Chukchee - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs and Practices. In the past the religions of the Chukchee were shamanism (early forms) and hunting and family cults. Ancestor worship among sedentary and nomadic Chukchee had a distinctively patriarchal character. The Chukchee attributed all kinds of illnesses and other misfortunes to evil spirits, kelet, which tirelessly hunted human spirits and human bodies to eat.

Religious Practitioners. The basic and most important function of the shaman was healing. With the help of a tambourine and singing, the shaman made contact with protective spirits and with the spirits of the ancestors, and at the same time he exerted an influence over the psyche of those present. The shaman participated in almost all festivals and ceremonies, in the course of which shamanistic séances were organized. Shamans skillfully imitated different animal and bird sounds, which helped them establish contact with the spirits. Playing the tambourine, chanting, reciting texts or recitatives, and dancing, the shaman brought himself to an ecstatic state. Chukchee shamans did not have special costumes. Shamans of "inverted" gender (i.e., a man who had become like a woman and vice versa) were thought to be especially powerful.

The ethnocultural contact of the Chukchee with neighboring peoples is reflected in their folklore. Many Chukchee myths are analogous to those of the Koryaks, Itelmen, Eskimos, and North American Indians (e.g., myths containing the image of a crow with chicken wings).

Medicine. Shamanistic ways of curing now belong to the remote past. From the 1930s on there was intensive building of schools and medical and cultural-educational centers. In the organization of public health care, traveling medical units, which served the nomadic and sedentary populations, played an important role. The first stationary medical institutions (hospitals and ambulatory units) were created in the cultural centers. In the past the most widespread illnesses among Chukchee were tuberculosis and consumption. The establishment of medical institutions—antituberculosis dispensaries, sanitary-epidemiological stations, hospitals, medical (including airborne) assistance units—allowed for earlier detection of illnesses, the use of the most effective methods of healing, and the development of preventive treatment. Births outside of a medical institution have now become a rare exception. Some Chukchee became doctors and nurses, receiving specialized education in medical institutes and colleges. The health of mothers and children among sedentary and maritime Chukchee populations is safeguarded by regular medical checkups. In every national village the government opened day-care centers and nursery schools, which children of herders and single mothers attended.

Arts. The work of cultural enlightenment took many forms among the Chukchee. At the beginning, films were shown and discussions were held in mobile red yarangas and chyms (tipis). Later came cultural agitation brigades, which not only functioned as mobile clubs but also served as a catalyst for the development of national culture.

The eradication of illiteracy, the introduction of universal education, the creation of a network of cultural institutions, the establishment of a local printing press, and the general growth of culture all led to a rise in the modern professional forms of art and literature among the Chukchee. The name of the Chukchee writer Yuri Rytkheu, the author of a series of novels and stories and a prominent social activist, is widely known. His work has been translated into a number of foreign languages. The poets and writers V. Keul'kut, A. Kymytval', Arachaivyn, V. Tyneskin, and V. Yatyrgin all have won recognition.

Chukchee decorative folk arts for a long time included carving and engraving on bone, artistic appliqué on fur and sealskin hides, and embroidery with reindeer hair. The center of bone-carving art became the studio, which was created in 1931, in the village of Uelen. The best works of Chukchee bone-carving masters are exhibited at international expositions.

The centuries-old life of wild-reindeer hunters was reflected in the dance with which the ancient Chukchee used to try to influence the vegetable and animal worlds and solicit the benevolence of the spirits that were embodied in animal and vegetable forms. For the maritime as well as for the sedentary Chukchee, animist representations were characteristic. The age-old powerlessness of man in the fight with the harsh elements of nature was reflected in a cult of nature and the elements.

It was entirely natural that this cult was represented in particular ritual dances. They consisted mainly of movements that imitated certain household activities. The reason for this was that these dances of the nomadic people were performed on specific holidays, celebrating the beginning or end of some important process: the mass slaughtering of reindeer in spring and fall, the winter solstice, the driving of the herd to summer pasture, the return of the herd at the end of summer, the calving of the reindeer, etc. In these festivities and corresponding ritual dances the Chukchee attempted to win over the spirits on which the well-being of the family and the prosperity of the reindeer herds presumably depended. Improvised ritual dances included "The Expulsion of Evil Spirits," "Vivrel'et" (the Trembling Knees), "Dance with Grimaces," and others.

The dances of the maritime Chukchee, like those of the reindeer herders, were linked to the major holidays of the year, which were devoted to the whale and Keretkun, the protective spirit of sea mammals. In early spring they celebrated the holiday of the canoes. Dances were also performed on the holiday of the walrus in the middle of summer. The hunting holidays of the maritime Chukchee were in many ways similar to those of the Eskimos. Pantomimic dances represented all processes involved in whale hunting and the cutting up of whale meat. The dances were performed in a sitting position. Sometimes during the whale holiday the maritime Chukchee performed comic dances wearing masks. Sometimes the men imitated the sitting dances of the women.

As the maritime Chukchee adopted a sedentary life and took up sea-animal hunting, over time they lost their original holidays and dances, which were linked with reindeer herding, and adopted some ritual ceremonies and dances from the Asian Eskimos.

Especially noteworthy are the playful dances, which are performed at various times on any occasion "for the sake of having a good time." The Chukchee dance pich'einen —or, as it is sometimes called, pilgeinen or pich'geinen, which in Chukchee means "wheezing throat"—is one such dance without a specific theme. The dance is performed with guttural singing and outcries from the dancers. Men and women sometimes take part in it separately.

The movements of arms, shoulders, and head play a special role in the dance. Despite the fact that they dance in heavy costume (double fur overalls and fur shoes), the Chukchee women are noted for graceful coordination and agility of neck and head. All performers stand facing the hearth. The dance begins with slow squatting movements and simultaneous, arbitrary arm movements. The dynamic of the dance gradually increases as the squatting movements become quicker and more abrupt. The dancers move their arms from one side to the other, simultaneously lifting and lowering their shoulders, gently turning their heads in various directions, and moving their necks back and forth. The dances last as long as the performers sing. After one performance, they often begin anew. Some of their dances imitate the gait of the reindeer.

The Chukchee were noted for skillfully imitating in their dances everything that surrounded them in nature and daily life. They created a pantomimic dance called "Fight of the [reindeer] Bulls," an imitative improvised dance called "Crane," the "Dance of the Seagull," "Duck Dance," and "Crows."

The transformations in the economic and cultural life of the Chukchee in the 1930s and 1940s also had an impact on their dance. The imitative dances of the Chukchee, while preserving their plasticity, continued to develop. The first scenic dances appeared. They entailed an exact fixation of the plasticity of movements and a musical accompaniment. Mass art forms exerted a significant influence on the development of popular dance culture. In Chukchee settlements amateur performing ensembles were created. These ensembles blended traditional dances such as "Walrus Hunt," "Crow," "Crane," and others with many new ones, such as "The First Rays of the Sun," "Builders of Houses," "Workdays of the Housewife," "Sewing," and others.

In 1968 the first professional ensemble, Ergyron (Dawn), was founded. It spurred the establishment and flowering of professional singing and dancing in Chukotka. Their songs and dances reflect the work and life of maritime-animal hunters and of reindeer herders. Particularly popular are the pantomimic dances of the Chukchee: "Faithfulness of the Cranes," "Dance with Snowplows," "Chattering Women," "Men's Games," "Family Talks," "A Holiday in the Tundra," "Reindeer Breeders," and others.

During the long winter nights the Chukchee listened to storytellers. A good storyteller could tell stories for many hours without interruption by stringing various episodes together.

The tambourine was for the Chukchee not only a ritual cult object but also simply a musical instrument. Since ancient times the Chukchee played simple musical instruments made out of wood, willow, bone, whalebone, and metallic plates. Instruments that imitated various elements of nature and the sounds of certain birds and animals were especially widespread. One such instrument is the vargan, as it is called in Russian, or in Chukchee, vannyiarar, a dental tambourine. Other examples are the telitel (a vertical wind instrument), the v'yutkunen (a variation on the telitel), various whistles made of willow, and flutes.

Songs and melodies accompanied the Chukchee throughout their whole life. Every Chukchee family had its own rather simple tunes, which were passed down from generation to generation. Among families that exchanged fire, there existed identical or very similar tunes. But together with shared melodies each family had its own songs, which were composed for their own use and frequently were improvised. The Chukchee also had unique kinds of singing competitions (in wheezing, for example). The winner was the one believed to be the most tireless.

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