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Nenets: People of Siberia

written by: Laura Jean Karr • edited by: Donna Cosmato • updated: 3/1/2013

The people of the Nenet tribe have survived an arctic environment for thousands of years. Learn how the traditions and customs of the Nenets have been shaped through generations of nomadic tundra life.

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    Three Separate Tribes

    Siberia is a vast expanse of land that covers the upper area of the Asian continent. The totality of its expanse includes both the eastern and central part of what is now known as the Russian Federation. The land mass that is under Russian rule holds the history and survival of the Nenet peoples.

    The Nenet tribe itself, that was once a central nomadic tribe established sometime before the twelfth century, has since branched into three separate tribes. The main tribe, which we focus on here, is the Tundra Nenets who travel with and herd the local reindeer. The second tribal branch is the Forest Nenets, which are also called the Khandeyar, who chose to settle in forested areas rather than the tundra and the third branch are the Kominized. The Kominized Nenets are known as such due to their intermarrying and settling with the Komi people of what is now known as the Republic of Komi. The Republic of Komi is located west of the Ural Mountains.

    Since the two branch tribes have come from the Tundra Nenets, each group shares some of the traditions and customs of the Nenets as a whole. The main difference between each of the three is that the original tribe’s way of life and survival began from being dependent on reindeer herds, and that remains a central aspect to their people today.

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    Revolving Around Reindeer

    reindeer2 The Tundra Nenets people developed their way of life around the Eurasian Tundra Reindeer. This specific reindeer breed offers many advantages to survival in the arctic like climate. The animal has hooves, which are designed to dig easily through the snow. They use these hooves when hunting down edible lichen by scent so that they can offer a food source as well as be one.

    More reasons for a tribe to align with tundra reindeer are:

    • Warm, thick hides provide clothing and homes
    • Sustainable tools can be made throughout the antler growing and shedding cycles
    • Migration for favorable survival
    • Sinew used for threading and fishing line
    • Milk from the females
    • Cheeses and butter made from the milk
    • Pack-carrying

    With the shortage of domestically available animals in the tundra, despite with the abundance of predatory animals, the reindeer has been an overall boon to the Nenets people. In fact, this is a boon of such importance that without it, the tribe may not have survived into the modern day.

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    Shamanism and Song

    Shaman The Nenets, being a nomadic tribal people, have developed a shamanistic religious culture based on a high reverence for nature. Aligning their survival to that of the reindeer, the tribe gives back to ecosystem as a whole instead of just taking and depleting the natural resources that are afforded to them in the tundra.

    The collection of shamans for the tribe are called Tadibya, and there are three levels of shamanistic ability. The first level is called Sambana; these are the shamans who focus on communication with the dead (both human and animal) as well as hold rituals that pertain to different aspects of death.

    The second level is that of Yanyani, and these are the shamans who are responsible for communing with the land and elements to ensure that a balance is kept. Third, there are the Vidutana who incorporate the other two levels in addition to being the main shamanic tribal presence for the everyday life or “upper world".

    Altogether there are the lower world, middle world, and the upper world. Each world has different levels in which to excel and all are under the direction of four main god archetypes. The first two represent the duality of the male and female dynamic and are called Ya’Minya and Mikola Mutratna. The second two represent the underworld (Nga) and heaven (Num).

    In order for one to become a shaman, they must first be trained by an elder shaman. This process requires exposure to the elements so that the person becoming a shaman will feel the difference between their body and their spirit. It is the spirit world of all living things past and present that the shamans focus on. This process relies heavily on oral tradition as does much of the Nenets culture.

    The main way in which the Nenets culture survives generation to generation is through song. Song is the main structure of their tribal history and is used both to teach younger members about their people and to carry on tribal traditions.

    The wording used for their tribe shamans and songs comes from their main dialect of n'enytsia vada, which is a second branch language of the Uralic language family.

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    References

    Andrei V. Golonev, Siberian Survival: The Nenets and Their Story, Cornell University Press, 1999

    The Endangered Uralic Peoples, http://www.suri.ee/eup/

    The Process and Education of Nenets Shamans by Leonid Lar, http://www.taraka.pl/shamaedu.htm

    Image Credit: © 2010 Russian Geographical Society, All Russian Non-Governmental Organization