English translation from the official periodical of RAIPON “Мир коренных народов живая арктика” (Indigenous Peoples’ World Living Arctic) No. 8, 2001

How to save the Itelmen language

V.I. Uspenskaya

At present, the Itelmens (their old name is Kamchadals) make up a small ethnic subgroup of Palaeo-Asiatic peoples of northeastern Asia. They used to occupy virtually the entire Kamchatka, from Cape Lopatka in the south to the Tigil’ River in the north. In 1697, Vladimir Atlasov, the first Kamchatkan explorer, estimated their number at about 20,000.

The Itelmen language belongs to the Chukotkan-Kamchatkan group of Palaeo-Asian languages. Scientists S.P. Krasheninnikov and G.B. Steller stated in 1743 that all the settled indigenous inhabitants spoke the Kamchadal language, which consisted of several dialects. They identified three dialects: the “eastern” (Pacific coastline, the valley of the Kamchatka River), “southern” (around the town of Petropavlovsk, Ust-Bolsheretska) and “western” one (western coastline of Kamchatka). The scientists noted that though Kamchadals spoke different dialects they understood each other perfectly well.

During the time Kamchatka was being opened up by the Russians, the Itelmen language was disappearing quickly in the south. In the 1908-1909 period, V.N. Tyushov met only one old man, Feoktist Permyakov, who could understand and speak Kamchadal.

In the west of Kamchatka, the language was still alive. V. Iokhelson (1910-1911) wrote down 40 Itelmen fairy tales. I was born in the village of Sedanka-Osedlaya, Tigilskiy District in 1941. I remember that Itelmen was generaly spoken only until the Itelmen village of Sedanka-Osedlaya was “closed”. As children, we did not know the Russian language. However, the “southern” and “eastern” dialects had by that time disappeared for good.

Why is the Itelmen language disappearing so quickly? What had a bearing on these processes?

The sharp reduction in the number of the Itelmen people happened during the intensive colonisation of Kamchatka by the Russians. Christianisation by persuasion, outbreaks of smallpox and other epidemics, and a great influx of Russian population intensified assimilation processes.

In 1925, the Kamchatka Guberniya (Province) Revolutionary Committee decided not to consider the Kamchadals inhabiting the southern districts of Kamchatka as natives but to register them as Russians in their passports since they had lost their language and differed insignificantly from the Russians in their economic activities and lifestyle. This decision reduced the official number of Itelmens (Kamchadals) considerably. Officially, only those Kamchadals who inhabited the western coastline in the Tigilskiy District were considered Itelmens. Later, further loss of the native language went on under the influence of the campaign of closing the so-called “unpromising”, ancient villages and resettling Itelmens (Kamchadals) to larger villages.

Life in predominantly Russian villages did not contribute to preservation of the Itelmen language. Russian was spoken at work, at home, in public. Most Itelmen families were of mixed marriage.

In modern times, according to the 1989 census there were 1,441 Itelmens[1].

Modern Itelmen

The surviving “western” dialect is subdivided: the Kovran dialect and Sedanki dialect. The Itelmen language has not been reproductive (transferred from parents to children) for over 50 years.

S.P. Krasheninnikov, G.V. Steller (1743-1744), B.Dybowski (1878), V.N. Tyushov (1908-1909), Tan Bogoraz, V.I. Iokhelson (1910-1911) and others studied the Itelmen language and wrote down its vocabulary.

A.P. Pogodin began to study the Itelmen language in 1956. He remains to this day one of the most competent experts of Itelmen. He published a book called “The Itelmen Language” and other works.

K.N. Khaloymova, an Itelmen born in 1934 and a graduate student of the Khabarovsk Teachers’ Training Institute, published, in co-authorship with A.P. Volodin, the Itelmen alphabet, an “ABC Book”, “The Itelmen Language Dictionary”, independently produced textbooks for the 1st-4th years of primary school, and extracurricular reading books for the 1st and 2nd school grades. At present, she is involved in working out a system of methods to teach the Itelmen language.

Experience of teaching the Itelmen language in family schools

Let me tell you briefly about myself first before sharing the modest experience of our “Lach” school in Petropavlovsk.

I, V.I. Uspenskaya (Bekkerova), was born in the village of Sedanka-Osedlaya, Tigilskiy District, in 1941. Until the age of 10, I could speak Itelmen only and knew no Russian. I spoke the native language of my family. I mastered the Russian language painstakingly at primary school. When in 1953 our village was closed as "unpromising", we were all resettled in the predominantly Russian village of Tigil. The native Itelmen language started to be erased from household speech, the words kept slipping from my memory.

I graduated from the Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy teachers’ training school for primary education, studied at the Khabarovsk Higher Party School, worked as a teacher of primary classes in schools of the Koryak Autonomous Okrug for 12 years, and then became a chief specialist at the regional center of the RF State Committee for the North (now transformed into a territorial body of the RF Economic Development Ministry).

I started to forget my native tongue during the many years that had passed since the closure of our village of Sedanka-Osedlaya. We could hardly identify ourselves as Itelmens at that time. It came after 1990, when the ethnic movement began to revive and ethnic self-consciousness began to wake up. We started paying homage to our Itelmen roots, getting more interested in our culture, feeling a greater need to know more about our language and culture, and pass our traditions over to the next generations. I was approached by people from two kinship communities of the Yelizovskiy District with a proposal to organise Itelmen language classes in their family schools. The lessons started, but in a year the schools were closed due to numerous roadblocks on our way.

The “Lach” school, affiliated to the Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy-based Association of Northern Peoples, has functioned since 1999. Its students make up a group of 15 to 18 Itelmens. For six months we had our classes in a small room of the Association but from February 2001 moved to the building of the Kamchatkan teachers’ training institute. It also houses the Northern Academy, where students study native languages along with ethnic dancing, applied arts and law.

I conduct lessons once a week, an hour and a half each with both adults and children attending. Several people come from as far as the Yelizovskiy District. I have to work out the program and teaching methods myself, making plans for every lesson, and preparing visual aids and photocopies of educational literature.

The Itelmen language is one of the most difficult languages, especially its pronunciation. In particular, the sounds of k, k’, n, kh, ch’, t’, p’, э and others are mastered with great difficulty by contemporary Itelmens. Therefore, I spend a lot of time on phonetics and spelling of these sounds and letters. We memorise words by topics starting with such simple everyday words as “lach” (the sun), “samt” (land), “kist” (home), “chamzan’lkh” (man), etc. The list of topics includes “tynun” (relatives), “uvik” (body), “ktyn” (head), “vyrnik” (animals), “nomnom” (food) and others. A bit of time is given to morphology with students studying the noun, the verb, the pronoun, and the numerals. While practicing spoken language they learn how to talk about themselves, about their families, the environment and nature. We use the "ABC Book" for reading. "The Historical and Ethnographical Teaching Instruction Book of the Itelmen Language" is our guiding reference.

We learn by heart riddles, rhymes, songs and chant-as-you-walk pieces. We rehearse adaptations for stage to perform during festive events. My students are of different ages, with different educational backgrounds and of different ethnic groups. Their motives to learn the Itelmen language differ and their achievements in mastering the subject are not of the same level either. For example, strange as it might look, I would mark out Viktor Ryzhkov, a Russian, as the best pupil: he spends a lot of time working hard on his own to learn the language. Many school goers have memorised twenty, thirty words learning to read and write, but the majority masters the language with great effort as a foreign language.

Some attend the classes to really understand their native tongue, others want to have a deeper knowledge of Itelmen culture. The young ones, possibly, intend to devote themselves to ethnography or linguistics. But there are also those who simply enjoy mixing with other Itelmens in a native atmosphere.

During the classes, we use the "ABC Book", edited by A.P. Volodin and K.N. Khaloymova, "The Historical and Ethnographical Teaching Instruction Book of the Itelmen Language" written by K.N. Khaloymova, E. Kasten, S. Longinov (printed in Berlin), “The Itelmen Dictionary” (compiled by K.N. Khaloymova, A.P. Volodin), a collection of Itelmen riddles called “To Children of Kutkha” as well as issues of the “Aborigen Kamchatki” newspaper (I am its editor).

The main problems of mastering the Itelmen language, as I see them, boil down to the absence of language basis. Nobody speaks Itelmen in his or her everyday life at present. The students of our school are of different ages, with different educational backgrounds and different degrees of interest. It frequently happens during the year when new pupils come to join the class that I have to explain the subject all over again. We have one lesson a week lasting for an hour and a half only. It is too little. The interval between the lessons is too long and by the time the students come again they tend to forget what they have already learned at the previous lesson.

There is no system of methods to teach a language in such “family” schools. I teach as I reckon it is right with no experience to draw from. I know the Sedanka dialect but I have to teach the Kovran dialect since all the textbooks are in the Kovran dialect. As a chief specialist of the territorial body of the Economic Development and Trade Ministry and the editor of the “Aborigen Kamchatki” newspaper, I can hardly devote much time to working out a system of teaching methods. During the past years I taught free of charge or, as they say, on a voluntary basis, and only lately it has been agreed that would be paid 50 rubles per lesson (an hour and a half). It is a token figure rather than a real payment. There is no money to cover traveling expenses of those coming from villages of the Yelizovskiy District, to pay for visual aids or to buy textbooks either.

Tasks to revive and develop the Itelmen language in Kamchatka

One of the major problems to solve immediately is to preserve and record materials collected from elderly Itelmen speakers. According to our estimates, there are about 35 native speakers now residing in nine villages of the Kamchatkan Oblast. According to my detailed list, the oldest is 77 and the youngest 51. Most of them are 60 to 66. They are all sick people facing difficult economic conditions. They know many Itelmen words, folklore, and chanting rhymes. They can be the main informants within the framework of the program to preserve the Itelmen language.

It is vital to make an immediate record of everything known by these informants, with special attention given to male ones (3 persons) since they remember specific Itelmen terms of traditional subsistence activities and toponymy. It is essential to record everything they know without delay because in 5-6 years their number will be drastically reduced. Russian scholars and linguists have not been engaged in any field studies of the Itelmen language in recent years. A.P. Volodin’s last visit to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy was in 1995 whereas Japanese linguists Chikako Ono and Mitsuhiro Yadzu come up here virtually every year. Jonathan Bobalick (Canada) also speaks and studies the Itelmen language.

It is expedient to organise a field survey in the Tigilskiy District, and to convene a workshop of Itelmen informants (35 people) in Tigil, video- and audiotaping the material there. The cost of airfare to the Tigilskiy District is very high. We cannot afford visiting our motherland even on vacations. We have no video or photographic equipment, no state-of-the-art recorders or personal computers.

It is most important to make the Itelmen language carriers absorb the idea that they are the last ones so that they will pass on their rich knowledge of the language and culture to people and science. It would be already a tangible contribution to the development of native culture if every informant succeeds in sharing his or her knowledge with at least one grandson or granddaughter.

Our “Lach” school is the first experience of organising family schools to teach Itelmen. The teaching experience is meager and, possibly, the results are hardly visible. But this experience should be disseminated across the regions, villages and Itelmen families.

First steps have been made in the right direction. Representatives of the “Koyana” kinship community from the village of Koryaki (O.N. Golenchik) have started to arrange their first junior classes of the Itelmen language and culture for children raised in indigenous families of Koryaki. V.E. Fedotova, an Itelmen-speaking native, is invited as their teacher.

But so far there are too few enthusiasts like that. The native language should be studied in every Itelmen (Kamchadal) community.

One of the problems is the lack of equipment and technical facilities. A personal computer, video and audio equipment, cameras, dictating machines and modern programmes to print Itelmen literature in small numbers are all needed.

The tasks related to the revival and development of the Itelmen language in Kamchatka can be formulated in the following way:

(1)   Improvement of the system of methods to teach Itelmen at family schools;

(2)   Organisation of family schools in the districts inhabited by Itelmen (Kamchadals);

(3)   Elaboration of programs, methodological instructions and visual aids;

(4)   Publication of an additional page of the “Aborigen Kamchatki” newspaper in the native languages, including Itelmen;

(5)   Organisation of a field survey in the Tigilskiy District to videotape informants of the Itelmen language;

(6)   Organisation of a two-week workshop of Itelmen informants and Itelmen teachers in Tigil;

(7)   Publication of literature in Itelmen;

(8)   Arrangement of a specialisation teach-in on the Itelmen language with scientist K.N. Khaloymova in Palana and A.P. Volodina in Saint-Petersburg;

(9)   Dissemination of experience in teaching native languages.

In conclusion, I would like to say that I dream about the time when I would be able to fully devote myself to the task of reviving Itelmen without giving a second thought to making a living. Time is too short for the language’s revival and development.

[1] This number refers to the Kamchatkan Oblast, including the Koryak Autonomous Okrug. According to the census, there were 2418 people in the area of the former Soviet Union assigning themselves to the Itelmens.

- The Editor