The Koryak people inhabit the upper Kamchatka peninsula and bordering lands to the north, with a present-day population of more than 9,000. As among the Chukchi, there is a division between coastal and reindeer people. Reindeer Koryak, the chavchyvav, traditionally engaged in nomadic reindeer herding. Coastal Koryak, or nymylu, led a settled way of life by the sea and rivers, where they fished and hunted sea mammals.
For the Koryak, reindeer are a source of skins for clothing. Hats, parkas, women’s jumper suits, and pants are made from their hides. The Koryak still use reindeer as a means of transportation, and their skins provide covers for yarangas (traditional dwellings) and winter tents. In the past, reindeer bones were never thrown away. They were broken, the marrow was extracted, and the remains were buried. When I was little, my mother told me that in the yaranga there must always be water inside the kettles, or our reindeer would be thirsty.
During the traditional fall celebration called Koianniajtatgyjnyn, family protectors (gychgyiu) would be taken outside the house for the ritual of greeting the reindeer herd. One of these protectors was a special bow drill and board for making fire, a tool that was considered to be a family deity. For the celebration, the yaranga was decorated with willow branches. Ritual fire was extracted with the help of the fire board, and a small blaze was kindled. The herd was brought in and one of the animals sacrificed. The family protectors were “fed” with the animal’s marrow and in the evening were taken back inside the yaranga. The fire built with the sacred drill and board was kept burning until the end of the reindeer slaughter. At night the hosts and the guests sang and played drums.
Celebrations of the Coastal Koryak were usually connected with the harvest of sea mammals. For example, Memylangyt is a celebration of the bearded seal. Coastal people also made sacrificial offerings to deities who had powers over a person’s health, the family’s well-being, and the success of hunting.
Dancers at Anadyr', Chukchi Peninsula, 2005.
Photo courtesy of D'Anne Hamilton "Paaniikaaluk."
Since ancient times, the Koryak, like other peoples of the north, have lived, worked, and relied only on themselves. They could do this thanks to their amazing folk knowledge. Anyone watching the butchering of reindeer during our holidays will see the Koryaks’ precise knowledge of the animal’s anatomy. All the bones are neatly separated along the joints and ligaments because cutting the bones themselves is not allowed. Many women still know how to make thread out of reindeer sinew, and traditional methods for tanning hides are also still alive. The handicrafts of Koryak women never cease to amaze people. Even now, the best compliment one can make to a woman in some settlements is to say that “She sews so well!”
Our land, Koryakia, is beautiful in any season. In the winter everything is dressed in pure white, and it blinds your eyes. I remember my brother saying, “There can’t be a better life than the life with reindeer in the tundra!” In the spring the tundra awakens from winter sleep. In May or June, people collect wild garlic and begin fishing for the different species of salmon - king, red, pink, and chum. After the reindeer have their calves, the herders move the herds to summer pastures near the sea. For many people, autumn is the favorite season. The tundra plants gleam with a multitude of colors—green, yellow, orange, and red. The season of berry picking begins. We pick crowberries, blueberries, and salmonberries. A traditional food, kilikil, is prepared from berries and fish. Koryaks have always treated nature with great care, like a mother-provider.
Parents never yell at their children, or become angry with them. I remember once when I was a child my mother and I were walking in the tundra. All of a sudden, some willow grouse cried: “Kyvev, kyvev!” My mother made a joke, saying, “They are laughing at you because you sleep too long in the morning.”
My mother, Tatiana Petrovna Tnecheivine, lives in the village of Srednie Pakhachi in the Olutorskii district. She still prefers traditional clothing to European. In the spring and fall she lives in yaranga, and in the winter a fur tent. She used to tell me instructive tales and rules. She said, “Don’t leave women’s sewing bags out at night. Kala, the evil spirit, will be sewing at night.” This was a way to teach young girls to be neat. Or, “Don’t sew after sunset—your eyes will turn red, like those of the willow grouse.” This was a rule about how to stay healthy. Mom would teach us how to prepare hides, make thread out of sinew, and sew traditional clothing.
Today, the Koryak (Chavchuvenskii) language is taught in elementary grades, and high schools offer it as an elective. Day care centers have lessons in developing conversational skills. Not so long ago, in 1990, a Native teacher-training vocational school was opened in the district capital, Palan. I work there as a teacher of Koryak. We also have courses in folk crafts and history, and local radio stations broadcast programs in the native language. There are frequent exhibitions of works created by local artists and sculptors, as well as exhibitions of Koryak women’s crafts.
In modern times, northern Russian regions are a combination of old and new problems. There are decreases in the standard of living, and growing unemployment. The improvement of health standards and the revival of Koryak traditions and language will be possible only under conditions that sustain the environment and traditional subsistence practices. It is my great wish that our youth will be able to preserve the skills of their people despite these difficult times.
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).