Documenting Koryak: Endangered Languages and the Legacy of Arctic Colonialism

From the Series: Arctic Abstractive Industry

Photo by Christopher Michel, licensed under CC BY.

Language endangerment is caused by brutal histories of colonialism and continues due to the subtle, ongoing oppression of indigenous people. This is true in Siberia and around the world. Koryaks, indigenous to Kamchatka and the surrounding mainland of northeast Asia, spoke their heritage language freely until Soviet policies forced a shift to Russian. Koryak speakers’ experiences reflect a pattern found across Russia, Scandinavia, and North America. Koryak children were forced to kneel on rock salt and had their mouths washed out with soap for speaking their native language. One Koryak friend of mine started school by being forcibly captured from her home, stripped, washed in a trough outside the school, and getting her head shaved. The year was 1970.

Even with native speakers of Koryak as parents, children grew up in the 1960s with a native command of Russian and either passive or no knowledge of the Koryak language. This shift from Koryak to Russian accelerated over the course of the the twentieth century. During fieldwork in the late 1990s, I noticed few children under the age of fifteen who were fully fluent in Koryak. In 2013, I met none. The loss of indigenous languages is part of an organized attack on indigenous cultures and communities by states. Language shifts can be connected with poor health and well-being in indigenous communities, and emerging research shows a positive connection between language revival programs and physical health (Hallett, Chandler, and Lalonde 2007; Oster et al. 2014; Whalen, Moss, and Baldwin 2016).

In some cases, the brutality of colonialism was experienced firsthand. People told me stories of being separated from their parents and sent to live in boarding schools where they were beaten, shamed, or humiliated for speaking their native language. Other stories of colonialism were more gentle: Dad was Russian and Mom spoke mostly or all Russian at home; the teacher was wonderful and young children learned her language with gusto; the boarding school was a refuge from alcoholic parents and violent homes. It is a bitter irony that boarding schools served as both a tool of and a reprieve from the ravages of Russian/Soviet colonialism among indigenous Kamchatkans.

Today, Russian colonialism is carried out through more subtle policies and laws. The standard school curriculum gives Koryak language instruction with one hand and takes away the necessary hours to learn it with the other. The institute responsible for indigenous language curriculum development and teacher training was curtailed in 2008 with the merger of the Koryak Okrug with Kamchatka Oblast, and the new institute directors in the city of Petropavlovsk hinder staff from key parts of their jobs.

Through symbolic and material domination, Koryaks are shifting away from speaking the Koryak language. Although they speak Russian and participate in Russian culture, colonial racism denies contemporary Koryaks equal claim to Russianness. Instead, they are identified by what they lack: heritage in either a (Russian) civilization or an authentic (Koryak) primitiveness (see Grant 1995; King 2011).

Recording the last generation of fluent Koryak speakers (all over fifty years of age) is an anticolonial enterprise. During my 2013 fieldwork with my research partner, Valentina Dedyk, I was encouraged by the enthusiasm of research participants. Koryaks implicitly understand that culture is not essentialized in racial identities but is expressed through knowing, doing, and sharing. Thus, recordings of Koryak and thorough documentation of the language will afford future Koryaks the possibility to learn their heritage language. Even if Koryak is eventually no longer spoken, the language will be best classed as sleeping because it could one day be awakened.

Pavel Allu working with native speaker, linguist, and research partner Valentina Dedyk. Allu passed away two months after we recorded him. Photo by Alexander King.

Koryak language revival provides a foundation for asserting individual and group self-worth. My Koryak friends also made clear to me the importance of Dell Hymes’s observation that Indians continue to talk like Indians when they use English. In 2013, I found much less talk about speaking Russian as a loss of Koryakness. Instead, knowledge of Koryak seemed to act as a source of cultural capital in certain circles. Since so few people now speak the heritage language, speaking Koryak is respected as a great skill. Language revitalization is a fight with colonialism for indigenous self-determination.

A colonial mindset focuses on the extraction of anything of value: gold, oil, salmon, crab, or timber. One alternative to extraction can be seen with colonists who have settled in Kamchatka and have become wealthy by selling experiences of a wild Kamchatka to tourists, reducing Koryak people to a museum exhibit and source for souvenir production. Language documentation, on the other hand, can aid anticolonial efforts. It is also something that is easy for anthropologists to do (see King 2015). Some have argued that language documentation is a further museumification of indigenous lives, condemning the language to a zombie existence (Perley 2012). My Koryak friends don’t see it that way, however. Since they see speaking as something people do rather than are, they view documenting spoken Koryak as an excellent way to preserve those skills and knowledge for others who want to learn.


Grant, Bruce. 1995. In the Soviet House of Culture: A Century of Perestroikas. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Hallett, Darcy, Michael J. Chandler, and Christopher Lalonde. 2007. “Aboriginal Language Knowledge and Youth Suicide.” Cognitive Development 22, no. 3: 392–99.

King, Alexander D. 2011. Living with Koryak Traditions: Playing with Culture in Siberia. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

_____. 2015. “Add Language Documentation to Any Ethnographic Project in Six Steps.” Anthropology Today 31, no. 4: 8–12.

Oster, Richard T., Angela Grier, Rick Lightning, Maria J. Mayan, and Ellen L. Toth. 2014. “Cultural Continuity, Traditional Indigenous Language, and Diabetes in Alberta First Nations: A Mixed Methods Study.” International Journal for Equity in Health 13.

Perley, Bernard C. 2012. “Zombie Linguistics: Experts, Endangered Languages, and the Curse of Undead Voices.” Anthropological Forum 22, no. 2: 133–49.

Whalen D. H., Margaret Moss, and Daryl Baldwin. 2016. “Healing through Language: Positive Physical Health Effects of Indigenous Language Use.” F1000Research 5.