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Nenets: The nomadic reindeer herders in Russian Tundra
On a cold November evening in Tundra, Natena stopped the long caravan of reindeer, stretching for several kilometers. Without asking questions, Hadana, his wife, began to free the animals from the sled. Her three daughters immediately picked up wooden poles and arranged the reindeer skin on a wooden platform. They built the chum (a conical reindeer hide tent resembling Native American Tippie) in just a few minutes and lit a fire in the stove. The men, who don't participate in assembling the tent by custom, managed the big herd of hundreds of reindeer instead. Eight more tents were being erected near Natena's camp. They were the families who migrated with them from the Yamal Peninsula in Arctic Siberia.
Reindeer were among the last animals domesticated by humans. According to the Nenets legend, the humans promised the reindeer that they would protect them on their long migration from the mainland to the seashores as long as the reindeer provide humans with all their needs, including milk, fat, meat, bones, horns, and skins. The nomadic reindeer herders reside in the taiga forests of the Russian tundra and northern Mongolia. Their herds are small, no more than a few hundred or even smaller. The Mongolian reindeer herders, known as the Tsaatan, feed on game meat and wild berries, so they barely butcher reindeer. However, the Nenets, living in tundra, herders have no other food source apart from reindeer and fish.
Natena's youngest son finished shepherding the herd inside the pen they had set up. He entered the tent to drink some hot tea. The boy took off his malista, traditional knew-length fur coat, and sat down by the fire. At that moment, the youngest daughter brought in a big fish. The mother chopped it to pieces, sprinkled some salt on it, and served it to the family. While sipping tea, Natena told his family that they would stay here for the next two days and prepare for the roughest part of their journey. Nenets travel 1200 km a year, making the longest migration of all nomads in the world. In summer, they escape from the flies and mosquitoes that fill the tundra to Arctic shores. In winter, they return to the tundra, traveling nearly 850 km, with little supply.
The Nenets culture came under threat twice in the last century. First, it suffered under the Soviet collectivization policy. Up to the Soviet era, the Nenets maintained friendly but distant relations with the Russian settlers who arrived in Siberia around the 16th century on the Tsar's orders. The Russians bought meats and skins of reindeer and furs of arctic foxes from Nenets. With this money, the herders bought rifles, ammunition, and few groceries from the villagers. Nenets also traded with the Chinese, who believed that reindeer antler powder was a remedy to male potency problems. The Chinese purchased from them tons of antlers that reindeer lose naturally in winter and re-grow in spring. Everyone lived in peace until communism arrived. After establishing the Soviet Union, the communists wanted all of its people, including the Russians, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, Tatars, and the Nenets, to dress, speak, and think the same. They established districts and forced a substantial number of nomadic Nenets to settle down permanently. The government sent the women to the cities, the children to the brainwashing schools, and made reindeer state property. Some men were left to look after the flocks, while others were sent to the army or the factories.
The Communists had great success erasing the cultural identity of many ethnic groups. Men lost their traditional role in society and had taken up the habit of hard-drinking. The younger generation soon lost their mother tongue and became assimilated. Many unique ethnic groups became an unidentified population, plagued by alcohol and unemployment. They speak, think, and drink like Russians and still admire the central government that destroyed their cultural identity. The exceptions are the Yamal Nenets. Their population numbered around ten thousand when communists took over the Russian Empire. Thanks to their geographical distance from civilization and resilient mindset, the Yamal Nenets managed to outlast the Soviet Union. The communist would only come to their land to make annual reports and leave as soon as possible from the mosquito-swept tundra. Thus, the Nenets lived out the collectivization and managed to preserve their culture even in the dark days of Stalin's rule.
But the resilience alone may not help the Nenets in the wake of the challange they are facing now. In the late 1970s, Russian geologists found one of the world's largest natural gas reserves in the Yamal Peninsula, the home of Nenets. As if that wasn't enough, they also discovered found 300 million tons of oil there. Luckily for the reindeer herders, the 1970s and 1980s were a challenging period for the Soviet Union. Due to financial issues, the government failed to launch any projects there. Upon the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian Federation was created under Boris Yeltsin. The transition from a centrally-planned economy to a free-market economy hit the country hard through much of the 1990s. Only in the 2000s, under Putin's leadership, Russia got back on its feet. The economic growth is mainly attributed to the excellent performance of Gazprom, a majority state-owned energy corporation. Since 2012, the company has been developing mines, building railway lines, laying gas pipelines, setting up ports, and even constructing its own fleet of ice-breaking tankers to ship oil across the globe. The city of Sabetta, the tiny communist-era settlement of Nenets, is expanding rapidly as a result. A few years ago, they flew in thousands of workers to Sabetta to develop the Yamal LNG plant and the nearby Sabetta port, capable of handling up to 30 million tons of goods per year.
My interest in the region began when I saw Putin handing out prizes to herders who attended the annual reindeer festival. Two months later, I traveled to the Yamal Peninsula with a group of good friends to visit the reindeer herders. During the trip, I learned that the more the projects in the Yamal Peninsula started, the more the infrastructure in the region developed, blocking the traditional migration routes of Nenets. Their ancestral places of worship have been either fenced off or destroyed. The fish population on which they feed on in the summer is now dwindling. Their lifestyle, which they could have maintained due to their isolation from the outside world, is declining. I thought to myself, "How long will they be able to travel in wooden sleds, with more workers moving in to work in factories every week?" The drinking problems are also getting worse among Nenet men. They are no longer interested in moving every few days to find a sufficient pasture for their reindeer. They have a chance to move to the city and find a job in the energy industry.
The Russian government tries its best to keep the Nenets happy. They know that it would bring terrible publicity if a distinct culture like Nenets ultimately perishes due to the oil industry. They acknowledge that they need good press coverage to attract foreign investors and keep away environmental activists. Thus, the administrators take steps to preserve their lifestyle, like organizing an Annual Reindeer Herder Festival and handing out satellite phones to herders, which they can use to call a helicopter in case of emergency. They even send studious youngsters to study at the university for free. All these measures require little money compared to the revenue from 96 billion tons of gas produced in the Yamal Peninsula in 2019. In the coming years, Gazprom hopes to make 360 billion tons there every year. Without a doubt, Gazprom will extract all the resources of the peninsula for the next hundred years. But will the Nenets be strong enough to preserve their culture for another century? We can safely assume that the government will do its best to help them. As stated, it is in the interests of the authorities to keep the Nenets happy and quiet.
In the morning, Natena walked to the river and took a few steps on the frozen river to test the strength of the ice sheet. He then returned to the camp and took the herd out to pasture. There he met Petracco and Nolioko, his two traveling companions. The men shared reindeer meat and some hot tea. Natena told them that the ice was still not strong enough, so they need to wait few more days before crossing the Ob river, the world's seventh-longest river, which empties into a gulf of the same name. While staring at the new railroad crossing the peninsula, Petracco shared his concerns about the freezing time prolonging every year and the fishes growing fewer. Nolioko replied, "I fear that Nam, the God of heaven, is angered by the construction of new pipes that have brought so many people here. Or maybe Naga, the Mother Earth, is angry about the iron drills digging her belly." Natena sighed and said, "I don't know the answers, my friends. Let's not talk about it. My wife butchered a reindeer this morning. You can come to our tent in the evening and share the new meat."
YAMAL - REINDEER NOMADS FESTIVAL 2022
This is a journey to the far north part of Russia, beyond the Arctic Circle, to the land of the Nenets. The Nenets, an ethnic group of Samoyed origin, retain to date their old traditions and migration routes, living off their immense reindeer herds.View tour