Why do the Nanai people only have 30 different surnames?

There are many interesting facts about the Nanai people. For example, their other name was ‘Fishskin’, because they wore clothes made from fish skins. These days, a traditional Nanai costume like this would cost between $2,500 and $4,000. Here is another interesting fact: when a Nanai person dies, a special ceremonial bib is made for them embroidered with a design in the shape of intestines, while a small wooden doll has been made to honor them, which has been “fed” for another year after the person’s death. Then there are the Nanai surnames. To date, there are only 30 left.

The Nanai, like representatives of many other indigenous peoples of Russia, are now almost completely assimilated into Russians. Few of them know, let alone use, the Nanai language in everyday life. And yet, the Nanai continue to be the native inhabitants of the Far East, who lived on this land before it was discovered by the Chinese and then the Russians.

Who are these “people of the land”?

Scholars are still divided as to the origin of the Nanai. It is believed by some that the ancestors of the Nanai originally lived in Manchuria (now northeast China) and then moved to lower Amur and the Ussuri River Valley. Others, like ethnographer Lev Sternberg, believe that the Nanai people emerged through a mixture of different tribes. This theory has been confirmed by genetic analysis of the Nanai people. It turned out that the different Nanai clans are surprisingly different from each other in their ethnic composition: some can be attributed to China, while others – to Turks, Mongols or Tungus.

Although the first mention of a Nanai settlement in Russia dates back to the 17th century, these people had been living on this land for centuries. Literally, “nanai” means “a person of the earth”. At the time of Russian colonization, they were called “foreigners” (at that time the word meant a representative of any ethnic group other than Russian) and now they are officially called “a people in small numbers”.

According to the 2010 census, 11,671 Nanese live in Russia. An additional 4,600 Nanese ended up in China after the 1860 Treaty of Peking, which drew the state border along the Amur and Ussuri rivers and divided the area populated by them between Russia and China.

A shaman with a dog and a stolen soul

When the Russians arrived in the Far East, the indigenous people were faced with a choice: either accept Russian rule or leave. The Nanai have chosen to stay on their historic lands. Today, more than 92% of the Russian Nanai population lives in the Khabarovsk Territory: in the city of Khabarovsk and in villages located on both banks of the Amur and Ussuri rivers, about four hours away from Khabarovsk.

Shaman's Ceremonial Ride on Dogs, 1900s

The Nanai received another ultimatum when, in the second half of the 19th century, they were converted from paganism to the Russian Orthodox Church. In the traditional Nanai faith, nature had a soul, which could be contacted by shamans and with the help of dogs. The Nanai believed that dogs were guides and helpers for shamans in finding “stolen” human souls.

The souls of the dead were treated differently. A deceased person had a burial bib embroidered with a pattern in the shape of intestines prepared so that the soul of the deceased could breathe and eat. In the coffin, a stone was placed at the feet of the corpse, at its heels, so that the deceased did not rise to the souls of the living. For the same purpose, the deceased was taken out of the house through a broken opening or a window, but never through the door, so that he would not find his way back. The Nanai believed that the soul of the deceased “lived” for a year after death in a small wooden doll called a “pane”. Every day the doll was fed, and a year later the shaman sent the soul of the deceased to the afterlife. Until the end of the 19th century, the Nanai buried their dead in “houses” that stood above the ground. Only in more recent history have they begun to bury their dead in the ground.

exchange trade

The traditional Nanai outfit consists of an enveloping dress and trousers, embroidered with patterns that always mean something: protection against evil spirits, wish for good health, good fishing, etc. “See that bib? I made it myself. It was meant to scare away evil spirits. The more metallic decorations on it and the louder they tinkle, the better. Previously, these bibs were worn under clothes, but now it is customary to wear them over clothes,” says Elena from Sikachi-Alyan village.

Many modern Nanese practice two religions at once. They go to church, but, at the same time, they make offerings to the spirits of the river “for good luck” and, just in case, leave coins at Savan’s ritual sculpture.

How to invent a family name?

When they received Soviet passports, the Nanai had to be given surnames – for the first time in their history. Until 1974, the Nanai people never had a surname. When the requirement for all Soviet citizens (except military personnel) to have passports was enacted half a century after the formation of the USSR, the Nanai came up with Nanai surnames for themselves- even based on some of the most obvious logic. . For surnames, they took the names of the clans to which they belonged. Thus, they ended up with a total of 30 Nanai clan names: ‘Possar’, ‘Aimka’, ‘Digor’, ‘Nuer’, ‘Yukomzan’, etc.

The largest clan is ‘Beldy’. Its most famous representative is the singer Kola Beldy (1929 – 1993). The song “I Will Take You to the Tundra” won him second prize in the main competition of the International Song Festival in Sopot (Poland), after which he toured for many years, visiting 46 countries. Its lyrics describe life on the tundra and reindeer herding, although the Nanai never lived on the tundra or raised deer.

    Hunter on skis on ice floe, with spear and rifle

The Nanai are born fishermen. There are around 140 species of fish found in the Amur. Even five months of the Nanai calendar are named after fish.

The Nanai in the 21st century

The dwellings and daily life of modern Nanai differ very little from those typically Russian. The Internet, household appliances, cars, modern engines for boats, portable generators – all this is used by the Nanai, even in remote villages. Although the majority of Nanai, especially the young and able-bodied, do not live in villages, but in nearby towns, where the Nanai ethnicity is a minority.

“It’s good to be a Nanai in a Nanai village and go to a Nanai school, but few succeed. But when you’re the only Nanai in a school, everyone considers it their duty to tease you about it. There was even an insult: ‘What are you, a Nanai?’ says Leonid Sungorkin, President of the Association for the Protection of Culture, Rights and Freedoms of Indigenous Peoples of the Amur Region.

July 11, 1990. Couple Nanai Ivan Torokovich and Maria Vasilyevna Beldy.

Even fishing – the traditional livelihood of the Nanai people and their main source of food – is subject to modern realities. In Russia, the law determines which indigenous peoples can catch fish and in what quantity. For the Nanai, the quota is 50 kilograms of fish per person per year, or 100 kilograms, if there are three or more children in the family. This is the most “hyped” perk, which the Nanai says doesn’t really work in practice. The Nanai who live in the cities don’t have the means: they don’t have a boat, they don’t have nets, they are old, or they have a job and don’t have time to fish. At the same time, no financial compensation is provided for those who do not exhaust their fishing quota.

Teacher Anna Denisovna Onenko explains the basics of applied national art and craft techniques at school.

“In addition, the Nanai people are entitled to wood to build a house. But, it’s also a complicated story, because they are assigned a piece of forest somewhere far away and they are expected to clear the taiga, cut the trees, clean, prepare, transport all that wood and only then build a house. It’s not realistic,” says Sungorkin.

However, some Nanai have managed to take advantage of their origin. In the 2010s, they started to develop ethno-tourism, having made the Nanai culture a tourist attraction.

“Travel to Nanai settlements is becoming increasingly popular. We have been offering them since 2016 and the demand has not dropped. Moreover, people come from all over – from our region and neighboring regions and even from Moscow [which is 8,240 km from Khabarovsk] and other western parts of Russia,” says Olga Pomitun, of the Khabarovsk-based travel agency Voyage.

Odo Beldy, 92, the oldest member of Naikhin village, 1987

During a visit to a Nanai village, tourists can try their hand at archery, learn how to cook traditional Nanai dishes, taste them, play Nanai games and buy Nanai handicrafts.

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About Patricia Kilgore

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