The Nenets (“people” in the local language) of the Far North of the Russian Federation are one of the few remaining nomadic ethnic groups left in the world. Their culture and way of life have persisted despite Russian Imperial and Soviet attempts to administer them. Although their name for themselves had become the accepted name, they were for a long time called Samoyed, or “self-eater” by Russians (Golovnev, 1). Many prejudices, anxieties and fears were projected on to this great Other of the North. Under Imperial and Soviet administrations they were categorized as inorodtsy (aliens) and during the 1930’s great efforts were made to change the way of life of the Nenets, although with little success (Golovnev, 88).
The Nenets compromise the largest group of the Russian North (around 35,000), and they belong to the Samoyed group of the Uralic language family. They are closely related both geographically and linguistically to the Enets, Nganasan, and the Sel’Kup (Golovnev, 6). By 1994 roughly a quarter of the Nenets population lived on the Yamal Peninsula (Golovnev, 7). Ya-mal means “edge of the land” in the Nenets language, and the peninsula runs from the northeast foothills of the polar Urals to the Arctic Ocean at the 73rd parallel. The region is dominated almost entirely by tundra, where the average annual temperature is 20 F (-6.6 C). The major form of subsistence comes from reindeer herding and fishing, both of which have only come to characterize the Nenets since the coming of interactions with Russians (Golovnev, 7). Reindeer are central to the Nenets’ survival both economically and as a basic form of subsistence. Reindeer flesh, blood, fat, and marrow serve as the basic food, although this has changed slightly with recent developments. Hides are used to cover tents and make clothes for those who choose to continue the nomadic life, while bones and antlers are used to make tools and serve ritual purposes (Golovnev, 15). They follow a lunar calender, in which the names for the seven months revolve around reindeer herding (Golovnev, 16). Originally the Nenets were strictly a hunter-gatherer nomadic society. At this time reindeer were not used in large numbers, but just to carry equipment and help on the hunt, but sometime between the 15th and 17th centuries, something of a “Reindeer Revolution” occurred among the Nenets. Although opinions vary as to why this occurred, there was a marked increase in the number of reindeer the nomads began to keep at any one time, and they then began to make herding their primary way of life (Golovnev, 17). This way of living has continued to this day. Clans typically stay in one place for more than two weeks in winter, one in the summer, and two or three days in spring or fall (Golovnev, 42).
Traditionally the Nenets are shamanistic in their beliefs. Each Nenets clan has its own unique patron spirit (haehae) called by the name of the clan. The Yaptik are an exception, with their spirit being called Yaptik-haesie (Golovnev, 20). The power of conducting “high” shamanism lies in the hands of the male Nenets, but the female also is believed to have shamanistic powers and performs ‘lesser’ rituals. The differing roles in their belief system stems from the contrasting roles of men and women in the society. The role of the woman is tied predominantly to maintain-ing the tent, which is always seen as the woman’s home (Golovnev, 32), and purifying rituals, while the role of the man is confined to everything outside of the tent: herding reindeer, provid-ing food and defending their families and herds. Central to the establishment of a new settlement is the placement of the hearth. It lies in the center of the tent, and is the first thing to be put in place (Golovnev, 32). Women, aside from keeping the tent warm, are seen as both “having the capacity to give death as well as birth” (Golovnev, 35). Customs exist which clearly outline what missteps (Kheiwy) a woman should not do, as they bring evil upon the men, which causes the “power” or “life” to leave them (Golovnev, 33). Although the women are separated from the men, their role in Nenets life is valued as much as their male counterparts.
Although this way of life persists today, even though some have decided to settle and become “village dwellers” (Golovnev, 31), it was not always without outside forces willing it to change. Russian Imperial involvement in the region proved to be anything but successful. It can be seen in three phases: Direct Rule from 1580 to1720; Indirect Rule from 1720 to1822; and Native Rule from 1822 to 1900 (Golovnev, 44). In what is called the Epoch of Ermak, which is named after the leader of a Cossack detachment sent to conquer Siberia in the 1580s, the Nenets and other Samoyed groups resisted military conquest. Soon they were defeated, but shamans began to take on key leadership roles in the region (Golovnev, 45). The Epoch of Filofei Leshchinskii followed next. Leshchinskii was the archbishop of Tobol’sk and was “the first to organize a campaign of mass baptizing of Ugrians and Samoyeds” (Golovnev, 45). Nenets sacred sites were destroyed during this time and shamans were deemed a threat and began to see a decrease in their power (Golovnev, 45). In 1822 the Siberian governor Speranskii codified, developed and helped enforce the statute “On the Administration of the Non-Russians in Siberia” (Ustav ob upravlenii inorodtsev) (Golovnev, 45). It allowed for a more flexible system in which local custom and law could be combined with Imperial law for a more effective way of administering the regions and soothing rebellious tendencies. Although this was the first step in co-opting local elites into the Russian administration, its impacts barely affected the Nenets way of life. Golovnev and Osherenko write: “Neither military raids, mass baptisms, nor administrative maneuvers of Russian authorities reached their proper goals on the tundra” (Golovnev, 47). Inroads had been made, but the Nenets defended their way of life. These policies, and later tougher Soviet policies were unable to undermine and fundamentally change the Nenets of the North. As soon as the Soviet Union collapsed, they returned to their original way of life, having kept their traditions alive through years of literal and figurative darkness.
- Andrei V. Golovnev; Gail Osherenko, Siberian Survival: The Nenets and Their Story (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999).