Nanai - Orientation

Identification. The Nanai reside in the Russian Far East, mainly in the Khabarovsk District, along the lower Amur River. The autonym, "Nanai," means "local, indigenous person." In the scholarly literature, "Nanai" came into use in the 1930s. Before the 1917 Revolution, their name was "Gol'd," which was used by the neighboring Ul'chi to refer to the entire Nanai population, whereas the Nanai along the lower reaches of the Amur and the Negidal' used it to refer to the Nanai along the upper reaches of the Amur, the present-day inhabitants of the Nanai and Khabarovosk districts. In the seventeenth century, Russian pioneers used local names for Nanai subgroups—"Achan," "Natki," "Gold."

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the upriver Nanai groups (those upstream from the present-day Nanai District) called themselves "Kheden" and "Nanai." The downriver groups called themselves "Nani." Other names were based on location and the names of settlements and clans. The Nanai lived in dispersed settlements and had no collective autonym, no unified culture, and no economic unity. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the Nanai were fishers and hunters, and their culture during this period is well described in the ethnographic literature.

Location. Nanai settlements are located along a 700-kilometer stretch of the lower Amur River and along its tributaries and nearby lakes. A small group of about 400 lives in the Maritime region, along the Ussuri River, and about 170 Nanai lived on Sakhalin in 1989. The environment of the lower Amur is quite rich. There are over 100 species of fish in the rivers, with the Salmonidae the most important. Each year salmon runs last for almost three months. In the past, the problem for fishers was not too few fish, but how to preserve the large quantity taken. Fish skin was used for clothing, footwear, and other everyday items. In early times, moose, deer, wild boars, and a variety of furbearing animals were hunted.

Demography. Over 88 percent of the total Nanai population of 12,023 (1989) lived in Russia. In 1979 they numbered 10,005. A small group of about 1,000 lives in China.

Linguistic Affiliation. Soviet linguists have expressed various views regarding the Nanai language. Some have classified it within the Manchu Subgroup of the Tungus-Manchu languages, whereas others place it in the "Amur Subgroup" of Tungus. Although Nanai dialectology is not completely studied, some experts classify Nanai dialects as speech varieties and others classify them as subdialects. For example, the speech of the Nanai of the Gorin River is considered a dialect by some experts and a subdialect by others.

Recent research suggets the presence in modern Nanai of features of a Pre-Tungusic language called Palaeoasiatic. Features from Turkic, Mongolian, Tungus, and Manchu languages are also found in modern Nanai; of these, the Tungusic language had the greatest influence on the Nanai language.

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