Tribes and Dialects
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Habitat. The Ulchis live in the Khabarovsk region, on the Lower Amur. 90 % of the Ulchis live within the district of Ulchi.
Population. The data of the censuses give the number of Ulchis as follows:
Anthropologically the Ulchis are Mongoloid, but generally there is no pure type to be found. Part of them belong to the so-called Sakhalin-Amur group, like the Nivkhs.
The Ulchi language belongs to the southern group of the Manchu-Tungus languages and is so close to the Nanai language that it has been regarded as a Nanai dialect. The Ulchis have no written language of their own.
History. The Ulchis, who are related to the ancient population of the Lower Amur, are a people of mixed composition, among whom tribes of Nanai, Evenk, Manchu, Udeghe, Orochi, Orok and Nivkh origin have been found. A number of historical layers have been discerned within the material culture of the Ulchis which are associated with local ancient Paleo-Asian, as well as with old Manchu and "common Tungus", culture. The Ulchi's manner of fishing, traditionally their main occupation, is similar to that of the Nivkhs.
Up until the 17th century, the Ulchis led an existence free from interference, but then China tried to make the Ulchis, Nanais and Nivkhs pay taxes. The attempt was unsuccessful and contact with China switched to a more commercial nature (selling furs). Russian colonization began in the region in 1850, with the founding of Nikolayevsk stronghold. A few years later, the first Russian peasant settlers appeared, and a number of large Russian villages formed in the vicinity of the Ulchi settlements.
The main occupation of the Ulchis was fishing, for which the River Amur and lakes offered ample source. The all-year-round fishing necessitated a rather settled lifestyle. Fish was the main food for the people, and it was also fed to the dogs, kept in large numbers for draught work. Hunting for furs was an additional occupation which sometimes yielded a good income -- sables especially. For sables, some Ulchi co-operatives went hunting even to the island of Sakhalin, where some of them eventually settled. The Ulchis were also known to hunt marine animals in the Straits of Tatar. To get there, the Ulchis had to undertake a long journey via Lake Kiz and along various small rivers.
In the late 19th century, the Ulchis' life became considerably more complicated with the arrival of Russian colonists. The Russians began fishing on a massive scale and set up a fish-processing industry. The Ulchis were forced to fish commercially. Foreign traders, as well as local Russian peasants, appeared to buy up fish. Taking advantage of their privileges and power, the Russians began to restrict the Ulchi and Nanai fishing grounds. This led to conflicts. Because of the greatly increased scale of fishing, hunting became less important -- there were also by this time far fewer fur animals on the Lower Amur. To earn a living, the Ulchis had to gradually learn jobs formerly unknown to them, such as land cultivation, mail transportation and felling timber for steamboats. Horse-breeding and haymaking were also introduced. They imitated Russians and often worked with them.
In the sphere of material culture influences were mutual. Since the Ulchis were socially active and enterprising, their resistance to outside pressure was comparatively strong. For instance, a number of rich native merchant entrepreneurs emerged, who successfully traded with neighbouring peoples and even in Manchuria. The proximity of the Russians gave rise to the activities of the Greek Orthodox missionaries among the Ulchis. They could not eradicate shamanism but they tried to spread education, for which purpose three one-year clerical schools were opened in the 1860s. A couple of schools were also opened between 1913 and 1917. However, the influence of these Russian missionary schools on the Ulchis turned out to be marginal.
The Ulchis' way of life remained more or less unchanged until the early 1920s. As the fishing industry was in deep crisis by this time, many Ulchis worked as hired labour in the timber industry founded on Lake Kiz, and elsewhere. Again, there were some enterprising Ulchis who actually ran businesses, employing Ulchis as well as Russians. Active participation in economic enterprises gave them useful experience, and the co-operative Mung Kusu (Our Power), founded in 1928 in the settlement of Bulava, was successfully managed by the Ulchis themselves.
The Soviet regime was established in the Ulchi region in 1922. From 1927 to 1928 there were nine ethnic Ulchi village soviets. In 1934 the district of Ulchi was established. Collectivization began in 1930. At first fishing remained the main occupation of the Ulchi kolkhozes, but in winter they were given the additional task of providing labour for the local timber industries, which had no permanent workforce. After World War II land cultivation, vegetable growing and livestock breeding began to be practiced. In the 1930s the concentrating of small villages into bigger centres began. Nowadays, eight Ulchi settlements remain from the 40 which existed in the 19th century, and a ninth has been founded anew. Resettling had a destructive effect on the original, abundantly ornamented Ulchi folk architecture. Today the usual dwelling is a Russian-type log cabin. Any national architectural individuality has been preserved only in outhouses.
By the early 1960s the Ulchi or Ulchi-Russian kolkhozes had achieved a considerably high economic level and they even had well-developed infra-structures (schools, day-care centres, clubs etc). The regular shipping on the Amur that connected all the Ulchi settlements, had a favourable influence on the development of the whole area.
During the past 20 or 30 years, however, a genuine crisis has developed in the region because of the unrestricted polluting of the Amur and its tributaries. This has badly depleted stocks of fish. Comparing, for instance, 1990 to the early 1960s, the catch of fish has decreased by a factor of 20. Because of the waste from the Amur Cellulose Factory, the Amur river is in a critical situation. The Solnechny Mineral Concentration Factory is also poisoning the tributaries of the Amur. In 1987 and 1988 their water contained respectively 198 and 511 times more zinc and copper than permissible. The timber mill on Lake Kiz has effectively killed off all fish from the lake. Felling of timber in water-protection zones has a detrimental effect on water regulation. This situation, typical for the whole of the Lower Amur, has profoundly influenced employment in the local kolkhozes -- from 1960 to 1970 it halved. Uniting the fishing kolkhozes with the timber mills and state farms did not solve the problem. Migration into towns which began earlier is still increasing; for example, in 1970 every fifth representative of the native peoples of the Amur lived in a town, whereas now it is every third. There is also a substantial migration from smaller settlements to bigger ones. The original Ulchi culture, once mainly connected with the Amur river and fishing, is in danger of vanishing, since a change in the livelihood of a people leads to changes in every sphere of life.
Unlike several other Far Eastern minorities, the Ulchis began at once to take an active part in the national reconstruction work propounded in the 1920s by the Soviet administration. This advanced their social awareness, self-confidence and general intellectual outlook, although tribal traditions remained. For example, the founding of schools and training of native teachers in the establishments of higher education of Khabarovsk and Leningrad, was fairly successful. In the early 1930s the first years of school were taught in the Ulchi language. However, Nanai textbooks were used since it was mistakenly supposed that the languages were close enough and with two such small peoples it was not worth printing in both mother tongues. Later on, Russian was used for schooling, although most of the Ulchi schools were so well supplied with native teachers by the late 1950s that young teachers were sent to work elsewhere. Regular Ulchi radio programmes were broadcast by the district transmission network. The main means of expression in the native culture, however, were the amateur theatre activities. The amateur players of the largest Ulchi settlement Bulava were the most active. They had been prominent since the 1930s with their performances based on national topics. In 1957 two musical plays were staged under the direction of a librarian, P. Dechuli, which were chosen to be performed at a festival in Khabarovsk. One of the performances was repeated in Moscow in the 1980s. There are other Ulchi amateur theatre groups. The Ulchi intellectuals have shown remarkable initiative. As early as the 1960s, the intellectuals of Bulava and Ukhta had arranged a large conference to discuss the problems of the research on Ulchi folk art, folklore, history and culture. Amateur art has stimulated the composition of new Ulchi songs (P. Dechuli, P. Lonki, D. Dankan), and the revival of some varieties of folklore and folk costume, although the general Soviet-Russian repertoire still dominates amateur art. Some Ulchi songs are known also to the Nanais. Ulchi poets (E. Hodjer, P. Adiga) and writers have published their works in Russian. Several attempts have been made to review the traditions of folk art (exhibitions, a co-operative for embroiderers, teaching schoolchildren), but on the whole, these have been of limited impact. Sewing folk costumes and making carpets has proved more lasting.
Despite all the positive initiatives, the national culture has constantly slipped, giving place to a more Soviet-style way of life and creative activities. But, if in the lifestyle many traditions have still persisted and developed, the situation of the language is more desperate. From 1959 to 1979 the percentage of native speakers diminished by 46 %, and at the same time the number of Ulchis who considered Russian their mother tongue increased to 60.9 %. It must now be still higher. The disintegration of the Ulchi language is most strikingly illustrated by the dynamics of marriages: while in the 1950s, 67 % of the marriages were ethnic, the rate in the 1970s was only 34 %. Marriages with Russians formed 12 % of the total in the 1950s and 28 % in the 1970s. This indicates serious deformations in Ulchi society, which may even seem somewhat unexpected against the background of the relative social-economic initiative and the success in cultural development mentioned above.