"Vague sense of belonging to the Russian empire": The reindeer Chukchi's status in nineteenth century northeastern Siberia


Researchers have mentioned, but never specially examined, a peculiar sovereign status of the Chukchi natives within the Russian empire. This paper explores circumstances that contributed to the establishment of (reindeer) Chukchi hegemony in nineteenth century northeastern Siberia. I suggest that scholars researching the history and culture of the Chukchi and other Eurasian indigenous peoples may borrow useful explanatory tools developed by students of Native American ethnohistory (for example, Richard White's metaphor of "middle ground"). I draw specific attention to native agency in shaping history, and to the conditions that built mutually balanced relationships between natives and newcomers, using a "cultural interactions" versus an "internal colonialism" model. Chukchi sovereignty is discussed in three contexts: native reindeer economy, their place in international relations in the northern Pacific Rim, and native interactions with Russian Orthodox missionaries. A variety of circumstances supported Chukchi hegemony in northeastern Siberia, including: the geographical isolation of Chukchi country; a lack of significant resources, which discouraged Russia from subjugating this area; a self-sufficient reindeer economy that also supported Russian and mixed-bloods; competition between imperial and American interests in Chukchi country, which strengthened the natives' bargaining positions; and finally the active role of maritime Chukchi traders as middlemen between Russians/Siberian natives and Americans.

Publication Title

Arctic Anthropology

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