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LOCATION: Russia (Northwestern Siberia)
POPULATION: 41,302 (2002 Census)
RELIGION: Eastern Orthodox Christianity, Native beliefs


For thousands of years, people have lived in the harsh arctic environment in what is today Russia. In prehistory, people relied exclusively on what nature provided and on what their ingenuity allowed them to use and create. The seas provided seals, walrus, and whales, and the rivers provided fish. The tundra abounded with reindeer, fox, and other animals as well as edible plants and berries. The land and all of these resources provided human groups with food, shelter, clothing, transportation, and the basis for a rich spiritual life. Today the land and seas and their plant and animal life also provide food, shelter, clothing, and transportation to the Nentsy people. Although many aspects of their lives have changed, the Nentsy continue to respect the land, and they rely on their traditional livelihoods of hunting, reindeer herding, and fishing, as well as on employment in the industrial world.

In the years following the Russian revolution in 1917, the Nentsy went from being considered subjects of the Russian Czar to being an ethnic minority within the Soviet Union. As members of a socialist society, they were expected to participate in the social and economic policies of the new government. These policies began in the 1930s and included collectivization, universal education, and assimilation. Collectivization meant turning over rights to land and reindeer herds to the Soviet government, which reorganized them into collective (kolkhoz) or state farms (sovkhoz). The Nentsy were expected to assimilate into the dominant Russian society, which meant changing the way they thought of themselves. They would no longer be an ethnic group called the "Nentsy" but instead would belong to a larger group, the "Soviet people," a change in identity made through education, new jobs, and close contact with members of other (mainly Russian) ethnic groups.

The Nentsy are one of five Samoyedic peoples, which include the Nentsy (Yurak), Entsy (Yenisei), Nganasany (Tavgi), Sel'kups, and Kamass (who became extinct as a group in the years following World War I). None of the names generally cited in the literature for the Nentsy people (such as Samoyed or Yurak) are ethnonyms (names that they would use for themselves). As is true of many northern peoples, names based on territorial groupings were common among the Nentsy. For example, in the western tundra, the Tundra Nentsy traditionally referred to themselves as nenei nenets' (real men), and in the eastern regions they used khasava (person, or man). The Forest Nentsy used the ethnonym neshcha' (men).


The Nentsy are generally divided into two groups, the Forest Nentsy and the Tundra Nentsy. The Tundra Nentsy live in a territory that extends from the Kanin peninsula in the west to the western part of the Taimyr peninsula in the east. To the south, their territory covers the forest tundra zone along the northern tree line. The northern boundary of the Tundra Nentsy territory is the arctic coastline, although some islands in the Kara and Barents seas are also included. Forest Nentsy territory lies within the taiga zone in the basins of the Pur and Nadym rivers and reaches the northern tributaries of the Vakh river. The Tundra Nentsy are found in three administrative areas. The Taimyr' (Dolgano-Nenets) Autonomous Okrug covers 862,100 sq km (332,400 sq mi) in its Krasnoiarsk krai; its administrative center is Dudinka. The Nenets Autonomous Okrug covers 176,000 sq km (67,900 sq mi) in Archangel'sk Oblast'; its administrative center is Nar'ian-Mar. The Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug covers 750,300 sq km (289,700 sq mi) in Tiumensk Oblast'; its administrative center is Salekhard. The territory of the Forest Nentsy is split between the Yamalo-Ne-nets Autonomous Okrug and the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug. In all of these administrative units, the Nentsy are a minority living among a majority immigrant (primarily Russian) population. The Russian census of 2002 recorded 41,302 Nentsy in the Russian Federation, the majority of whom (33,458) live in rural areas and follow a "traditional" way of life. When discussing Nenets lifestyles today, the Nentsy can be divided into three groups based on where they live: larger towns and cities, small rural villages, and the tundra and taiga.

A variety of animal and plant species are important to the traditional Nentsy economy because they provide food, clothing, building materials, transportation, and cash income. Seals (several species), walrus, and whales are all important along the arctic coast. Fish (saltwater and freshwater), polar fox, squirrel, wild reindeer, hare, ermine, bighorn sheep, geese, ducks, and other birds (such as ptarmigan) are also important resources found throughout the territory of the Nentsy. Many of these same resources are important in the contemporary Russian economy as well, where fish (Atlantic salmon, nelma, whitefish, herring, navaga) and furs, for example, have commercial value. The arctic zone has few lichens and shrubs and only sparse mosses and liverworts. The tundra area generally has willows and arctic birch trees, lichens, mosses, liverworts, and grasses. The northern boundary of the forest-tundra zone has forests of dahurian larch, spruce, and burch. Vast expanses of this area are covered with the lichens that both wild and domestic reindeer depend on for food.

Climatic conditions vary somewhat across the vast territory inhabited by the Nentsy. Winters are long and severe in the far north, with the mean January temperature ranging from -12°C (10°F) in the southwest of the Nenets Autonomous Okrug to -30°C (-22°F) in Dudinka. Summers are short and cool with frost. Temperatures in July range from a mean of 2°C (36°F) in Dudinka to 15.3°C (60°F) in southern parts of the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug. Humidity is relatively high, strong winds blow throughout the year, and permafrost is widespread.


Nenets is the language of the Nentsy people. It is part of the Samoyedic group of Uralic languages and has two main dialects: Forest and Tundra. Each of these main dialects is further divided into sub-dialects. In 1932, a Latin-based alphabet was created for the Nenets language, which had previously been unwritten. In 1937, the Latin alphabet was replaced by an alphabet based on the Russian language. In 1989, 77.7% of Nentsy said that Nenets was their native language; 17.6% considered Russian their native language. People who live in rural areas and are engaged in traditional economic activities use the Nenets language at home and work and thus consider it their native language. People who have moved to towns and cities spend more time among Russians and thus tend to use Russian more and forget their native Nenets language.


Oral history is very important, not only as entertainment, but also as a means of preserving the world view of the Nentsy, their rules for behavior, their past glories, their knowledge of the natural world, and their place in it. The oral tradition also explains the roles of men and women in Nenets society. The Nentsy have a rich and varied folklore that includes many different forms. Long heroic epics (siudbabts) are told in the third person about giants and the heroes who battle them for control of reindeer or a woman. Short personal narratives (yarabts) are told in the first person about the trials and triumphs of individual heroes. Legends (va'al) relate the history of clans and the origin of the world and its people. In fairy tales (vadako), mythical events occur in which the physiological and behavioral characteristics of certain animals are explained. Riddles (khobtsoko) are told in the form of short tales. Some types of stories are spoken, others chanted, and still others sung by the Nentsy.


Traditional Nentsy religion is a type of Siberian shamanism. The natural environment, animals, and plants were all viewed as having their own spirits. The earth and all living things were created by the god Num, whose son, Nga, was the god of evil. Num would help humans in their efforts to protect themselves against Nga only if they asked for help and made the appropriate sacrifices and gestures either directly to the spirits or to wooden idols made to give human forms to animals as gods. Shamans of different varieties acted as mediators between the spirit world and humans, conveying requests for help and the replies of Num to supplicants. Both men and women could be shamans. A second benevolent spirit, Ya-nebya (or "Mother Earth") was a special friend of women, aiding, for example, in childbirth. Worship of certain animals such as the bear was common. Reindeer were considered the embodiment of purity and accorded great respect. In some areas, elements of Christianity (especially from the Russian Orthodox church) were mixed with the traditional pantheon of gods. Although it was discouraged to conduct religious rituals during the Soviet period, the Nenets religion seems to have survived and is enjoying a strong revival today. Nenets religion stresses respect for the land and its resources. Spirits that protect and guide in both the household and the tundra are still provided with gifts of food and asked for aid and advice.

Another important religious tradition among the Nentsy is Eastern Orthodox Christianity. The Nentsy probably came into contact with Orthodox Christianity by means of Komi traders already before their incorporation into Russia. The Russian Orthodox Church began missionary activity among the Nentsy in the 18th century, but it was not until the 1820s that Russian missionaries succeeded in converting Nentsy communities in any lasting manner.


Traditional clothing worn on holidays is the same as daily wear, but much more ornate, with leather fringe, beads, and leather and metal ornaments.

Prior to the Socialist revolution, Nentsy who had been baptized into the Orthodox church celebrated such Christian holidays as Easter, but did not necessarily attach the same significance to these holidays as their Orthodox benefactors. After the Socialist revolution, religious beliefs and practices were forbidden by the Soviet government. Secular holidays were expected to completely replace those of both the Orthodox church and traditional Siberian shamanism. International holidays of special Soviet significance such as May Day and Victory in Europe Day were celebrated by Nentsy and all peoples throughout the Soviet Union.


Birth and death were always accompanied by special shamanic rituals. Births were accompanied by sacrifices, and the chum (tent) where the birth took place would be purified after the woman's confinement. Children were tended by their mothers until the age of 5 to 7 years, at which time gender roles began to be defined. Girls would then spend their time with their mothers, learning how to take care of the chum, prepare food, sew clothing, and so on. Boys would go with their fathers to learn how to tend reindeer, hunt, and fish.


Marriages were traditionally arranged by the heads of clans and served to strengthen the relationship between two clans, who often depended on each other in times of need. Family size varied, with as many as 15 or more individuals living in one household. Herders with large herds were able to afford more than one wife. "Bride price" might include reindeer, furs, money, or other goods and was paid to clan leaders. A bride brought a dowry to the marriage, including such things as household goods, clothing, sleds, and her own reindeer. All of these things were her property (as was anything she herself produced during her marriage), and if she divorced, she kept them. Only men inherited goods and animals, however. Marriages today are generally personal matters between adults.

There are strict divisions between the activities of men and women in traditional Nenets society. Women have the power and ability to both give life (through childbirth) and assure death. For example, in some Nenets folklore, women are called upon not to actually fight enemies but to assure their death by breaking male/female taboos in their presence.

Taboos that governed the relationships between men and women were observed, especially with regard to childbirth and menstruation. Although women were generally considered subordinate, the strict division of labor between men and women in the arctic made relations more equal than not.


Reindeer herding is a nomadic occupation, requiring herders and their families to move with the reindeer across the tundra to find new pastures throughout the year. Herding families live in tents made from reindeer hides or canvas and take their personal possessions with them as they travel, in some cases as many as 1000 kilometers in a year. Although official Soviet policy was to force people to settle in permanent, Russian-style homes in villages and towns, reindeer breeding makes this difficult, and many people still live nomadic lives. On the Yamal peninsula, for example, 51% of the indigenous population were nomadic in 1994, and more than half of this nomadic group was female, indicating that whole families, not just men, still lead somewhat traditional lives. These nomads are administratively attached to certain villages and towns, but they travel throughout the year with the reindeer herds. Nentsy engaged in non-traditional occupations live in Russian log houses or elevated apartment buildings, as do the non-Native residents of their territory. These Nentsy shop, attend school, and live in much the same way as non-Natives in their territory.

Transportation in the tundra is often by sleds pulled by reindeer, although helicopters, airplanes, snowmobiles, and all-terrain vehicles are also used, especially by non-Natives. The Nentsy have different types of sleds for different purposes, including traveling sleds for men, traveling sleds for women, and freight sleds.


Patrilineal clans were traditionally the basic units of Nenets society. Each clan had its own specific pastures, hunting grounds, fishing grounds, burial places, and sacred sites. Today there are still approximately 100 Nenets clans, and the clan name is used as the surname of each of its members. Although most Nentsy have Russian given (first) names, they are one of the few Native groups to have non-Russian surnames. Clan affiliation today is being used as the basis for legal claims to land and the protection of sacred sites. Kinship and family units continue to be the main organizing features of society in both urban and rural settings and often serve important functions in linking urban and rural Nentsy. Social behavior is focused on family and community, not on the individual. Rules regarding appropriate behavior are observed and often punished according to traditional guidelines handed down from elders to young.


Clothing is most often a combination of traditional and modern. People in towns and cities tend to wear modern clothes made of manufactured cloth, perhaps with fur coats and hats in winter. There are also modern clothes in rural villages and in the tundra, but traditional clothes tend to predominate as they are more suitable for the lifestyles of people in these areas. In the tundra, traditional clothing is generally worn in layers. The malitsa is a hooded coat made of reindeer fur turned inside-out. A second fur coat, the sovik, with its fur turned to the outside, would be worn on top of the malitsa in extremely cold weather. Women in the tundra might wear the yagushka, a two-layered open coat made with reindeer fur on both the inside and the outside. It extends almost to the ankles, and has a hood that is often decorated with beads and small metal ornaments. Fur boots (pimy) were worn by all. Generally speaking, there are no special traditional summer clothes. Older winter garments that are wearing out are used, and today lighter-weight manufactured garments are often worn. Each woman also has a reindeer-skin purse uniquely decorated to carry her personal belongings. Reindeer skins are the primary source of traditional clothing, but domestic dog, polar fox, and seal are also used, especially in collars, hoods, and decorative elements. Today many manufactured items are also used.


Reindeer are the most important source of food in the traditional Nenets diet. Russian bread, introduced to the Native peoples long ago, has become an essential part of their diet, as have other European foods. Tundra Nentsy rely on reindeer for food, whereas Forest Nentsy rely on reindeer primarily for transportation and rely instead on fishing and hunting for food and clothing. Nentsy hunt for wild reindeer, rabbits, squirrels, ermine, wolverine, and sometimes bears and wolves. Along the arctic coast, seal, walrus, and whales are hunted as well. Tea is a preferred beverage and is usually purchased on trips to villages, although traditionally it was made from cranberry leaves or the roots of various plants. Many foods are eaten in both raw and cooked forms. Fish, for example, can be eaten fresh, frozen, boiled, or dried. Meat is preserved by smoking and is also eaten fresh, frozen, or boiled. In the spring, reindeer antlers are soft and grisly and may be eaten raw or boiled. A type of pancake is made from frozen reindeer blood dissolved in hot water and mixed with flour and berries. Gathered plant foods were traditionally used to supplement the diet. Beginning in the late 1700s, imported foodstuffs such as flour, bread, sugar, and butter became important sources of additional food. Reindeer meat, antlers, and game are readily available in small villages, whereas non-traditional, imported foods are predominant in cities and towns.


When the Soviets came to power, Nentsy children were sent to school, sometimes in their village, but often to boarding schools far from their parents and other relatives. The Soviet government believed that by separating children from parents, they could teach the children to live in more modern ways, which they would then teach their parents. Instead, many children grew up learning the Russian language rather than their own Nenets language and so had difficulty communicating with their parents and grandparents. Children were also taught that traditional ways of living and working were bad and should be abandoned in favor of life in a modern industrial society. Thus, they learned little about their cultural traditions and the land on which their families depended. Settling families in permanent homes in villages was another means of educating children, and today most small villages have nursery schools and "middle" schools that go up to eighth grade and sometimes tenth. After the eighth (or tenth) grade, students must leave their village to receive a higher education, and such a journey for 15- and 16-year-olds can be quite daunting. Today, attempts are being made to change the educational system to include studies of Nentsy traditions, language, reindeer herding, land management, and so on. Educating children of herders, who spend most of the year away from any village, is still a difficult task. Traveling teachers who could move with the herding groups are one possible solution to this problem, but even this system would have limitations, especially as children grow older and require more specialized instruction. Educational opportunities at all levels are available to the Nentsy, from major universities to special technical schools where they can learn modern veterinary practices regarding reindeer breeding.


The territory now inhabited by the Nentsy had long been inhabited by other non-Samoyedic people. These people hunted wild reindeer on the tundra, fished in the numerous lakes and rivers, and hunted seals, walrus, and whales along the arctic coast. Archaeological and linguistic evidence has shown that Samoyedic peoples and their languages came north, mixing with and eventually assimilating peoples who had been in those areas previously. The Nentsy seem to have first been concentrated around the mouth of the Ob' river, and from there they moved north approximately 1000 years ago. The first mention of Samoyedic people in Western sources is in the Nestor Chronicle, where they are mentioned in connection with events that took place in the year 1096. Samoyedic peoples, have, therefore, long had some contact with Europeans. The Nentsy and other Samoyedic peoples did not willingly accept the interference of either Czarist Russia or the Soviet government in their affairs, and beginning in at least the 14th century they often put up fierce resistance to attempts to conquer and control them. Today they continue to struggle for control of their own lives.


Nentsy have traditionally been reindeer herders, and today reindeer are still a very important part of their lives. Oral traditions from the early 1900s tell of Nentsy clans in Yamal whose livelihood focused on coastal sea-mammal hunting, and evidence exists of Nentsy involvement in commercial hunting and fishing in the arctic seas in the 1700s. Today, sea-mammal hunting is secondary to reindeer herding in the overall economy of the Nentsy. In traditional Nentsy society, the basic social unit was the individual family; in reindeer herding, however, the basic unit was the herding camp, composed of two to five families, each related to the other by blood, marriage, or other partnership ties. Although collectivization and forced sedentarization often seriously disrupted this system, herding groups today continue to be formed around a family core or group of related people.

Reindeer herding among the northern Tundra Nentsy is characterized by the year-round pasturing of reindeer under supervision of herders and the use of herd dogs and reindeer-drawn sleighs. Herds are kept in well-defined pasture areas and moved at specific times of year. Seasonal migrations cover great distances, as much as 1000 kilometers (more than 600 miles). In winter, herds are grazed in the tundra and forest-tundra. In the spring, the Nentsy migrate north, some as far as the arctic coast; in the fall, they return south again. Herding dogs are important in helping herders control and move herds, which may number in the thousands of animals.

The Forest Nentsy who live to the south have smaller herds, which are grazed in the forest. Their winter pastures are only 40 to 100 kilometers (25 to 60 miles) from their summer pastures. In the summer, the Forest Nentsy turn their reindeer loose while they fish along the rivers. In the fall, the herds are gathered back together and moved to winter grounds. These herds usually number twenty or thirty animals. Reindeer-herding families among the Forest Nentsy also make extensive use of forest and river resources, including hunting and fishing, to supply food and other products for their families.

In addition to food and clothing, reindeer provide transportation (pulling sleds) and additional income (from the sale of antler velvet, or panty which is used in Korea for medicinal purposes). Some families have herds large enough to support themselves independently of the state economy, but others combine work for the state with herding to make a living. Families with few reindeer often live close to rivers and lakes, where they can focus on fishing and hunting while giving their reindeer to a relative to tend. A fairly strict division of labor between men and women is characteristic of Nenets society. Men are primarily responsible for subsistence activities, and women are responsible for the dwelling, clothing, food preparation, and children. There are, of course, times when women gather plants foods and fish, and when men supervise children and cook. Nentsy living in urban areas work as: teachers, nurses, doctors, store clerks, and so on. In rural areas, most Nentsy are engaged in at least some aspects of traditional livelihood, although some are teachers, cooks, or store clerks as well. In villages or the city, women are still responsible for children and the home in addition to working outside the home.


There is little information on sports among the Nentsy. Recreational activities such as bicycle riding occur in the villages.


Children in urban communities can enjoy riding bicycles, watching movies, or television, and other modern forms of recreation, but children in rural settings are more limited. In villages, there are bicycles, manufactured toys, televisions, radios, VCRs, and sometimes movie theaters. In the tundra, there might be radio and an occasional store-bought toy, but children also depend on their imaginations and the games and toys of their nomadic ancestors. Balls are made of reindeer or seal skin. Dolls made from felt with heads made from birds' beaks are not only toys but important items in Nentsy tradition. These dolls play the roles of: father and mother, host and guest, bride and groom, and in such play children learn the roles of males and females in their societies. The destiny of a doll is said to be the destiny of its owner, so a doll is a special part of a child's world.


There is generally little spare time to devote to hobbies in Nentsy society. Folk arts are represented in the figurative art that adorns traditional clothing and some personal items. Other forms of expressive arts include carving on bone and wood, in-lays of tin on wood, and wooden religious sculptures. Carvings are sometimes used to decorate sleds, smoking pipes, and kolotushki (scrapers to remove snow from fur), but this practice is not widespread. Among some Nentsy, tin and sometimes lead were used to decorate wooden objects such as the handles of knives and tobacco boxes. Wooden sculptures of animals or humans as representations of gods took two basic forms: wooden sticks of various sizes with one or more crudely carved faces on their upper portions and carefully carved and detailed figures of people, often dressed with real furs and skins. The ornamentation of women's clothing was especially widespread and continues to be important. Medallions and appliqués are made with furs and hair of different colors and then sewn on to the clothing.


The economic basis of Nentsy culture—the land and the reindeer herds—are threatened today by the development of natural gas and oil. Economic reforms and democratic processes in Russia today present both new opportunities and new problems for the Nentsy. Natural gas and oil are critical resources that Russia's economy desperately needs to develop. On the other hand, the reindeer pasture destroyed by resource development and the construction of pipelines is critical to the survival of the Nentsy culture. These two land use strategies compete with each other, and complex negotiations are needed to ensure that pasturage is protected and resource development is environmentally safe and not without limits.

Unemployment, inadequate health care, alcohol abuse, and discrimination all contribute to declining standards of living and increased morbidity and mortality among the Nentsy (and other northern indigenous groups). Social welfare payments for children, pensioners, and the disabled are essential to the well-being of many families unable to support themselves entirely through jobs or traditional means. Native peoples throughout the Russian North have begun to organize and discuss solutions to these problems and to assert their rights as distinctive ethnic groups in a multiethnic society. In Yamal, for example, the Nentsy have formed Yamal Potomkan ("Yamal for Future Generations"), an organization through which they can work with legislative and political bodies in their region to improve social, economic, and political conditions for the Nentsy.


Within the family, work is divided along gender lines. Women are responsible for the home, food preparation, shopping, and child care. Some men follow traditional occupations, and others choose professions such as medicine or education. They might also take jobs as laborers or serve in the military. In towns and villages, women may also have non-traditional jobs as teachers, doctors, or store clerks, but they are still primarily responsible for domestic chores and child care. Extended families often include some individuals engaged in traditional occupations and some engaged in non-traditional work. Communication and exchange in such families is important in helping to maintain cultural traditions in the villages and in ensuring that manufactured goods are sent to the tundra. Among the traditional Nentsy women had strong property rights with respect to reindeer. During the Soviet era, especially following Collectivization, women's property rights, together with private property as a whole, were strongly degraded. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union traditional women's property rights with respect to reindeer herds have begun to make somewhat of a comeback.


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—by D. L. Schindler; revised by A. Frank