Nenets Nomads Migrate on Reindeer Sledges


I awoke chilly and shivering slightly. The air felt damp and a trip outside confirmed this: low mist hung everywhere, so that the ground was not visible behind the chums where the land was lower, and a light rain spattered down from the snow-white sky.

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(From left to right) Radik, Ulya and Myangche

(From left to right) Radik, Ulya and Myangche

After a breakfast of raw fish we began to move camp. At first, during the disassembly of the chums, the men did not take part. Instead most of them sat on sledges and worked on making new sledges, filing away at wood with various different tools which have no names in English or Russian – a tool for smoothing the runners, a tool for making holes for wooden nails, a tool for making the wooden nails themselves. This division of labour among the Nenets, where women do all the housework and cooking while men do everything related to reindeer and building, is so well-defined that only men can make the chum while only women can put it up or take it down, and while only men strangle a live reindeer, once it is dead and considered just food it is women who cut it open and prepare it for a meal. Many a time I have heard Nenets say that “without women, life in the tundra would be impossible.” And indeed, in other areas of Russia where under the USSR reindeer herding was turned into shift work and women and children were not allowed to migrate with the men, the culture of the people collapsed, alcoholism became widespread and the tundra became viewed merely as a place of hard work and not as a home.

The women first removed the chum covers and packed them onto a sledge, leaving only the chum’s skeleton standing, 32 hand-carved wooden poles which interlocked at the top of the structure. They then carried out all the contents of the chum other than the foot-tall table, some bowls of food and the cauldron for boiling water. We then had fish, tea and rock-solid bread while sitting around the low table.

“How do you like our bread?” joked Nihowe, Radik’s daughter, while smashing a piece on the table in an attempt to break it up.

“Not bad,” I replied, smiling.

“It’s like that because we buy it all in April when we’re still near Yar Sale then we sun dry it to preserve it. From April to November there’s nowhere to get hold of it so it’s the only way.”

After the meal Sveta and Nihowe began taking down the chum’s skeleton while the men used the reindeer-leather harnesses to drag sledges into position, each family pulling together two chains (known as argysh in Russian) of six or seven sledges in front of its chum. Then the men headed off towards the reindeer herd which, like a vast brown stain of spilt coffee on the yellow-green landscape, had appeared over the horizon and was drifting slowly towards us.

“Shall I help taking down the chum?” I asked.

“No,” replied Sveta, “you’d just take the poles off in the wrong order.”

As I watched them I realised she was right: only three of the 32 poles were tied together, the rest simply interlocking at the top and balanced intricately on one another in an order that somehow gave the structure strength to withstand the gale-force winds and snow storms that ravage Yamal on average two out of three days of the year. Sveta and Nihowe would take a pole from one part of the structure, place it on the special chum-pole sledge (which for every family was the last sledge in one of their argysh) then return to another part of the skeleton and take another pole, then another one from another part and so on. There was no way an outsider, looking at the full skeleton of 32 poles, could ever understand the order that disassembly should be carried out in.

Eventually only the last three poles were left, the ones actually tied together at the top. Sveta took them down, put them on the chum-pole sledge, placed the table upside down on top of them and secured it with reindeer-rawhide ropes. We then walked to an area 100 metres away where a corral had been set up made of long, narrow fishing nets hung from sticks driven into the ground and supported in a few places by sledges. A further 100 metres away was the edge of the snorting, grunting, stamping reindeer herd. Around 30 metres in front of the herd stood the men, each with a reindeer-rawhide lasso in hand, some stretching their lassoes to increase flexibility and others practicing their aim, throwing their lasso and regathering it repeatedly. The aim of the next few hours would be to get all non-transport deer to separate from the castrated male transport deer which would then be herded into the corral and selected for harnessing.

After a few minutes the men began shouting at the herd. Immediately a group of around fifty animals separated and galloped past the men to collect in another spot further away. A few more small groups of two or three separated and trotted past then there was no movement for half a minute.

Suddenly waves and waves of reindeer began stampeding towards the men. Evidently some of the transport deer that should have stayed behind were among their number as the men began yelling at the reindeer, jumping and dancing wildly in an attempt to frighten them back and launching their lassoes at the ones that galloped on in spite of it all. Sometimes the lassoes would miss, sometimes they would catch on the antlers of the wrong animal (which would then be released) but more often they caught the animal they needed, identified by the herders as a castrated transport bull among hundreds of stampeding reindeer. The lassoed beast would jump, prance, wrestle with the human and sometimes even force a second herder to come to his aid or simply drag the lassoer along the ground behind it for a while. I later learnt that these transport reindeer that broke away and had to be lassoed were the younger, less experienced ones. The older, better-trained transport animals stayed behind as they were supposed to.

After around half an hour the majority of the herd had been separated off, leaving a comparatively small huddle of transport deer gathered near the corral. Several women then picked up a long rope attached to one end of the fishing nets and stretched it out to its full length, effectively lengthening the enclosure. The men then began herding the transport deer into it while the women and I, holding the rope, moved gradually forwards behind the reindeer. We never actually closed off the corral with the rope, instead stopping when most of the reindeer were within the fishing-net section of it.

All the men and a number of women went in among the reindeer, searching for the members of their family’s transport deer that they wanted to use. Men and women alike paced slowly among the sea of antlers and, on finding an animal they needed, tied it up. Once they had four or five tied together they would usually leave the corral and lead them over to an argysh before returning to collect more reindeer.

When leaving the corral from the side where we were holding the rope, how we let people through differed depending on their gender. For men we would lower the rope to the ground and let them walk over it. For women we had to hold it up above our heads and let them pass under, as to do otherwise would have been a great sin. There is a very powerful force known as sya mei which comes from the world of birth and death. It can be very harmful if it comes into contact with sacred objects in this world or if certain rules are not observed. People affected by sya mei include newborn babies, people who have recently attended a funeral and all women of menstruating age. Thus, women must not cross an imaginary line that runs from the fire in the centre of a chum to the sacred pole at the back and out into the tundra within sight of the dwelling. It is harmful if they step over men, children or their clothing. Wearing men’s reindeer fur boots is strictly forbidden, although wearing men’s reindeer fur jackets is fine. They must never hang their boots anywhere, as this could lead to a man passing under them, which would be like them stepping over the man. They cannot cut the spine of certain types of fish, cross the path of a moving argysh, take part in sacrifices, visit sacred sites or touch the sacred sledge. They can bring extreme bad luck by stepping over hunting or fishing equipment, pregnant dogs, bear tracks or various objects made from reindeer parts such as ropes, lassoes and harnesses, which is why now men walked over the rope when leaving the corral but women walked under it.

Despite the ridiculous flimsiness of the fishing net walls of the corral, very few reindeer tried to escape, neither through the many holes in the nets nor through the farely large section at the back of the corral which was completely unwalled. Occasionally one did escape though, suddenly making a run for it, and this could be quite scary when it happened near us. One of the bulls would suddenly charge at our rope and try to jump it. Sometimes they would clear it successfully but on other occasions they would get stuck and start jumping wildly, antlers thrashig around uncontrollably while people tried to grab them and get the animal back under control.

Very often when people saw that a reindeer wanted to escape they would just lower the rope to let it out. On other occasions they would hold the rope taught and high to stop the reindeer escaping. The ones they were releasing were the hand-raised reindeer, the orphaned ones that had been brought up with people in chums and throughout their lives were welcome to eat, sleep and live in chums with people, dividing their time between the herd and the home where they grew up. I of course never knew which were hand-raised reindeer and which were castrated transport bulls, so if one tried to escape I always held the rope up. People would quickly shout for me to drop it, using the words “hand-raised!” or “let it go!” Everyone recognised everyone else’s hand raised reindeer immediately among thousands of others.

Each family had two argysh. To the first sledge they always tied five reindeer, and another two or three between each of the remaining five or six sledges in the train, the huddle of transport reindeer in the corral dwindling over the course of an hour or so until the argysh had enough bulls. Most of the men then left to drive the herd to the next encampment site, each riding a single sledge pulled by five reindeer. The women worked their way down the argysh, passing the reindeer-leather harnesses around the transport animals necks and securing them with little reindeer-bone buttons.

One by one the argysh began to depart, each driven by a woman who, next to her children, sat directing the reindeer with a long herding pole from the lead sledge, which differed from all other sledges in that it was walled to provide children with protection from the wind in winter. Some argysh were even driven by very small children, including one by Kostya’s seven-year old daughter Olya. They moved roughly at walking speed and created a sound like the soft rustling of leaves in the wind as they dragged through or over bushes of bluey-green dwarf birch which resembled miniature, very bendy trees between one and five feet tall.

One of the men who had stayed behind, Stassik, walked up to me and Ngatena, carrying a severed reindeer head in his hand. He tore the eye out and offered it to me.

“Are you hungry?” he asked.

“You can’t really eat the eyes can you?” I said.

“No, not really, they’re full of liquid,” he said, grinning. He closed his own right eye, put the large, brown reindeer eye in its place, distorted his mouth into a long, tall oval shape and made a sound like a very low-pitched ghost before laughing, putting the eye back in the head and handing it to Ngatena.

“I’ve just got to put this head up there,” Ngatena said to me, pointing at the tallest nearby hill, “then we can go.”

“Why?” I asked.

“High places are considered sacred,” he replied. “If there are sacred sites near the encampment we sacrifice reindeer there or leave the heads of ones we’ve eaten. If there are none then we leave the heads of any reindeer eaten at the top of the tallest nearby hill.”

After he had placed the head we approached his sledge. He picked up his ten-foot long wooden herding pole from the ground next to it and bade me sit down at the back with both legs hanging off the right side of the sledge and feet resting on its runner. He then, still standing next to the sledge, tapped one of the reindeer with the pole and made a noise like “Uys, uys!” The reindeer bolted immediately, the sledge flew forward and he jumped onto it. We crashed through some particularly high dwarf-birch as we headed down the gently-sloping ground near the encapment, its inch-thick trunks and branches bending down underneath the sledge as we careered over it and flying back up again after we had passed. We shortly came out of it at the bottom of the slope and passed through a very swampy patch of land, mud and water flying up in our faces as we splashed through it. The ground began to rise again and became grassy, it’s emerald green now only interrupted by the bright reds and yellows of cloud berries that dotted it abundently.

We stopped at the top of a small hill where, the morning’s mist having long since lifted, we could see quite far in either direction. The fifteen argysh were already spread out over several miles and the whole column was meandering from side to side like a long, brown snake crawling its way across an empty, green desert. As the column crawled past us twenty feet to our left we wandered around bent double, picking cloud berries and shoving whole handfuls into our mouths at once. Their sweet, cold, ice-creamy juice would become a welcome change from meat, fish and sun-dried bread in the weeks to come.

We arrived first at the new encampment site, after around an hour and a half of travel. The spot looked very similar to the previous one – a raised area of land with the ground sloping away gently to one side and dropping away sharply on the other. Several large lakes were visible nearby and in the distance. They were dark grey spodges against the tundra, itself an indistinct blury green now under the low, dark clouds that had hung above us with the threat of violence all day.

Ngatena had a look round the site, found a good spot for the family’s chum and drove his herding pole into the ground to mark the place where the fire would be in the centre. He then went back to the sledge and unharnessed the reindeer which wandered off to graze.

One by one sledges and argysh began to arrive. Families untied the ropes securing the chum poles from their sledge and began setting up their homes with around ten feet in between each other, all entrances as usual facing the side of the encampment were the ground sloped away gently. Once the skeletons were erected the sledges loaded with bedding, possessions and tables were untied and everything carried inside. Then the chum covers were unloaded and taken round to the back side of the chum. This was the only part of setting up the chum that the men helped with, the covers being very heavy. They threw the covers onto the skeleton of poles, unfolded them then slid two poles into little pockets at the corners of the cover that were especially for this purpose. Using these poles the cover was then pushed up to the top of the chum, much higher than it would have been possible to reach without them. One person kept holding each pole, keeping the cover in place, while two others unfurled the cover and spread it around the entire conical structure. There was then a fairly complicated process of securing them where a couple of people each held a rope that dangled from the top of the covers and walked around the chum in different directions before tying them in place somewhere, possibly to one of the chum poles. The process was then repeated with a second chum cover. The reindeer were unharnessed and some women or girls went to collect water from the nearest lake while others set about lighting fires in the chums. It began to rain and a very strong wind picked up.

“Don’t go out of the door,” Sveta told me, “If you need to go out, go under the cover on the other side.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because the wind’s coming from the side of the door,” she replied.

“OK,” I replied. “Why didn’t we just set up the chum with the door facing away from the wind?”

“The chum should always face that way,” she replied. “We place dead people facing the other way.”

“What do you mean, ‘that way’?” I asked. “Towards the sun?”

“No, towards the flatter part of the encampment, where the herd gathers before we move camp. You saw the other side, it’s not a good place – too low down and swampy.”

Soon it was evening, with its multiple meals of meat, fish, bread and tea, sitting on reindeer furs at the edge of the chum behind the standard six-inch high wooden table. In between meals Myangche worked on a new lasso, twisting strips of reindeer rawhide around each other tightly, every now and then tying it to a chum pole and pulling on it with all his weight to make it more flexible. Night, of course, never came, but in the early hours of the morning we nonetheless fell asleep under reindeer furs, lined up next to each other at the edge of the chum which swayed and creaked in the howling wind.

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