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The Chukchi People of the Arctic

The Chukchi are the indigenous people of the Chukotka district in the extreme north east of Siberia. Their territory is bordered by the Chukchi Sea and Bering Sea region of the Arctic Ocean. Chukotka is vast and encompasses some 737,700 square kilometres (284,800 miles), an area larger than France that is administered from the main town of Anadyr. Chukotka has been inhabited for about the last 7,000 years and the ancestors of today’s Chukchi are thought to have moved there from the area around Okhotsk Sea area.

Today there are about 15,000 Chukchi, most of whom live in Chukotka, but some live in the neighbouring region of Yakutia, to the west, and also in the Koryak Autonomous District and the Magadan Region further south.

The Chukchi can be divided into two distinctly separate groups, the inland Chukchi, who live a semi-nomadic existence herding reindeer and call themselves ‘Chavchu’ (rich in reindeer), and the coastal Chukchi ‘An’kalyn’ (coastal dwellers), who live primarily by hunting sea mammals. There is a long history of these two groups trading and interacting that goes back several centuries. Both groups depended on each other economically as reindeer herders wanted the fat and hides of sea mammals while the coastal Chukchi wanted reindeer meat and skins.


The Chukchi language belongs to the Chukchi-Kamchatkan group of Paleo-Asiatic languages. The closest related language is Koryak. These Paleo-Asiatic languages are also believed to be connected to the languages of the American Indians. An unusual characteristic of the Chukchi language is its different pronunciation by men and women. Women pronounce ‘ts’ where the men pronounce ‘r’. So a Chukchi man saying the Chukchi word for ‘no’ would be ‘K’rym,’ while a woman would say ‘ktsym.’ The Chukchi language is studied in many schools in Chukotka. There are also books and newspapers published in Chukchi as well as broadcasts on radio and TV. Most Chukchi also speak Russian which they are taught in school.

Daily Life

Uelen with rough seas
Some inland Chukchi continue to breed reindeer but on nothing like the scale that they did in Soviet times. Similarly the coastal Chukchi continue to hunt for sea mammals and fish on a subsistence basis. There are relatively few jobs for native people outside of their traditional occupations. Some Chukchi are able to earn money from native art, mainly carving and engraving ivory. The coastal Chukchi who live in the community of Uelen on the Bering Strait have a long tradition of making ivory and bone carving that goes back several centuries. A carving workshop was established there in 1931 and since then the reputation of Uelen’s artists has grown and their work can now be found in museums and private collections around the world. They are famous for their detailed engraving on walrus ivory which often depicts their legends as well as scenes of traditional activities like hunting and reindeer herding.

The traditional Chukchi form of housing is the ‘yaranga’, a cone-shaped or rounded reindeer skin tent. Inside was a box-shaped inner sleeping chamber made of fur that was large enough for several people. The coastal Chukchi often used walrus skin for covering their yarangas. Some reindeer herding Chukchi still use yarangas today when they are out with their reindeer, but now most Chukchi live in one-story wooden houses or prefabricated concrete apartment blocks typical of the former Soviet Union.


The diet of the coastal Chukchi consists primarily of sea mammals, particularly walrus, whale and seal meat and fat. The Inland Chukchi’ staple food was reindeer meat. Both groups also collect berries, mushrooms and other plants like wild sorrel and roseroot to eat in the summer. Nowadays most villages and towns have bakeries selling bread and pies, as well as other shops that stock a limited variety of often poor quality Russian foods which they sell at very high prices.


The main form of transport for the inland Chukchi is the reindeer sled. They normally use two reindeer to pull a sled. There are different types of sled, for travelling, hauling freight. Chukchi also ride reindeer. The coastal Chukchi use dog sleds with the dogs harnessed in tandem as their main type of winter transport and for travelling in summer on the sea they used a walrus skin covered boat, similar to an Eskimo umiaq, called a baidarka. Nowadays, the Chukchi use both traditional forms of transport as well as modern snowmobiles and motor boats.

Traditional Beliefs

Chukchi boy honours dead sealChukchi religious beliefs and practices are a type of shamanism. All animals,plants, rivers, forests, and other natural phenomena are considered to have their own spirits. During their rituals, Chukchi shamans fall into trances. To achieve this they would sometimes use hallucinogenic mushrooms like fly agaric ( Amanita muscaria). Being in a trance state they were able to communicate with the spirits and allow the spirits to speak through them in order to foretell the future and cast spells of various kinds.


Both the coastal and reindeer herding Chukchi made their clothing from the skins of young reindeer and seals. Women traditionally wore a ‘ kerker’, a knee-length coverall made from reindeer or seal hide and trimmed with fox, wolverine, wolf, or dog fur. In addition to the kerker, women also wore robe-like dresses of fawn skins beautifully decorated with beads, embroidery, and fur trimmings. Men wore loose shirts and trousers made of the same materials. Both sexes wore high boots and leather undergarments. Children's clothing consisted of a one-piece fur cover-all with a flap between the legs to allow the moss that served as a diaper to be easily changed. Present-day Chukchi wear modern Western syle clothing. Although in the winter time they will often use some traditional clothing when they are out with their reindeer herds or hunting, as well as on public holidays and other special occasions.

Social Problems

The after effects of the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s had a dramatic effect on the Chukchi in Chukotka, particularly for those living in rural areas. With little in the way of employment possibilities, many Chukchi were forced into to a life of abject poverty. Life for native people in Chukotka improved for a while after Roman Abramovich became governor in 2001. He pumped over US $ 1 billion into the region developing infrastructure and providing direct aid to local people. This created a period of optimism, but after Abramovich’s departure in 2008, people were faced with same problems of no jobs, high unemployment, inadequate healthcare and bad local transport. Alcoholism and suicide, particularly amongst the young has reached almost epidemic proportions.

Text © B & C Alexander

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