Chuvans - Orientation

Identification. "Chuvans" is an official and popular name of the small group of creolized natives in Pacific Northeastern Siberia who are occasionally listed among the twenty-six titular Soviet Arctic and Siberian minorities (the so-called Peoples of the North). The group was formed through the mixture of a former Yukagir tribe with a similar ethnic name and a few families of other Yukagir, Even, and Koryak ethnicities, and people of Russian peasant and Cossack descent.

The sedentary creole population of the Anadyr Valley contributed its support and enthusiasm to the establishment of the new Soviet power in the early 1920s. Dozens of local Chuvans, literate and fluent in Russian, were active in the collectivization process as administrators and functionaries at the village and district level. With the wave of economic centralization that started in the 1940s to 1950s, several smaller villages were relocated and their residents were removed to the larger settlements of Markovo, Chuvanskoe, and Lamutskoe. Markovo, with its current population of 2,200, is the main center in the inland part of the Anadyr Valley, and is expected to become a small Arctic town of standard multiapartment buildings. Most of its current residents are Russian newcomers, who quickly assimilate local creole families through intermarriage. The Chuvans in Markovo are mainly engaged in commercial fishing, small-scale gardening, and community services. Smaller villages, such as Chuvanskoe, Lamutskoe, and Slautnoe, are more native in their ethnic composition of mixed Chuvans and even Chukchee and Koryak families. Resident Chuvans are mostly reindeer breeders; their surnames resemble those of the Chukchee and the Koryak, and they speak Chukchee or Koryak fluently as their second or even main language. The separation between these two subgroups of Chuvans is accelerating as the reindeer breeders become culturally closer to their native neighbors and the Markovo residents mix with Russians and become more acculturated, although they still preserve some traces of creole culture.

Location. The majority of Chuvans currently live along the Anadyr River and its tributaries, in the villages of Markovo, Tavaivaam, Chuvanskoe, and Lamutskoe of the Chukchee Autonomous Okrug, or district (recently declared the Chukchee Republic). During the 1910s several Chuvan families moved southward from the Anadyr River to the valley of the Penzhina River, where their descendants can be found in the villages of Aianka and Slautnoe of the modern Koryak Republic (the former Koryak Autonomous Okrug). This whole area lies between 63° and 65° N and 168° and 178° E. Although geographically close to the Pacific coast, the area has an inland Siberian appearance: a hilly river plain covered with larch, willow, and poplar forests in river valleys and tundra shrubs on the hillsides and watershed uplands. The area, which is generally flat and marshy, is crossed by numerous streams connected to the main river systems of the Anadyr and Penzhina. As an ecosystem, it most closely resembles the Yukon-Kuskokwim plain of central and southwestern Alaska; the area was a portion of the same continuous ecological zone before the submersion of the Beringia Holocene land bridge. The climate of the Anadyr and Penzhina valleys is markedly continental and cold, although made slightly milder by the nearby Pacific Ocean. The average yearly temperature is about —8 to —7° C; winters can be as cold as —22° C, with heavy snowfalls and periodic tempests, but summers average +13°, with occasional highs at about 21 to 27° C. Rivers are usually frozen from October to early mid-June, but the growing season proved to be long enough to support small-scale Russian gardening introduced in the twentieth century.

Demography. The approximate size of the original mid-seventeenth-century Chuvan population was 500 to 600 people. It declined with the installation of Russian administration in the Anadyr Valley and particularly during the Russian-Chukchee wars in the early mid-eighteenth century, when the Chuvans and the other Yukagirs allied themselves to the Russians and suffered heavy losses in raids by the nearby Chukchee. When the Chuvans recovered in the Anadyr Valley in the second half of the nineteenth century, this time as a mixed creole group, their number was again about 500, of whom about 350 were sedentary fishermen and hunters and the other 150 reindeer herders. This population grew slightly, reaching 700 to 750 in the 1920s, and dropped again in later decades because of flu epidemics in the early 1940s. Their present number of 1,511 (Soviet census of 1989) is the result partly of natural increase, but mostly of the recent trend among old local Russian residents of mixed origin to register as members of a "native" group to gain the benefits of subsistence quotas and affirmative-action policies.

Linguistic Affiliation. The original language of the Chuvans, which was preserved as a single short word list recorded by a Russian expedition in the 1820s, was a branch or dialect of Kolyma Yukagir. Since the mid-1800s the Chuvans along the Anadyr River have spoken only Russian, with the exception of a few elders who still remembered isolated words in their original language in the 1890s. The Russian spoken by the Anadyr Chuvans was, however, a peculiar local creole dialect, with many local words, native and Russian archaic forms, and highly distinctive phonetics. This dialect is still preserved in the area by a few local families and folklore groups. The reindeer Chuvans used to speak mostly the Chukchee or Koryak of their respective nomadic neighbors. Their younger generation is currently shifting to standard Russian, as are most native peoples of the Anadyr River Basin.

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