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29 October 2014

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The Nenets people of the Siberian arctic are the guardians of a style of reindeer herding that is the last of its kind. Through a yearly migration of over a thousand kilometres, these people move gigantic herds of reindeer from summer pastures in the north to winter pastures just south of the Arctic Circle. No-one knows for certain whether it is the reindeer that lead the people or vice versa. What is certain is that fewer places on earth are home to a more challenging environment, an environment where temperatures plummet to -50C and where crossing the worlds fifth largest river as it deep-freezes is just part of the routine. Such a difficult environment unites the people physically through a regimented work ethic, but far more importantly, the Yamal-Nenets are unified by a robust and vibrant culture. It is a culture that has had to survive a turbulent history, from early Russian colonisation, to Stalin’s terror regime, to the modern day dangers of a rapacious oil and gas development programme.

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The Yamal Peninsula is one of the least famous, but most important, regions of the Russian Federation. With a territory around 1.5 times the size of France, the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous District (YNAO) is located in the West Siberian north, just northeast of the geographic border between Europe and Asia above the Arctic Circle. Today more than 10,000 nomads herd 300,000 domestic reindeer on the pastures of the Arctic tundra. Under those pastures are huge gas deposits holding almost a quarter of the world’s known reserves.

There are traces of indigenous reindeer economies on this peninsula that stretch back a thousand years, but it is recent history that shapes the current Nenets way of life. In 1961 the Soviets collectivised reindeer herds and created several large state farms, or 'Sovkhoz', and reindeer herding was organised into teams of Soviet workers known as 'Brigady'. Subsequently the term 'Brigade' came to refer to the groups that were formed (animals and people) and each of these brigades had a head-man, or 'Brigadier'. This is how nomadic herding became part of the soviet economy and how the tundra effectively became an open-air meat factory where the nomads were workers of the soviet agricultural system with fixed contracts and salaries. Few regional administrations changed the national state-farm template, but there were some that were sensitive to the unique needs of the herders. For example, in Yamal there was a less forceful approach to settling women and children and they were (and still are) able to migrate with their whole families across the tundra. After the Soviet Union, the private reindeer economy began to thrive and state farms dwindled. Today, 80% of the reindeer are privately owned by the herders with the remaining 20% owned by the current state-farms, most of which today belong to the municipality.

The Nenets herder economy is driven by the reindeer meat that they sell. The salary they get from herding state-farm reindeer is minimal when compared to the income they get from selling private reindeer, and from sawing off their antlers to be exported to China as a male potency drug. Aside from its market value, reindeer meat is a source of food, shelter, clothing, transport, spiritual fulfilment and means of socialising. For example, it is still common that a bride price in the form of reindeer is paid, and a dowry is brought into the young family when a tundra couple marries. The reindeer is also revered as a symbol. It’s believed the people and the deer entered a kind of social contract, where reindeer offered themselves to humans for their subsistence and transport, and humans agree to accompany them on their seasonal migrations and protect them from predators. Such is the importance of reindeer to the whole district (and not just to the Nenets) that the reindeer symbol made it to the centre of the YNAO coat of arms.

The size of Nenets’ herds varies, depending not only on the owner but also on the seasons. In summer, for example, herds need to be larger to act as a natural defence against mosquitoes. The herds on the Yamal Peninsula will range from 50 in small private herds to 7,000 in the largest 8th Brigade of the Yar-Sale state farm. The migration pattern (see map above) depends on seasons and on sustainability of lichen pastures on which the reindeer feed. The large herds will have their winter pastures in the forest-tundra just to the south of the Arctic Circle, and in spring the brigades begin their migration northwards as fast as possible until the thaw comes. They spend a short summer in the northern tundra close to the Kara Sea and then return southwards to the forest tundra in November. The entire migration covers around 1100 kilometres and includes a 48 km crossing of the frozen waters of the Ob River. For these journeys the reindeer are used to pull sledges that carry the people and their camp. These enormous single-file reindeer trains can stretch out to 8 km in length, as far as the eye can see. A daily migration covers distances between 8-20 km during snow-covered time, and 3-11 km in summer, when the reindeer pull their sledges over the grass. On their winter migration to the south they stop at the administrative centre of Yar-Sale for the annual slaughter, which is where the salaries are paid to the herders and where they are able to make most of their money.

The Nenets still rely on traditional clothing sewn by the women. A Nenets man wears a Malitsa which is a coat made of around 4 reindeer skins, the fur being closest to the skin on the inside and the leather on the outside. The Malitsa has an integrated hood and gloves and is similar to a poncho with no zips or buttons. New Malitsas (just like all other fur clothing) are used in winter time but they do begin to molt and within several years have to be replaced - the worn out clothing is used during milder weather. In extreme cold conditions men wear yet another layer of reindeer fur, known as a Gus. Unlike the Malitsa the Gus has leather on the inside and fur on the outside and equipped with these two layers a man can stay outside overnight and sleep with the herd in temperatures down to -50C and below. The women wear a Yagushka which has a double layer of around 8 reindeer skins and which is buttoned at the front. Both men and women wear hip-high reindeer skin boots which consist of an inner (tobaki) and outer boot (kisy) that are worn together and tied up with a belt.

Nenets life

The chum is the living space and is made of reindeer skins that are laid over a skeleton of long wooden poles, many of which have a special position in the structure and are not interchangeable. Usually there will be one family per chum and the number of chums will depend on the size of the brigade or camp. During migrations chums are moved every other day among the most mobile herders and the chum sites are chosen based on pasture, relief and ground quality - having a water source nearby is also important, for brewing the number one Nenets beverage, Sri Lanka black tea. After checking the vegetation on a chum site the Brigadier thrusts his reindeer driving stick (called khorei) into the ground exactly where he wants the centre of the chum to be.

The space outside the chum is laid out in the same way at every chum site. Sledges and caravans are arranged in half-circles around the chum, with the sledges for supply and women’s belongings more in front of the chum and male belongings more behind it. The sacred sledge should always be behind the chum and pointing directly at its centre. Toilets are situated away from the chums and separated into male and female areas. The Nenets will often take a stick with them to the toilet to fend off any over-friendly reindeer that are in search of salty fluids.
The division of labour is essential to the smooth running of the camps. As a general rule the male sphere is everything that is connected to grazing the reindeer, slaughtering, choosing pastures etc, and the female sphere is everything else, mostly connected to the domestic sphere. Nenets women are hardy and think nothing of carrying 30 litre water flasks or chopping wood in blizzard conditions. The women’s role primarily is to prepare and cook the staples of meat and fish, to repair clothing, to care for the packing and unpacking of the households in migration times, and to look after children. Interaction with the village is often a joint activity, where both men and women can go and trade. There is a slight tendency for selling being a male sphere and for buying camp supplies to be female.

The chum site is split into male and female space, the women work in front of the chum with their sledges whilst the men tend to work behind. Inside, the household head’s place is in the centre, behind the table, whereas women sleep and work closer to the entrance. Women’s work, connected to heating and cooking, takes place mostly at the stove. The rules within the camps and chums are numerous and women, for example, are not supposed to step over any ropes, walk over reindeer driving sticks, and should not cross the imaginary line that runs from inside the chum out through the back of the tent. Men must not touch floorboards and should avoid touching tent poles. It can be a bit of a minefield, particularly for the women but they are just guidelines. Such is the strength of the Nenets’ work ethic that when there’s urgent work to be done, the rules will change.

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Hunting and fishing supplement the Nenets way of life. For those with smaller herds, fishing is of particular importance and counts for most of their income. When meat can’t be stored, during summer months, it makes more sense to fish for subsistence rather than to slaughter, at these times the main diet becomes fish, both raw and cooked. During the winter the Nenets fish through ice holes using a large net that is set underneath the ice. When fishing in this way Nenets men can be seen plunging their hands into ice cold water, to warm them up! Traditionally hunting was done with traps and snares but nowadays, with no market for polar fox, hunting is done more for sport and to add a little variety to the diet. Almost every herder carries a gun that comes in extremely handy for protecting the herd from predators.


The Nenets will often be seen picnicking outside with tea and biscuits before they undergo a subzero migration. When talking amongst themselves Nenets speak a language that is not related to Russian, but is of the same family as Estonian or Finnish. There are two main divisions in the language between Forest Nenets and Tundra Nenets with the Tundra Nenets further divided into 11 sub-dialects that are all mutually intelligible. From the late Stalin period on, all children were put into Soviet boarding schools, where Russian was the primary language and for this reason almost every Nenets person under the age of 50 will speak fluent Russian. The enforced attendance of boarding school came as something of a shock in those early days and families resisted the policy. Today, boarding schools have become part of the usual Nenets life cycle and parents are supportive of the opportunities that education provides, such as the ability to make a choice between living in the tundra or remaining in a town. Although the tundra-Nenets dialect is the main language of the tundra, without fluent Russian, proper contact with the markets would be impossible.


Shamanism is still practised in parts of the tundra but only in very small groups due to the fact that Shamans are often afraid of making themselves known to outsiders. Nenets have an animist belief system centred on the local deities that are represented by dolls that they carry on sacred sledges. Other dolls represent “copies” of ancestors, the most senior of which is the “old woman of the chum” who protects the domestic space. The dolls are kept in their own sleeping place in the chum and are sometimes fed vodka or blood when their help is needed. Several times a season the scared sledge is also anointed with freshly slaughtered reindeer blood, but on the whole the local deities should be left in peace. The Yamal tundra is also covered by a close network of sacred sites (usually to the far north) and the wooden dolls from the sacred sledges are sometimes exchanged in these places. The ancient Nenets ancestral knowledge is kept alive through folklore that is acted out in legends and songs. Such music uses no instruments and it was only the shamans who used drums to help them enter a trance-like state. Today, the whole sphere of folklore and storytelling is decreasing and learning these skills from the elders becomes a lower priority when compared to listening to modern music or reading modern literature.

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The future

Since the discovery of oil and gas reserves in the 1970s the Nenets have had increasing contact with the outside world and the infrastructure on the Yamal Peninsula has been rapidly expanding. The tundra is now home to several gas worker villages, is covered by thousands of exploration drill sites, and is home to a new railroad connecting Russia to the West. Building infrastructure on a Peninsula of permafrost, bogs and lakes has significant consequences for the Nenets’ indigenous lifestyle that exists on this environment. Malpractice has been recognised in the region and today there is a greater awareness of the dangers. Herders have also seen benefits from oil and gas, for example, there’s trading to be done with oil workers who can get fresh meat and fish in exchange for rice/pasta staples and free rides on gas worker transport. This relationship has turned some local gas workers into 'tundra experts' who know the details of the herders’ summer migration patterns. Nenets people have become more confident that oil and gas can exist alongside their lifestyles and that consultations have improved matters. Still, past damage remains and there is fear of more damage in the future. The 8th brigade (with whom Tribe travels) lost five crucial summer camp sites to gas development in the last eight years. Herders also noticed that the fish, which are crucial for the herders' diet in summer, are far less plentiful in the lakes. The issue is a contentious one and one which is very much still being debated. The herders themselves, with the support of academics, have recently tried to catalyse these debates by drawing up a list of issues, which they want addressed by administrations.
The oil and gas extraction programmes will be crucial in shaping Nenets future but as it stands, the future is far from gloomy. The population of the Yamal-Nenets has been steadily growing through the 20th century. A huge portion of young Nenets decide to stay in the tundra as they can gain better income than in the villages and have the freedom of the nomadic lifestyle in the tundra. At one point experts had guessed that overgrazing would have led to the collapse of reindeer herding, but the population of herds and peoples are still growing. This points to the experts' mistrust of the Nenets mastery of land management and a lack of understanding about how adaptable the brigades can be. Controversially, and like most other northern countires, Russia has decided not to sign a convention on tribal rights and national legislation does not yet require a comprehensive social impact assessment of industrial projects like oil and gas extraction. There seems to be a general disregard for policies relating to indigenous people. On the positive side, there are laws in place relating to 'traditional use of nature' and over the last 15 years things have drastically improved. However, such laws look good on paper but hardly seem to make it to the stage of practical application. Land is becoming increasingly scarce for the Nenets and they are well aware that pastures are not infinite. Pressure is accelerated by the increasing presence of the gas industry which has led to discussions of land privatisation among herders and bureaucrats. Privatisation is completely at odds with the general Nenets principle of common land.  Today, in northern Russia, most leaderships pursue short term interest and indigenous peoples are low-down on their priority list. In an attempt to resolve this the Yamal administration is drawing up a 'herders land registry' without giving them ownership rights to their land. This registry is intended to give both parties a solid platform for debate. It remains to be seen how effective such a system would be.

In the face of popular thought about the dwindling state of global nomadic groups the Yamal-Nenets continue to live a vibrant and robust cultural lifestyle. They have adapted to the social, political and natural world around them and although oil and gas poses a huge threat, hope still exists for them. The mineral resources of Yamal will all be extracted by the end of the 21st century or faster and in order to survive even this period, the nomads need free access to their pastures and a healthy natural environment. If this were the case, the Nenets people would have the chance to continue living their lives well into a future where oil and gas is nothing but a distant memory.

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Further reading on Nenets reindeer herding and challenges for Nomads today:
Florian Stammler (2005)
'Reindeer Nomads Meet the Market: Culture, Property and Globalisation at the End of the Land.' Muenster: Litverlag ISBN 3-8258-8046-x
A special issue of the journal Indigenous Affairs (no 2-3, 2006) about Arctic oil and gas development and the impacts on indigenous people (PDF document):

A special volume of the academic journal 'Sibirica' (no 5.2, 2006), about indigenous people and Russian oil and gas extraction:


Piers Vitebsky (2005)
'Monograph on Siberian herders’ life with Animals and Spirits'. Reindeer People. Living with Animals and Spirits in Siberia. London: Harper Collins.

Florian Stammler and Hugh Beach (eds) (2006)
'People and Reindeer on the Move.' Special Issue of the journal Nomadic Peoples, No. 10,2 2006. Oxford: Berghahn.

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