots from stunted willows, the only source of firewood in the tundra. Only in the coldest months did they seek shelter and firewood in the forest . Chores for women include preparing food, maintaining the tents, tanning hides and makes clothes and footwear,
In the old days the Chukchi used reindeer and dog sleds. Now they have snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles, and if necessary they can fly from their village to nomad camp by helicopter. In the 1980s and 90s the Chukchi lost half their population to tuberculosis. Dioxins and PCBs have been detected in breast milk. ☒
Life of Chukchi Coastal Dwellers
Coastal Chukchi used to live in wooden, semi-subterranean houses called poluzemlyanka. Later they lived into yarangas, which gave them more flexibility in chasing sea animals. Now many Chukchi live in Russian -style wooden houses.
Communities were formed around boat-making cooperatives whose members were generally of the same extended family or clan. Enormous whale bones mark the old Chukchi settlements. "Here, under the whale's bones," an old woman said, "lies the spirit mother who gave life to all the people of the coast. She was impregnated by this very whale, who changed into a man."☒
Some Chukchi live in remote villages that are rarely visited by vehicles or supply ship. They are dependent on the sea for their survival. In some cased they still use 19th century harpoons and small boats to hunt whale. Some fishing and gathering of sea cabbages is also done.
Chukchi coast dwellers traditionally hunted seals in the winter and spring and walruses and whales in the summer. Seal hunters were skilled at imitating seal movements and getting close enough to make a kill. The Chukchi eat seal meat and use seal hides for various purposed. Seal whiskers are used to drill holes.
Walrus have traditionally been hunted with several canoes. The Chukchi use the walrus for about everything. Their huts have walrus skin walls. Their kayaks and sleds are covered with animal’s thick skin. The latter uses runners of walrus tusks. Their biggest source of meat is walrus flesh. Walrus oil—as well as whale oil—is used in illuminating lamps. Various implements and tools are carved out of walrus ivory.
Chukchi Whale Hunters
In the old days, the Chukchi hunted whales in sealskin boats with 10 paddlers and one brave harpooner. Rytkheu went on his first whale hunt when he was 12: "It was an exciting experience," he said, "for in those day we did not use rifles or outboard motors as some do now. We sailed or paddled quietly up to a whale, and the boat captain would strike with a hand held harpoon. Floats made of inflated seal stomachs attached to the line acted as drags and caused the whale to exhaust itself. Finally it was towed ashore and divided among all the villagers."☒
The Chukchi have traditional holidays linked with whale hunts. The largest celebration in the village of Lorino is in mid-August. Inhabitants of regions that hunt whales can take as many whales as they want. Even non-Chukchi participated. For a while much of the meat and blubber from slaughtered whales was feed to foxes living in small cages on unprofitable fox farms until the practice was stopped.
Russians who eat whale meat say it tastes like beef. They fry it like pork chops and make it into pelmeni, traditional Russian pasta. The Chukchi people eat it the traditional way: raw or after it has hung it to dry. During the Soviet era whale blubber was melted down and used in cosmetics and as a lubricant.
Yttygran Island is an archeological site littered with walrus and whale bones which have been used over the centuries for tent supports. Known locally as "Whale Bone Alley", it also features whale bone houses. There are 60 massive bowhead whale skulls arranged geometrically. Huge whale jawbones stand upright like sentries. The shrine is believed to have been built in 13th and 14th centuries. There is also an amphitheater and 120 stone meat lockers, some of which still contain mummified whale meat.
Modern Whale Hunts
The Chukchi have been given permission by the International Whaling Commission to harvest whales. In 2002, through efforts by Japan, their whaling rights were cut. The Chukchi had permission from the International Whaling Commission to hunt 140 gray whales a year. A total of 144 whales were killed between 1994 and 1996 was 172. About 80 percent of the whales killed were taken near Lorino, a village of about 1,500 people on the Bering Sea. The Chukchi want permission to hunt bowhead whales, which they say taste better, are larger (weighing up to 100 tons) that gray whales. Grays are regarded as "devil fish" by whalers because they are more likely to put up a fight and less likely to float.
Today, the whales are pursued in motorboats and killed after being shot as many as 500 times with .30 caliber army assault rifles and ammunition designed to explode inside the whale. Most hunts are successful, with hunters returning with one to six whales. Sometimes the hunters go after young whales, some only a year old, because they say the meat taste better. The whales are butchered on the beach. [Source: Richard Paddock, Los Angeles Times, September 20, 1997]
After a whale has been spotted by a lookout on a bluff, who searches the sea for tell-tale spouts, 20 hunters head out to sea in eight motorboats. When the hunter get within 10 meters of the whale a harpoon with a buoy is heaved into the animal that allows the hunters to follow the it. "After the first harpoon and buoy we start shooting to stop him from escaping," one hunter told Richard Paddock of the Los Angeles Times. "Usually we use a whale crate of ammunition and that is 400 rounds." To keep the whale from sinking more buoys are attached, up to 14.
A large ship is radioed to come and pick up the whales which are pulled onto the beach with a tractor. Working together, hunter and villagers peel off the hide and blubber and carve up the meat inside in two-foot-long strips.
Text Sources: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia, China, edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company, Boston); New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2016