At the End of the Earth: Three Days with the Chukchi
Originally published on PassionPassport.com
On the Northernmost side of Eastern Russia is the Chukotka region, home to a number of native peoples, including the Chukchi. In total, there are just under 16,000 Chukchi, living in tribes of 10-20 people. The Chukchi are nomadic, moving every few months with their herds of reindeer. They speak Russian, but the older generations also speak Chukchi. They endure brutal weather conditions and live off the land, as their ancestors have done for centuries.
It’s been six years since Sasha Leahovcenko traveled to the Chukotka region of Russia. Six years since he spent three days living with the Chukchi tribe in one of the coldest places on the planet inhabited by people.
But Sasha still remembers everything about his time there.
He remembers the 11-hour journey to where the Chukchi tribe was living. How utterly silent it was as he and two other men drove across the flat, white terrain.
He remembers being ushered into a tent when they arrived and how members of the Chukchi tribe immediately offered them tea and food.
He remembers spending two days trying to gain their trust. They answered his questions, but didn’t ask any of their own. So Sasha did all of their daily activities with them — getting ice to melt for water, cleaning around the tents, taking care of the reindeer.
He remembers noticing that the women of the tribe were particularly hardworking. They were responsible for day-to-day housework, while the men cared for the reindeer. To Sasha, the day-to-day housework seemed more demanding and he could see strength in the women.
He remembers the Chukchi lifestyle and how it revolved around reindeer. The reindeer supplied everything for them — food, clothing, and shelter, as the Chukchi tribe uses reindeer pelts to make the tents they sleep under. One of the members of the Chukchi tribe told him he couldn’t imagine living any other way.
He remembers how hesitant the people were when he finally pulled out his camera. How quizzical they were about his intentions until he plugged in his portable printer, printed their portraits, and handed them over.
He remembers how the members of the tribe seemed to show their true selves when he pointed his camera at them. A husband and wife who hadn’t shown affection before hugged in their portrait. Men who seemed emotionless actually smiled.
He remembers the way their faces lit up when they saw the photos of themselves. How they immediately asked for more copies to send to relatives. How they seemed to cherish the photographs in a way he wasn’t used to, even as a photographer. For them, it was more than just a picture.
He remembers the thought that stuck in his mind on the long journey back, the answer to a question he’d asked while with the tribe. How do you guys survive here? Someone had answered, “We love it here. We don’t have any problems here. But you guys have. You guys need a bigger house, a bigger car, more money, more this, better clothing, better technology … we don’t have this problem.”
He remembers realizing that it was all about perspective.
It’s been six years since Sasha first visited the Chukotka region. Since he returned, he’s been trying to figure out a way back.
Sasha wants to film a documentary about the tribes — about their language and traditions, culture and religion. He knows that those things are disappearing with each younger generation and wants to help preserve them before they’re gone completely.
He plans to return to Chukotka this year.