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Gilyak (ethnonym: Nivxi) is a language spoken in Outer Manchuria, in the basin of the Amgum, a tributary of the Amur, along the lower reaches of the Amur and on the northern half of Sakhalin. The Gilyak do not appear to be related to any of their neighbours nor to any other people on earth. In fact they share this peculiarity with their three immediate neighbours, the Ainu, the Japanese and the Koreans.

For many centuries the Gilyaks were tributary to the Manchu empire. After the Treaty of Nerchinsk 1689 they functioned as intermediaries between the Russians, Manchu and Japanese, these last via their vassals, the Ainu. Their lands extended along the northern coast of Manchuria from the Russian fortress at Tugur eastward to the mouth of the Amur at Nikolayevsk, then south through the Straits of Tatary as far as De Castries Bay.

The Gilyaks suffered severely from the Cossack conquest and imposition of the Tsarist Russian penal policy which turned the whole island of Sakhalin into a penal settlement. There followed two occupations by the Japanese in 1904-5 and 1920-5, plus the Russian revolution, Stalin's witch-hunts and the collectivizations, with the Gilyak being used as a 'model' nation that had gone directly from the stone age to communism.

Despite these vicissitudes, the Gilyak nation survived. In the 1920s they even had their own autonomous oblast straddling the Straits of Tatary and, in Chuner Taksami, their first modern literary figure. In the post-Soviet Russian commonwealth of nations they have fared better than the Ainu or the Kamchadal but nothing like as well as the Chukchi or the Tuvans.