Drinking Reindeer Blood


On the 29th July it was decided to hold a “party for the stomach”, as Nenets often describe aibat when speaking to outsiders in Russian. The people who were on night duty went off to the herd and over a couple of hours drove all 10,000 reindeer towards the encampment. Eventually they appeared on the horizon, a vast brown stain oozing over the greens and yellows of the tundra towards us. For twenty minutes they galloped and streamed through the low area behind the encampment, eventually collecting where the herders wanted them in the flat area in front of the chums’ entrances. They milled, galloped, pranced, grazed and snorted constantly, the edge of the herd no more than twenty metres from the chums. The huge sea of reindeer constantly morphed into new shapes as parts of it moved place, circled one another or galloping tendrils shot off for hundreds of metres before being met my well-trained, yelping doga that forced them to arch back to the main herd.

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7 chums at a camp of nomadic Nenets reindeer herders in northern Yamal Peninsula, Arctic Siberia

7 chums at a camp of nomadic Nenets reindeer herders in northern Yamal Peninsula, Arctic Siberia

The herders approached with their lassoes. Each now had the task (seemingly impossible to an outsider) of finding one of his own reindeer which would be suitable for eating. This could not, of course, be one of his hand-raised reindeer which had been brought up with his family in the chum and which could still sleep and eat there whenever it wanted; it could not be one of the many sacred reindeer, of which each person, each god and each spirit has several; it could not be one of his specially trained, castrated transport reindeer; and, of course, it could not be one of the reindeer belonging to the collective farm in Yar Sale far to the south, which herders receive a small salary from the government for working with.

So, from amid this chaotic, stampeding mass of near-identical reindeer, people now had to wait until they recognised one of their reindeer, by its face and fur colour, which did not fall into one of the above categories. He would then send his lasso flying as it ran past, hoping to entangle the animal by its antlers.

The whole process was over remarkably quickly, each herder having caught one or two reindeer within half an hour. Each led his animals back to his own chum and tied ropes around their necks to strangle them. Radik had decided to kill two deer, one adult and one young, weak-looking grey-coated animal (Nenets always kill and eat deer immediately if they seem as though they are soon going to die, or if they break a leg and are unable to migrate with the herd, so as not to waste meat, bone, sinew, fur and leather). To my surprise, he tied one rope around the necks of the two animals. He picked up the end dangling from the right side of the adult deer’s neck and I took the end hanging from the left side of the young one’s neck.

“You haven’t seen us do this before have you Ed, kill two reindeer with one rope,” Radik said.

“No, in winter we only ever killed one at a time,” I replied.

“Well, for a big party it’s possible to kill seven with one rope,” Radik told me.

The reindeer were placed with their heads facing east, as always, then Radik and I yanked on our ends of the rope.

“Pull harder, pull harder!” Radik shouted, as the animals began jumping and kicking.

I wrapped the rope around my gloveless hand and pulled back on it with all my weight, feeling it cut into my skin.

“Ok, ok, you can relax now,” Radik said once he thought the rope was tight enough around their necks and they had stopped struggling. “Just hold it taught but don’t bother pulling too hard.”

“Have you noticed, we always position them with their heads facing east when we kill them?” asked Kostya, a reindeer herder from a few chums down whose wife and daughter were already engaged in opening up his reindeer and who had strolled over to us while waiting.

“Yes,” I answered, “why is that?”

“It’s just a tradition,” he replied.

Radik passed his end of the rope to Ngatena and went to fetch an axe, the side end of which he used to hit each reindeer hard on the top of the skull to speed up their deaths. They sank to the ground, tongues lolling from the sides of their mouths, movements becoming slower, lazier and more confused until, after around ten minutes, they were still.

Immediately the ropes were removed, Sveta and Nihowe setting to work on the carcass. They cut a straight line through the hide from the neck, down the belly then tugged the whole thing off, the fur on the legs as usual being the most difficult part to remove. Once it was off they slit open the white, blood-stained belly and removed all the inedible parts, including a huge, stinking pile of yellow-brown excrement. They then cut loose some meat, fat, liver, kidney and the wind pipe, throwing them all into the fairly large pool of blood at the back of the carcass. Sveta used a ladle to mix it all up like a soup, sprinkled a generous amount of salt on it, and everyone sat down and began to eat. Bloody stains appeared on our chins, cheeks and lips as we fed, and a bowl was passed around which we used to scoop out portions of thick, warm reindeer blood.

After this grisly spectacle had been repeated outside each chum at the encampment and everyone had had their fill, the men lit cigarettes and went back to work on their sledges, while the women sat around the reindeer carcasses and removed the useful parts – sinew for thread, bone for tools, what was left of meat and organs for future meals. They then dug holes in the ground next to their chums and buried the meat there to preserve it until the next day. Furs were hung to dry either on the horizontal poles inside the chums or on overturned sledges outside.

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