Nenets History, Culture, Religion & Daily Life

See also Trip Types for costs and itineraries of trips to different Nenets areas

Nomadic Nenets woman in the tundra 100km north of Yar-Sale, Yamal Peninsula, Arctic Siberia

Nenets woman on the Yamal Peninsula

Culture and Daily Lives

Nomadic Nenets live in chums, conical reindeer-hide tents. They wear two reindeer-fur jackets with attached reindeer-fur gloves and reindeer-fur hoods and thigh-high reindeer-fur boots. The women sew new sets of clothing (using reindeer sinew as thread) every summer for everyone living in their chum. Lassoos, and ropes are made from reindeer rawhide. Sledges are made by hand from wood, with no metal or nails used at all. There are several traditional Nenets tools which are to this day used by every grown Nenets reindeer herder to make his sledges. Sledges are pulled by reindeer. The reindeers’ harnesses are made from reindeer rawhide and several parts from reindeer bone.

The Nenets’ favourite meal is reindeer meat and blood, eaten and drunk raw directly from the carcass of a freshly killed reindeer. Ropes are tied around the live reindeer’s neck, its head is turned to face the East and it is strangled by two or three people, each pulling one end of the rope. The hide is then removed and is hung to dry. Clothing will be made from it. Then the women cut open the reindeer, everyone sits around it on the ground and they begin tearing out liver, kidney, meat, throat, lungs, heart and eating them right there. A bowl or cup is passed around and people dip it in the carcass and drink the reindeer’s warm blood.

Most groups have their summer pastures further north and winter pastures further to the south. They move camp on sledges drawn by reindeer. Men usually ride one sledge drawn by five reindeer, directing the animals with a long wooden pole called a khorei. Women and children drive long trains of six or seven sledges called an argysh with several reindeer in front of every sledge in the argysh.

The southern Yamal Nenets, with whom visitors through this website will usually stay, have the biggest herds (up to 10,000) and longest migration routes (up to 2,000km) of all Nenets. In summer they are located in the far north of the Yamal Peninsula whereas in winter they are not even on the Peninsula itself but to the south east, across the Gulf of Ob in Nadym Region.

When moving camp, first all the chums are disassembled and put onto sledges. Then the herders lasso the specially trained transport reindeer they need for the sledges. The men drive the herd off on the sledges and the women and children begin the migration on argysh, the whole caravan snaking over the landscape in a column up to 2km long. When they find a suitable place to set up camp, usually on raised land with a large flat area nearby where the herd can be easily rounded up, the head of the group sticks his khorei into the ground at the place where he wants the centre of his chum to be. Everyone then starts unloading sledges, unharnessing reindeer and setting up chums, with the head’s chum always on the far right as viewed from behind and the entrances of all chums facing the same way.

There are dozens of different types of reindeer that are instantly recognisable to the Nenets amid a herd of thousands and for each of which a separate word exists in the Nenets language. An example is the sacred reindeer: each person and each god has its own sacred reindeer which must never be killed until it is too old to walk. When a sacred reindeer is finally killed they find another similar-looking one to take its place and smear the dead reindeer’s blood on it.

Another example of a distinct reindeer type is hand-raised (orphaned) reindeer. The Nenets take these reindeer into their chums and bring them up until they are old enough to fend for themselves. These reindeer will never be killed. Instead, the Nenets give them away to other families when they are too old to walk. That family will kill it and will return the gesture by giving one of its own hand-raised reindeer in exchange. Throughout their lives, hand-raised reindeer can live with the herd of with the people in the chum they grew up in and move quite freely between the two. They are the only reindeer to eat human food such as bread.

For an outsider it is quite amazing how easily Nenets recognise their reindeer’s faces among a herd of 10,000. When rounding up a herd of 10,000, every person in the camp, even 6 year old children, instantly know which ones are hand-raised or sacred and must therefore be released. They even recognise the sacred and hand-raised ones of other families. I have seen two 6-year old girls standing outside a chum while a herd of 10,000 galloped past around thirty metres away,and when the two of them spotted one of their family’s hand-raised reindeer they started wavng, jumping up and down and shouting greetings.

Yet another example of a distinct reindeer type is the ancestor reindeer, reindeer belonging to the 2-foot tall idols of particularly powerful and important ancestors of theirs that the Nenets keep in their chums. These idols are dressed in Nenets clothing and the family makes new sets of clothing for them each year. There are also a number of god idols. The ancestor idols are kept in the chum and the god idols are kept on a sacred sledge along with materials for making them new clothes. When moving camp, all these must be kept on the sacred sledge. No one must ever sit on this sledge. When a sacred sledge becomes old and breaks down it must be left at the nearest sacred site.

There are hundreds of sacred sites all over Yamal. These range from being simply a natural object such as hill or river, to being a hill of antlers and skulls of sacrificed reindeer, to wooden idols standing in the tundra to enormous areas covered in idols, bear skulls, sacred sledges and so on. The biggest sacred site is called Seven Chums and is located on the northern coast of Yamal. Only certain Nenets clans, such as the Okotetto, know the way and are allowed to visit.

There is a certain force in the Nenets worldview called sya mei. It is connected with the other world, that of birth and death, and can be harmful when it comes into contact with this world. Post-pubescent women are permanently affected by this, as are newborn babies and people who have recently been present at a funeral or death. There are a remarkable number of taboos and restrictions on people affected by sya mei. They must not touch the sacred sledge, they must not step over anything that has been touched by a reindeer, instead passing harnesses, etc, over their heads and going under them, they must not cross an imaginary line which runs from the central pole in the chum to the sacred pole at the back of the chum and out into the tundra while still in sight of the chum, they cannot visit sacred sites or participate in sacrifices. They must not cut certain fish, cross the tracks of bears which are considered sacred, step over a pregnant dog, wear men’s reindeer fur boots, step over men or even hang up their clothes anywhere, as this might lead to men passing under them. Nenets women have to bear these considerations in mind constantly and are affected by them hundreds of times every day so that if you watched them at work without knowing this many of their actions would seem completely incomprehensible. Sometimes rituals have to be performed to cleanse something that has been affected by sya mei, the most common of which involves stepping over a smoking fire multiple times. After a child is born in a chum a reindeer must be sacrificed outside the entrance.

Daily life consists of rounding up reindeer, making sure they are not straying too far, cutting firewood, collecting ice for water, looking for a spot with good grazing to move the chum and herd to, strangling reindeer for meat, clearing snow drifts from against the chum, repairing things, cooking, minding the children, sewing clothing or reindeer-hide blankets, making floor boards or poles for the chum, making new sledges, collecting moss for “toilet paper”, fishing in summer.

Yamal Nenets children are born knowing only the Nenets language. They start learning Russian when they go to school in the villages aged 7 and by age 14 or 15 can speak it quite well. Those born in the 1950s or earlier generally do not speak very good Russian as they were born before the time of forced education in Soviet boarding schools.

It should be noted that all of the above is true for Yamal Peninsula Nenets, who have preserved their culture remarkably well. It is not true for all Nenets areas, however. For example, in European Russia’s Nenets Autonomous Okrug in some areas the men alone work three-months shifts in the tundra, then spend three months getting blind drunk in the nearest village. They have completely forgotten their own language and spiritual beliefs, although when working they still live in chums, use reindeer sledges and wear fur clothing. For them, reindeer herding has become a tough, unpleasant job where men spend months on end away from their families. On Yamal it has remained a respected and prestigious way of life, with whole families migrating together year-round.

 

History of the Nenets

 

The proto-Samoyeds migrated to the Arctic in the first millenium BC from the Altai-Sayan region near Mongolia. There, they interbred with a short-statured aboriginal Arctic people, and became the Nenets. Those short-statured aboriginal people live on today in Nenets legends as Sihirtia. They live in underground houses and are occasionally seen on the surface. Some Nenets people even claim to be descended from Sihirtia.

 

The Nenets spread over a very large area, with not all of them living on the Yamal Peninsula itself. Their territory spans from the Kanin Peninsula in the West to the Taymyr Peninsula in the East.

 

They have had contact with Russian fur traders since at least the 11th century AD. Although there were a few military or tax collecting raids, this contact was mostly peaceful, conducted by private fur traders who respected the Nenets culture and had no interest in defeating them. It is likely, however, that both sides thought they were ripping the other one off, as Russians gave Nenets some worthless metal object, and Nenets in return gave the Russians some worthless (to the Nenets) furs, both sides thinking that they had given away nothing and received a fortune.

 

The Russians referred to Nenets territories as “Midnight’s Lands”. To the Nenets the Russians were children of Nga, Lord of the Underworld. Around the end of the 15th Century, Russian sailors sailed around the coast of Yamal and founded what may have been the first Russian trading posts in Siberia on the Taz Estuary of the Gydan Peninsula, just across the Gulf of Ob from the Yamal Peninsula. In the 16th century other “towns” and fortresses were set up in Siberia, where previously there had been no Russian settlements at all. Salekhard, today’s capital of the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Region and then known as the fortress of Obdursk, was founded in 1595. Before that there had been no settlements, either Russian or Nenets, in Nenets territory, as the Nenets had previously been entirely nomadic and had had only tents that they transported from one place to another, no villages or towns.

 

The founding of these permanent settlements in Nenets territory was completely different from the previous relatively peaceful trading relations that had been common. Not only did it present the incursion of one completely alien way of life and world view (settled) into the Nenets previously non-settled lives, but the Russians also began capturing Nenets people, holding them hostage and demanding fur tribute from their relatives. Sable fur was the only reason Russians bothered to invade Siberia – one expedition lasting two or three years could provide a man with enough money to live well for the rest of his life, so they were pretty aggressive about demanding tribute. Some indigenous Siberian peoples had to spend so much time trapping furs for Russians that over a generation or two they lost their traditional way of life, for example reindeer herding, and as a result lost their cultural identity and language, soon disappearing altogether.

 

Until this time, the Nenets had never practiced the large-scale nomadic reindeer herding that is their cultural trademark today, where they own large domesticated herds and drive them on specific routes through the tundra. They had always been hunter gatherers. They had learned to domesticate reindeer since at least the early 14th Century AD, keeping a very small number of domestic reindeer for sledge pulling and as decoys when hunting, but they remained hunter gatherers, not herders, hunting on wild reindeer for food and furs.

 

The transition from hunter-gathering to large scale nomadic reindeer herding began in the 17th Century, precisely the time when Russians began setting up fortresses and demanding fur tribute. This had led some experts to claim that the Nenets became nomadic in order to give themselves the freedom of movement to escape the Russians, fleeing far into the northern tundra of the Yamal Peninsula where there would not even be any Russian trading posts, let alone settlements, until the 1920s. Other experts say that this view is too simplistic, and in fact the transition to large-scale nomadic herding occurred at a time of climate change that led to a decrease in the number of wild reindeer. The number of wild reindeer decreased, so living by hunting wild reindeer became impossible. Nenets people were forced to domesticate large herds, thereby keeping their food source close at hand, and migrate with them through the tundra along their natural migration routes.

 

In the 1600s many indigenous peoples were defeated by Russian troops, such as the more sedentary Khanty and Mansi who live to the south of the Nenets, and were all registered in their local towns or fortresses. The tundra Nenets, however, were never registered or defeated, and continued to lay siege to major Russian towns such as Obdursk (Salekhard), Mangazeya and even Berezovo in the north of today’s Khanty-Mansiysk Autonomous Region. Mangazeya, a major town in the east of the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Region and the stronghold from which Russians invaded the whole of northern Siberia, was eventually sacked by Nenets, destroyed, and its location forgotten until the 1960s.

 

The settled Khanty and Mansi were easy to conquer, but the Russians had no tactics for fighting a nomadic people who had no fortresses, no permanent chiefs and could, at a moment’s notice, melt away into the tundra. Unlike settled people, the Nenets had no permanent chiefs, but could elect a temporary one for a battle who could easily be replaced on the way to the battle if they got lost, if the reindeer seemed anxious, or for many other reasons. Unlike settled people, Nenets were fighting not to defend one particular place, but to defend their reindeer herds, so running away was not seen as defeat but often as a wise tactical decision, something the Russian’s could not understand.

 

In the early 1700s a Russian campaign to Christianize the native Siberian peoples began. While some Khanty and Mansi converted, no Nenets did. Nenets and other Samoyeds began savage campaigns against the new faith, burning entire Christianized villages, killing women and children, mutilating bodies, and conducting bloody human sacrifice.

 

For the rest of the 18th century, there were almost no further efforts to Christianize the Nenets. While the importance of Khanty and Mansi shamans dwindled, the role of Nenets shamans grew, as if in reaction to the new faith from the south, until they were almost on the level of religious leaders.

 

In 1827 a Christian mission visited Vaygach, an Arctic Ocean Island strewn with 600 Nenets sacred sites and idols and to which every Nenets had to make a pilgrimage once in his life, as Muslims do to Mecca. They destroyed 400 of the shrines and, at the same time, converted most of the Nenets in the European tundra (to the west of Yamal) to Christianity. Several hundred unchristened Nenets fled across the Polar Ural Mountains into the Asian tundra (today’s Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Okrug) to join the unchristened Yamal Nenets.

 

The Yamal Region Nenets were furious. Although their plans to kill all the Russians convening at the Obdursk (Salekhard) fair, to which they came to trade furs, never took off, waves of rebellion did spread through the region and attempts to convert the region’s Nenets continued almost completely without success.

 

Despite the independence, adaptability and stubbornness of the Yamal Region Nenets, signs of Russian success at controlling them were already beginning to emerge in the tundra nearest to Obdursk (of course up on the Yamal Peninsula itself there were still no Russians, so the reindeer herders there lived much as they always had, among them many of the region’s richest). Among the Nenets near Obdursk at this time, leaders start appearing who gather fur taxes for the Russians. It’s hard to understand why exactly Nenets were willing to pay taxes, being free tundra nomads. It may be that they were not taxes as such, but viewed more as a trade for which they received something in turn. This seems likely, as in the 1820s the Nenets “Chief Elder”, elected by the Russians, was willing to collect taxes while in other ways resisting the Russians, including refusing a hydrographic expedition access to the Yamal Peninsula.

 

There were also already Nenets who were so loyal to the authorities in Obdursk (the prince of which was a Khanty) that they were willing to help them suppress the rebellions led by other Nenets during the 1820s – 1850s.

 

From the 1860s onwards, the position of Nenets “Chief Elder” in Obdursk had become a permanent and stable one. The Chief Elder collected taxes, kept records and served as judge at a court governed by traditional Nenets laws.

 

Soon even individual clans had chiefs. These were hereditary, and were usually rich reindeer herders. However, if the chief of a clan lost all his reindeer, this was seen as a bad sign and his clan could decide to forbid his son from becoming chief.

In the mid to late 1800s a fishing boom occurred around the lower Ob River near Obdursk. Russian merchants brought nets for large scale fishing, salt to preserve the catch and boats to transport the fish away. This created an entirely new potential way of life for Nenets people that had never existed before: that of a fisherman. Previously, all Nenets almost without exception had been nomads, whose only contact with Russians was at the Obdursk winter fair, to which they came to trade. Now, for the first time ever, some Nenets near Obdursk settled down and became fishermen, particularly those who had been very poor reindeer herders, or had lost so many reindeer that they could no longer migrate through the tundra. This new class of Nenets served to increase contact between Russians and tundra nomads.

 

This was the beginning of as great a transition as that from hunter gathering to nomadic herding: the division of Nenets society into settled and nomadic, as it is today.

 

After the 1917 Revolution there came the Russian Civil War, during which central authorities had very little control over Yamal. Starting in the 1920s, however, they began to think how best to deal with the Nenets and incorporate them into Soviet Society, get them working and get them educated. The Committee of the North, the organization charged with this, had two rival factions. One faction believed that Nenets people practiced a form of primitive communism anyway, so should be allowed self-government and should be given the right to choose how to run the schools that would be built on their territory. The other faction believed in 100% indoctrination of the Nenets into Soviet ideology and society. The latter of course won.

 

In 1926 the first alphabet books were prepared in the Nenets language and a few Nenets were sent to Leningrad for teacher training. Trading posts, where nomads could exchange furs and meat for Russian goods, had primary schools attached to them.

 

In general the 1920s were a time of political experimentation and discussion, with little decisive action. The 1930s, however, were quite different.

 

First, the Committee of the North, which had devoted special attention to native affairs, was liquidated and replaced by Central Administration of the Northern Sea Route. The main goal of this organization, which oversaw all aspects of life in the whole Arctic, was to industrialise enough to open up the Northern Sea Route from the White Sea to the Bering Strait. Tens of thousands of peasants in southern Siberia were deprived of their land and forcibly removed to Yamal do work in construction, in factories, and in “cultural bases”.

 

The aim of cultural bases was to organize economic, cultural and educational activity among the nomads. As the workers never knew any Nenets language or anything about the culture, many were sent to live at nomad camps for a while to familiarize themselves with it. In 1932 the Cultural Base at Yar Sale (the administrative centre of the Yamal Peninsula) was completed, and they tried to make nomadic families bring in their children for education at the boarding school. Most refused, and in the first year they collected only 7 children. However, these Cultural Bases were like magnets for the new class of sedentary Nenets fishermen that had emerged in the late 19th Century. In the Civil War and economic collapse of the 1920s they had lost the source of their income, but by now feared the harsh tundra way of life and wanted the opportunity to earn a living in a settlement. They still, however, lived in chums, which they moved around the settlement occasionally. When workers tried to put light bulbs in their chums they regarded it as “wise fire” controlled by “strong shamans”.

 

Nomadic reindeer herders were soon organized into collective farms, the first of which opened in 1929. By 1935 there were five collective farms for which 104 nomadic families worked. These were all in southern Yamal, and were not so well-off herders. The richer reindeer herders all migrated to northern Yamal, where collectivization had not yet begun.

 

For the first time ever, in southern Yamal, the nomads could not escape the Russians by simply melting away into the tundra. Soviet infrastructure was developing quickly, and with it their influence over the tundra. Rich reindeer herders were having their herds confiscated and even being sent to the gulag, as were many shamans. The Soviet authorities thought that rich Nenets herders were exploiting poorer ones, as rich capitalists exploited poor factory workers in Tsarist times. What they didn’t realize was that wealth in Nenets society was very fluid. A rich man could loose all his reindeer through bad luck one year. Luckily though, Nenets society had and still has intricate systems of insurance and mutual help, by which if someone loses his reindeer he can start working for a relative and gradually earn more reindeer, rebuilding his herd and making sure he can continue to migrate in the tundra.

 

Anyway, conditions were ripe for rebellion, and in the 1930s and 1940s the last major Nenets uprisings against Russian control occurred. These uprisings, known in Nenets as the mandaly, live on in their memory to this day and are a source of great pride.

 

By 1940, 80% of the population of the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Region was working for a collective farm. There were 109 farms in total, twenty of which were on the Yamal Peninsula. Of course, this had no effect on their nomadic way of life at all – they continued to migrate as they always had, but now the reindeer were officially collective and a certain number had to be handed over for slaughter each year.

 

In 1941, only a seventh of all reindeer were owned by collective farms, as the richer herders in the north were still free. However, during World War 2 collectivisation efforts doubled in order to provide food for the troops, and by 1943 half the reindeer on Yamal were collectivized. This situation caused the last of the Mandaly in 1943, which, like the others, was crushed. Many participants had their reindeer confiscated and as a result had to settle in villages like Yar Sale, again increasing the settled population of Nenets. The persecution of shamans, who had been very active in the mandaly, also increased afterwards.

 

Between 1947 and 1961 the government began merging smaller collective farms into larger ones. By the early 1950s the process of collectivization was complete. In 1961, the status of collective farms was changed to state farms. The status of “members” was changed to “workers”. Nenets were now workers for the state, which now owned the reindeer. They were no longer members of collectives that pooled their reindeer together, as they had been. Once again, however, this did not affect their nomadic lifestyle. Men, women and children continued migrating year-round through the tundra. In European Nenets areas, reindeer herding was often made into shift work – groups of men with no women or children worked three months shifts with the reindeer, then relaxed for three months in a village. In those areas reindeer herding came to be seen not as a way of life, but as tough, nasty work for men which forced them to spend large amounts of time away from their families. The culture and way of life was crushed. In Yamal, however, authorities gave meat production priority over the sedentarisation program, so whole families were allowed to continue migrating in a way of life that has to this day remained unbroken.

 

As mentioned above, by the early 1950s all families were working for collective farms. Most still owned private reindeer in secret, however. The number of private reindeer was only around 20,000 by now, and still decreasing, but with Stalin’s death in 1953 the era of aggressive collectivization ended. People started building up their private herds again. Although this was technically illegal, there were dozens of tricks to get away with it. For example, if inspectors arrived, Nenets could tell their dogs to drive away the private part of the herd. Young men would migrate with the state farm herds, while at the same time growing their own private herd, which would usually be mixed up with the state farm herd, as is the situation today. There were also nomads who never worked with state farm herds, only migrating with their private herds – those who were retired, or those whose official job title was “hunter”. These hunters merely had to deliver a certain number of arctic fox furs to the farm every year, and otherwise lived as completely independent nomads.

 

Although it was illegal to own more than 80 private reindeer, the government often turned a blind eye to this. In the 1980s they completely removed the limitation on private herds. This, due to the fact that they had allowed year-round nomadism, rather than shift work reindeer herding, meant that by 1994 there were 170,000 reindeer on the Yamal Peninsula, of which 100,000 were privately owned. This was a time when all over Russia reindeer herding was collapsing together with the economy. On Yamal, cash completely disappeared for a few years. But as the Yamal nomads had private herds, and an uninterrupted tradition of year-round nomadism, they merely buckled up and continued to live self-sufficiently as they always had.

 

By 1945, only 6% of the native population was literate. To combat this, governments introduced fines for schools and parents whose children did not attend. By the end of the 1950s, most Nenets children were going to boarding school and widespread literacy had been achieved.

 

From the 1960s to the 1980s, due to the influx of oil and gas workers, Nenets became marginalized in their own homeland. They make up only 5% of the Population of the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Okrug, although they make up over 50% of the population of the Yamal Peninsula itself. Of those Yamal Peninsula Nenets, over 50% are nomadic.

 

The oil and gas companies began building pipelines with no respect for indigenous migration routes, so that sometimes they completely cut off these routes. In addition they often destroyed sacred sites, burial grounds and shrines during construction. These days they continue to destroy sacred sites, but they try to build underground pipelines, as they have on the Yamal Peninsula itself. These underground pipelines still cause great disruption to the surface and are hard to migrate across. In addition, rivers near the Gazprom Railway have been polluted and all the fish have died, and the Railway itself is a hazard for reindeer.

 

Despite all these negative effects, there is also a positive side to industrial development. It is not just coincidence that Russia’s biggest gas deposits are in the area where reindeer herding has been best preserved. The local government receives huge sums of money in taxes from Gazprom, which it uses to make nomadism a prestigious and viable way of life for young Nenets after they finish education, for example by giving away snowmobiles, generators, satellite phones, by guaranteeing that any nomad can call a medical emergency helicopter at any time, and so on.

 

The future holds massive change for the Yamal Peninsula – there are plans for all sorts of new roads, railways and gas fields. Quite apart from this are the problems of climate change and overgrazing – there are now 300,000 reindeer on the peninsula alone. Whether the Nenets can survive what the future holds remains to be seen. But looking back at their adaptability in the past we see plenty of transitions that they handled very smoothly: the transition to herding; the transition of some to sedentary occupations; the way they dealt with Tsarist then Soviet rule; the way they dealt with economic crisis in the 1990s; the way to this day they can seemingly incorporate whatever they want from mainstream culture into their lives without letting it affect their way of life. It seems they have survived contact with the outside world much longer and much more effectively than any other indigenous group. If any nomads survive the next few decades it will be them.

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