Nomads of the Arctic

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March 11th 2012
Published: March 31st 2012
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In the flat, white tundra it was hard to appreciate the vastness of 10,000 reindeer. I stood next to our sledge while grunting, snorting seas of bodies and antlers flowed around me in one direction then another. Dogs kept them moving while a Nenets man on a reindeer-drawn sledge, directing his transport beasts with light blows from a long wooden pole, moved from one part of the herd to another, looking for reindeer ready to be eaten.

Once a suitable animal had been found the herders would get that part of the herd moving with the help of dogs. They would then stand still until, catching sight of the animal he wanted amid the rippling, flowing, cascading mass of reindeer, one would lash out with his reindeer-rawhide lasso and send it sailing through the air. More often than not the lasso would entangle a pair of antlers and the herders would be satisfied with the catch.

Darkness began to fall. The milling reindeer and running, shouting herders became hard to see through a dense fog of reindeer breath. My friend Radik returned to our sledge leading a reindeer by its antlers. He and another man lifted it into the back of a sledge then forced it to lie down.

Back at the encampment I pulled off inches-long icicles that had formed during the sledge ride back and were dangling from all over my face like bizarre piercings. The Nenets tied a reindeer-rawhide rope around the live animal's neck. Radik held one end while the other lay loose on the snow.

"Pick up that rope and pull hard," Radik told me.

The same grisly spectacle was being repeated outside four of the seven chums at this encampment of Nenets nomads from the Yamal Peninsula, currently camped on the other side of the Gulf of Ob from the peninsula in Nadym Region and at the southernmost extremity of their 1200km migration rout. The reindeer, their heads all facing to the east, were slowly strangled. Occasionally one wouuld rear its head or even try to stand up but one by one they all eventually stopped moving.

Not a single drop of blood having been spilled, its hide was slit open and tugged off. Then they opened up its belly, still without spilling any blood, most of which seemed to lie in a pool at the back half of the animal's body.

Slava, the head of the encampment, sat down on the snow next to the carcass and said, “Sit with me, Edik.” I did as told. He then reached in, tore out the liver, cut it into two halves and gave one to me. While we chewed on the organ, steam from the reindeer's warm innards engulfing us, someone passed Slava a large metal ladle. He dipped it into the pool of blood inside the carcass, in which various organs and lumps of fat, gristle and meat appeared to be floating, and stirred it around like a chef preparing soup. He then scooped out a ladle of warm blood, drank half himself and gave the rest to me. I downed it in one, finished my liver then was passed a kidney and a piece of intestine.

Men, women and children sat around the carcass, greedily reaching in and tearing out whatever they could get their hands on. Radik's daughter Nihowe, a pretty sixteen-year old girl, got a long, thin piece of fat, popped one end in her mouth, stretched the other end away and sawed through it with a knife, the last string of fat to resist suddenly snapping back in her face and bespattering it with blood. Soon everyone's cheeks and chins were painted bright red and people who had had enough were standing up to walk away. They wiped their faces and cleaned off most of the blood but some had frozen solid already and left grisly, scabby streaks around their mouths.

My own hands were covered in blood as, I expected, was my face. My stomach rumbled, a burp escaped me and I wondered whether I had not taken the whole travel thing too far.

* * *

A meal straight from a reindeer carcass is known as aibat and is a favourite of the Nenets, who eat it once or twice a week. They claim it has all sorts of health benefits and it certainly is the only rich source of vitamins in this land without fruit and veg. For the untrained stomach, however, it is preferable to try just a small morsel of raw meat and a sip or two of blood as I had done on previous visits, rather than the full on aibat meal I took part in this time.

In short, I lay in the chum under reindeer furs suffering for three whole days afterwards. My naive two rolls of toilet paper quickly ran out and thus I was led to discover what the Nenets use - handfuls of brown, dried out moss that they keep in a sack at the back of the chum. I was tempted to call this blog "The Diarrhea Diaries" but thought better of it.

As with every trip, I learned more about the Nenets world despite my condition, in particular about the restrictions on women, due to the fact that this time I had brought two female Swiss photographers with me, clients of my guiding service Yamal Peninsula Travel . Women, for example, must not step over a pregnant dog or over men or children, or even hang their clothes anywhere as this might causes a man to unknowingly walk underneath them.

In general though my conversations with my hosts now involved much less asking questions about each other's lives, countries and so on but much more small talk and joking around. I no longer needed to ask those questions I used to ask, keen to form some sort of understanding of the Nenets and their worldview, as I now have that understanding, although as a faint and very shallow outline. But the outline gets less and less faint every time I return. I learn just by being there and, usually, by making mistakes that cause me to break the unwritten "law of the tundra".

Therefore, instead of writing down a minute-to-minute description of my stay complete with every interesting conversation I had, I thought I might try to share a little of what I have learned about the Yamal Nenets. My faint and inadequate understanding of their history, way of life and spiritual beliefs, follows. 90% of the ethnological information comes from my own experience of living with them whereas 90% of the historical comes from books I have read.

Their ancestors domesticated reindeer in the First Millenium BC in the Sayan Mountains on the border between Mongolia and Siberia. Reindeer were, however, at that time used only for transport and the people fed themselves by hunting, a system that survived intact until the 17th Century AD.

Also in the First Millenium BC the people migrated North West with their reindeer from the Sayan Mountains and eventually arrived in the Arctic, spreading out over the area they occupy today between the Kanin Peninsula in the west and the Taymyr Peninsula in the east. They may have mixed with a race of ancient Arctic hunters who live on in Nenets myths to this day as Sikhirtia, tiny people who lived in the tundra before the Nenets and who still live there but underground, occasionally emerging to be sighted by reindeer herders.

By the 11th Century AD the Nenets were already being mentioned in Russian chronicles, although the two cultures had probably come into contact even before that. While these early encounters tended to be based on mutually profitable trade, as the centuries passed the Russians came to think they had the right to extract tribute from the Nenets and occasionally bloody battles would be fought. By the end of the 15th Century the first Russian settlements in Siberia had been founded on Nenets territory on the Gydan Peninsula's Taz Estuary, just to the east of Yamal. By the end of the 16th Century the Russian invasion of Siberia was in full swing and the fortress of Obdursk stood on the site of the modern capital of the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug, Salekhard. By the end of the 17th Century the Russians had expanded over pretty much all of Siberia and the Far East in the search for sable, an ill-fated animal whose fur was so valued in Europe that one expedition into Siberia was profitable enough to set up all of its members for life. The conquerors, usually no more than brigands, pirates and mercenaries, would travel vast distances by river, set up fortresses and capture tribal chiefs or their relatives as hostages to demand fur tribute, or yasak, from the local people. The sole aim of some entire communities became to pay this tribute, so that there was no time for their traditional way of life which would end up being forgotten within a generation or two. Some communities froze because they had to hand over their own fur clothing to fulfil the tribute demands and others starved as all their time was spent hunting for furs instead of meat.

It was around this time in the 17th Century that the Nenets gave up their traditional lifestyle as more or less sedentary hunter gatherers who owned a few domestic reindeer for transport and very suddenly took up large-scale nomadic reindeer herding. Some experts claim that this was due to climate changes which at that time led to such a decrease in the numbers of wild reindeer that living by hunting alone became unviable and the people were forced to take up herding. Others claim that the Nenets deliberately chose a nomadic lifestyle because it offered increased mobiliity and by extension better chances of avoiding Russian tribute collectors.

The appearance of Russian fortresses and tribute collectors caused fierce resistance among the Nenets, the 17th and 18th Centuries being times of bloody warfare and attacks on Russian forts and Christian converts from other indigenous peoples such as the Khanty and Mansi. These rebellions gradually decreased in their frequency and intensity, although the most recent occurred in 1943 and some Yamal Nenets even today speak about rebelling against the gas companies that are taking their land away from them.

By the late 19th Century Nenets living in more southern areas around the taiga - tundra border zone had fairly regular contacts with the Russians, quite a few even working as seasonal commercial fisherman, while those in northern areas, particularly the Yamal Peninsula where not a single Russian settlement existed until 1926, continued to live more or less unaffected by developments in the outside world. Until this time there were still people who made the obligatory once in a lifetime pilgrimage to Vaygach Island, the Nenets "Mecca" located to the west of Yamal and strewn with over 600 idols and sacrificial sites.

In 1926, however, the first trading post was founded on the Yamal Peninsula near the site where Yar Sale stands today, a village of 4,500 and the administrative centre of Yamal Region (the part of the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug which includes the Yamal Peninsula). By the early 1930s trading posts had been set up all over the Yamal Peninsula near nomadic migration routes to supply the nomads with goods. With the establishment of trading posts the Soviets also began collectivising the Nenets' reindeer, often by confiscating the animals of rich herders and sending their owners to Gulag concentration camps. By 1945 collectivisation was 99% complete. Boarding schools were also set up at trading posts for the children of nomadic families, although they were less successful at first. By 1945 literacy was still almost non-existent. By the early 1950s about half of Yamal Nenets children officially attended school and by the early 1960s the majority were attending. I am somewhat skeptical of these figures, however, as even today when all children officially attend school, in the families I know several school age children live full time in the tundra. However, while education of Nenets children at first met stiff resistance from parents, it is now viewed by the majority as something necessary and good.

In the 1960s the collective farms for which the reindeer herders worked became state farms, so that now they did not own the reindeer even on paper. The 1970s and early 1980s were a period of great stability when the reindeer herders received a lot of support from these state farms. This was a time they look back on with fond memories and when life was much easier than it is now.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union the state farms remained among the key players in Yamal reindeer herding. While reindeer herding in many other parts of Russia collapsed, including in other Nenets areas, on the Yamal it prospered and continues to prosper to this day along with the culture of the herders. Many other indigenous reindeer herding groups these days work only shifts in the tundra with the reindeer, do not wear traditional reindeer fur clothing and have serious problems with alcoholism. While other Nenets groups outside the Yamal do wear reindeer fur clothing, live in chums and travel by sledge, many of them also work only 3-month shifts with the reindeer, spend the other three months drinking and have forgotten the Nenets language and religion. The Yamal Nenets' religion affects every aspect of their daily lives, children know only the Nenets language and are taught Russian in schools and over 50% of people live a year-round nomadic existence. Nenets children, after finishing school and sometimes even university, often make the decision to return to the tundra and live out the rest of their lives as nomadic reindeer herders.

As mentioned above, the Nenets animistic religion has also survived intact. There are several gods, such as those of the sky, the sun, the earth and the underworld. The most important one is Num, God of the Sky. There are also spirits, such as the haehae, the patron spirits of the various Nenets clans. All the spirits and gods have their own sacred reindeer among each family's herd. When the sacred reindeer becomes very old it is killed and a similar-looking one chosen to replace it. The gods and spirits also have their own sacred places in the tundra. Some of these take the form of wooden idols while others are ever-growing piles of antlers from sacrificed reindeer.

One reason why reindeer can be sacrificed is to appease the gods and spirits. For example, after a child is born in a chum a reindeer must be sacrificed outside the entrance to cleanse the dwelling. In the chum and on the sacred sledge lots of idols, dolls dressed in miniature reindeer fur clothing, are kept which represent the gods, spirits and ancestors. The one representing the god the sacrifice is for is placed next to a table in the chum and, though the Nenets eat the meat of the sacrificed animal, it is dedicated to the god.

But why should a chum need to be cleansed after a birth? It is because of sya mei, a strange force from the other world, that of birth and death, which can be harmful if it comes into contact with certain things of this world. A newborn baby is affected by sya mei, as are all post-pubescent women, relatives of the recently deceased and those present at a recent death or funeral. Women, for example, must not step over anything that has been touched by a reindeer such as lassoes or harnesses, step over men or children, hang their clothes anywhere as this might cause a man or child to accidentally walk under them, step over hunting or fishing equipment, walk across bear tracks, cross the path of a moving sledge, cut certain fish, step over a pregnant dog, wear men's reindeer fur boots (although wearing men's reindeer fur coats is fine), take part in sacrifices, touch the sacred sledge or cross an imaginary line that extends from the centre of the chum to the sacred pole at the back and out into the tundra within sight of the chum. Their movements are affected all day, every day by these rules.

Other than this, however, men and women are on a very equal footing within Nenets society, although their spheres of work are completely separate. It is only the men who work out in the tundra herding reindeer and only men who are involved in woodwork, such as making sledges and chum poles. The woman's entire sphere of work is chum-centred. Women wake up before men, heat up the chum, boil tea and prepare breakfast. After the men go out the women feed the children, clean the chum then set to work sewing clothing, cutting firewood or collecting snow or ice for water. While it is the men who cut down trees in the tundra it is the women who cut it into firewood to heat the chum. While it is the men who herd reindeer, catch them and strangle them, as soon as it is dead and the initial meal of aibat has been had it is the women's job to hack up the rest of the carcass into different cuts of meat ready to be eaten at mealtimes in the chum. It is men who make floor boards and chum poles but always women who set up the chum after moving camp, the men only helping at the end to hoist the chum cover over the skeleton with a pole.

Southern Yamal Nenets brigades tend to move camp once every few days throughout most of the year over a total annual migration route of more than 1000km, from their southernmost pastures in the forest tundra of Nadym Region (across the Gulf of Ob, not actually on the Yamal Peninsula) to the Kharasei River in the north of Yamal. Only in the winter can they stay long (even up to 6 weeks) in one spot, herding the animals from pasture to pasture in a circle around the camp and at a distance of around 20km from it instead of the north-south or south-north herding they do while on the move.

In mid-March they leave these winter pastures and move north, crossing the 50km Gulf of Ob in one full day (almost 24 hours) in early April. They have the reindeer herders' festival in Yar Sale when they pass in early April, with reindeer racing, tug of war, lassoing contests and wrestling before setting off and moving north fast to reach and cross the Iuribei River before the ice melts in June. May and June are especially hard months because, as well as migrating fast, all the new calves are being born. Each calf must have its owners earmark cut into its ear (this is more of a protection measure, as herders know every one of their deer by face and fur colour) and calves whose parents die must be taken in and brought up in the chum until they are ready to fend for themselves. These orphaned reindeer are the only ones that the family will never kill. When they are very old they give them away to another family instead who kill them and return the gesture by giving one of their own orphaned reindeer that is very old.

In August they reach the northernmost point of their migration route, stay their for a few days then turn around and head back south, arriving in their winter pastures in late January.

This pattern is true for southern Yamal Nenets. There are also northern Yamal Nenets who migrate only 50 - 100km a year and never leave the north.

So how is it that the Nenets have retained their traditional culture, language and spiritual beliefs to such an extent despite all the upheavals the area has experienced? How is it that they can take what they want from mainstream society and incorporate it into their own culture without becoming assimilated or losing their sense of cultural identity as has happened with so many other indigenous groups the world over?

Part of the answer may lie in the way the area was administered under the Soviet Union. In other Nenets areas people were forced to settle in villages, the men working three-month shifts in the tundra without their wives or children. Their way of life was destroyed utterly and reindeer herding came to be viewed as hard, unpleasant work away from one's family. Today those areas have problems with alcoholism, nobody under 40 speaks the Nenets language, their herds are several times smaller than on the Yamal and they dislike reindeer herding.

On the Yamal Peninsula, however, whole families were allowed to continue migrating through the tundra year-round, although the majority of the reindeer now belonged to state farms. Their children were taken away at the beginning of school term and delivered back to the chum when the holidays began. Conditions had changed, but the essentials of the Nenets way of life remained completely intact, the chum still viewed as home and reindeer herding as a way of life, not a job. Possibly the Yamal Nenets were allowed to continue living as nomads because of a lack
Nenets' children's toys, Nadym Region, SiberiaNenets' children's toys, Nadym Region, SiberiaNenets' children's toys, Nadym Region, Siberia

The stripey ones represent people in colourful reindeer fur coats and the small oblong ones represent babies in their cradles which hang from the chum poles
of housing in villages due to immigrants from other areas of Russia or possibly the local government realised that more meat would be produced like this than if they forced the Nenets to settle.

Even under the state farm system a small number of personal reindeer were allowed. Due to the fact that these were herded together with the state farm's reindeer it was very easy for the Nenets to trick inspectors, keeping the real proportions of state and personal reindeer secret or using intelligent dogs to drive off some of the personal reindeer to other parts of the tundra when they herd inspectors were coming. After the collapse of the USSR there was therefore already a stable basis for the revival of private reindeer herding. Today private herds are growing and include roughly 60% of all the reindeer on Yamal.

Was the "Nenets phenomenon" due to the strength and resilience of their culture? Probably at least in part, because if their culture was not resilient then they would have given up long ago. But it cannot be entirely because of this: the Chukchi of Chukotka resisted Russian conquest right into the 20th Century but the state of reindeer herding there now is nowhere near that of Yamal.

Was the "Nenets phenomenon" due to remoteness and isolation? Perhaps slightly, but again Chukotka, the Koryak Autonomous Okrug, Yakutia and the Taymyr Peninsula are all far more remote than Yamal but the herders there have preserved far less of their culture.

Most likely the Nenets fared so well, have the biggest reindeer herds in the world and provide the Russian government with their steadiest source of meat because of the way they were treated under the Soviet Union. This is promising, because it means the same logic could be applied to interactions between oil companies / loggers / Third World governments and indigenous people elsewhere in the world. Such disastrous cultural collapse as has been seen in many tribal societies could therefore perhaps be minimalised and the benefit to the economy of the country they findthemselves in increased.

Anyone keen to visit the Nenets and live with a nomadic reindeer herding family in a chum on the Yamal Peninsula should visit the website of my guiding service, Yamal Peninsula Travel .

Additional photos below
Photos: 23, Displayed: 23


31st March 2012

A touch of real life in a world with few wonders left to discover.
Another great entry, Ed. We are all rewarded with such fine detail and your own reward must be in this intimate knowledge of the lives of others. A realisation that there can be happiness amongst people everywhere, almost regardless of apparent hardship.
31st March 2012

Wonder no longer...
you have taken this whole traveling thing too far. I almost got ill reading the first part about strangling the reindeer and then eating its organs raw and drinking the fresh blood. I think I'm going to become a vegetarian. Did the two Swiss photographers also partake? Have you studied anthropology? The rest of your blog had great insights, and would make a great contribution to the science.
4th April 2012

The life is such how it is
That's my cup of tea: Nordic life, Nordic culture, Nordic nature. I feel here (in the blog-entry) the real life which there isn't easy at all. But I see people working, struggling, taking care of themselves. I myself hardly could live in such an environment. But if You are born there, You see this different. And the life has its traditions and its laws. In any case - very informative (even when a bit long) and very emotional. Thanks!
21st May 2012
A Nenets child after drinking blood and eating raw meat from a reindeer carcass, Nadym Region, Siberia

Ed, we love this...
I know this blog post has been out a while and we've looked at these photos quite a few times but just wanted to it!
24th May 2012

Wow, this is incredible!!! Gut-wrenching of the kids post-eating...what an experience!
31st October 2012

what a wonderful account of parts of the world we often forget about while sitting at our computer screens... your photos are wonderful
3rd May 2013
A Nenets boy after drinking blood and eating raw meat straight from a reindeer carcass, Nadym Region, Siberia

once we've done that in Alaska
I am an Eskimo so I know that culture quiet well, also well read in History, I will be watching your writing, I read nearly all or major languages.

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