The Chukchi are an ancient arctic people who live at the meeting point of two continents, Eurasia and North America. They refer to themselves as lyg’oravetl’a, which means “real people” or “people standing openly.” The present population is about 16,000.
The history of my people is still awaiting its researchers. However, some facts speak for their unique and complicated past. First, the Chukchi language is included in the distinctive “Paleo-Asiatic” group, but shows similarities only to Koryak. We do not have other “close relatives.” Most likely, this means that the Chukchi are not a branch of some other ethnic group, but rather that we descend from the ancient indigenous inhabitants of our territory.
Second, the Chukchi are one of few northern peoples who have developed two separate but interdependent ways of life, like a bird using two wings—the culture of reindeer herding (chavchyvat) and the culture of sea mammal hunting (angkal’yt). There is a constant exchange between these two cultures, not only of products but also of values. This system guarantees sustained development and survival in a harsh arctic climate because it evens out the downturns of both nomadic and settled ways of life. As a result, the Chukchi are a complex synthesis of cultural patterns, with additions and borrowings from neighboring groups such as the Yupik Eskimo, Yukagir, Even, and others.
Over the course of centuries, Chukchi reindeer herders developed the “Chukchi breed,” which is called l’gek’or (“a real reindeer”). This animal has a unique ability to survive in the harsh conditions of the arctic tundra. It can live without rich “reindeer moss” and quickly gains weight and strength during the short summer. Chukchi reindeer culture represents a harmonious system of adaptation by both people and reindeer to extreme northern conditions.
Dancers at Anadyr', Chukchi Peninsula, 2005.
Photo courtesy of D'Anne Hamilton "Paaniikaaluk."
The first mention of the Chukchi in Russian sources was in 1641-1642. At the Alazeia River, the Chukchi resisted Cossacks who were attempting to collect yasak (“tribute”) for the Tsar. The independent and bellicose Chukchi never succumbed to these demands, and the Tsarist government was later forced to concede that the “Chukchi pay yasak in the amount and quality which they determine themselves, according to their will.”
Christianization of the Chukchi was also unsuccessful, despite the great efforts of Russian Orthodox missionaries starting in the mid-19th century. State clerk A.V. Olsuf’ev, who was exploring the Anadyrskii okrug (Russian, “district”) in 1895, wrote: “Turning Chukchis to Russian Orthodoxy has not yet brought any tangible results. Although a large group of the Chukchis in the Kolymskii okrug and about 700 persons of the Anadyrskii okrug are recorded as Orthodox, the converts remain faithful to their pagan traditions.”
The Chukchi passionately love their land and nature. In their art, they depict everything that surrounds them. Keenness of observation, excellent knowledge of the animal world, and an exquisite ability to capture the nuances of animal behavior bring distinction to traditional Chukchi dance and ivory carving. There are many amateur and professional groups of artists including the national Chukchi-Eskimo dance group “Ergyron” (Sunrise) in Anadyr and the Vukvola carving workshop in Uelen, whose work is known far beyond Russian borders.
Despite strong pressures for assimilation, including long suppression of the Chukchi language in favor of Russian, our people still manage to preserve our culture and native tongue, and to pass them on to the next generations. The Chukchi occupy a special place among the arctic peoples of the Russian Far East, and interest in their amazing and ancient culture continues to this day.
This article was translated by Irina Dubinina and condensed by Aron Crowell from Perekrestki kontinentov: Kul’tury korennykh narodov Dal’nego Vostoka i Aliaski [Crossroads of Continents: Cultures of the Indigenous Peoples of the Far East and Alaska]. Perekrestki kontinentovwas was edited by Valérie Chaussonnet, with Russian language editor Igor Krupnik and Russian translator P.A. Aleinikova (Arctic Studies Center, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, 1996).