The origins of the Chukchi population are unclear, although they are presumed to have come from northern China and Mongolia. The first human occupation in Chukotka dates back 10,000 years: Chukchi are thought to have arrived after their Siberian Yupik ancestors.

The first recorded mention of the Chukchi was in 1641-1642 in a report from Cossacks exploring the territories and trying to convince the indigenous people to pay the Russian yasak, a fur tax collected by the Czar. In the middle of the 17th century, Cossacks began to settle in the area. They built the fort of Nizhnekolymsk and the Anadyr fort in 1644 and 1648-1649, respectively.

Chukchi are well known for their warlike spirit: they resisted Russian colonization and, at the same time, fought against their neighbors, particularly against the Koryak people. They assaulted the Koryak in order to capture their reindeer, and used their prisoners to take care of their herds. For instance, in 1738, 2000 Chukchi came to raid the Koryak near the Anadyr fort. Nevertheless, in some regions, Koryak and Chukchi joined forces, as for instance in the attack on Nizhnekamchatsk fort in 1746. In the 1780s, Chukchi finally stopped raiding the Koryak.

The Russians failed at imposing the fur tax on the Chukchi. They led several assaults on them: the first mention of it was made in 1690, when V. Kuznetsov fought Koryak and Chukchi, and was killed. This campaign was followed by those of S. Chernyshchevkii in 1701, I. Lokosov in 1709, A. Shestakov in 1729, and Major Pavlutskii in 1730-1731 and 1744-1747. Major Pavlutskii was notorious for his cruelty: in one battle, he is reported to have killed 450 Chukchi, a figure that may be slightly exaggerated. His troops were composed of Russians, Koryak, and Yukagirs. Used to the traditional practice of voluntary death, Chukchi would rather kill themselves and their families than surrender. These wars ended with the killing of Pavlutskii.

These campaigns were expensive and took place in an area where furs were scarce. When Catherine II acceded to the throne, she decided to abandon the Anadyr fort in 1764. In 1822, the Statute of Alien

Administration in Siberia relieved Chukchi from all tax obligations, as they were categorized as "not completely dependent" people. They could voluntarily pay a tribute, which they did at the annual fairs. But although this was registered as a tax, it was more an unequal and ritual exchange of gifts between Chukchi and Russian traders: Russians used to give more expensive presents in order to attract them back to the next fair.

Indeed, by the end of the 18th century, the relationships between Russians and Chukchi were characterized by the establishment of trade. The first market, on the Aniui River, was established in 1788. This trade was necessary for both groups; Russians needed skins and reindeer meat while the Chukchi wanted tea, tobacco, and sugar. In the early years of the 19th century, herders extended their territories. They spread west and south on Yukagir and Koryak settlements.

In the 1820s, American traders and whalers appeared in Chukotka. Chukchi developed even closer economic relationships with them than with Russians. The Chukchi language still uses some English words today such as "soap" (sop) or "okay" (oki).

Waldemar Bogoraz (1865-1936), who had been exiled in the 1880s in northeastern Siberia for political reasons, wrote the most comprehensive monograph on the Chukchi. He took part in several scientific expeditions, among them the Jesup North Pacific Expedition (1900-1901), in which he collected valuable ethnographic data.

In the beginning of the Soviet period, colonization intensified. In the 1930s, traditional herding and hunting was progressively organized in collective farms, which became the basic social unit, divided into work brigades. Privately owned reindeers were to be appropriated by the state. Several herdsmen tried to escape and went further into the tundra, but were finally arrested or killed. Herding and hunting was considered as any other kind of economic area and was subjected to centralized planning, disregarding native knowledge and practice. Collectivization was implemented first among coastal Chukchi: in 1939, 95% of hunters worked in a kolkhoze, whereas almost 90% of reindeer were still privately owned in 1941. However, by the 1950s, the majority of reindeer herds became state-owned. As in every region of Siberia, shamans were arrested and religious life was forbidden. Children were sent to boarding school, where they were to learn how to become Soviet citizens, and eventually lost their traditional way of life.

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