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Alternative name:
An Itelmen (1862)
Total population
3,193 (2010 census)
Regions with significant populations
Russia: Kamchatka Krai
 Russia 3,193[1]
 Ukraine 18[2]
Itelmen, Russian
Polytheism, Shamanism, Russian Orthodoxy
Related ethnic groups
Chukchi, Koryaks

The Itelmen, sometimes known as Kamchadal, are an ethnic group who are the original inhabitants living on the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia. The Itelmen language (ethnonym: Itelmen) is distantly related to Chukchi and Koryak, forming the Chukotko-Kamchatkan language family, but it is now virtually extinct, the vast majority of ethnic Itelmens being native speakers of Russian. A. P. Volodin has published a grammar of the Itelmen language.

The Itelmen had a substantial hunter-gatherer and fishing society with up to fifty thousand natives inhabiting the peninsula before they were decimated by the Cossack conquest in the 18th century.

So much intermarriage took place between the natives and the Cossacks that Kamchadal now refers to the majority mixed population, and the term Itelmens at some point became reserved for persisting speakers of the Itelmen language. By 1993, there were less than 100 elderly speakers of the language left, but some 2,400 people considered themselves ethnic Itelmen in the 1989 census. By 2002, this number had risen to 3,180, and there are attempts at reviving the language. According to the 2010 census, there were 3,193 Itelmen in Russia.

Ethnographic maps shows the Itlemens as residing primarily in the valley of the Vitus Bering on his Great Northern Expedition (Second Expedition to Kamchatka).


  • Village structure 1
  • Itelmen houses 2
  • Religion 3
  • Division of labor 4
  • Food 5
  • The Cossack conquest 6
    • Kamchadal ethnic theory 6.1
  • See also 7
  • Further reading 8
  • External links 9

Village structure

Itelmen tended to settle along the various rivers of the Kamchatka Peninsula. At the time of the arrival of the first Cossacks to the peninsula, in the early 1650s, villages numbered between 200 and 300 residents, a number which had dwindled to 40 or 50 at most by the time of the composition of Steller’s account in 1744. Each village was centered around a single patriarchal household. Generally, young men seeking marriage joined the village of their wife. When a village became too large to sustain itself, it was divided and a portion of the villagers would create a settlement at another point along the same river. Steller describes a great variation of dialects from river to river, as the Itelmen predominantly communicated with communities which shared the river.[4]

Itelmen houses

Itelmen and their winter dwelling, 1774
Winter dwelling and summer dwellings

Itelmen lived in different houses during the summer and winter seasons. The winter house, which was inhabited beginning in November, was dug into the soil 3–5 ft (0.91–1.52 m) in the shape of a rectangle. The walls were then covered with sticks and straw to prevent moisture from penetrating the interior. 4 beams at the center of the dwelling supported the roof of the house, upon which rafters were laid, connecting the top of the yurt to the earthen walls. Atop the wooden rafters, approximately a foot of straw was laid, on top of which the excavated dirt was placed and stamped down. An opening atop the yurt, off to one side of the four posts and supported by the two beams served as a smoke hole and an entrance. Opposite the fireplace, they made a passageway to the outside facing the river, which was left open only when fires were lit. Different sleeping quarters were demarked by pieces of wood, on which straw mats and reindeer or seal skins were used to sleep.

In the summer months, the Itelmen live in raised houses called pehm or pehmy. As the ground thaws in the summer, the floors of the winter houses began to flood. In the summer months, each family in the village lived in their own house, rather than sharing a large house as in winter. These raised homes or balagans as the Cossacks called them, were pyramids on raised platforms, with a door on the south and the north side. The extreme moisture of the climate required the raising of the homes for dry storage. Most villages, in addition to summer and winter houses, contained straw huts built on the ground, which were used for cooking dog food, boiling salt from sea water and rendering fat. Before the arrival of the Russians, villages were surrounded by an earthen wall or palisades after which this practice was banned.[4]


The Itelmen subscribed to a polytheistic religion. The creative god was referred to as Kutka or Kutga. Though he is regarded as the creator of all things, Steller describes a complete lack of veneration for him. The Itelmen attribute the problems and difficulties of life to his stupidity, and are quick to scold or curse him. They believed Kutka to be married to an intelligent woman named Chachy, who was said to have kept him from much foolishness and to have corrected him constantly. Kutka was believed to have lived on the greatest rivers of the Kamchatka Peninsula, and is said to have left a son and daughter for each river, which is used to explain the great variety of dialects present on the peninsula. The Itelmen also worshiped several spirits, Mitgh, who dwelled in the ocean and lived in the form of a fish. They believed in forest sprites, who were called ushakhtchu, said to resemble people. The mountain gods were called gamuli or little souls, who resided in the high mountains, especially volcanoes. The clouds were believed to be inhabited by the god billukai, who was responsible for thunder, lightning and storms. They postulated a devil, who was called kamma, who was said to live in a tree outside Nizhnoi village, which was annually shot up with arrows.[4]

Division of labor

In general, labor was very clearly divided based on gender, though many tasks were shared. When fishing, the men and women paddled together, however only the men fished while the women performed all related tasks such as cleaning and drying the fish and collecting the eggs. In home construction, men performed all the wood work, digging and carpentry while the women performed the task of thatching the straw roof and cutting the straw with bone sickles made from bear shoulder blades. The women prepare the whole fish supply, except fermented fish and dog food, which is left to the men. The women perform all the tasks of gathering seeds, berries and fireweed, which is used as a type of tea. From grass they construct mats, bags, baskets and boxes for storage and transportation. Dog and reindeer skins are tanned, dyed and sewn into the various garments worn by men and women.[4]


The Itelmen seldom observed a set eating time except when entertaining. They also seldom ate as a family unit except when eating opana (warm food), or fresh fish. Unlike their indigenous island neighbors, the Tungus and Yakuts, they do not enjoy fried food, eating mostly a diet of cold food. A common staple was fish eggs with willow or birch bark. A common food enjoyed at festivities, Selaga, was a mash made of sarana, pine nuts, fireweed, Cow Parsnip, bistort roots, and various berries cooked in seal, whale or fish oil. In Lopatkan, a fermented berry drink was consumed, though there is no indication that any other Itelmen settlements created fermented drinks.[4]

The Cossack conquest

Steller cites anecdotal evidence of several Russian forays into Kamchatka prior to the arrival of Vladimir Atlasov. Atlasov began his conquest of Kamchatka by sending Luka Morozko on reconnaissance foray in 1695, and embarked himself a year later with 120 men, half of which were Yukakghir auxiliaries, to gather tribute and to annex the region for the crown [Benson]. Leaving from Anadyrsk bay on the backs of reindeer, they explored much of the western coast, crossed the mountains to the east to subdue the population there. By mid July, 1696, he had reached the Kamchatka River, at which point he divided his party in two, one band returning westward and the other remaining on the eastern coast. At this point the Yukaghir auxiliaries rebelled, killing 6 Russians and wounding 6. A band of Koryaks additionally absconded with Atlasov’s itinerant reindeer herd, but were chased down by the Russians and killed to one man.[5]

At the head of the Kamchatka River, they first encountered several heavily fortified Itelmen settlements. Here they were initially greeted cordially by the natives, and received tribute without contest. They proceeded to sack a rival Itelmen village upriver, cementing the alliance with the Itelmen.[5] The first Cossack settlement in the area was Bolsheretsk, founded in 1703 by Atlasov, Although, Steller notes that it was already a prominent village at the arrival of “that wind-bag Atlasov.” [4]

The Itelmen he found there were in possession of a captive Japanese merchant’s clerk, who had been part of an expedition that wrecked and was overcome by Itelmen upon arrival at the Kamchatka River. Atlasov, who initially assumed the prisoner to be a Hindu from India, resulting in confusion over the word "Hondo" or Tokyo, had him sent to Moscow where Peter the Great had him establish a Japanese language school.[5]

In 1706, senior governing officials were killed by a band of Koryaks and a period of general lawlessness abounded. The Cossacks began to take great liberties with the legal amount of tribute required and began the practice of taking Itelmen as slaves, often gambling with and trading them.[4] During this time rebellions were abundant. Atlasov resumed legal control, in an effort to return law to the peninsula, after serving some time in jail. In 1711, his men mutinied, and he was assassinated in his bed, after fleeing to Nizhnekamchatsk, where he was given asylum. The mutineers were excused from the death penalty provided they continue government work. Thus an expedition to the southern tip of the peninsula and onto the Kuril Islands was conducted, led by Danila Antsiferov and Ivan Kozyrevsky.[5]

Under his rule, the Itelmen allied with their northern neighbors, the Koryaks, and burned Antsyferov to death in his bed. The rebellions did not quiet down until the 1715 outbreak of smallpox on the peninsula, at which point the Russian crown had lost 5 years of tribute and at least 200 Russians.[5]

Overtime, the remaining populations were assimilated. Due to increasingly large suicide rates, the crown made a law prohibiting natives from taking their own lives.[6] A large mixed population emerged, who were Russian Orthodox in religion, but distinctly Itelmen in looks and customs. The government granted legal status to these mixed children readily, Itelmen women were legally allowed to marry into the Orthodox Religion.[6] By the arrival of Bering’s second expedition to Kamchatka, the population had shrunk to approximately 10% of what it was prior to the arrival of the Cossacks.[4]

Kamchadal ethnic theory

"Kamchadal" is the name given to the original inhabitants of the Kamchatka Peninsula. Theirs was a substantial hunter-gatherer and fishing society with up to fifty thousand natives inhabiting the peninsula before they were decimated by the Cossacks in the 18th century.

So much intermarriage took place between the natives and the Cossacks that 'Kamchadal' now refers to the majority mixed population and the term Itelmens is reserved for persisting speakers of the original Kamchadal language (about a thousand).

The Kamchadal language (ethnonym: Itelmen) is distantly related to Chukchi and Koryak, and together they form the Chukotko-Kamchatkan language family. A. P. Volodin has published a grammar of the language.

See also

Further reading

  • Schurr TG, RI Sukernik, YB Starikovskaya, and DC Wallace. 1999. "Mitochondrial DNA Variation in Koryaks and Itel'men: Population Replacement in the Okhotsk Sea-Bering Sea Region During the Neolithic". American Journal of Physical Anthropology. 108, no. 1: 1-39.
  1. ^ Russian Census 2010: Population by ethnicity (Russian)
  2. ^ State statistics committee of Ukraine - National composition of population, 2001 (Ukrainian)
  3. ^ Map 3.7 (Kamchatka) from the series prepared for the INSROP (International Northern Sea Route Programme) Working Paper No. 90 in 1997.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h Engel, Magritt and Willmore, Karen, Steller’s History of Kamchatka, Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 2003
  5. ^ a b c d e Bobrick, Benson, East of the Sun, New York: Poseidon, 1992
  6. ^ a b Stephan, John, The Russian Far East, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994]

External links

  • The Itelmens
  • Itelmen
  • Trannie Mystics: Gender-Crossing Shamans Spanning Different Cultures
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