Tell me who you laugh at… and I will tell you who you are!
First of all, Chukchis are members of the umbrella group that the Russians have always disdained: the “Asians” (sometimes referred to across the board as “Tatars”). The Urals have long been perceived by Russians as the borderline between civilization and savagery; witness the quote from the 1986 movie Samaya obayatelnaya i privlekatelnaya, expressing the character’s contempt for the heroine who looks like a country bumpkin: “What is she, from the Urals?”. The Chukchis not only live beyond the Urals, but even their ethnonym suggests “Asianness” to a Russian ear, familiar with Turkic loanwords that either start with chu- or end in -cha: chuviak ‘shoe’, chulan ‘boxroom’, chugun ‘cast-iron’, and alycha ‘kind of plum’, parcha ‘brocade’, and sarancha ‘locust’. According to Draitser, “the word chukcha can be perceived as a variant of a denigrating collective nickname for a man of any Asian ethnicity – chuchmek” (pp. 82-83); it is also similar in sound to another Russian demeaning classification term for non-Russians and especially Asians: churki nerusskie ‘non-Russian blockheads’. The initial chu- also brings to mind such words with negative connotations as chudnoj ‘strange, eccentric’, chuzhoj ‘a foreigner, stranger’, and chumazyj ‘a dirty one’.
But most importantly, the Chukchis perfectly fit the prototype of a group that is expected to become the butt of ethnic stupidity jokes, as identified by Christie Davies in her Ethnic Humor around the World (p. 43):
“Within any nation the culture of the metropolitan center or centers tends to be dominant over that of the remote periphery. Innovation, modernity, fashion begin at the center and spread outward and not the other way around; thus the people of the periphery appear slow, provincial, old-fashioned, and a fit subject for jokes about stupidity. This is especially likely to happen if the group at the “edge” of the society has a distinctively different ethnic identity; whatever the achievements of the members of the group in their own terms, they may appear to the people at the center as failing to meet the dominant cultural standards.”
The Chukchis fit this profile to a “T”: they inhabit the region farthest from major Russian industrial and cultural centers, such as Moscow and Saint Petersburg, and maintain their distinct identity and traditional way of life more than most other indigenous Siberian groups, such as the Itelmen, Nivkhs, and the Udege, all of which have been more heavily assimilated by the Russians. Although most Chukchis under the age of 50 speak Russian with varying proficiency, about half of them claim to speak the indigenous language known as Chukot or Chukchi. Nomadic, reindeer-herding groups especially remained largely outside the Soviet collective system and still resist Russian language and culture.
Other ethnic groups that live on the periphery of the dominant culture and similarly become the subject of ethnic stupidity jokes include Newfoundlanders (Newfies) in Canada, the Irish in Britain and the Kerrymen in Ireland, Belgians in both France and the Netherlands, Ostfrieslanders in Germany, and Sa’idis (people from Upper Egypt) in Egypt. Linguistic minorities whose members often have an imperfect knowledge of the dominant national language often become the target of such humor. Examples here include Yukatecos in Mexico, who speak Mayan languages rather than Spanish, Rashtis (Azeris from Rasht) in Iran who speak a Turkiс language rather than the predominant Farsi (an Indo-European language), and Kurds in Iraq who speak Kurdish rather that Arabic.
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