Indigenous Peoples Of Russia: Who Are The Nanais?

Fuad Muxtarlı Interview 4 June 2019
Indigenous Peoples Of Russia: Who Are The Nanais?

In an interview, the head of the Khabarovsk regional organization Association for the Protection of the Culture, Rights and Freedoms of Indigenous Peoples of the Amur Region, a prominent representative of the Nanai community of Russia, writer Leonid Sungorkin shed light on some aspects of lives of small nations in Russia.

[Correspondent] Who are the Nanai people and what is known about them? What peoples kindred to the Nanaians live in Russia?

[Sungorkin] The Nanais are the indigenous people of the Far East, before the revolution they were called the golds. This nation lives in Khabarovsk and Primorsky regions and related to the Nanais are Russia’s Ulchi, Udeges, Evens, Evenkis, Orochis.

[Correspondent] What group does Nanais belong to? How many words have been preserved in the lexicon of the Nanai language?

[Sungorkin] The Nanaian language belongs to the Manchu-Tungus group of the Altay family of languages. Onenko’s Nanaian-Russian dictionary contains the 12,800 most used words. But now there are very few people who speak Nanai, mostly in everyday life - Russian.

[Correspondent] What is the territory of the historic birthplace of the Nanais?

[Sungorkin] The territory of the Amur region, the valleys of the Ussuri, Amur, Kur and other tributaries of the Amur is the historic birthplace of the Nanais. Now, according to the Law on the Places of Compact and Traditional Living of Indigenous Minorities, the Khabarovsk Territory is recognized as the place of traditional residence of the Nanais.

[Correspondent] Mostly in what regions of Russia do the Nanais live?

[Sungorkin] Partially, they live in the Amur region, on Sakhalin, in the Primorsky Territory. Well, in the Khabarovsk region.

[Correspondent] What is being done at the federal level to preserve the identity of your people? What is the total number of Nanais in Russia and around the world?

[Sungorkin] At the federal level, the Federal Agency for Nationalities has been established, which, in turn, works with indigenous peoples. According to official census data, 10,000 – 12,000 people in Russia, and from 5,000 to 7,000 Nanais (Hejes) in China.

[Correspondent] Are there Nanais among the Russian political, scientific or cultural elite? If so, who can you name?

[Sungorkin] The question is complicated. In Soviet times, there was this concept - the elite. In modern Russia, Nanais are not divided according to this criterion. For example, I am engaged in politics, social activities, a writer, a journalist. Considering me an oppositionist, the current government cannot rank me among the elite.

[Correspondent] In appearance, for body build, hairstyle and patterns of national clothes, you can be confused with the Indians of North America, the aborigines. Are there peoples related to the Nanais among aborigines of America? Is there any research in this direction?

[Sungorkin] When the peoples settled America, then there was no such a nation as Nanais. On the Amur, there lived the Mohe, Jurchen and other tribes, plus the Buryat ethnic group, the Mongols, the Koreans, and they later formed the Tungus-Manchurian community. Although the Indians of America came from Siberia, their journey was long.

Scientists, ethnographers, trying to find something in common between the peoples of Siberia, the Far East and America, as a rule, are looking for a connection, comparing nations no longer in clothing, patterns, language, or any other obvious signs, but turn to legends, ancient legends, that popular, deep memory, which was passed from mouth to mouth, from generation to generation.

Here it can be argued that there is a common in the culture of American Indians and Nanais. For example, the legend of the creation of the world, the idea of the afterlife. One of the clearest examples of such similarity is the presence in the legends of such a totemic animal, like an otter.

[Correspondent] As far as I know, there is a state program of the Russian Federation for the protection of small peoples, their gene pool and funds are allocated for this purpose. What does the Nanaian community of Russia receive from the state?

[Sungorkin] In the Russian Federation, there is no Nanai community - as a social institution. For example, over 100 Nanai communities are officially registered in the Khabarovsk Territory. Among them there are communities of small indigenous peoples of the North, these are legal entities, united according to the principle of kinship, family; there are territorially neighboring communities that unite people according to the principle of residence.

Despite the presence of the Nanaian district on the map of the Khabarovsk Territory, the Nanaian people do not have their own national cultural autonomy, as, indeed, other public or political institutions that would govern the people. My dream of holding the first Nanai congress still remains unfulfilled due to the fact that the people are settled very strongly.

And this disunity does not yet give the possibility of universal unity of the Nanaian people, as an independent ethnos, capable of influencing, among other things, the political picture. In addition, the Nanaian people are historically divided by the border between Russia and China, and is a cross-border people. This also led to the loss of their identity. Now we say that there are Russian Nanais and there are Chinese Nanais, thus we emphasize our affiliation to the state where we live.

Within the framework of public diplomacy, for my part, I strive to ensure that the Nanai people feel like a single community, regardless of where they live.