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The self-designation of the people living on the River Amur is Nivh and on Sakhalin Island it is N'ivhgn-N'igvn, which means 'man'. In older literature they are known as Gilyak, the name given them by their neighbours, the Manchus (Gilyami-Gileke). Various Nivkh tribes have also named themselves according to the area they are settled in, for example Chombing -- 'the people on the River Chom' and Mybing -- 'the people on the River My'. Since the 1930s, when the Soviet national policy took to calling ethnic groups by their self-designations, the name Nivkh has been officially adopted in Russian.

The earliest historical data concerning the Nivkhs dates back to a 12th century Chinese chronicle. The people called Tszi-lya-mi on the Lower Amur mentioned in the chronicle are evidently Nivkhs. In the 17th century, the Nivkhs are referred to in the reports written by the Russian Cossacks (Vasily Poyarkov 1643--46, Yerofey Khabarov, etc).

Habitat. The Nivkhs live in the Far East, on the Lower Amur, on the coast of the Ohkotsk Sea on the river's estuary, and on Sakhalin Island (Yh-mif in the Nivkh language). In the administrative sense, they belong to the Khabarovsk district of the Russian Federation (the districts of Takhatin and Lower Amur), and Sakhalin region (the districts of Rybinov, Kirov, Alexandrov and Shirokopad). In the past, their habitation was more extensive. The Nivkh population is not compact and they mostly live side by side with the Russians or the Negidal people.

A monsoon climate prevails on the lowlands of the Lower Amur. There is abundant snow in winter but the summers are warm and humid. The average temperature in July is 12 to 16 °C and in January -- 15 to 25 °C.

Population. The following census data is given for the Nivkhs:

native speakers
19264,07699.6 %
19593,71776.3 %
19704,42049.5 %
19794,39748.1 %
19894,67323.3 %

The population of the Nivkhs appears to have remained relatively stable. Omitted from the data is the fact that in 1926, 111 Nivkhs lived on the Japanese part of Sakhalin Island, so at that time the true total number of Nivkhs was 4,187. Although the number of the Nivkhs has not diminished, the decrease in the number of native speakers is an ominous sign.

Anthropologically the Nivkhs belong to the Sakhalin-Amur subgroup of the Mongoloid racial type. They are of short stature (men approx. 160 cm). They have a broad flat face, a snub nose and thick lips. Unlike other Mongoloid peoples, they have a relatively dark skin, and dark eyes and hair. They have remarkably dense beards, a supposed influence of the Ainu.

The Nivkh language belongs to the Paleo-Asian languages as a separate unit, unconnected to any other group or subgroup. It is connected to the Chukchi-Kamchatkan and Altai languages by typological similarities and, in the opinion of several academics, also to North American Indian languages. The neighbours of the Nivkhs speak widely different Manchu languages (Ulchi, Orochi, Nanai). Three different dialects can be distinguished within the Nivkh language: a) Amur, b) East Sakhalin and c) North Sakhalin.

The Amur and the East Sakhalin dialects contain notable differences in phonetics, grammar and vocabulary. They have even been presumed to be two different languages. The North Sakhalin dialect is placed somewhere in between the other two. The dialects, in their turn, can be subdivided into local vernaculars.

In the areas of life central to the Nivkhs' existence (nature, the sea, weather, fishing, hunting) the language is remarkably rich in its native stock of words. There are only a few loans from the Manchu-Tungus or Paleo-Asian languages. However, vocabulary connected with newer occupations (e.g. agriculture, cattle-breeding, horticulture), is pervaded with loans from the Russian language.

History. The Nivkhs are considered to be the descendants of the oldest neolithic population of the Lower Amur and Sakhalin Island. They retained their independence from the states of China and Manchu, but, at the same time, retained fruitful trade and cultural relations. Through living within the theoretical sphere of influence of China, 17th and 18th century Russian expeditions did not result in the annexation of the Amur region to Russia. The authority of the Russian Emperor only came to encompass the Nivkhs after the 1858 Aikhun and 1860 Peking treaties, when the entire Amur and Ussur regions fell to the Russians. The Nivkhs have always interacted and traded with all their neighbouring peoples. An important Chinese and Manchu influence (e.g. in architecture, clothing, food) is manifest in Nivkh folk culture and, to a lesser degree, some Ainu and Japanese influence (mainly on Sakhalin Island). In the 20th century, the influence of Russian culture has considerably increased.

The Soviet regime brought substantial changes to the Nivkh way of life. The first major reshaping occurred with the introduction of forced mass collectivization (the first kolkhoz, Chir-unvd, 'New Life', was founded in 1930). The system of winter and summer settlements, developed to maximise the benefits of local resources, was abandoned. By a deliberate manipulation of the system of wages and salaries, the Nivkhs were forced to leave the sea and become lumbermen or agricultural labourers. In 1960 in the Noglik district, for example, there were 130 Nivkh fishermen, in 1978 there were only 27, and in 1988, only 10. Nivkh fishermen believed that hurting the earth (i.e. ploughing) was a sin, and therefore they sought to resist collectivization and resettlement. When by 1938, the "kulaks and enemies of the people" had been eliminated, the kolkhoz consisted of 50 households. Next began the forcible uniting of the small settlements into larger units. This took place during the 1950s and 1960s. The purely Nivkh settlements of Piltun, Chaivo and Vensk etc. were "closed". In the 1960s and 1970s, the atmosphere was particularly oppressive on Sakhalin. A slogan, "Sakhalin is ancient Russian soil!", had initially been employed as anti-Japanese rhetoric but its ideology was also an affront to the native population of Sakhalin, since they, also, were not Russian. Nowadays, the Nivkhs live in villages and towns of mixed population, in Russian-type dwelling-houses, they wear ready-made clothes, eat food bought at shops, and communicate in Russian. Only a handful of principally anthropological factors have so far averted their total assimilation.

Ethnic culture. Of all Nivkh traditions the most enduring are fishing and hunting. The importance of fish is best illustrated by the name once given to the Nivkhs of fish-eaters. For the coastal-dwelling Nivkhs, an additional occupation was the hunting of sea animals, especially seals. Dog breeding (for draught animals and for food) was also widespread. Traditional clothing and food, and also women's handicrafts, have to some extent been preserved. Changes in the structure of settlements have had a detrimental impact on traditional architecture.

Writing. In the 1880s, a Nivkh-Nanai primer was compiled by a missionary, Protodyakonov, but its use was limited. The activity of local primary schools was of a short duration (from 1895 to 1905). Under the Soviet regime, a Nivkh alphabet based on the Latin alphabet (1931) and a written language based on the Amur dialect were created. Utilizing these, a primer, Cuz-dif (New Word), a few primary school textbooks and 11 issues of a newspaper Nivhgn Mykyr Klaj-dif (The Nivkh Truth) were published. In 1953, the transition to the Russian alphabet was completed and a new primer published. At that point, unfortunately, the Nivkh written language was dissolved. The spoken language remained in the educational sphere a little longer, used in nursery classes, but soon it was banished from there on the pretext that, all children could speak Russian anyway and consequently there was no need for schooling in their mother tongue. With the abolition of native language schools, an ethnic mix of schoolchildren became additional justification for using Russian in schooling. The trend toward bilingualism begun in the 1930s, soon gained momentum: by 1959 the figure was 23 %. Russian is now by far the predominant language, and the Nivkhs are on their way from bilingualism back to monolingualism but this time with the Russian language. In the 1980s Ch. Taksami and M. Pukhta compiled a primer in the Amur dialect, V. Sangi published a primer and a reader in the East Sakhalin dialect.

Research. The study of the Nivkhs began in the 1890s, with L. Sternberg on Sakhalin. In 1900 he published part of his collected linguistic examples and later, in 1908, the main part The Study of Gilyak Language and Folklore. More detailed research has been made recently on the founding and development of the literary language, and collection and study in the field of linguistic material. In 1934, E. Kreinovich published his first survey of the Nivkh language. In the 60s V. Panfilov compiled an academic grammar book (1 -- 1962, 2 -- 1965). A Russian-Nivkh dictionary, compiled by V. Savelyeva and Ch. Taksami, was published in 1965 and a Nivkh-Russian dictionary in 1970. No information is available about monographs on dialects or folklore.


  1. Нивхи. -- Народы Сибири, Москва -- Ленинград 1956
  2. Палеоазиатские языки. Отв. ред. П. Я. Скорик, Ленинград 1986
  3. В. З. Панфилов, Нивхский язык. -- Языки народов СССР. Т. V, Москва 1968
  4. В. М. Санги, Мы нивхи... -- Народов малых не бывает, Москва 1991
  5. З. П. Соколова, Народы Севера СССР: прошлое, настоящее и будущее. -- Советская этнография 6, 1990


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