March 01, 2013

Koryak Cultural Loss

Koryak Cultural Loss

The Bay of Korf is a small, sheltered nub of ocean on the northwestern edge of the Bering Sea. Here, the tundra of Northern Kamchatka turns into a beach of grey sand lapped by the bay’s dark blue waters. Twenty thousand years ago, the reindeer that inhabit this tundra, and the salmon that flood into the bay and surge up its rivers each summer to spawn, became a foundation of a flourishing human community here. Today the Koryak people, descendants of those original inhabitants, continue to fish the bay and its rivers, but in a world that has drastically changed. Over the last 300 years, Koryak and Russian cultures have clashed under the tsar, then the Soviets, and now in a post-Soviet economic depression, all of which has left traditional Koryak culture on the verge of oblivion.

On a sunny July morning, I landed at Korf’s small airport – on a spit of land extending out into the middle of the bay. The airport was just a runway with a small wooden building of peeling, faded blue paint. From there, a short ferry ride brought me to Tilichiki, the region’s main settlement, which perches on the bay’s shore. I held on as the crowded ferry slammed into the beach and dove up onto the sand. A drawbridge lowered and commuters wearily filed into the warm and humid air.

In Tilichiki, I stayed with my friend Zhanna’s family, and her father was there to meet me as I disembarked. An older Koryak man, he was scrawny and feeble-looking, with dark skin and black, unkempt hair. He introduced himself as “Lyova” and awkwardly shook my hand. He was drunk. I followed him home and met the rest of the family – Lyova’s sister Natalia and her husband and daughter. Lyova explained that his son Maxim, Zhanna’s brother, was out at their salmon fishing camp on one of the bay’s rivers. Hesitant at first, he eventually explained that this fishing camp was illegal. “My pension is so small. It’s always less than it’s supposed to be. What else can I do, right?” He pleaded, eyeing me with a drunken suspicion as if to make sure I was on his side.

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