Type of Holiday: Religious (Chukchi)
Date of Observation: Late summer
Where Celebrated: Siberia, Russia
Symbols and Customs: Blanket Toss, Dancing, Keretkun's Net, Offerings


The Chukchi are an ancient people native to the northeast Siberian region of Russia, near the Arctic Circle and across the Bering Strait from Alaska. Life in the harsh polar environment is challenging, and the extreme climate caused a cultural split early in Chukchi history. Two separate but interdependent ways of life evolved within Chukchi society. Some Chukchi became nomadic reindeer herders and hunters, constantly moving throughout the evergreen forests and frozen tundra of Siberia. Others formed coastal settlements beside the Bering or East Siberian seas and survived by fishing and hunting sea mammals. Through the development of these two different lifestyles, the ancient Chukchi created a balanced unity with their surroundings. The "reindeer" Chukchi and the "maritime" Chukchi worked together, trading food and supplies for mutual benefit.

Chukchi religious tradition is based in shamanic understanding, which fundamentally views the world as being occupied and governed by numerous spirits of various types. Basic Chukchi belief holds that humans are not superior to anything in the natural world, and the natural world is therefore not man's to possess or control. Everything in the natural world is thought to have a spirit, including plants, animals, fish, trees, rocks, wind, water, land, and sky. Spirits control inanimate objects as well as natural phenomena such as weather, fire, and the sea, and Chukchi strive to live in harmony with these spirits. Chukchi beliefs also include special respect for the spirits of the forest, the spirit masters of all animals (particularly the wild reindeer), and the sea spirit Keretkun.

The coastal Chukchi hold an annual celebration to honor Keretkun, who is regarded as the spirit who owns all of the sea animals on which the Chukchi depend for their livelihood. Because Keretkun is believed to provide almost everything that is necessary for the coastal Chukchi to survive, this festival is considered to be one of the most important of the year. The Keretkun festival usually takes place in late summer during the peak of the maritime hunting and fishing season. Traditional observance includes sacrificial OFFERINGS presented to Keretkun in a ceremonial fashion. These ceremonies are normally followed by DANCING , socializing, and athletic competitions such as sled races, foot races, wrestling, and the BLANKET TOSS .


Blanket Toss

Chukchi festival celebrations typically include the traditional competitive pastime of blanket tossing, in which many people hold a blanket suspended between them to form a sort of handheld trampoline. One competitor sits or stands on the blanket while the blanket-holders move it up and down, tossing the person into the air-often as high as thirty feet. The person who jumps or bounces the highest is considered the winner. Blanket tossing began in ancient whaling communities where it was used to celebrate a successful hunt. It was also used to improve a hunter's ability to spot game by elevating him to a point from which he could see over greater distances.


Coastal Chukchi observe the Keretkun festival with the performance of ancient ceremonial folk dances that honor Keretkun. These dances-performed in a sitting position, usually by women-involve elaborate head, neck, and arm movements in a stylized imitation of sea mammals such as seals, walrus, and whales.

Keretkun's Net

A focal point of the Keretkun festival is Keretkun's net, which was traditionally woven from reindeer tendons and painted with seal blood. The net is typically suspended inside a large tent over a fire and then decorated with symbolic offerings that represent what is needed for the coming year. In this way the net receives the Chukchi wishes and symbolic offerings, which are believed to be carried to Keretkun as the net is burned.


During the Keretkun festival, hunters approach the shore to ceremonially offer their harpoons and other weapons to the sea and to request that Keretkun provide a plentiful hunt in the coming year. Offerings are also made to honor Keretkun by symbolically returning all the animals that had been killed during the hunting season to the sea, thus replenishing the resource that had been plundered. This is accomplished through the burning of Keretkun's net, which has been filled with painted oars and figures of birds and sea mammals. Food offerings are sometimes also made, including special dishes that are not part of the Chukchi's normal diet, such as reindeer sausage and blood soup.


Gall, Timothy L. "Chukchi." In Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life. Detroit: Gale Research, 1998. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Hutton, Ronald. Shamans: Siberian Spirituality and the Western Imagination. New York: Hambledon and London, 2001. Levinson, David, and Timothy O'Leary, eds. Encyclopedia of World Cultures. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 1996. Vitebsky, Piers. The Reindeer People: Living with Animals and Spirits in Siberia. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2005.


Chukot Autonomous District (Okrug)

Smithsonian Institution
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009
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