The Nenets, 1913
|44,857 (2010 Census)|
|Regions with significant populations|
|Nenets, Russian, Komi|
|Predominantly: Shamanism, Animism Minority: Eastern Orthodox Christianity|
(Russian Orthodox Church)
|Related ethnic groups|
|Enets, Nganasans, Selkups|
The Nenets (Nenets: ненэй ненэче, nenəj nenəče, Russian: ненцы, nentsy), also known as Samoyed, are a Samoyedic ethnic group native to northern arctic Russia, Russian Far North. According to the latest census in 2010, there were 44,857 Nenets in the Russian Federation, most of them living in the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug, Nenets Autonomous Okrug and Taymyrsky Dolgano-Nenetsky District stretching along the coastline of the Arctic Ocean near the Arctic Circle between Kola and Taymyr peninsulas. The Nenets people speak either the Tundra or Forest Nenets languages, which are mutually unintelligible. In the Russian Federation they have a status of indigenous small-numbered peoples. Today, the Nenets people face numerous challenges from the state and oil and gas companies that threaten the environment and their way of life. As a result, many cite a rise in locally-based activism.
The literal morphs samo and yed in Russian convey the meaning "self-eater", which is considered derogatory. Therefore, the name Samoyed quickly went out of usage in the 20th century. The people are known as the Nenets, which means "people".
In old Russian, the term Samoyed was often applied indiscriminately to different peoples of Northern Russia who speak related Uralic languages: Nenets, Nganasans, Enets, Selkups (speakers of Samoyedic languages). Currently, the term "Samoyedic peoples" applies to the whole group of these different peoples. It is the general term that includes the Nenets, Enets, Selkup, and Nganasan peoples.
The Nenets language is on the Samoyedic branch of the Uralic language family, with two major dialects, Forest Nenets and Tundra Nenets. Ethnologue says that in Siberia, most young people are still fluent in Nenets, whereas in European Russia, they tend to speak Russian. Overall, the majority of native speakers are from older generations. UNESCO classifies Nenets as an endangered language. Some believe that the use of Russian and Komi is due to inter-ethnic marriages.
History and way of life
There are two distinct groups of Nenets sensu stricto, based on their economy: the Tundra Nenets (living far to the north) and the Khandeyar or Forest Nenets. A distinct third group of Nenets (Yaran people) has emerged as a result of intermarriages between Nenets and Izhma Komi people.
They ended up between the Kanin and Taymyr peninsulas, around the Ob and Yenisey rivers, with only a few of them settling into small communities like Kolva. Their main subsistence comes from hunting and reindeer herding. Using reindeer as a draft animal throughout the year enables them to cover great distances. Large-scale reindeer herding emerged in the 18th century. They bred the Samoyed dog to help herd their reindeer and pull their sleds, and European explorers later used these dogs for polar expeditions, because they were well adapted to the arctic conditions. Tundra wolves can cause considerable economic loss, as they prey on the reindeer herds which are the livelihood of some Nenets families. Along with reindeer meat, fish is a major component in the Nenets' diet. Nenets housing is conical yurt (mya).
They have a shamanistic and animistic belief system which stresses respect for the land and its resources.  During migrations, the Nenets placed sacred items like bear skins, religious figures, coins and more on a holy sleigh. The contents of this sacred sleigh are only unpacked during special occasions or for religious rituals (like sacrifices). However, only esteemed elders are allowed to unpack the sacred sleigh. They had a clan-based social structure. The Nenets shaman is called a Tadibya.
After the Russian Revolution, the Nenets culture suffered due to the Soviet collectivization policy. The government of the Soviet Union tried to force the nomadic Samoyeds to settle down permanently. They were forced to settle in villages and their children were educated in state boarding schools, which resulted in erosion of their cultural identity. One significant way in which the Nenets culture was affected was in the change of the male's societal role. Previously, in the tundra, the male had the very important task of herding the reindeer. However, once the Nenets had to transition to a life away from the tundra, men found that they had lost their role. Much of the responsibility that awaited them in the village was considered, from the traditional point of view, to be women's work . This erasure in the male identity was further enhanced by the Soviet government. In taiga villages occupations such as market gardening, fur farming, cattle breeding, trade, medicine, etc were emphasized and these happened to be the ones that were marketed towards women. Lastly, the jobs offered by the Soviet government were often occupied by women and not men as many of the men had taken up the habit of hard drinking. Consequently, the once traditional culture of the Nenets people was swiftly upended. Many, especially in the Nenets Autonomous Okrug, lost their mother tongue and became assimilated.
One repercussion from the collectivization policy was reindeer ownership. Due to the collectivization policy, many herders moved north while many of those that remained were "deprived of their reindeer". Nenets people once owned many reindeer but after the war, many Nenets had to transition to small-scale herding. Although the Nenets herders were greatly affected, their lifestyle was not at threat for too long. While in the rest of Russia, the collectivization policy lasted for a very long time, it was only invoked onto the Yamal area for a decade. This was because after Stalin's death in 1953, traditional economies were saved. 1950 to 1960 saw a 50% increase of reindeer and this number had almost doubled by 1980. The next few decades saw the slow progress of the Nenets people regaining and preserving their traditional nomadic lifestyle. The accomplishment of appeasing officials while maintaining their culture was achieved through a series of stratagems. For example, herders would often mix up the herds so that inspectors would find it impossible to see the true ratio of private to collective deer. Another method was for young herders to get a job as official workers of the state and pasture their own collective reindeer herd along with the private herd of one of their relatives. Once these herds were together and migration commenced, officials would not be able to know which of the reindeer were privately owned.
Since the 1930s, a few Nenets have expressed themselves professionally through cultural media. For instance, Tyko Vylka and Konstantin Pankov became well-known painters. Anna Nerkagi is one of the most celebrated Nenets writers. Yuri Vella, though living as a reindeer herder, has become the first writer in the Forest Nenets language.
Although the Nenets people were able to remain resilient in the face of continuous change and maltreatment, a new challenge now awaits them. Environmental damage to the Nenets' is significant due to industrialisation of their land, colonization and climate change. The Nenet people depend heavily on fishing and reindeer herding to support their lifestyle. However, these practices are very reliant on the environment which is under threat from the oil industry. Specifically, the nomadic lifestyle the Nenet people have been accustomed to for generations is in danger as the oil industries encroach on reindeer pasture and territory. Approximately half of the 10,000 Nenets people in the Yamal Peninsula are nomadic and herd reindeer. With oil industries continuing to expand, the impact on the Nenets people is expected to increase.
Oil Drilling in the Peninsula
Since the 1980s, the Arctic circle has gained the interest of those in the energy and mining industry. Although expansion halted briefly in the 1990s post-USSR disintegration, development picked up in 2004. As oil and gas companies continue to expand, along with it has come an expansion of infrastructure coming in the form of roads, power lines as well as human and vehicle traffic. A big milestone was in 2008, when Gazprom, the largest natural gas company in the world, entered the Yamal peninsula in their efforts to launch the Yamal Megaproject. Gazprom's arrival to the Yamal peninsula has brought about significant change to the area. According to the company's website, they operate a total of 32 fields. These fields bring in up to 360 billion cubic meters of gas per year and in 2019, Gazprom alone produced 96.3 billion cubic meters of gas. Another milestone was when Yamal LNG Project: Novatek, another Russian owned company, partnered with two other international corporations to build a plant on the Yamal peninsula in July 2013.
The Impact on the Nenets People
The impact of large energy corporations in the Yamal peninsula can be felt in numerous ways. The largest of these can be seen in the effects on migration routes. With the Nenets people being nomadic and reliant on reindeer husbandry, the migratory routes for the reindeer are very important to them. These migratory routes are very specific and a lot of consideration goes into planning them. Additionally, the herders believe that it is necessary for the reindeer to migrate in order for them to maintain their good health. The herders claim that this is because the vegetation found on the coast are good for reindeer as they are richer in salt and minerals. Also, by reaching the coast with the migrations, the reindeer are able to find relief from insects such as mosquito and botfly by avoiding infestation periods. These migratory routes that the herders and reindeer use are made of rugged terrain as they provide a good space to herd the reindeer. However, the companies that enter the Yamal peninsula also prefer this rugged terrain to build their infrastructure upon, causing a direct overlap in land of interest. For example, in the Bovanenko core area, a research study was conducted that found that industrial development targeted "rugged, elevated drier land" which is the type of land used by the reindeer herders. Thus, as the Nenets people rely on reindeer that, in turn, rely on the migratory routes, the expansion of industrial development has had a large impact on the Nenets people.
Although not directly related to migration routes, another impact is the effect on Nenets peoples' sacred spots. The Nenets people have a tradition of designating a scared spot where they make a request of the spirits for a successful migration. Nenets sacred spots are made into a major sand/quarry pit and marked by wooden pegs. In one case, a sacred spot of the Nenets people was fenced in during the industrial development, dissolving it of its traditional significance. Many of the workers believed that their construction did not actually intrude on the sacred spot, however many of the herders believed that the spot had been "desecrated". This difference in perceptions highlights how many non-indigenous people are only able to view land as something to be owned. Meanwhile, for indigenous people, such a viewpoint is non-existent. Herders have a spiritual relationship with the land and do not view it as simply owned vs not-owned.
Another smaller effect of the industrial development has been its impact on fish. Due to the industrial development, there has been a degradation of freshwater sources which has led to a decrease in the population. Additionally, the industrial development has spilled over to occupy much of the fishing grounds necessary for the Nenets people. As the Nenets people depend on the fish as their source of food in the summer, the depletion of fish has directly impacted the Nenets people.
Lastly, an impact that is loosely related with the migration routes is accessibility to health care clinics by the Nenets people. Since the arrival of large oil and gas companies in the 1990's, climate in the region has been impacted. In fact, since 1991 temperature anomalies in the Kanin have increased an estimated 1.4 degrees Celsius per decade. Within this same period, researchers found a trend of delayed herder arrivals to their local health clinic. Researchers cite the lengthening of the migrations as the reason for the delay. As the herders need open water to freeze to make crossings of reindeer and herders possible, there is a specific window in which herders can visit their local health clinics. Since 1991, the arrival of herders at one health clinic can be observed shifting from October to December, marking an evident postponement in arrival.
A Matter of Rights and The Rise of Nenets Activism
There are some Nenets people, activists, and researchers who are nervous about the current situation in the Yamal peninsula. This is because there is concern that authorities of the Nenets people will make a deal to merge with another region. Nenets people worry that the deal will lead to a passing in their autonomy as well as their language and traditions. As of November 2020, the Nenets people have not merged with other regions.
In a similar vain, Nenets people also face danger from industrial companies. Although the industrial companies have paid compensations and made efforts to assist the Nenets people, some experts say that the current process does not allow for participation from the Nenets people. This sort of relationship is described by some as "paternalistic" as it does not aid in allowing the Nenets people to make their own decisions.
The Nenets people have previously attempted to organize and protest against these oil and gas companies. However, it is difficult for the nomadic people to gather as a collective unit as they live so far apart from each other. An individual effort that was notable was Yuri Vella's protests. Vella was a Nenets writer and having lived near a lake that was licensed over to an oil company, protested often. Most notably, he is remembered for having stood up against a bulldozer alone with an axe.
Vella, however, is not alone in his activism. There exists a rural protest community called Voice of the Tundra that currently speaks on topics such as the rights of the Nenets people. As aforementioned, it is difficult to gather collectively and so this community relies on VKontakte, a Russian online service, to mobilize and communicate. Additionally, rather than being led by lawyers or journalists or scholars, the community has a young reindeer herder from the tundra as their leaders. The Voice of the Tundra focuses its attention on three main issues: a shortage of land for the reindeer due to oil and gas companies expanding use of the territories, the uncertainty surrounding the future of nomadic reindeer herding, and the lack of Indigenous leadership and organization.
The Voice of the Tundra project is being celebrated as it symbolizes a return of politics to Russia's Indigenous peoples. Specifically, a reindeer herder by the name of Eiko Serotetto is being heralded as the main activist generating the change. Serotetto is not someone who has had a traditional background or education. However, in 2016, he demonstrated that this would not weigh him down when he began to take action in the aftermath of the anthrax epidemic. Serotetto posted a petition on social media that asked for attention to be brought to the Indigenous peoples and their reindeers. Serotetto requested protection of Indigenous habitats, reindeer, and rights. This petition brought attention to the Russian officials who were not addressing the "real life of the tundra and Indigenous people". Later, Serotetto's most impactful petition was made when he advocated for the boycott of Russian oil and gas.
Although there are many Nenets people who are against the industrial development going on in the Yamal peninsula such as the activists aforementioned, there are also many who are in support of the developments. Those who are in favour of the developments highlight the economic benefits that they are able to receive. In a research study conducted in the area, one villager reported that they were able to coexist with the industries through social agreements, voluntary giving, and compensation for damages.
Some argue that this variance in support for the industrial companies from the Nenets people lies in factors such as active leadership from community leaders. This reasoning can be seen as falling similarly in line with what the Voice of the Tundra was fighting for, as it can be seen that proper Indigenous leadership and involvement can lead to higher satisfaction among the Nenets people.
- Tyko Vylka (1886–1960), painter
- Konstantin Pankov (1910–1942), painter (Mansi mother)
- Anastasia Lapsui (b. 1944), film director, screenwriter
- Yuri Vella (1948–2013), writer, poet, environmentalist, social activist
- Anna Nerkagi (b. 1952), writer, novelist, social activist
- Leonid Lar, writer, painter
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