The Nenets are an ethnic group of 35,000 nomadic reindeer herders who live in northern Russia and speak a language related to Finnish. They are also known as the Nentsy, Yurak or Yurak-Samoyeds. Nenets that follow their traditional customs dress in reindeer skins, eat raw fish, drink reindeer blood, practice ritual sacrifice, and sleep outside in tepee-like tents ( chums) made from reindeer skin and handcrafted poles even in the winter when temperatures drop to -60 degrees F. The word Nenet is derived from a Nenet noun for “human being.” [Source: Fen Montaigne, National Geographic, March 1998]
Russians have traditionally referred to the Nenets as Samoyeds which some historians believe means "self-eater" (perhaps given to the Nenets because their consumption of raw reindeer meat was confused with cannibalism). The term Samoyed is also used to describe a group that speaks similar languages and have traditionally lived in the northern areas of Siberia and the Far East of Russia. The Nenets are the largest of these groups. Other Samoyed groups include the Selkups and Ngananssan and groups like the Mator and Kamas that are now extinct.
Different groups are also defined by where they live: the tundra, the taiga or the mountains. The Tundra Nenets live in an area that extends from the Kanin Peninsula in the White Sea in the west to the Taimyr Peninsula in the east, a distance of about 2,000 kilometers. The southern boundaries of their range is defined by the tree line. The Forest Nenets live in a taiga region in an area around the middle Ob River. The languages of the Tundra Nenets and Forest Nenets is different enough to almost qualify as separate languages.
About 10,000 Nenets practice their traditional nomadic ways. Thousands of others live in barrel-shaped homes set above their permafrost in settlements working primarily as fishermen. "These are indeed people who live in a totally different dimension," Russian archeologist Andrei Golovnev told National Geographic. "They do not want to be the same as everyone else. They just want to be who they are. The Nenets believe they're the best reindeer herders in the world. Such absolute certainty on their superiority, the belief they are special people, allows them to survive."
Since the break up of the Soviet Union the Evenks and the Nenets have suffered catastrophic declines in life expectancy and high rates of sickness and death that have prompted speculation that some of those groups may become extinct. [Source: Library of Congress, 1996]
Nenets, Archaeologists and Communism
The Nenets are of particular interest to anthologist because a group of about 1,000 Nenets found in 1994, which had almost no contact with the outside world, used tools and sleds that were almost identical to those found in 8,000-year-old archeological sites. The anthropologists reasoned that the lifestyle, customs and culture of these people is also similar to that of the people from the archeological dig.
The Nenets found by the archeologists drive their herds of reindeer about 1,600 kilometers every year on the Yamal Peninsula. Almost everything they owned, with the exception of ceramic tea cups, is made by hand. Some of the Nenets apparently had never even heard of the Soviet Union.
The Nenets lived in clans made up of extended families and practiced a religion in which shaman and stones with unusual shapes hold power. During their rituals, reindeer are split in half. The Nenet eat half and leave half for their gods.
Archeologist hope that this group of Nenets will help answer a question that thus far is unanswered: whether people of the Arctic, such as Eskimos of Greenland and Canada, are related to people of polar Russia like the Nenets.
As the Russians moved into Siberia and other remote parts of Russia, indigenous people were forced off their land and they began encroaching on Nenet land. During the 1930s, Nenet spiritual leaders and shaman were exiled. The Communists forced nomads into barracks, required Nenet children to attend Russian schools, and organized reindeer herders into collectives. Outwardly, the Nenets played along with Communists and organized their herds into brigades and sold their reindeer meat to the state but they kept alive their customs, clan alliances and migration routes. Over 120 underground and atmospheric nuclear tests were conducted on the Arctic Novaya Zemlya Island. The reindeer and Nenets people that live here have abnormally high cancer rates.
Nenet religion has many similarities with other Siberian shamanist religions. They have several categories of shaman, worship spirits in the form of wooden idols and offer sacrifices or fish and reindeer meat. The Nenets are reluctant to talk to outsiders about their spiritual beliefs. Nomads carry a sacred sleigh full of sacred dolls. It is considered a taboo to sit in the sacred sled.
The Nenets believe that their harsh life on the tundra mirrors the spiritual battle in other world between the sky god Num and the forces of good and underworld god Nna and the forces of evil. This battle sets the rhythm of the seasons with Num prevailing in the summer and Nna holding sway in the winter.
Golovnev told National Geographic, "For the Nenets, nothing is simply beautiful. There is no such thing as a beautiful moon. The moon is a being that meddles in their affairs every month and dictates how they live. For them, beauty is the ABC of what makes the world tick."
Scattered across the tundra are sites where herders go to sacrifice deer to the gods, say prayers for the sick and make offerings of fox pelts and reindeer antlers. When someone dies, their body is placed underneath an overturned sled because it is considered sacrilegious to place someone in the ground.
About 10,000 to 35,000 Nenets retain their nomadic ways, either full time or part time. Unlike other Arctic groups like the Lapps in Scandinavia, who use snowmobiles to herd their reindeer, and the Chukchi and Koryak in Siberia, who have settled in villages, the Nenet follow their traditional migrations routes and have kept their culture alive through Communism and Capitalism.
There about 50 Nenet groups with between 12 and 50 members that spend the summer on the Yamal Peninsula. Each group (known as a brigade in Russia) has it own defined territory. In the spring they migrate from the protection of the northern taiga forests to the treeless tundra of the Yamal Peninsula 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle.
Nenet life traditionally revolved clans that had their own territory and hunting and fishing rights. About 100 clans survive today. Each has its own mythology and stories about a common ancestor. Behavior is tightly regulated by rules and customs. Each clan has a rich oral literature and epic song with complex rhythms.
Nenet men traditionally take care of the reindeer and do things like make sleds from larch with nails and modern tools. Women perform domestic chores like setting up the tents, taking care of children, and cooking meals of raw sturgeon with mustard sauce and reindeer blood sipped with a spoon.
There are a number of taboos associated with women, particularly women who are pregnant, menstruating or having a child. Nenets believe that women can rob men of their strength or exert maniacal control over them by walking over their possessions. Marriages used to arranged by clan leaders and polygamy and levirate marriages were practiced.
Most Nenet live at least part of the year in Russian-style wood or log houses. Nenet wooden houses have steep, snow-shedding roofs that are reminiscent of there nomadic tents. hums are traditional tepee-like conical tents supported by 25 to 60 poles and covered with sewn-together reindeer hides in the winter and specially prepared pieces of birch bark in the summer. At typical chum has a diameter of 18 feet and is 20 feet high The poles and covers can easily be carried on a reindeer sledge.
Chums are warmed with an iron stove or a sheet of iron serving as a hearth set on the floor in the middle of the floor. The chums are quite cozy and warm. Wooden planks are laid down for a floor and covered with hides and straw. Smoke escapes through a hole at the top of tent. Seven people and ten dogs might stay in a typical chum and social activity and space are tightly regulated so that people can live harmoniously. Some chums have thick plastic windows.
To stay warm in the winter the Nenet wear a fur coat called a parka (this is the source of the English word “parka”). Clothing is often worn in two layers with an inner coat with fur facing inside and an outer coat with the fur facing outside. The main material for clothing is reindeer fur and hide. Other mammals, including the polar foxes, various seals, squirrels and domestic dogs are also used to make clothing. The Nenets use strawlike grass taken from the tundra to insulate their boots and take the material under the bark of birch trees for diapers and toilet paper.
The Nenets are not afraid of mixing with the modern world. They use radios and tea and reject what they don't feel the need. Nenet children are still required to attend Russian-language schools.
Nenets and Reindeer
The Nenets have traditionally relied on reindeer for almost everything. Reindeer pull their sleds, supply fur for the coats and tents, provide them with meat and even give them their identity. Babies and deceased people are wrapped in reindeer skins. Reindeer bones are used for buttons and knife handles and tendons are made into thread. Their exceptionally warm skins are made into boats, legging, hats and other items of clothing.
Reindeer antlers bring in hard currency from Asia where they are crushed into a powder and taken as an aphrodisiac and a form of traditional Chinese medicine. Reindeer meat is stored in wooden chests that serve as freezers. Nenets consider fresh reindeer blood to be a delicacy and like to eat reindeer meat raw. The main events of spring festival are reindeer races.
Nenet herders have a close bond with their lead reindeer. If they get lost in a blizzard they rely on the lead reindeer to help them find their way. If the animal hesitates or sneezes while crossing a frozen river, the herder will look for a different place to cross. In Nenet mythology the fate of the main characters is often foretold by what happens first to their lead reindeer.
The Nenet control about one third of the total reindeer stock in Russia. About two thirds of all reindeer are privately owned and the herds are getting too large because people can’t afford the reindeer meat. Overgrazing has become a problem. About 175,000 reindeer graze on the Yamal but environmentalist say that the land can only support 120,000 animals.
Nenet Reindeer Caravans
A typical caravan of Nenet nomads consists of about 20 extended family members, several hundred reindeer, dozens of dogs, and 75 sleds, packed with tent poles, fresh meat, frozen food, iron stoves, reindeer skins and other items, that spread out for more than a kilometer when the group is on the move. At night they sleep in chums set up near nightfall by the women in the group and warmed with an iron stove set on the floor in the middle of the six-meter-in diameter tent.
Nenet caravans travel about 10 kilometers a day. Often they don't start moving until seven in the evening, in part to travel when the sun is low. They never travel very fast. There is a Nenet saying that goes: "Those who hurry are in a hurry to die."
Transportation has traditionally depended on sledges that can be pulled in the snow in the winter and across the bare ground in the summer. A sledge has flexible joints, long narrow runners and high backward-leaning stakes is pulled by one to seven reindeer and can also be pulled by dogs. There are specialized sleds for women and households. Sledges tied together form a caravan.
Nenet Reindeer Herding
Reindeer selected to pull the sled are kept near the chum while their other animals are allowed to graze freely. Much of the day is spent rounded up reindeer who have wandered to far away from the herd or merged with another clan's herd.
The group is directed by a leader who is outfit with a 12-foot birch pole to prod the reindeer. On the snow they use heavy sledges. When the snow melts they switch to lightweight sleds that can be pulled across the damp tundra grass.
When gathering strays and directing the reindeer into pens, the Nenets use dogs, lassos, whoop and shouts, poles and their strength as wrestlers. Problem animals are hobbled by tying their front and rear legs together. Herders can tell their reindeer from those of other clans by sight or by notches cut into their ears and other identifying marks.
Describing the capture of some strays, Fen Montaigne wrote in National Geographic, "More than 200 of our brigade’s reindeer had strayed into the herd of 2,000 animals belonging to another brigade...With the help of their dogs, the herders ran their reindeer back and forth along a long hillside. Standing amid stampeding animals, the men lassoed the strays as they thundered past. A herder would grab a snagged reindeer by the antler, wrestle it to the snowy ground, then hobble it by tying its front and hind legs together.
Nenets and Oil Companies
The 5,000 Nenets on the Yamal Peninsula herd their reindeer on the 1,000-kilometer round-trip between the tundra in the summer and the forest in the fall. These Nenets have not settled in villages and do not use snowmobiles.
The Nenet way of life is threatened by oil and gas exploration on the Yamal peninsula that disrupts their traditional migration routes. The Yamal Peninsula holds what be the world's largest natural gas reserves (about 300 trillion cubic feet, twice the estimated reserves of the United States).
The Yamal project, also referred to as Yamal megaproject—a long term plan to exploit and bring to the markets the vast natural gas reserves in the Yamal Peninsula—was launched in 2008. Roads, pipelines and railroads damages the tundra and disrupt traditional migration patterns. Reindeer get sick from all the dirt and garbage.
The Nganasan is an ethnic group that lives in the Taimyr Peninsula. Also known as the Avam and Nya, they have traditionally hunted wild reindeer and herded reindeer and are closely related to the Nenets.
Taymry Peninsula (north of Norlisk) is a piece of land that juts into the Arctic Ocean. It covers 33,670 square kilometers (13,500) square miles of tundra and is the home to rare red-breasted goose, musk ox and 400,000 wild reindeer. The Taimyr Peninsula lies completely north of the Arctic Circle. It is a severely cold place, Often the rivers don’t break free of ice until July and freeze up again in mid September. Some Nenets still live there too.
There are 1,300 Ngansan. They traditionally were nomads who lived in tipis. Now they mostly live in Russian-style dwelling ins fairly large settlements. The men fish for food and hunt, trap and raise animal like the polar fox, selling meat and hides from hunted wild reindeer and herd reindeer for money. Traditional religious beliefs remain but their shaman have mostly died off.
Text Sources: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia, China, edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company, Boston); New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2016