The Itelmen is one of the least populous but one of the most ancient peoples of the North. The earliest known archaeological sight of the Itelmen presence on Kamtchatka peninsula is 5200 years old.

“Itelmen” (means “the living”) first came to contact with Russians in XVII century. In 1697 the total known number of Itelmen were 12680 and in the year 1738 - the number dropped down to 8448 people. The causes for that were the disease brought by Russians, forcible assimilation and the colonial Russian policies in general.

The Itelmen language is quite unique and although some scientists believe it to be a part of the North-Eastern group of Pale-Asian languages, it has almost no similarities with the Chukchi or Koriak languages.

Traditionally Itelmen were the river fishermen and gatherers. Hunting and sea fishing played secondary role in their lives.

Until the Soviets, the Itelmen lived in the extended family communities. These communities that were blood related lived alongside the same rivers and shared the fishing grounds.

All close relatives shared the same semi-underground dwelling. Each community was named after a particular part of the river they lived on. At the head of each community was an elder. In his house all the major decisions were made and all the celebrations.

The Itelmen believe that everything in the world, every rock, every animal, every natural event has spirits. Each spirit lives his own life. The reverence towards a spirit is directly proportional to the degree of the spirit’s importance for the well being of a human. The most revered is the spirit of the sea which provided the main food - fish. The celebration of “cleansing” for the Sea Spirit is in November. At the places of worship Itelmen place wooden idols. Itelmen believe the world and the human souls to be eternal. Itelmen believe themselves to be the descendants of the Raven “Kootkha”.

All Itelmen wore amulets. The shamans possessed knowledge, but no special clothes or attributes.

The life was governed by many rules - it was forbidden to dismantle the fishing huts which have “fish moth” in Spring, the fish can get scared and leave the river. Under no circumstances it was allowed to save those who have fallen into water or buried by an avalanche - the spirits of water and mountains should not be deprived what is theirs.

The Itelmen live in the Koriak Autonomous region of Kamtchatka peninsula. In 1950th began the forcible enlargement of Itelmen settlements. Villages of Sopotchny, Moroshetchny and Utkholok were moved to the village of Kovran, villages of Amanino, Napany, Sedanki and Osedloy - to Tigil. Most Itelmen live now in villages of Kovran, Tigil, Palana and Khiriuzovo.

Liudmila Smirnova,
Itelmen, IIC

Photo by V. Orlov