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01:05 | Aug 18 | 2012

The Spartans of tundra

Yakutia is now home to seven hundred Chukchi.

More than a hundred nations and nationalities currently live in Yakutia but only six of them are native: Sakha, Even, Evenk, Yukagir, Dolgan, and Chukchi.

Today's story is about the Chukchi, the Spartans of tundra. About a total of 16,000 Chukchi live in Russia now and about 700 of them on the territory of Yakutia.
The ancestors of the Chukchi and Koryak who are related to them lived in the inner regions of Chukotka. They were hunting for reindeer and were relatively sedentary. Apparently reindeer herding arose among Chukchi that were living in tundra under the influence of the Koryak shortly before the Russians’ advent. At the beginning of the first millennium, some Chukchi tribes moved to the sea coast, where they partially assimilated the Eskimos and partially embraced their lifestyle and culture. The settlements of “on-foot” Chukchi, sedentary marine hunters, were located between the Cape of Dezhnev and the Bay of Krest and further South in the lower reaches of the Anadyr and Kanchalan rivers together with the Eskimos.
The first reference of the Chukchi in Russian documents date from the XVII century. By the way, Chukchi and Russians never had close and friendly relations during the first 150 years. Over time they evolved into a real war which lasted with varying success for more than 150 years. Only in 1776 Catherine II ordered to make every effort to accept the Chukchi as citizens. Acting not through the military force but through diplomacy, the Russians achieved the desired: in 1778 the contract on the taking out the Russian citizenship by the Chukchi was made.
By Catherine’s decree the Chukchi were exempt from the tribute (fox pelt which every man had to bring) for 10 years and maintained their independence in internal affairs. Such relatively privileged position was also kept by the Chukchi later on. According to the “Charter for the management of foreigners” of 1822, the Chukchi lived by their own laws, were litigated by their own court of law, optionally paid the tribute. In 1885 Captain Alex Resin who was sent on a monitoring check wrote: “In reality, all the extreme North-East territories do not know of any authority and are self-managed.”
The confrontation between the Russians and Chukchi ended only during the Soviet times, although some encounters took place even back in the 20s of the twentieth century.
Now Chukchi are perceived mostly as joke characters, but for centuries they were hardly like that. The Chukchi have always been capable and energetic men of war, a real threat of the Arctic coast. Russian invaders were described as follows: “all clothes made of iron, mustaches like a walrus’s, round eyes the colour of steel, elbow-length spears and quarrelsome behavior – always bringing on a fight.”

Myths and Legends
Chukchi’s mythology is a reflection of religious beliefs of this people. They believed that the world was filled with both creatures who were sympathetic to man, and evil spirits. The sun, for example, was perceived like a good creature. He was portrayed as a man in shining clothes. The moon, too, was a “man”, but not a good natured one: it was called the sun of evil spirits (kele).
In addition to stars and constellations, some creatures that did not have a strictly defined form were also considered benevolent and were clearly identified in the Chukchi language as the Creator, the Giver of Life, the Giver of good luck, etc. All of them were offered sacrifices, to all applied for help and protection.
Mythology also explained natural phenomena. According to myths, the Northern lights were the souls of dead children playing ball in the sky. Rain was tears of the souls of the dead, who moved to the sky. Wind was the angry breath of life master.
A shaman was an intermediary between the spirits and the people; he was a person who had a twin or an assistant in a form of a sympathetic spirit. Shamans could banish a disease, help hunters who got lost in the tundra or were carried away on an ice floe to make it back home, adjust good weather, make animals show up during an unsuccessful hunt.