CHAPTER XVIII. WHY THE KORAKS WANDER - THEIR INDEPENDENCE - CHEERLESS LIFE - USES OF THE REINDEER - KORAK IDEAS OF DISTANCE - "MONARCH OF THE BRASS-HANDLED SWORD"

The Wandering Koraks of Kamchatka, who are divided into about forty different bands, roam over the great steppes in the northern part of the peninsula, between the 58th and the 63d parallels of latitude. Their southern limit is the settlement of Tigil, on the west coast, where they come annually to trade, and they are rarely found north of the village of Penzhina, two hundred miles from the head of the Okhotsk Sea. Within these limits they wander almost constantly with their great herds of reindeer, and so unsettled and restless are they in their habits, that they seldom camp longer than a week in any one place. This, however, is not attributable altogether to restlessness or love of change. A herd of four or five thousand reindeer will in a very few days paw up the snow and eat all the moss within a radius of a mile from the encampment, and then, of course, the band must move to fresh pasture ground. Their nomadic life, therefore, is not entirely a choice, but partly a necessity, growing out of their dependence upon the reindeer. They must wander or their deer will starve, and then their own starvation follows as a natural consequence. Their unsettled mode of life probably grew, in the first place, out of the domestication of the reindeer, and the necessity which it involved of consulting first the reindeer's wants; but the restless, vagabondish habits thus produced have now become a part of the Korak's very nature, so that he could hardly live in any other way, even had he an opportunity of so doing. This wandering, isolated, independent existence has given to the Koraks all those characteristic traits of boldness, impatience of restraint, and perfect self-reliance, which distinguish them from the Kamchadals and the other settled inhabitants of Siberia. Give them a small herd of reindeer, and a moss steppe to wander over, and they ask nothing more from all the world. They are wholly independent of civilisation and government, and will neither submit to their laws nor recognise their distinctions. Every man is a law unto himself so long as he owns a dozen reindeer; and he can isolate himself, if he so chooses, from all human kind, and ignore all other interests but his own and his reindeer's. For the sake of convenience and society they associate themselves in bands of six or eight families each; but these bands are held together only by mutual consent, and recognise no governing head. They have a leader called a taiyon who is generally the largest deer-owner of the band, and he decides all such questions as the location of camps and time of removal from place to place; but he has no other power, and must refer all graver questions of individual rights and general obligations to the members of the band collectively. They have no particular reverence for anything or anybody except the evil spirits who bring calamities upon them, and the "shamans" or priests, who act as infernal mediators between these devils and their victims. Earthly rank they treat with contempt, and the Tsar of all the Russias, if he entered a Korak tent, would stand upon the same level with its owner. We had an amusing instance of this soon after we met the first Koraks. The Major had become impressed in some way with the idea that in order to get what he wanted from these natives he must impress them with a proper sense of his power, rank, wealth, and general importance in the world, and make them feel a certain degree of reverence and respect for his orders and wishes. He accordingly called one of the oldest and most influential members of the band to him one day, and proceeded to tell him, through an interpreter, how rich he was; what immense resources, in the way of rewards and punishments, he possessed; what high rank he held; how important a place he filled in Russia, and how becoming it was that an individual of such exalted attributes should be treated by poor wandering heathen with filial reverence and veneration. The old Korak, squatting upon his heels on the ground, listened quietly to the enumeration of all our leader's admirable qualities and perfections without moving a muscle of his face; but finally, when the interpreter had finished, he rose slowly, walked up to the Major with imperturbable gravity, and with the most benignant and patronising condescension, patted him softly on the head! The Major turned red and broke into a laugh; but he never tried again to overawe a Korak.

Notwithstanding this democratic independence of the Koraks, they are almost invariably hospitable, obliging, and kind-hearted; and we were assured at the first encampment where we stopped, that we should have no difficulty in getting the different bands to carry us on deer-sledges from one encampment to another until we should reach the head of Penzhinsk Gulf. After a long conversation with the Koraks who crowded around us as we sat by the fire, we finally became tired and sleepy, and with favourable impressions, upon the whole, of this new and strange people, we crawled into our little polog to sleep. A voice in another part of the yurt was singing a low, melancholy air in a minor key as I closed my eyes, and the sad, oft-repeated refrain, so different from ordinary music, invested with peculiar loneliness and strangeness my first night in a Korak tent.