For many reasons, the Nenets are one of the most fascinating cultures in the world. Perhaps the most striking thing being their ability to adapt their lives to the most challenging climate in the Northern Hemisphere, and a mutual dependence between communities and their reindeer.
Much has been written about them, but very few people have had the opportunity to visit, and having lived with one of the Nenet families during the winter period, the Nomadic Tribe team uncovered 17 curious facts that you won’t often find mentioned in books.
Nenets live on the edge of the world.
Nenets inhabit the northern part of the western Siberian plain. This includes the ‘Yamal’ peninsula, which is surrounded by the Arctic Ocean, and in Nenet language means "the edge of the world".
Nenets have lived with reindeer for one thousand years.
Evidence of indigenous peoples being dedicated to the reindeer economy in the Yamal Peninsula dates back a thousand years. Nenets were originally hunters, but for centuries specialized in the domestication of reindeer, which created a bond in which they were mutually dependent on each other for survival.
Nenets can recognize an individual reindeer in a herd of thousands.
For most people, all reindeer look practically the same, but the Nenets can recognize individual animals among dozens of different types and within herds of thousands. In the Nenet language there is a different word to identify each and every one of those thousands of reindeer.
Every Nenet family has a sacred reindeer.
The sacred reindeer of each family cannot pull a sled or be sacrificed under any circumstances (the exception to the latter being when old age means they are no longer able to walk). The animal is treated like a member of the family and lives — alongside other pets such as sheepdogs —around their home throughout its life.
The Nenets' entire existence depends on reindeer.
Reindeer provide everything the Nenets need to survive. Their skins serve to cover their homes — the ‘Chum’ — and protect them from the cold. The Nenets' coats, boots and blankets are made from their fur, with the seams constructed using the animal's nerves. Bones are used to make utensils and sled parts, and of course its meat, which can be eaten raw, boiled or frozen, is a primary component of their diet. Their blood is specifically valued as a rich source of vitamins, and is drunk immediately after slaughtering the reindeer.
Nenets use carved mammoth ivory to create utensils.
Mammoths were giant woolly elephants that lived during the Pleistocene — some hundreds of thousands of years ago — in Siberia. When the thaw occurs, the permafrost uncovers the bones of these animals, which the Nenets then find when they take the reindeer to graze and carve into utensils and decorative elements.
Even when it’s minus 50 degrees Celsius outside, inside the Chum, the temperature is still like summer.
Chums are the homes of the Nenets. They are built by erecting a skeleton of fir wood posts and covering it in reindeer skins: a construction which can be assembled and disassembled in less than two hours. While outside temperatures of minus 50 degrees Celsius can be reached in winter, inside the Chum the thermal insulation of the reindeer skin keeps the temperature warm and pleasant by retaining the heat produced by the chimneys.
Snow is the Nenets’ primary source of water.
The Nenet women go outside the Chum with a small sled and a shovel whenever they need water. They collect clean snow which, on their return, is thrown into a saucepan over the fire on their return until it melts and — once cools — can be used as drinking water.
Nature is the Nenets’ toilet.
The Chums have only one very small open space, therefore there is no room for a separate toilet. If they have to relieve themselves, they go outside and walk a long way (until they are sure that no one can see them from the camp) and do so in the snow. Men must walk to one side of the camp and women to the opposite. As reindeer are attracted by the smell of urine — even from long distances — this activity can prove quite the adventure!
The Nenets have no weekend.
Taking care of the reindeer and making sure they have the food they need is a job that needs attention seven days a week. Nenets only rest from work once a year: at a festive celebration where families within the community get together to compete in sled races and participate in traditional activities such as reindeer herding and other events from their culture.
Nenets are affected by climate change.
The Nenets’ environment is one of the most severely impacted by climate change, as in the Arctic, the permafrost thaws faster and faster in the spring, meaning that each year it takes longer to freeze again in the fall. For this reason, herders have to modify their migration routes in search of snow, which is where the reindeer find their main sources of food.
Reindeers find their food under the snow.
Reindeer mainly feed on lichens that grow under the thick layer of snow. Their acute sense of smell allows them to track their food, digging holes with their snouts until they find it. In Nenet language these little holes, or pits, are called "kiekerö" and when the reindeer migrate to another place of pasture, to see thousands of them left on the snow plains is quite a sight.
The Nenets spend long periods in total darkness.
"Kaamos" is the period of time from November to January where, in the northernmost areas, the sun does not rise at all, making it a difficult time for the survival of both people and animals. The snow layers are thicker, meaning it is harder for reindeer to forage for food, and although today the Nenets use flashlights, it’s not hard to imagine just how much of a challenge this has posed over the past centuries.
The only way into a camp is by sled.
Nenets migrate from time to time, an activity which can take anything from a few days to an entire month depending on the food sources available to the reindeer. As soon as the lichen runs out, they have to change their area and to do so they cross their camps. For this reason, Nenet settlements are usually located where access is practically impossible. With no roads and a landscape covered in snow, the sled is the only viable means of transport, and the journey in can take anything from a few hours to several days.
The Nenets have a great sense of humor.
Nenet people spend most of the year isolated from any other type of civilization, instead living in their small social nuclei. In these periods, many hours of the day are spent inside the Chum, talking and sharing stories while they warm up, eat, and rest from their exhausting daily work. It is wonderful to witness these intimate moments in which the Nenets play pranks on each other and laugh out loud about the unexpected and often peculiar adventures of the day.
Nenets eat up to six times a day.
Living in such extreme temperatures and doing such hard, physical work causes the body to burn more calories than under normal circumstances, meaning that the Nenets have to stop working with the reindeer multiple times during the day to return to the Chum and recharge their energy. Their diet ranges from frozen fish — eaten raw — to reindeer meat, which is either eaten raw or boiled with rice and other staples bought from nearby towns on rare occasions in which they enter civilization. When they stray so far from their settlements that it is impossible to return home to refuel, the Nenets sacrifice a reindeer and eat it raw in order to continue working.
The Nenet language is in danger of disappearing.
Today, Nenents are required by Russian law to go to school, where the curriculum is taught entirely in Russian and there are very few lessons on the history and culture of the Nenets. This means that in order to learn the Nenet language, the family is the only resource. This means that Nenet children get used to speaking Russian before their own dialect and only the older generations continue to use it daily. For this reason, although the language is still used, it’s not difficult to see how it’s gradually being lost and might eventually disappear forever.
NOMADIC TRIBE TEAM
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Photo credits / Javier Salinas