[Jan-Pieter Verheul]

The Chukchi people are indigenous to the Chukotka peninsula in sub-arctic northeastern Russia. They are identified as living in two separate tribal groups: the reindeer Chukchi, who spend their time herding and migrating through the tundra, and the maritime Chukchi, who settled on the coast and make their living by hunting seals, fish, and by whaling.

The Russian word Chukchi is derived from the Chukchi word for “rich in reindeers,” which does not at all apply to the maritime-Chukchi tribe, who are known in their language as “Ankalit” (sea-people). There is also a group of Chukchi known as the “Kavralit” (rangers), who oscillate between these two groups and traditionally have better trade relations with other Northeastern Asian tribes, as well as the Russians. Despite the different lifestyles and locations, the different Chukchi groups all speak the same language; they do, however, maintain different folkloric ideations and rituals (Bogoras, 86).

While both the maritime-Chukchi and the reindeer-Chukchi were nomadic people, the maritime people maintained camps along the coast, whereas the reindeer tribes tended to roam nomadically with their herds. Reindeer herding practices required full attention and a true nomadic lifestyle, including a 200-mile trek lasting nine months into the northern tundra during the summer in order to escape insects which invariably destroyed herds with disease. The Chukchi followed their herds through the tundra, for fear that the herds would disappear, leaving the wandering tribes at a loss of both sustenance and means of trade (Bogoras, 87-88).

Waldemar Bogras, an anthropologist who spent time with various Chukchi tribes in the late 19th and early 20th century, described the Chukchi:

tall and well built, especially when compared with their nearest neighbors, the lean and under-sized Lamut. Their cheekbones are much less prominent than those of the Tungus or Yakut, and the nose is smaller. Their eyes are brown in color, straight, and are frequently as large as those of the white race. Their hair is black and sometimes wavy, or indeed curly, a characteristic which I never found among the Lamut, and only among the Yakut of pure blood. It becomes gray much later in life than among the Caucasians. The beard is scanty, but is seen more frequently than among the Lamut or the Yakut. The eyebrows are often thick and shaggy, especially among the old men… the color of the face is bronze, with intermediate tints varying from brick-red to blood-red… The color of the skin of the body is generally scarcely distinguishable from that of the Caucasian; however, there are numerous cases of brown or even of dark bronze skins (Bogoras, 90-91).

Bogras also described the Chukchi as healthier than other Northeastern Asian tribes, and often much more irrational. When angered, the Chukchi tend to show their teeth, and even pull at their hair like angry children. They uphold a strong belief in vendettas and resist all forms of imposed authority (Bogoras 92). This seems consistent with the view held by many western societies regarding the northern tribes are barbaric, untamable savages that could not be fully conquered.

Folklore and Rituals

Like many indigenous tribes, the Chukchi have a rich history of folkloric and ritualistic traditions. Many Chukchi tales are recited orally, lasting entire nights at a time, and many have been linked to tales by other Northeastern Asian tribes, as well as indigenous tribes of pacific North America. The reindeer-Chukchi holiday system is cyclic, beginning in autumn with a feast of “slaying the thin-haired reindeer,” and ending in the spring with the “feast of antlers.” All the feasts in this cycle are accompanied with sacrificial offerings such as reindeer or dog meat, leaves, snow or clay (Bogoras, 93-94).

Chukchi have an extensive set of beliefs involving divination, sacred objects, and fire. Divination accompanies many rituals, especially death rituals. The death ritual is complex, involving placing a board over the dead body with a hole over the mouth, so as to “feed” the body hot tea and meat. The meal is followed by a divination ritual known as “questioning the dead,” after which the body is either burned or left in an open field wrapped in slices of meat. As with all Chukchi rituals, a number of sacred objects are necessary, including family drums. Small charms and amulets are also abundant in ritualistic practices. Fire was also extremely important to the Chukchi, and was often guarded by Chukchi families. Household fires could not be “shared” with anyone; that is, it was strictly forbidden to bring fire from one home to another. It was, however, acceptable to borrow fire from a neighboring Russian or to use matches to light a pipe (Bogoras, 94-97).


As an animistic society, the Chukchi upheld that any and all objects whose natural shape also appeared similar to a human form had animistic powers. Invisible evil spirits may also wander about the earth, and could only be protected against by shamans. A Chukchi has multiple souls, usually five or six, each of which is the size of a gnat. Losing more than two souls almost guarantees jeopardized health, if not impending doom altogether; fortunately, the local shaman has ways of countering the loss of a soul by replacing a lost soul with either his own, or with that of a family member. The ultimate Creator is supposed to live in the sky, and is attributed names that signify a connection to the polar style, which maintains its position in the sky throughout the year (Bogoras, 97-98).

There are four groups of shamans: ventriloquists, who speak with spirits; medicine-men, who have the ability to counter evil spells; prophets, who specialize in divination; and a fourth type of shamanism which involves “sexual transformation.” This type of shamanism, like the other three, begins at the age of maturity, but at its onset, the young man, infected with evil spirits, immediately becomes a recluse, subjects himself to starvation, and can only be healed by ventriloquist shamans performing a drum rituals. After recovery, the young man communicates with his spirits, and begins wearing women’s clothing, talking like a woman, becomes shy like a woman, and forgets all things masculine. “She” then begins looking for someone to marry, and spends the rest of “her” life performing womanly duties for “her” husband (Bogoras, 98-99).

Family and Marriage

The Chukchi are organized into a clan society, with family bonds being the strongest. Clan ties can extend over a broadly shared territory and work together altruistically, replacing each other’s stock in the event of an unexpected loss. Marriage traditionally was kept within the clan, as the notion of family blood forming a stronger bond. This was encouraged in many cases with children being raised together under the assumption that they would one day wed, and even by having the children sleep together. Marriage between members of two separate clans was also accepted, but often required that the bridegroom would have to serve the family of the bride for a period of time. These inter-clan marriages were also not necessarily permanent, as the bride could be recalled by her family (Bogoras, 102-104).

The marriage ritual consisted of slaying a reindeer and using its blood to anoint the bride and groom, along with other members of the family. The bride would then disavow her family gods, and take on those of her new husband, after which the newlyweds would join the bride’s family (Bogoras, 105).

Marriage by interchange was also observed among the Chukchi; this involved males sharing their wives amongst one another. Up to ten people could be involved through this system, although a system of three or four was more common. Interestingly enough, Russian women would participate willingly in this system, whereas many Chukchi women would commit suicide before engaging in sexual intercourse with other men (Bogoras, 104-105). Women suffered a very low status in society and were expected to perform a number of duties, such as cooking, making clothes and building tents. They were responsible for preparing daily meals and caring for children, and were at the mercy of their husband. The children were a large part of the family, both in number and importance. At the age of ten, girls and boys would join their fathers in herding (Bogoras, 105-106).

The Russians and Assimilation

The Chukchi-Russian encounter began in the middle of the 17th century with the arrival of the Cossacks. The Cossacks, who were expecting to conquer the unorganized Chukchi peoples, were brutally defeated. Over the next century, the Cossacks, led by General Pavlutsky, continued to attack the Chukchi, and continually lost. Due to the obscenely cruel tactics of Pavlutsky, the Chukchi continued to harbor ill-will to all foreigners. After the Chukchi captured and brutally tortured Pavlutsky in retaliation, the Russians abandoned their fort at Anadyr, and the Chukchi were left to their own devices (Bogoras, 80-82).

The 1857 Legal Code of the Russian Empire classified the Chukchi as “aliens not fully conquered,” and due to their aggressive and nomadic history, it was accepted that the Chukchi would pay iasak (tribute) at their own will. In the 1860s, an official named Baron Maydell attempted to establish a type of “clan hierarchy” within the Chukchi social system. This involved forming the position of “The Highest Chief of all the Chukchi,” or “Chukchi Tsar.” By creating an organized hierarchy out of a purely nomadic group, Maydell hoped to improve the chances of extracting tribute from the Chukchi. His plan failed miserably, however, as the Chukchi resisted any social change. In 1910 the entire system was abandoned, as the local Russian officials had determined that “the Chukchi do not form communes and do not have chiefs, so that all attempts by the Russian administration to create elders among them have ended in failure.” The Chukchi thereafter held a unique position in that they maintained a nomadic lifestyle, traded with whomsoever they desired, and paid tribute at their own discretion (Slezkine, 105-106).

The Chukchi actually spent more time trading with Americans than with Russians in the late 19th and early 20th century, and eventually English was more prevalent than Russian among these groups. The American traders also supplied the Chukchi with firearms and other weapons, making them a military threat to the Russians. This situation only emphasized the gap between the Russians and the Chukchi, and gave the Chukchi more power to wander freely (Slezkine, 106-107).

The Soviet Era

The rule of the Soviets over Russian territories brought collectivization and dekulakization to all corners of the Union, including Chukotka. The government forced the northern nomadic tribes, including the Chukchi, to abandon their nomadic lifestyle and join collective farms. This process failed miserably, as many northern tribes were incapable of adapting to the forced lifestyle. The Chukchi, along with other reindeer-herding tribes, actually began slaughtering their herds. Between 1926 and 1933 approximately 34% of the reindeer herds were killed (Krypton, 343-347).

Aside from implementing new economic policies, the Soviets also imposed education systems in the 1920s. At first, the soviets removed children from the north and transported them west to St. Petersburg or Moscow, where they would be educated collectively. The transport itself, as well as after, saw the death of a large number of students, usually through venereal disease, tuberculosis, food poisoning, or viral illnesses. Out of those that survived, many ended up in jail or missing. Those who stayed in school ultimately came to understand the modern world, and usually upon returning home (if they returned at all), were cast from their homes for being so different. This was the first and probably most effective step in fragmenting and socializing these northern societies (Slezkine, 178-183).

The following decades brought continuing hardships for the Chukchi and other nomadic tribes of the north. In order to continue reindeer herding, the Union instituted a system of rotating members of collective farms as herders. This led to lengthened separation between husbands and wives, increased numbers of single mothers, and the continued taking of indigenous children to state-funded schools, which were themselves underfunded and understaffed. The schools themselves, despite their deficiencies, managed to provide a basic education. Having been adequately sovietized, most students resisted returning home, conversing in their mother tongues or continuing cultural rituals (Slezkine, 342-343).

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the northern collective farms were disassembled and, in conjunction with the rest of the Russian Federation, all industries were run by private investors (Wikipedia). The Soviet era did promote a northern intelligentsia, but in its efforts to remodel all ethnicities of the union, it destroyed more than it created for the Chukchi. The once free-roaming, reindeer-herding and sea-faring peoples have now become subjects of a broken post-soviet sedentary lifestyle.


Works cited

  • Waldemar Bogoras, “The Chukchi of Northeastern Asia,” American Anthropologist, New Series 3, no. 1 (Jan.-Mar., 1901), 80-108.
  • Constantine Krypton, “Soviet Policy in the Northern National Regions after World War II,” American Slavic and Eastern European Review 13, no. 3 (Oct., 1954), 338-355.
  • Yuri Slezkine, Arctic Mirrors: Russia and the Small Peoples of the North (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994).
  • Wikipedia. “Chukchi People.” Wikimedia foundation.