ItelmenBelow Chukotka, the 1000-mile long Kamchatka peninsula juts out into the Pacific Ocean. Kamchatka's landscape is extraordinary and beautiful - a fantastic mix of fire and ice with active volcanoes, glaciers and geysers. In 1996 Kamchatka’s volcanoes were proclaimed a UNESCO world heritage site. The peninsula has a rich wildlife with the world's largest known variety of salmonoid fish, sea otter, brown bear and Steller's sea eagle.
The aboriginal people of Kamchatka are the Itelmen. They are one of a small number of peoples in the Russian Federation who are survivors of ancient hunting, fishing and gathering peoples. Some of their languages, including the Itelmen language, are so-called language isolates, which means that they are unrelated to any other living language. Traditionally, thanks to the abundance of fish in Kamchatka’s rivers, the Itelmen lived mainly by fishing, but they also hunted, sometimes sea mammals from the land.
Itelmen became a tribute-paying people of the Russian Empire in the 18th century. They were highly susceptible to diseases imported by the Russians, and their numbers fell quickly. Influenced by the Russians, they started breeding horses and growing crops and by the end of the 19th century, most were practicing a way of life very similar to that of the Russian settlers.
Under Soviet rule, many Itelmen villages were closed and communities relocated as part of a policy of forced assimilation, and they ceased completely to lead their traditional lifestyles and became sedentary and Russian-speaking.
The Koryaks are another people indigenous to Kamchatka. The Koryak Okrug is an administrative entity of northern Kamchatka with a population of 25,000 people, a quarter of whom are Koryak. Koryaks once lived in a much larger area extending all the way down to Khabarovsk Krai. Some Koryaks traditionally live along the coast and lead a lifestyle similar to the Yupik and the coastal Chukchis, while others live inland and keep herds of reindeer. Like the Itelmen, the Koryak population dwindled in the 18th century because of diseases and warfare with Russian Cossacks.
In the 18th century, many Koryak moved from Kamchatka further north to Chukotka, hoping to escape the Russian administration and the terrible diseases that the Russians had brought – a smallpox epidemic in 1770 followed by typhoid fever had decimated the population. By the middle of the 19th century the indigenous population in Kamchatka had fallen to the extent that the Russian governor made a request to his colleague in Anadyr that the Kamchatka reindeer herders be made to go back to Kamchatka. Some Koryak returned, followed by some new settlers, who were Evens. They brought along their reindeer herds - tens of thousands of reindeer.
The Evenks, the Evens and the Koryak
The Evenks and Evens, who speak closely related Tungusic languages, are spread over a large area of Siberia from Sakha to the Amur region, but today their numbers are small - in 2002, there were 35,527 Evenks and 19,071 Evens in the Russian Federation and only between 20 and 30% of these speak Evenk/Even.
Today, Russians, Koryak, Itelmen and Evens live in Kamchatka.
Through Kamchatka by Dog-Sled and Skis by Sten Bergman was originally published in English 1926 and offers a glimpse of Kamchatka at a time shortly after the Russian revolution. Bergman, a Swedish explorer, travelled with his wife and four friends and colleagues on a mission sponsored by the Swedish Geographical Society.
Their journey starts with a shipwreck on the way from Japan to the Okhotsk Sea. Eventually, having lost some important equipment, they arrive in Petropavlovsk on the eastern side near the tip of Kamchatka. At this time the town had three streets with unpainted one-storey houses and corrugated iron roofs. It was inhabited by Russians, Chinese and Korean workers, and Japanese and American businessmen as well as some people of mixed native and European descent. Bergman says an atmosphere of inertia reigns in Petropavlovsk, and pigs and bear cubs wander around the streets. The Tsarist Governor has been removed from office, and a Bolshevik Committee is now in charge of Kamchatka.
Here the party encounters the town’s three “educated” personalities: a Russian priest, fluent in Swedish because his mother was Swedish, a Kamchadal (a person born in Kamchatka of mixed ethnicity) educated in Tomsk who runs the school and speaks excellent English, and an Estonian veterinary doctor, who is supposed the cover the enormous administrative areas of Kamchatka, Magadan and Chukotka and, according to the author, has long since given up doing anything.
It is strange to think that remote Kamchatka was such a multi-cultural place at this time. On one of his trips around the peninsula, Bergman has the opportunity to stay with a man called Mr. Karlsson, originally from Halmstad, Sweden, who lives in a Swedish-style wooden house with a flowery tablecloth and a ceiling lamp surrounded by his many Swedish-looking offspring. Karlsson had come to Kamchatka 35 years earlier as a result of a shipwreck together with a Finnish mate. He stayed on, making a living by hunting and fishing and later by trading hides and fur. He tells Bergman he has shot over 1,000 bears in Kamchatka, and that bears used to be so plentiful that they would sometimes wander into the villages.
Bergman and his team spent almost three years in Kamchatka and travelled around the peninsula on several occasions. Bergman describes the hospitality of Kamchatka’s population as their most endearing feature. In fact, he says, hospitality is a sheer necessity in this harsh environment, and is seen as something fundamentally natural and unquestionable, and people constantly sleep on each other’s floors when they travel and move about. By staying with various people in this manner, Bergman comes into contact with both the Evens and the Koryaks. Although he is generally appreciative of his hosts, Bergman doesn’t fail to mention that sometimes there are lice and cockroaches in the tea he is served, and in some villages people are rampantly infected with syphilis or constantly drunk.
Bergman finds the Even friendly and very curious about their guests. He notes that they wear beautiful clothes – and the women seem to spend most of their time making them. They are made of reindeer hide, cured with human urine and dyed and embroidered with glass beads. The Even eat reindeer meat – meat boiled in water without salt - and marrow and fat. They drink tea, and according to Bergman most of them are addicted to alcohol. They live in tents with inner rooms which are separated by reindeer hides pulled up during the day. Each family lives in a separate room. They get up early, just before sunrise, start a fire, and drink tea. Then they wash – by sucking water from the kettle spout into their mouth and spitting it out on their hands, with which they rub their face. Mothers wash their babies’ faces by spitting on them in this way. They then wipe themselves with very soft strips of tree bark that resemble cotton wool in texture. Both the women and the men smoke pipes.
The Evens have relatively small herds of reindeer, from a hundred to one thousand animals (whereas the Koryak herds number several thousand) and they ride the reindeer without stirrups and prefer not to slaughter them.
Another traveller in this region, Martin Sauer, had the opportunity to ride a reindeer whilst travelling from Yakutsk to the Okhotsk Sea. Sauer was part of the Billings Expedition 1785-94, which was dispatched by Empress Ann of Russia to explore the remote parts of the Russian Empire. Sauer encountered people he calls ‘Tungus’, who were probably Evens. He describes the riding experience:
[Sauer] mounted on a beautiful young reindeer; the saddle placed on its shoulders, without stirrups; no bridle, but a leather thong about five fathom long tied round the head of the deer; this is kept in the rider's left hand, that he may prevent its escape if he falls, and, when refreshing, have a little scope to select its food. A strong stick about five feet long assists the rider to mount; though the Tungoose, for this purpose, use their bow, standing on the right side of the deer, they put the left leg upon the saddle, lean on the stick with the right hand, and spring up with astonishing apparent ease; we, however, could not effect it by any means without assistance; and, during about three hours travelling, I dare say that we fell near twenty times. The top of the saddle is square and flat, projecting a few inches over the sides of the deer; the seat is secured by drawing up the calves of the leg towards the thighs, and clinging fast to the projecting parts of the saddle, which at first causes astonishing pain to the thighs...
Bergman says the Evens often accost the Koryaks, who have huge herds, and ask for reindeer meat, which to Bergman’s amazement is usually given to them - it isn’t clear what the Koryaks get in exchange. However, Bergman notes, both peoples speak badly of each other!
He raves about the Evens’ sledges, which he says are beautiful, light and strong. They are made of birchtree and put together with reindeer skin, without any nails or screws. In springtime both the Even and the Koryak celebrate the arrival of spring, and sledge races are organised.
The Koryaks never wash – so Bergman is told by Russians, Kamchadals and Evens, and he verifies it himself. Their herds are huge, and the animals smaller and darker than those of the Evens, and they do not ride the animals. Bergman notes that all the time of the Koryaks is taken up by tending to their reindeer.
Like the Evens, the Koryaks eat reindeer meat is boiled in water without salt and eaten half raw. Both women and men take snuff and they are masters at spitting. They live in huge yurtas, much larger than those of the Evens, outside of which they leave sledges packed with things they don’t need everyday, such as burial clothes: burial clothes are finely made and embroidered in advance (but not quite finished) by the women. When a man dies, nobody must sleep while the corpse is still in the yurta. The women put the last finishing touches on the burial clothes while the men play cards. Once finished, the dead man is dressed up and driven on a reindeer sledge to the funeral pire. There he is burned together with the two reindeer and some of his other possessions.
In the summer, both Koryak and Even take their herds up in the mountains to avoid the mosquitoes of the tundra. Women, children and older men stay behind, usually by the banks of a river where they can fish.
Shamans are still active among both the Evens and the Koryaks according to Bergman. A few years before Bergman, Waldemar and Dina Jochelson were two ethnographers who stayed in a Koryak village in Penshina Bay by the North Pacific at the beginning of the 20th century. In his book The Koryak Jochelson describes a Koryak shaman at work:
During the entire period of my sojourn among the Koryak I had opportunity to see only two shamans. Both were young men, and neither enjoyed special respect on the part of his relatives. Both were poor men who worked as labourers for the rich members of their tribe. One of them was a […] bashful youth, his features, though somewhat wild, were flexible and pleasant, and his eyes were bright. I asked him to show me proof of his shamanistic art. Unlike other shamans, he consented without waiting to be coaxed. The people put out the oil-lamps in the underground house in which he stopped with his master. Only a few coals were glowing on the hearth, and it was almost dark in the house. On the large platform which is put up in the front part of the house as the seat and sleeping-place for visitors, and not far from where my wife and I were sitting, we could discern the shaman in an ordinary shaggy shirt of reindeer skin, squatting on the reindeer skins that covered the platform. His face was covered with a large oval drum. 'Suddenly he commenced to beat the drum softly and to sing in a plaintive voice; then the beating of the drum grow stronger and stronger; and his song-in which could be heard sounds imitating the howling of the wolf, the groaning of the cargoose, and the voices of other animals, his guardian spirits-appeared to come, sometimes from the corner nearest to my seat, then from the opposite end, then again from the middle of the house, and then it seemed to proceed from the ceiling. He was a ventriloquist. Shamans versed in this art are believed to possess particular power. His drum also seemed to sound, now over my head, now at my feet, now behind, now in front of me. I could see nothing; but it seemed to me that the shaman was moving around, noiselessly stepping upon the platform with his fur shoes, then retiring to some distance, then coming nearer, lightly jumping, and then squatting down on his heels. All of a sudden the sound of the drum and the singing ceased. When the women had relighted their lamps, he was lying, completely exhausted, on a white reindeer skin on which he had been sitting before the shamanistic performance. The concluding words of the shaman, which he pronounced in a recitative, were uttered as though spoken by the spirit whom he had summoned lip, and who declared that the "disease" had left the village, and would not return.
Like everywhere else in the Soviet Union, Kamchatka was subject to the collectivisation campaigns in the 1930s, including collectivisation of the reindeer, which were transferred to collective and state owned farms. At the same time, the administration attempted to make the people sedentary. The government also established cattle and other farms, employing both locals and immigrant workers from other parts of the Soviet Union. Following the collapse of the Soviet economy, the state farms were generally privatised in the early 1990s. During this period, many indigenous people returned to a life in nomadic camps, subsisting mainly by fishing and hunting.
 W Jochelson, The Koryak, p. 49