Koryaks and Kerek - History and Cultural Relations

The Koryaks and the Chukchee are related to the Arctic peoples whose culture developed in northeastern Siberia. Their material and symbolic culture was influenced significantly by Eskimos. These influences are evident mainly among Kereks and other groups of settled Koryaks. For nomadic Koryaks the primary traditional economic activity was reindeer herding; for settled Koryaks it was fishing, sea-mammal hunting, and the fur trade. There were exchange relations between nomadic and settled Koryaks. Reindeer production was conducted in accord with ancient and, for the Koryaks, unchallenged traditions. It helped to preserve existing social structures.

In the past the nomadic movements of Koryak reindeer herders extended beyond current administrative boundaries. Before the arrival of the Even on the northern coast of the Sea of Okhotsk, Koryaks were in contact with the northern groups of Nivkh, as evidenced by the similarity of their material cultures and languages (lexical similarities). Koryak contact with the Even began later, a fact recorded in legends and historical documents. The Koryaks came into contact with Yukagir during their migration from the source of the Gizhiga River to the headwaters of the Omolon and Korkodon rivers. Christianization began with the arrival of Russians in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and affected mostly settled Koryaks. The nomadic reindeer herders as well as Kereks were Christianized "on paper." For the most part they have kept their own, non-Russian names.

Until the beginning of the twentieth century, elements of a primitive communal system were preserved among the Koryaks. Nevertheless, the reindeer herding and crafts of settled Koryaks were gradually drawn into the market, and the role of private property increased. Soviet control of Kamchatka and Chukotka was established in the 1920s. The collectivization of reindeer herders was accompanied by the inescapable deculturation that brought passive Koryak resistance. They attempted to leave, to "dissolve" into the expanses of the tundra. In December 1930 the Koryakskii National (now Autonomous) District was founded. All Koryaks were brought together in fishery collectives, reindeer farms, and agricultural collectives. The reindeer herders were converted to the settled way of life. In the postwar period, a policy of enlargement of the villages took place. It harmed traditional craft production and promoted the "lumpenization" of part of the population. In 1954 teaching of the Koryak language was prohibited. The prohibition lasted for twenty years, and its consequences have yet to be completely overcome. Estimates in 1988 listed only thirteen schools in the district that were teaching the Koryak language. The development of democratization in Russia, following perestroika, encouraged Koryaks to act independently in the struggle to maintain their identity.

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