The Last Nivkh Chieftain

One man determined to save his people and culture from oblivion

The Nivkh are the indigenous people of Sakhalin Island in the Russian North. Since their lands were discovered by explorers from the mainland, they have undergone assimilation by the Japanese and persecution by the Soviet government. They were banned from practising their culture and their language was largely forgotten. Since the Nivkh language didn’t have a written form, it was an almost impossible task to preserve it in the reality faced by the Nivkh after being discovered by the outside world. Many Nivkh legends, beliefs and traditions were lost.

However, current Nivkh chieftain, Vladimir Sangi, believes it is possible to restore the Nivkh language and culture. He co-authored the alphabet of the Nivkh language which has hugely contributed to its preservation. Still, there is a long way to go for the Nivkh people, as very few of them today can speak their native tongue. There’s also the problem of the commercialisation of Nivkh culture, where original traditions are modified to create a money-making tourist spectacle.

Another problem is that even the Nivkh themselves disagree on what makes a Nivkh. While some consider mixed-race marriages not an obstacle to passing Nivkh culture to their children, others believe that the only true Nivkh are those who have Nivkh fathers. In any case, Nivkh culture and language are not completely extinct yet, as some of its people are trying to preserve and recover their traditional holidays, crafts, art and cuisine. But with the Nivkh population only around 5,000, the question is whether their culture is facing a revival or the last days of its decline?