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The Nivkh practice shamanism, which is important for the winter Bear festival, though some have converted to Russian Orthodoxy.
As of the 2002 Russian Federation census, 5,287 Nivkh exist.
The Nivkh are physically and genetically different from the surrounding peoples, and scholars believe they are the indigenous inhabitants of the area.
The current archeological model suggests that a sub-Arctic technological culture originating from the Transbaikal region, termed the microlithic culture, migrated across Siberia and populated the Amur and Sakhalin region during the Late Pleistocene, perhaps earlier.
The land the Nivkh inhabit is characterized as taiga forest with cold snow-laden winters and mild summers with sparse tree cover.
Later, Qing China forced the Nivkh to pay tribute to them.
After the Treaty of Nerchinsk in 1689, they functioned as intermediaries between the Russians, Manchu and Japanese, also with the Ainu who were vassals of the Japanese.
Early contact with the southern Sakhalin Ainu was generally hostile, although trade between the two was apparent.
Nivkh lands extended along the northern coast of Manchuria from the Russian fortress at Tugur Bay eastward to the mouth of the Amur River at Nikolayevsk, then south through the Strait of Tartary as far as De Castries Bay.The Nivkh language is divided into four dialects." (nivkh).In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Russian explorers first termed the group Gilyak (also Giliaks or Giliatski).The etymology of the name "Gilyak" is disputed by linguists, with some believing the name originated from an exonym given to the Nivkhs by a nearby Tungusic group.Other scholars believe that "Gilyak" derives from Kile, another nearby Tungusic group that the Russians had mistakenly named Nivkhs. "[people wearing clothes made of] fish-skin"; a Chinese appellation that was also used for the Nanai people) on an early 18 c.