With a population of over 41,000, the Nenets are one of the largest of the indigenous groups in Northern Siberia. Their territory covers a vast area that stretches from the Kanin Peninsula at the White Sea in the west, all the way to the Taymyr Peninsula, a distance of more than 2,000 km. Nowadays most Nenets live in northern areas of the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous District and the Nenets Autonomous District. The Nenets are comprised of two distinct groups the Tundra Nenets who live in the North, and the Forest Nenets, a much smaller group of around 2,500, who live in the forests to the south.
The Nenets belong to the Samoyed group of peoples. Their ancestors originated in Southern Siberia and are believed to have settled in the Russian North about 1000 years ago. The first written reference to them was made in 1096 in Nestor’s chronicles. Traditionally the Nenets are reindeer breeders, who also hunt, trap and fish. The Nenets who lived in coastal areas also hunted sea mammals but reindeer is the basis of their culture providing food, clothing, shelter (skin tents) and transport.
educational opportunities at all levels and many go on to follow modern careers as doctors, teachers, lawyers & vets etc. Despite this, reindeer breeding remains important, both economically and culturally. Their reindeer herding activity is based around family groups with the herders and their families leading a semi-nomadic lifestyle and staying with their reindeer the whole year round. Nenets herders live in tepee style tents ‘mya’ the covers of which are made from reindeer skin for use in winter and canvas in the summer. Their herding involves seasonal migrations with their reindeer. For the Nenets who migrate up to the north the Yamal Peninsula, migrations can be as long as 1,000km each way. During the winter most herders graze their reindeer on tundra or in forests in the southern part of their region, before migrating northwards again in the spring up to the Arctic coast. In the autumn they begin their journey south again.
Reindeer meat is the most important part of their diet which they usually eat raw, frozen or boiled. They also drink the blood of a freshly slaughtered reindeer. Fish is also an important food for them and they catch species that include: muksun, white salmon, and broad white fish. Fish is mainly eaten raw or frozen, but they also freeze and salt it to preserve it. Since they have had access to flour bread and bannock has also become an important part of their diet. During the summer they collect berries including mountain cranberry, blueberry, and cloudberry which they eat fresh and also make into jam to preserve it for the winter. Nowadays most Nenets have access to a wide range of Russian foods in the shops.
The Nenets use mainly reindeer sleds as transport. They have a variety of types of sled for different uses and a special sled for women. In forested areas they would normally use about three reindeer to pull a reindeer sled and in open tundra up to five. They also use broad wooden skis, particularly in the forests during the winter time. In summer they also travel by reindeer sled but usually with lighter weight sleds. Nowadays, they also use snowmobiles and often modern motor boats when fishing.
Shamanism played an important role among the Nenets. Shamans wore a special costume decorated with metal ornaments and they also used a drum. Their role included treating sickness, predicting the future and delivering the souls of the dead to the underground world. There are sacred sites all over the Nenets’ territory where reindeer are sacrificed and people leave pieces of cloth and coins and other gifts for the spirits. In return they ask for things like safe travel, good health and luck with hunting and fishing. Even today a lot of Nenets still retain many of their traditional beliefs and rituals and it is still common to see men wearing amulets, often bear’s teeth worn on their belts. Many reindeer herding families also continue to have a sacred sled on which they transport their idols.
Nenets people today tend to wear a combination of modern and traditional clothing. In towns and villages most people wear modern style clothes, while those living out in the forest and tundra wear traditional reindeer skin clothes that are ideal for the Arctic conditions. Men wear a parka style hooded coat known as a ‘malitsa’ which is made with the fur facing inwards and has mittens attached to the sleeves. They also have another reindeer skin ankle length coat called a ‘sovik’ which is worn over the malitsa in very cold weather. The main item of women’s clothing is the ‘pany,’ a long loose fitting coat made from two layers of reindeer skin with the fur worn inside and out. The pany also has reindeer skin mittens attached to the sleeves. It is normally decorated with patterned strips of inlaid fur which are stitched into all the main seams of the coat and the collar is trimmed with Arctic fox fur. Nenets women also wear reindeer fur hooded hats trimmed with Arctic fox tails and a whole variety of metal, usually copper, ornaments hung on chains at the back. Women’s belts which are tied around the ‘pany’ are normally woven from coloured wool and have round buckles which in the past, could be up to 20 cm in diameter. Women also wear reindeer skin boots which are shorter than men’s with a different cut and decoration.
The land and reindeer herds of the Nenets are now threatened by oil and natural gas development that is essential for the Russian economy. The past 30 years have seen enormous change with large modern towns like Noviy Urengoi and Nadym being built on the tundra to service the oil and gas industres. Many older towns like Salekhard, the capital of the Yamal, have been transformed by modern buildings largely paid for by the gas industry. Whether reindeer herding can survive long term on the tundra alongside the oil and gas industry remains to be seen. Life for many Nenets today, particularly those not employed in reindeer herding, and who live in villages and small towns, is becoming increasingly difficult. The high rates of unemployment, poor healthcare, alcohol abuse and racial discrimination are all contributing to declining living standards and high mortality rates amongst the Nenets.
Text © B & C Alexander