[neefk, neefkh]

The Nivkhs (also Nivkh, Nivkhi, or Gilyak; ethnonym: Nivxi; language, нивхгу - Nivxgu) are an indigenous ethnic group inhabiting the northern half of Sakhalin Island and the region of the Amur River estuary administered by Russia. Nivkh were mainly fishermen, hunters, and dog breeders. The Nivkh were semi-nomadic living near the coasts in the summer and wintering inland along streams and rivers to catch salmon. The land the Nivkh inhabit is characterized as Taiga with cold snow-laden winters and mild summers with sparse tree cover. The Nivkh are believed to be the original inhabitants of the region deriving from a proposed Neolithic people migrating from the Transbaikal region during the Late Pleistocene.

The Nivkh suffered heavily from foreign influences, the first of which was the migration of the Tungusic peoples; latter Manchu dynasty in China forced tribute upon its people. In the late 19th century, Russian Cossacks annexed and colonized Nivkh lands, where they are a small, often neglected, minority today. Today, the Nivkh live in Russian-style housing and with the over-fishing and pollution of the streams and seas, they have adopted many foods from Russian cuisine. The Nivkh practice shamanism, which is important for the winter Bear Festival, though some have converted to Russian Orthodoxy.

They number 5,287 (2002 Russian Federation census). Most speak Russian today, though about 10 percent speak their indigenous Nivkh language, which is considered an isolate language, though for convenience grouped with the Paleosiberian languages. The Nivkh language is divided into four dialects, though they are sometimes grouped with the nearby Chukotko-Kamchatkan and Altaic languages.


Nivkhs (plural Nivkhgu), an endonym, means "person" in the Nivkh language. They may also be referred to as Nivkhi in 1920's Western literature, due to romanization of the Russian term "нивхи", which is the plural of "нивх" (nivkh). In the seventeenth and eightieth centuries, Russian explorers first termed the group Gilyak (also Giliaks or Giliatski). The etymology of the name "Gilyak" is disputed by linguists, with some believing the name originated from an exonym given to the Nivkhs by a nearby Tungusic group. Other scholars believe that "Gilyak" derives from Kile, another nearby Tungusic group that the Russians had mistakenly named Nivkhs.


The origins of the Nivkh are hard to discern from current archeological research. Their subsistence by fishing and coastal sea-mammal hunting is very similar to the Koryak and Itelmen on the Kamchatka Peninsula. The rigging of dog-sleds is also similar to these Chukotko-Kamchatkan groups. However, spiritual beliefs are similar to the Northwest Coast Indians of North America. The Nivkh are physically and genetically different from the surrounding peoples and it is believed the Nivkh are the original inhabitants of the area. The current archeological model suggests that a sub-Arctic technological culture originating from the Transbaikal region, termed the microlithic culture, migrated across Siberia and populated the Amur and Sakhalin region during the Late Pleistocene, perhaps earlier. It is also believed the microlithic (small tool) culture were the first to move into the Americas. The microlithic culture was technologically adept for the harsh climate of Siberia during the ice age. After the Ice age receded, Tungusic people from the south pressed into the warmer northern areas, soon dominating the settled peoples. The Nivkh are considered the last surviving ethnic group able to adapt to the warmer climate and not be assimilated or squeezed out by the new comers, hence the Nivkh isolate language. The earliest archeological radiocarbon dating for Northern Sakhalin as of 2004 is the Neolithic Age- Imchin Site 2, dated at 4950-4570 BCE near the Tym' River Estuary on the west coast.


The Sakhalin Niviks populated the island during the Late Pleistocene period when the island was connected to the Continent of Asia via the exposed Strait of Tartary. When the ice age receded the oceans rose and the Nivkh were split into two groups. The earliest mention of the Nivkh in history is believed to be a 12th century Chinese chronicle to a people called Gilyemi (Chinese: 吉列迷 Jílièmí), who were in contact with the Mongol rulers of the Yuan Dynasty of China. Vassili Poyarkov was the first Russian to write of the Nivkh in 1643, calling them gilyak, a tungus exonym, by which they would be referred until the 1920s.

For many centuries, the Nivkhs were tributary to the Manchu Empire. After the Treaty of Nerchinsk in 1689, they functioned as intermediaries between the Russians, Manchu and Japanese, the latter via their vassal, the Ainu. Nivkh lands extended along the northern coast of Manchuria from the Russian fortress at Tugur, eastward to the mouth of the Amur at Nikolayevsk, then south through the Strait of Tartary as far as De Castries Bay. Early contact with Ainu people from southern Sakhalin was generally hostile, although trade between the two was apparent.

The Nivkhs suffered severely from the Cossack conquest and imposition of the Tsarist Russians referred as kinrsh (devils) by the Nivkh. The Russian Empire gained complete control over Nivkh lands after the 1858 Aikhun Treaty and 1860 Peking Treaty. A Russian penal colony was established on Sakhalin from 1857 to 1906, bringing large numbers of Russian criminal and political exiles, including Lev Shternberg, an important early ethnographer on the Nivkhs. The Nivkh were soon outnumbered and sometimes employed as prison guards and to track escaped convicts.. Smallpox, plague, and flu occurred frequently among the populace, due to the large influx of foreign immigrants.

Though the Japanese Empire never controlled the northern part of Sakhalin - only the southern part due to the Treaty of Shimoda - Japanese entrepreneur fishermen were allowed in Nivkh lands from the 1880s by Russia until their 1948 expulsion. The Russian Priamur Governor-Generalship had difficulty finding Russian labor and allowed Japanese and Nivkh fishermen to develop the area though they were heavily taxed. Russian authorities prevented Nivkhs from fishing in prior coastal and river systems via bans and high taxes from cached fish. The first of many incidents of over-exploitation of fisheries by the Japanese (and latter the Russians) on the Tartar Strait and lower Amur occurred in 1898, which had driven many Nivkh peoples into starvation or import expensive foreign - Russian - foods.

Russia underwent the Bolshevik Revolution forming the Soviet Union in 1922. The new government altered prior Russian Imperial polices towards the Nivkh that were in line with communist ideology. Soviet officials embraced the new self-designation name Nivkh from the old term Gilyak, as a hallmark for new native self-determination. A brief Autonomous Okrug was created for the Nivkh. Extensive fishing rights were granted that would not be rescinded until the 1960s. However, Soviet policies proved devastating. Nivkhs were forced into mass agricultural and industrial labor collectives called Kolkhoz. Nivkh fishermen were difficult to convert to agricultural practices because of their belief that ploughing the earth was a sin. The Nivkh were soon working and living as a second-class minority group among the massive Russian labor force. These collectives irrevocably altered the life style of the Nivkh. The traditional hunter-gathering lifestyle disappeared. Soviet authorities showcased the Nivkh as a 'model' nation for a culture quickly transforming from the Neolithic age to a socialist industrial model. The Nivkh language was banned from being used in schools and the public square. Russian language was mandated and russification of the Nivkh accelerated. Many Nivkh stories, beliefs, and clan ties were forgotten by new generations. From 1945-1948 many Nivkh along with half of the Oroks and all of the Sakhalin Ainu and Japanese were forcibly moved to Hokkaidō, though many indigenous people would later return.

Dr. Chuner Taksami, an anthropologist, is considered the first modern Nivkh literary figure and supporter of Siberian rights. In the post-Soviet Russian commonwealth of nations, the Nivkh fared better than the Ainu or the Itelmens but worse than the Chukchi or the Tuvans. The Soviet government in 1962 resettled many of the Nivkh into fewer, denser settlements, such that Sakhalin settlements had been reduced from 82 to 13 by 1986. This relocation was accomplished via the Soviet collectives that the Nivkh had become so dependent on. The closure of state-funded amenities such as a school or electricity generator prompted citizenry to move into government-preferred settlements.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Kolkhoz collectives were abandoned. The Nivkh were dependent on the state-funded collectives, and with their dissolution, rapid economic hardship ensued for the already poor populace. At present, the Nivkh living in the North of Sakhalin island see their future threatened by the giant offshore oil extraction projects known as Sakhalin-I and Sakhalin-II, operated by foreign Western firms. Since January 2005, the Nivkh, led by their elected leader Alexey Limanzo, have engaged in non-violent protest actions, demanding an independent ethnological assessment of Shell's and Exxon's plans. Solidarity actions have been staged in Moscow, New York and later in Berlin. The monthly Nivkh newspaper, Nivkh Dif, established in 1990, is published using the west-Sakhalin dialect and is headquartered in the village of Nekrasovka.


Village life

The Nivkh were semi-nomadic Hunter-gatherers having summer and winter settlements. Nivkh villages consisted of 3 to 4 households shared by several families with larger villages rare, mostly located on the Amur estuary. Households were shared for reasons of community and survival during the harsh cold winters. Villages would last for several decades but were susceptible to floods and sometimes vanished such as the many wiped out during the devastating Amur floods of 1915 and 1968. Often households contained families that were not related. The village usually was composed of people from two to eight different clans, though four was the norm. In the late fall able-bodied Nivkh men would leave the villages to hunt for game in the surrounding hunting grounds while women would gather foods from the forests. Nivkh would move to winter settlements near rivers to survive the harsh snows and catch salmon spawning. (see List of Nivkh Settlements) The Nivk were very hospitable such that when the Nanai located upstream on the Amur when faced with hard times would often visit or stay in Nivkh villages.


Nivkh clans (khal) were a group of people united by marriage ties, a common derived deity, arranging marriages, and responsible for group dispute resolution. The clan is divided into three exogamous sub-clans. A clan would cooperate with other members on hunts and fishing when away from the village. A Nivkh clan believed they had "one (common) akhmalk or imgi, one fire, one mountain man…one bear, one devil, one tkhusind (ransom, or clan penalty), and one sin."


Marriage tended to be exogamic unlike many paleo-Siberian groups. Although within the clan, marriage is endogamic while sub-clans are exogamic. Nivkh marriage customs were very complicated and controlled by the clan. Cross-cousin marriage seems to be the original custom with the clan a latter necessity when the clan was unable to marry individuals without breaking taboo. The bride-price was probably introduced by the Neo-Siberians. The dowry was shared by the clan. The number of men generally exceeded the number of women. It was hard to gain wives, as they were few and expensive. This would lead to the wealthier men having more than one wife and the poor men without.


Nivkh's traditional religion was based on animist beliefs, especially via shamanism, before colonial Russians made efforts to convert the population to Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Nivkh animists believe the island of Sakhalin is a giant beast lying on its belly with the trees of the island as its hair. When the beast is upset, it awakens and trembles the earth causing earthquakes. Nivkh have a pantheon of vaguely defined gods (yz, yzng) that presided over the mountains, rivers, seas and sky. Nivkhs' have extensive folklore, songs, and mythos of how humans and the universe were created, and of how fantastic heroes, spirits and beasts battled with each other in ancient times. Some Nivkhs have converted to Russian Orthodoxy or other religions, though many still practice traditional beliefs. Fire is especially venerated. It is the symbol of the unity of the clan. Fire is considered a deity of their ancestors, protecting them from evil spirits and guarding their clan from harm. An open flame would be 'fed' a leaf of tobacco, spices, or a tipple of vodka in order to please the spirits for protection. Nivkhs would also frequently offer items to the deities by 'feeding'. The sea would be 'fed' an item of importance in order that the sea god protect the travelers.


Shamans' (ch'am) main role was in diagnosing and curing disease for the Nivkh. The rare Shamans typically wore an elaborate coat with a belt often made of metal. Remedies composed of plant and sometimes animal matter were employed to cure sickness. Talismans were used or offered to patients to prevent sickness. Shamans additionally functioned as a conduit to combat and ward off evil spirits that cause death. A shaman's services usually were compensated with goods, quarters and food.

Bear Festival

Nivkh Shamans also presided over the Bear Festival, a traditional holiday celebrated between January and February depending on the clan. Bears were captured and raised in a corral for several years by local women, treating the bear like a child. The bear was considered a sacred earthly manifestation of Nivkh ancestors and the gods in bear form (see Bear Cult). During the Festival, the bear would be dressed in a specially made ceremonial costume. It would be offered a banquet to take back to the realm of gods to show benevolence upon the clans. After the banquet, the bear would be sacrificed and eaten in an elaborate religious ceremony. Often dogs were sacrificed as well. The bear's spirit returned to the gods of the mountain 'happy' and would then reward the Nivkh with bountiful forests. The festival typically would be arranged by relatives to honor the death of a kinsman. Generally, the Bear Festival was an inter-clan ceremony where a clan of wife-takers restored ties with a clan of wife-givers upon the broken link of the kinsman's death. The Bear Festival was suppressed during Soviet occupation though the festival has had a modest revival since the decline of Soviet Union, albeit as a cultural instead of religious ceremony.


The Russian Far East has a cold and harsh climate. In the fish-rich Amur River estuary in the districts of Nixhne-Amruskii and Takhtinskii, winters have high winds and heavy snows with mid winter usually averaging from -28° to -20°C (-18° to -4°F). Summers are wet and moderately warm ranging between 16° and 20°C (61° to 68°F). The areas biome is characterized as Taiga and evergreen coniferous forests consisting of larch, yew, birch, maple, lilac, honeysuckle, and extensive low-lying swamp grasses. Higher elevations have spruce, fir, ash, lime, walnut and mountain tops have cedar and lichens. Bears, foxes, sables, hares, Siberian tigers, elks, grouse, and deer typical near the Amur outlet which usually floods during the rainy season

Northern Sakhalin is harsher ecologically with mostly Taiga. Winters are longer, with a mean temperature of -19°C (-5°F), however short summers are warmer averaging 15°C (59°F) due to warmer Pacific Ocean currents moving around the island. Heavy snows blanket the island of Sakhalin (Yh-mif in Nivkh) during winter, due to monsoon winds blowing from Siberia, drawing humidity as they pass over the Sea of Okhotsk, Sea of Japan, and the Strait of Tartary. Barren tundra dominates the north, with sparse trees such as larch, birch and various grasses, while moving southward, spruce and fir are seen. Bears, foxes, otters, lynx, and reindeer are common wildlife. The Island's major rivers are the Tym' and Poronai, rich in fish especially Salmon. Before Russian colonization, Nivkh villages could be found on these rivers approximately every 5 km.

The Strait of Tartar is currently only 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) wide and is shallow enough that the divide is covered by an ice bridge during the winter that can be traversed by foot or dog sled. At the glacial maximum of the Ice Age, sea levels were 100 meters (300 feet) lower than they are today. The Eurasia continent was connected to Sakhalin via the Strait of Tatar and Hokkaidō via the Soya Strait of which humans migrated. This connection explains the similarities of trees, plants, and animals including now extinct mammoths. The receding ice age warmed the area allowing greater tree cover and wildlife, thus new resources for the Nivkhs to exploit. The opening of the Soya and then the shallower Tartar Strait allowed warm pacific currents to bathe the island and the lower Amur River.



Nivkhs lived in two types of self-built winter dwellings. Most ancient of these was the ryv (or to). The dwelling was a round dugout about 7.5 meters (23 feet) in diameter, shored up by wooden poles and covered with packed dirt and grass. The ryv had a fireplace in the center and a smoke hole for light and smoke escape. The other type of dwelling used for winter is the chad ryv similar to the Nanai dio which was modeled after Manchurian and Chinese dwellings of the Amur. The chad ryv were one-room structures with a gable roof and a kan (Korean furnace) for heating. A nearby shed held sledges, skis, boats, and dogs.


Nivkh's traditionally wore robes (skiy for men, hukht for women) having three buttons, fastened on the left side of the body. Winter garments were made of skins from fish, seal, sable, and furs from otter, lynx, fox, and dog. Women's hukht extended below the knee and were light multicolored with intricate embroideries and various ornaments sewed on the sleeves, collar and hem. Ornaments were coins, bells, or beads made of wood, glass, or metal mostly originating from Manchurian and Chinese traders. Men's skiy were darker colored, shorter, and had pockets built into the sleeves. Men's clothing were less elaborate with ornaments on the sleeve and left lapel. Men would also wear a loose kilt called a kosk when hunting or traveling on dog sled. Boots were made of fish-, seal-, or deerskin, being very water tight. Fur hats (hak) were worn in winter, with the furry tails and ears of the animals used often adorning the back and crown of the hat. Summer hats (hiv hak) were conical made from birch-bark. After soviet collectivization, Nivkh mostly wear mass-produced Western clothing, but traditional clothing is worn for holidays and cultural events.


The Nivkh had a diverse diet being semi-nomadic before colonization. Fish was the main source of food for the Nivkh, such as Pacific Salmon, (Chum, Pink, Trout), Red Eye, burbot and pike found in rivers and streams. Salt water fishing provided saffron cod, flatfish, and marine goby caught in the littoral coasts of the Strait of Tartary, Sea of Okhotsk, and the Pacific Ocean, though over fishing by Russian and Japanese trawlers have depleted many of these fish stocks. Additionally, Chinese and Russian industrial pollution such as phenols and heavy metals in the Amur River have devastated fish stocks and damaged the Estuaries' soil. A traditional preservation process called Yukola, involving slicing the fish in a particular way and drying the strips by hanging them in the frigid air, without salt, was used before foreign influences. The preservation process created a lot of dried fish waste, unpalatable for human consumption but utilized for dog food. Pulverizing dried fish and mixing it with fish skins, water, seal fat, and berries until the mixture had a sour cream consistency is a favorite Nivkh dish called mos'. Nivkhs would hunt seal (Larha, Reinged, Reibbon, Sea-lions), duck, sable, and otters. They would gather various berries, wild leeks, lilybulbs, and nuts. Contacts with the Chinese, Manchurians, and Japanese from the 12th century on introduced new foods incorporated in the Nivkhs diet such as salt, sugar, rice, millet, legumes and tea. Russian 19th century imperialism introduced flour, bread, potatoes, vodka, tobacco, butter, canned vegetables and fruits, and other meats.

See also



  • Bassett, Elizabeth (retrieved Nov. 2007) Gilyak (Nivkh) Culture - Minnesota State University-Mankato - EMuseum
  • Black, Lydia (1973) Nivkh (Gilyak) of Sakhalin and the Lower Amur. Arctic Anthropology. Volume 10 No.1, 110p. ISSN 0066-6939
  • Chaussonnet, Valerie (1995) Native Cultures of Alaska and Siberia. Artic Studies Center. Washington, D.C. 112p. ISBN 1560986611
  • Czaplicka, Marya Antonina and Collins, David (1999) The Collected Works of M. A. Czaplicka, 1st Edition. RoutledgeCurzon. 1600p. ISBN 0700710019
  • Fitzhugh, William, and Durbreui (1999) Ainu: Spirit of a Northern People. Washington, D.C.: Arctic Studies Center, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution and University of Washington Press. 415p. ISBN 0967342902
  • Friedrich and Diamond (1994) Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia- China. Volume 6. G.K.Hall and Company. Boston, Massachusetts. ISBN 0816118108
  • Gall, Timothy L. (1998) Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life:Nivkhs. Detroit, Michigan: Gale Research Inc. 2100p. ISBN 0787605522
  • Kaminaga, Eisuke (2007) Maritime History and Imperiology Japan's “Northern Fisheries” and the Priamur Governor-Generalship. Slavic Research Center
  • Kolga, Margus (2001) The Red Book of the Peoples of the Russian Empire NGO Red Book. Tallinn, Estonia 399p ISBN 9985936922
  • Kuzmin, Vasilevski, Gorbunov, Burr, Jull, Orlova Shubina (2004) Chronology of Prehistoric Cultural Complexes of Sakhalin Island Radiocarbon, Vol 46. Nr. 1. University of Arizona ISSN 0033-8222
  • Mattissen, Johanna (2001) Facts about the World's Languages. New England Publishing. 896p. ISBN 0824209702
  • Mote, Victor L. (1998) Siberia: Worlds Apart. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press. 258p. ISBN 0813312981
  • Reid, Anna (2003) The Shaman's Coat: A Native History of Siberia. New York, New York: Walker & Company. 224p. ISBN 0802713998
  • Shiraishi, Hidetoshi. (2006) Chapter 1: Topics in Nivkh Phonology - University of Groningen. - (Adobe Acrobat *.PDF document)
  • Shternberg, Lev Iakovlevich and Bruce Grant. (1999) The Social Organization of the Gilyak New York: American Museum of Natural History. Seattle: University of Washington Press 280p. ISBN 029597799X
  • Smolyak, A. V. (2001) Traditional Principles of Natural Resources Use among Indigenous Peoples of the Lower Amur River. Journal of Legal Pluralism Num. 46 ISSN 0732-9113

Further reading

  • Chekhov, Anton Pavlovich, and Brian Reeve. (1993) A Journey to Sakhalin. Cambridge: Ian Faulkner. ISBN 185763005X
  • Grant, Bruce (1995) In the Soviet House of Culture. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0691037221
  • Taksami, Ch. M (1967) Nivkhi: Sovremennoe Khoziaistvo, Kul'tura i Byt. [The Nivkhs: Contemporary Economy, Culture, and Way of Life]. Leningrad: Nauka

External links

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