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Itelmens: "Russian" Indians of Kamchatka
Itelmens: "Russian" Indians of Kamchatka

Russia is rich in exotic peoples with centuries-old roots. One of the most ancient northern ethnic groups that inhabited the Kamchatka region thousands of years ago are the Itelmens. Genes, lifestyle and mythology unite the Itelmen with the Indians of North America. Despite the fact that the nationality has been threateningly reduced and is considered disappearing, this ethnic group, even at the end of the world, is trying to preserve its unique and unlike any other culture in Russia.

The distant history of the Itelmens

The way of the old life

The self-name of the Kamchatka aborigines, somewhat adapted in Russian pronunciation, means something like “living here”. The first similarity between the Itelmens and the North American Indians, in particular the Tlingit tribe, was recorded at the beginning of the 18th century by the explorer Georg Steller, a member of Bering's Kamchatka expedition. The scientist suggested that both ethnic groups descended from the same ancestor, and split up with settlement. Part of the tribe across the frozen ocean moved to the North Pacific coast of Alaska, who did not want serious changes remained in the Far North of Russia.

In favor of the common historical roots of the Itelmens and Indians, the unambiguous external similarities of the representatives of these ethnic groups are eloquent. There are many things in common in rituals, folklore, ancestral legends. Both those and others worshiped the crow Kuth (supreme deity).

The relationship was indicated by a unique archaeological find of the mid-twentieth century, discovered by Russian archaeologists on the shore of Lake Ushkovskoye. It was found that the ancient burial is more than 15,000 years old. A layer of ocher was found in the grave with the Itelmens, i.e. the bodies of the deceased were showered with this ancient pigment before burial. This manner of burial was not used by any of the people of Kamchatka known today. This custom is widespread among the Indians of North America.

Russian civilization and Sovietization

Itelmen village

Russian travelers have encountered unusual Kamchatka residents more than once, as evidenced by multiple records. Back in the 18th century, Russians noted the unpresentable appearance of the Itelmens. The civilized subjects of the tsarist empire were surprised that the northern people did not wash, comb, cut their nails, and take care of their teeth. And by virtue of the traditional fishing industry, they also smelled accordingly. As for the external defining features, the Itelmens were described as short, dark-skinned people with weak vegetation on the body, pronounced clubfoot, protruding cheekbones and fleshy lips.

The Itelmens demonstrated extreme endurance, walking quickly for hours without a hint of shortness of breath, while doing heavy physical work. Despite the outward awkwardness and unsanitary conditions, this people was distinguished by strong heroic health and amazing longevity for those times: the Itelmens lived for 65-75 years.

After Kamchatka was declared a part of the Russian Empire, its logical introduction to the norms of civilization began. The local way of life was at a primitive level, and the Russian authorities saw it as their duty to bring the aborigines to the minimum level of literacy of a standard citizen. But the prehistory was associated with armed clashes between the Cossacks and Itelmens who came to Kamchatka, who did not want to live at the behest of the newcomers. The forces, of course, turned out to be unequal, and the Russian Indians considered it reasonable to lay down their arms and go for citizenship.

Reducing the number of people

Since ancient times, the main occupation of the Itelmens is fishing

Of course, all these events entailed inevitable assimilation processes.But the worst thing was that with the arrival of the mainland inhabitants to the north, Kamchatka was seized with diseases that the local population's immunity could not cope with. Thousands of Itelmens mowed down infectious ailments, no less than the aborigines died in the first clashes with the Cossacks. The alcohol that came with the white people, which caused murderous processes in the body of the Kamchatka St. John's wort, also became a serious problem.

Further civilization proceeded along the Kamchatka land at a rapid pace. There appeared schools, libraries, first-aid posts, institutions with an ideological orientation. Before the arrival of the Russians, the Itelmens, like their kindred North American Indians, lived shamanism, worshiped animals and believed in the animality of every thing on the planet. But with the transition of the ethnos in the middle of the 18th century, traditional church sacraments entered the ritual side of the life of the Itelmen under Orthodox patronage, children began to be called by Russian names.

But even today the religion of Kamchatka residents is original and represents a kind of fusion of Christianity, paganism and shamanism. In the culture of this people there is a place for both Christ and the cult of fire.

Non-native language

Today the Itelmens are fighting for the revival of the culture of their ancestors

Today, on the territory of the Russian Federation, there are no more than 1,500 Itelmens, compactly living in several settlements in Kamchatka - Kovran, Palana, Khairyuzovo, Tigil. The Itelmen language belongs to the Chukchi-Koryak language, but there is no genetic connection with this language group. The Itelmens spoke several dialects, there was no written language.

In 1932, the Itelmen primer was formed on the basis of Latin graphics by alien scholars. The grammar in use today evolved from an alphabet created only in 1988. At the same time, the first textbooks appeared in the Itelmen language of the southern dialect. Prior to this period, representatives of the ethnic group studied Russian, which for most people became their native language of non-native origin. The program for the revival of the culture and writing of the Itelmen found support at the all-Russian level.

Today, the Itelmen language and its dialects are studied in national schools, local newspapers are published in them, and radio broadcasts. But despite all the efforts being made, according to the latest census polls, at most 18% of representatives of the Kamchatka people speak their native language. Most of them are the oldest group of the population.

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