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The self-designation of the coastal Chukchis is ankalyn, "coastal man", and of the tundra Chukchis, chavchu, "reindeer man". The name lygoravetlyan -- "true, genuine man" covers both tribes. In the 1920s, the name was adapted as the official name Luorawetlan. In practical linguistic usage, the name chukchi, a Russian adaption of the name chavchu, has been widespread since the 17th century. It has been supported by Russian geographical names (Chukotka, Chukotsky poluostrov, Chukotskoye more) and since World War II the name Chukchi has been predominant in official use. Nowadays, it is in overwhelming use by the people themselves.

The earliest written records of the Chukchis date back to 1755 when they were mentioned in a travel report by the Russian explorer S. Krasheninnikov.

Habitat. The Chukchis live in the extreme northeastern part of Siberia, in the area between the Chukchi and Bering Seas, which extends from the vicinity of the mouth of the River Indigirka to the Bering Straits in the east, and from the Arctic Ocean to the Kamchatkan Peninsula in the south. Administratively, they belong to the Chukchi Autonomous District of the Russian Federation (Magadan Region) and to the Lower Kolyma District of the Yakutian ASSR. The vast area (660,600 sq km) the Chukchis inhabit is a region with a harsh arctic climate. The Chukchi Peninsula belongs to the permafrost zone of the tundra, and the Chukchi Upland is predominantly mountain tundra, partly frozen desert.

Population. The existing data is from the all-Union censuses:

native speakers
192612,331 (incomplete data)
195911,72793.9 %
197013,59782.6 %
197913,59778.2 %
198915,18370.3 %

V. Bogoraz has claimed that the data in the census of 1926 is not complete and he asserts that in 1936 there were approximately 15,500 Chukchis (12,000 tundra-Chukchis and 3,500 coastal Chukchis). The population of the Chukchis, especially the tundra-Chukchis, has shown a slow but constant increase. At the same time, however, the percentage of Chukchis inhabiting their native area has diminished. In 1936 they were in the majority in the Chukchi National District of the Far East region, in 1970 they formed only 11 % of the Chukchi Autonomous District of the Magadan Region.

Anthropologically the Chukchis belong to the North Asian race. They are short people with a swarthy complexion and a stocky build. Their faces are very broad and flat, the cheekbones are prominent and the narrow eyes have a pronounced Mongolian fold. The eyes and hair are dark, and the hair is straight and stiff. They have no growth of beard.

The Chukchi language, together with the Koryak and Itelmen languages, belongs to the Chukchi-Kamchatkan group of Paleo-Asiatic languages. The closest related language is Koryak. Despite the huge area of distribution, dialectical differences are slight. The Chukchi language is divided into several dialects: the coastal or eastern dialect, the tundra or western dialect, the Enmylin dialect, (characterized by the influence of the Kerek language), and the Nunligran and Khatyrka (with Koryak influences). The categorization of dialects is still ongoing.

In structure, Chukchi is an incorporate language. The Paleo-Asiatic languages are believed to be primordially related to the languages of the American Indians. When a land connection existed, before the rift that is the present-day Bering Straits, the ancestors of the Indians migrated to what is now America. This hypothesis has many supporters. The kinship of Chukchi with the Eskimo-Aleut languages has not yet been confirmed.

A curious peculiarity of the Chukchi language is its different pronunciation by men and women. The women's language lacks the r-sound, they pronounce ts instead. The men's pronunciation of the r is regarded as unsuitable for women.

Language. The Chukchis have had linguistic contacts with all their neighbouring peoples. Areas traditionally central to the Chukchi lifestyle are rich in native vocabulary (for example, 'reindeer' as a name exists in many forms depending on the age, colour, gender or nature of the animal). The layers of loan words form a clear pattern: the older loans come from the Eskimo language (predominantly in the fields of fishing and seafaring). There are fewer loans from the Koryak, Yakut and Yukaghir languages. Russian loan-words appear from the 1930s on. A newly introduced written language urgently needed its own words for evolving socio-political, cultural and technical notions. A part of them were borrowed from Russian, the rest formed from native linguistic material. Later, Russian gained unlimited supremacy. Russian spread, and its prestige increased due to schooling, mass media, business and other everyday exposure. In the 1960s, there was a boom in mixed marriages which eliminated the Chukchi language from domestic use far more efficiently than any official policy.

History. The Chukchis are one of the aboriginal peoples of Siberia. Chukotka is believed to have been inhabited for about the last 7,000 years, although the ancestors of the Chukchis migrated there from the south somewhat later. They assimilated the local tribes and subsequently expanded their habitation (mainly at the expense of Eskimos, but also of Yukaghirs). Life for the Chukchis means privation and cold and a constant struggle for existence, but also freedom and proud self-sufficiency. In 1642, a Cossack named Ivan Yerastov reached the River Alazeya, and in 1649 the fortified settlement of Anadyr was founded. However, conquering the land of the Chukchis was a slow and laborious task for the Russians. The Chukchis defended themselves bravely. Prisoners of war killed each other, preferring death to slavery. By the 1730s the land was conquered, but not the people. Construction expenses for the Anadyr fortress were, for the period 1710 to 1764, 1,381,000 roubles. In 1778 the Russians thought it preferable to conclude a peace treaty with the Chukchis. The treaty held and the forcible gathering of tribute was abandoned. If the Russians had not yielded, probably all the wayward Chukchis would have crossed over to the American side of the Straits. Abandoning the fortified settlement of Anadyr helped appease the wrath of the Chukchis and gradually they began trading with the Russians. To inform foreign ships that the Chukchi Peninsula belonged to the Russian Empire, huge imperial coats-of-arms were sent to Chukotka and the Chukchis were ordered to fasten them onto trees along the coast. Alas, the lords in St. Petersburg had no idea that Chukotka was a region with little vegetation and no trees.

Later the Russians tried to expand their influence under the cover of trade. In 1788, for example, they began organizing fairs in Anyui, to carry on the old traditions of barter trade. The Chukchis were lured, with the help of bribes, gifts and vodka, to become reconciled to imperial rule and their paying of tributes. Sources from 1822 indicate that the Chukchis were left to pay tributes at their own discretion. However, by the 19th century the Chukchis were known to be very fond of vodka. Primitive races have no biological resistance to alcohol, and fondness can rapidly lead to addiction.

After the sale of Alaska (1867) Russia hastened to develop its trade relations in northeast Asia so that Russian businessmen could keep foreign (mainly American) merchants at bay. In 1889 a special trading centre, Mariinski Post, was founded in Anadyr. Nevertheless, as late as post-World War I, English, Norwegian and U.S. merchant ships and fishing boats were still seen off the Chukotka coast until the Soviet regime began to drive them away.

Chukchis are traditionally nomadic reindeer herders. They have always been more active than their neighbours. The coastal Chukchis settled on primeval Eskimo land; the Eskimos, Itelmens, Evens, Kereks etc, have long been accustomed to communicating with Chukchis in the Chukchi language -- many of them have even become Chukchis themselves. At the same time, Chukotka has served as some kind of a contact zone. The reindeer breeders traded their reindeer skins, meat and furs for fish, train-oil and walrus skins from the coastal people. There has always been a lively trade between all the peoples.

The Soviet regime made itself felt initially by introducing profound changes. In 1930 the Chukchi National Region was established. For the Chukchis, who were organized in a clan system, co-operatives were founded. A settled mode of life was promoted and, by the 1950s, the idea of kolkhozes reached Chukotka. The Chukchis put up armed resistance to collectivization, but a terror of the KGB and the army soon overcame their contumacy. Soviet ideology meant civilizing the Chukchis (amongst other things, a written language, education, a medical service, and new technology) but all this took place in rapid bounds and the price for it was high. The proud and wilful Chukchis were reduced to slaves of the planned economy, and the management of their life and work was taken over by a distant administration. The Chukchis are one of the most conspicuous examples to illustrate the effects of Soviet colonial policy. The rich mineral resources of Chukotka (coal, gold, tungsten, lead and mercury) were seized upon by all-Union enterprises. For instance, 40 % of the Soviet Union's production of gold, or 40 billion roubles a year, was provided by Chukotka. The Russian Federation as a whole gained 300 million roubles, Chukotka got nothing. The industrial enterprises introduced to Chukotka came with an imported workforce of aliens, provisional labour eager for fast money. A badly polluted environment is the natives legacy from industrialization. The rivers once rich in fish were laid to waste and the sensitive crust of the tundra was spoiled encroaching on the pastures of the reindeer. Even the climate has changed. Relatively mild frost (-20 °C to -25 °C) is combined with piercing winds.

The rapid alteration of living conditions has generated some very serious problems. It is difficult for the nomads to adapt to a settled life. While the traditional occupations have diminished, new, suitable jobs are not easy to find. Chukchis have mostly been restricted to cheaper, dirtier and unqualified jobs, since ordered work in an urbanized environment is unsuitable. Since the 1950s, they have become accustomed to store-bought food (beef, preserves, refined farinaceous food etc), that have spoilt the natural immunity system of the Chukchis. In the old times, they used to receive their necessary vitamins and minerals from reindeer, seal and walrus meat, fresh fish and tundra plants. These vitamins and minerals are missing from the mass-manufactured, store-bought food. As late as the 1920s the Chukchis were reported to be a strong and healthy people. Nowadays, almost the whole nation is ailing. An absolute disaster for the Chukchis were the nuclear tests of the 50s and 60s which were carried out in the airspace of the far north. The radioactive residue and heavy metals have passed through the food chain (moss -- reindeer -- man) and are damaging the human organism. There is very much grippe, tuberculosis, cirrhosis of the liver, and cancer of the stomach and lungs among the Chukchis. Women are accepted into hospital one month before childbirth. The percentage of normal childbirth is just 40, and 80 to 100 newborn Chukchi children die out of every thousand (the average in Russia is 15). The tragic picture is compounded by excessive alcoholism and a considerably higher suicide rate than the all-Union average.

The preservation of Chukchi folk culture and the nation's capability for reproduction is at peril. Children are brought up at Russian boarding-schools, maintained by the state, and allowed to visit their parents only during school holidays. Parents have been deprived of a chance to take care of their children, and to pass on to them their experience and customs. The environment is favourable only to the propagation of the Russian language -- it reigns in stores, in hospitals and offices. Since the 1960s, and its boom of mixed marriages, Russian has even invaded domestic life. One of the reasons why Chukchi women so frequently married Russian men may have been that they thought their chances of bearing healthy children greater with a Russian partner.

Recently, the Chukchis have begun to revive as a nation. National issues and problems that have so far been prohibited from discussion have become topical. The Chukchis once sunk in total apathy in their polluted Russian language environment, are beginning to hope again.

Writing. From time immemorial, the Chukchis have used pictographs, and their most ancient documents are inscribed walrus tusks. The first printed texts (however badly spelt) in the Chukchi language appeared in Yakutsk in 1881 and 1894, on the occasion of the coronation celebrations of the Tsar. In the 1920s a shepherd, Tenevil, made an attempt to create a written language, using symbolic letters derived from pictographs. The Chukchi written language was created in 1932 at the Leningrad Institute of Northern Peoples, using the Latin alphabet. A primer Celgy-Kalekal (Red Book), compiled by V. Bogoraz, also some school textbooks and rough translations from Russian were published. In 1937 the Russian alphabet became obligatory. In 1940, as the first literary work in Chukchi, Tynetegin published a collection of fairy-tales. In 1950, the Chukchi writer Yuri Rytheu began his creative output.

The Chukchi printed word has mainly been limited to primary school textbooks and some sketches and fiction. In the 1960s the trend toward a so-called unitary Soviet people began and publications in the Chukchi language were stopped. In the 1980s a new primer and a reader Tirkykej (Little Sun) were compiled. A newspaper Sovetken Chukotka (Soviet Chukotka) began publishing in Anadyr.

Research of the Chukchi language. The first Chukchi words can be found in a Kamchatkan travel report from 1755 by S. Krasheninnikov. As an amateur, O. Nordquist, an expedition companion of A. E. Nordenskiöld (1878--79), wrote some notes on Chukchi grammar, and the missionary M. Petelin made an attempt to compose a Russian-Chukchi dictionary. Academic research of the language was started by V. Bogoraz, the activist of the Narodnaya Volya, later a professor at Leningrad University. His name is connected with a profound ethnographic investigation of the Chukchi people over a prolonged period. He published materials about Chukchi linguistics and folklore (1899, 1900), a Chukchi mythology (part one in 1910, part two in 1922), and compiled Russian-Chukchi (1927) and Chukchi-Russian (1937) dictionaries. In the years 1931 to 1934, V. Bogoraz took an active part in the creation of the Chukchi written language, compiling a primer and other textbooks and adapting various texts into the Chukchi language. In 1934 he published the first extensive survey of Chukchi (Luorawetlan) grammar. Since World War II, an academic grammar book has been written by P. Skorik (part one in 1961 and part two in 1977) and a Chukchi history and ethnology have been detailed by I. Vdovin 1965.


  1. W. Bogoraz, The Chukchi I--III, Leiden -- New York 1904--1909
  2. I. Lappalainen, Nordenskiöldin ja Pälsin jalanjäljissä Tšuktšien niemimaalla. -- Maailma ja me 10, 1990
  3. В. Г. Богораз, Луораветланский (чукотский) язык. -- Языки и письменность народов Севера. Ч. Ш, Москва -- Ленинград 1934
  4. Ю. Рытхэу, Черные снега. -- Народов малых не бывает, Москва 1991
  5. П. Я. Скорик, Чукотский язык. -- Языки народов СССР. Т. V, Ленинград 1968
  6. З. П. Соколова, Народы Севера СССР: прошлое, настоящее и будущее. -- Советская этнография 6, 1990
  7. Чукчи. -- Народы Сибири, Москва -- Ленинград 1956


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