Erich Kasten

Independent Scholar and Consultant on the Russian Far East and the Circumpolar North

Multimedia Projects on the Preservation of the Languages and Cultures of the Peoples of Kamchatka

General background and aims of the project

Since 1993, a number of international ethnographic field projects in Kamchatka have been conducted by me in collaboration with Russian colleagues and local experts.

As a cultural anthropologist I am particularly concerned with the preservation of endangered languages as an important aspect of correspondingly endangered traditional knowledge and cultural practices. Such linkage is obviously helpful for preserving endangered languages that can be more easily applied in multimedia learning tools.

Another concern is the often-felt divide between basic scientific research and the application of its results. Especially for linguistic research dealing with language endangerment this is hardly understandable and it is not acceptable that relevant community-oriented strategies are often missing. Therefore I have been urging for making outcomes and data from field projects available to the local communities where these originated, and where these can contribute to keep endangered cultural traditions alive (Kasten 2004; 2005). Such considerations have been the prime impetus for initiating a special program to create a database of audio-visual documents that can be accessed and used by local communities on Kamchatka for preserving and further developing their cultural heritage. Within this program special emphasis is placed on the production of multimedia learning tools on CD and DVD, in combination with printed textbooks on native language teaching.

Scope and structure of the project

The program and its foreseen ­ and partly already realised – multimedia productions are organised in two series:

1. «Kamchatka Peoples and Nature»

This series contains DVD documentaries on particular cultural practices and activities of the peoples of Kamchatka. From the existing data about 20 one-hour movies will eventually be produced (KPN). The particular aim of this archive is to provide the broader cultural context for the extensive database on specific language materials that are organised under the following «Language and Culture» archives.

2.1 «Itelmen Language and Culture»

The Itelmen Language and Culture project started in 1993 and can be considered as almost completed by now. Beyond a textbook for school children (Khaloimova et al. 1996) and a teachers' handbook (Khaloimova 1999), a CD (Dürr et al. 2001) was published that contains audio and some video material for Itelmen and for the cultural context of that language. Some limitations of the data are caused by the fact that only a few remaining speakers have been capable to speak Itelmen fluently. Therefore, most of the spoken texts are based on readings. However, selected vocabulary spoken by different speakers show clearly variations of local vernacular that often varies from village to village. This raised the particular issue and many discussions with local community members, to which extent local variations or dialects should be preserved and reflected in the teaching materials that we were asked to produce (Kasten 1998).

2.2 «Even Language and Culture»

The Even language and culture project is still in progress. It is expected to be completed in 2007. First DVDs on some selected materials exist already for being tested in Kamchatka. The Even project focuses first on the particular dialect of the Even language that is still spoken in the Bystrinski district of Kamchatka, and will later expand on Even groups that live in the northern parts of the peninsula. The DVD movies of this series will contain full transcripts of Even texts and optional Russian and English subtitles. In combination with the DVDs, a printed text edition and/or booklets will be produced for specific school use.

As our recorded texts for Even amount already 20 hours, we decided to break up the data into various themes. Each of such DVD volumes from the ELC series then relates to respective DVD movies on cultural practices from the KPN archive (see above).

2.3 «Koryak Language and Culture»

Simultaneously with the work on Even materials, DV recordings on Koryak language are now prepared for DVD publications. The data amounts at about 76 hours spoken text. Most of it is in the Nymylan dialect of coastal Koryaks spoken around Lesnaya, but it contains also local language varieties from Chauwchu groups, i.e. reindeer herder Koryaks. First published results in form of DVD movies with full subtitles (as for the Even material above) and printed booklets are expected towards the end of 2006, with the whole dataset probably not be completed earlier than 2008.

Some considerations and perspectives for the future

Our experience has shown that multimedia learning tools on native languages provide the great advantage to present text within an authentic local context. That makes it more appealing to the youth and easier for them to identify with the material – which clearly enhances their motivation to preserve their unique cultural and linguistic heritage.

The well-known and – for school children as well as for elders – confusing divide between standardised language in most textbooks and actual local speech variants can easier be bridged by multimedia learning tools. Especially here, however, a number of problems still remain unsolved and well-balanced compromises have to be found. Therefore, it is one of the biggest challenges and probably the most difficult task for us to make such new teaching tools – that contain local language variants – at the same time compatible with already established standards for grammar and orthography that have been in use already for the past 20 years, but still differ from the original speech of the elder generation.

This leads to more basic questions about the specific functions that native languages can have in the local context that even might explain the expressed wish of native community members to preserve its local variants. Having always been multilingual, the native peoples of Kamchatka were in command of foreign languages for the communication with others. At the same time, it is important for them that they can identify with each other, but also differentiate themselves from others, by means of a common language or dialect of their own as still spoken by the elders. Therefore specific language can link people to their particular local history and cultural heritage and can make it more attractive to them to preserve it.


    Dürr, Michael; Kasten, Erich; Khaloimova, Klavdiia Nikolaevna 2001. Itelmen Language and Culture. Multimedia CD-ROM. Ethnographic Library on CD, vol 3. Münster/New York: Waxmann.

    Kasten, Erich 1998. Handling Ethnicities and/or Securing Cultural Diversities: Indigenous and Global Views on Maintaining Traditional Knowledge. In Bicultural Education in the North: Ways of Preserving and Enhancing Indigenous Peoples' Languages and Traditional Knowledge, E. Kasten (ed.), 1–11. Münster/New York: Waxmann. [text]

    — 2004. Ways of Owning and Sharing Cultural Property. In Properties of Culture – Culture as Property: Pathways to Reform in Post-Soviet Siberia, E. Kasten (ed.), 9–32. Berlin: Dietrich Reimer Verlag. [text]

    — 2005. Culture as Property: Returning Knowledge to Native Communities. In Property Relations: The Halle Focus Group 2000-2005, C. Hann (ed.), 54–7. Halle: Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology. [text]

    Khaloimova, Klavdiia Nikolaevna 1999. Metodicheskie rekommendatsii (materialy) uchiteliu itel'menskogo yazyka [Methodical recommendations (materials) for the teacher of Itelmen language]. Series: Posobie po yazyku i kul'ture korennykh narodov Kamchatki, general editor: Erich Kasten. Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskii: Izdadel'stvo Kamshat. [text]

    Khaloimova, Klavdiia Nikolaevna; Michael Dürr; Erich Kasten; Sergei Longinov 1996.

    Istoriko-etnograficheskoe uchebnoe posobie po itel'menskomu iazyku. [Historical-ethnographical teaching materials for the Itelmen language]. Petropavlovsk-Kamchatski: Izdadel'stvo Kamshat.

    KPN – Kamchatka Peoples and Nature. DVD movies archive (Erich Kasten). [more]

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