views updated


ETHNONYMS: Avam, Nya, Tarvgi-Samoyeds, Tavgi


Identification. The Nganasan are settled on the Taimyr Peninsula, which is part of the Taimyr (Dolgan-Nenets) Autonomous District (okrug ), which, in turn, is part of the Krasnoyarsk Krai of the Russian Federation. The Nganasan thus lack national autonomy, living as migrants with the Dolgans and other distinct ethnic groups. Several isolated families live in the district capital of Dudinka, others in other regions of the Russian Federation.

Location. The Taimyr Peninsula is entirely above the Artic Circle, in the permafrost zone. The Nganasan, as pastoralists, hunters of wild reindeer, and reindeer herders, mastered the territory in the center of the peninsula between 69° and 76° latitude and today move north in the spring and south in the fall, following the reindeer migration. The basic routes run along the North Siberian plain, which is enclosed between the Byrranga Plateau in the north and the Putorana Mountain in the south. The northern limits of the migration east of Taimyr reached 77° N, skirting Lake Taimyr. Practically all of this nomadic territory was in the tundra, covered with many small lakes and the sinuous channels of rivers bordered by clumps of low-growing willows, alders, and dwarf birches. In winter the Nganasan drew near to the forested tundra, situated along the divide between the basin of the Piasin River and the small northern tributaries of the Kheta and Khatanga rivers.

The climate is very severe. In the "spring" (i.e., the beginning of July) the rivers open up; icing over in the autumn takes place about the middle of September in the southern part of this land. On the northern lakes the ice usually melts toward the end of August, but sometimes endures throughout the entire short summer. The average mid-January temperature in Dudinka is 28° C; in July it is 12.9° C. Strong winds are frequent. Polar night lasts 65 days; polar day, 83 days.

Today the Nganasan are almost entirely concentrated in three small villages. The Western group of the Nganasan live in Ust'-Avam and Volochanka. The Eastern group (Vad) live in the village of Novaia Demografiia.

Demography. According to the 1989 census, the population of the Taimyr Autonomous District (TAD) was 55,000, of whom about 16 percent were peoples of the North. The number of Nganasan in the Russian Federation is 1,262. In the TAD they constitute only 1.7 percent of the inhabitants. Since 1979 their number in the Russian Federation has increased by 420; 347 now live in cities, as against 83 in 1979. About 31.6 percent live beyond the boundaries of the TAD.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Nganasan language belongs to the Northern Samoyed Linguistic Group, together with Nenets and Enets. The Western Nganasan speak the Avam dialect and the Eastern, the Vad dialect. They are mutually intelligible. Samoyed, along with Finno-Ugric, is part of the Uralic Language Family. Nganasan lacked writing until recently. In villages the native language is still used among Nganasan in all spheres of life, and it is the language in which radio broadcasts are made. Today Nganasan is taught in school and an ABC book is being created. All Nganasan except the very old have a good command of Russian, and speakers of the Vad dialect also speak Dolgan.

History and Cultural Relations

Among the ancestors of the Nganasan there are descendants of the oldest of the northernmost populations of EurasiaNeolithic hunters of wild reindeer whose presence on the peninsula has been established through archaeological finds dating from the fifth millenium b.c. The subsequent migrations and cultural innovationsrelated particularly to the domestication and herding of reindeer and the emergence of bronze castingdid not affect a basic economic tradition that was mainly oriented to the reindeer hunt until the eleventh century a.d. After that there follows a lacuna in sources up to the seventeenth century, when written documents related to the Russian conquest of Siberia and the imposition of a tax (Russian: iasak ) on the population of the peninsula begin to appear. In the eighteenth century, the Nganasan consolidated as a distinct ethnie group comprised of at least five different tribal groupings, including some Tungus speakers. The Nganasan pastoral areas to the south and east were adjacent to those of the Evenk and, to the west, of the Enets and Nenets. The Nganasan are culturally closer to the Enets. In subsequent centuries the Yakut penetrated the Taimyr Peninsula from the southeast, gradually assimilating the local Evenk. This gave rise to a new ethnic group, the Dolgan, which also included Russians. The Dolgan pushed the Nganasan yet further to the north. The southern areas remained unaffected and were controlled jointly by all inhabitants. From the seventeenth century on, the Nganasan gradually shifted to domestic reindeer herding, and by the beginning of the twentieth century they had become the wealthiest reindeer herders in the Taimyr area, preserving the traditions of hunters of the wild reindeer, particularly hunts by battue and hunts at river fords. After the establishment of Soviet power, kinship-based soviets were first established among the Nganasan, followed by nomadic and communal soviets as organs of self-government. The first state-controlled collective economic units were created in 1930. Between 1970 and 1983, in response to the rapid growth of wild reindeer herds, the Eastern Nganasan kept only one herd and the Western Nganasan lost all their domestic reindeer.


At the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries the Nganasan lacked permanent settlements. Their nomadic collectives consisted of two or three related families, the migration routes of whichand they were not always the samewere worked out in advance among neighbors. For a more successful battue and hunt on the rivers, several collectives combined their efforts. A stopping place or site usually consisted of three or four conical dwellings (tipis) made of poles joined at the top and covered with skins, easily transportable on sleds. Four to eight people, including children, typically lived in one tipi. In the 1940s small frame houses on runners and drawn by reindeer came into use. In the 1930s construction of villages of three to five houses was begun, with the goal of making the nomads sedentary and guaranteeing them medical aid and access to education and culture. In the 1960s these small villages were deserted and all construction was transferred to larger settlements. In 1988, 655 people lived in Ust'-Avam: 281 Nganasan and 319 Dolgan. Of the 991 in Volochanka, 385 were Nganasan and 361 Dolgan. In Novaia Demografiia, of 331, 81 were Nganasan and 212 Dolgan. The houses typically have three or four apartments and are heated with imported coal. There are also group (team) dwellings at distant centers of production. These villages are linked by air and, in the summer, by river transport.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The basic orientation of the economy is fishing, hunting, reindeer breeding, and animal raising (blue arctic fox). Almost all the men are trappers and fishermen. The polar fox industry produces the highest income, followed by the income from hunting wild reindeer at autumn fords. Fish, fur, and venison are sold to agents at government-fixed prices. Part of the venison and fish remains in the local economy and is sold in village stores. Aside from this, all the inhabitants catch fish and hunt, storing food for the family. The rest is sent to the towns of Dudinka, Noril'sk, and beyond the boundaries of the TAD. Furs reach the central governmental departments and are sold at annual international auctions. The population obtains local food products and industrial goods through village stores, where imported vegetables and fruits are also bought and sold. The state invests considerable sums to subsidize these goods; to construct dwellings, clinics, and schools; and to pay the expenses of students.

Industrial Arts. In village sewing shops and at home, Nganasan women produce such items for trade as cured reindeer hides, national-style footwear ornamented with fur inlay, cloth, beads, small souvenir rugs, and, often, fashionings from reindeer hide and stitched fur clothing.

Trade. In the village stores supplies are usually brought in during the spring on navigable rivers. Later in the year they are transported by air. In the course of the winter a traveling merchant visits distant hunters. The hunting sites are connected by radio.

Division of Labor. Traditionally, as today, hunting and reindeer breeding were male activities. All housework is the woman's responsibilty, including the labor-intensive sewing of the hunter's fur clothing. The work of the women, who often live with preschool children at the hunting site, is extremely demanding. In the villages today, however, husbands stoke the stove, prepare the fuel for it, and sometimes even cook if the wife is busy.

Land Tenure. The land of the village soviets belonged to the state, which assigned hunting and fishing territories and controlled the nomadic movements of the reindeer breedersfor the most part in accord with the traditional sites and routes of migration. Current reforms in Russia will undoubtedly result in radical changes.


Kinship Groups and Descent. At about the beginning of the twentieth century there were five exogamous clans with patrilineally inherited names among the Avam-Nganasan. Moreover, marriage was prohibited along both matrilineal and patrilineal lines up to three degrees. Given the relatively small population, it might seem from the outside that all of these people were more or less related; nevertheless, exogamy was strictly observed. In extreme cases Enets might emerge as marriage partners. Among the Vad at this time there were seven clans, which also observed bilateral exogamy but entered more freely into marriage with Dolgans. As long as exogamy was observed, premarital sexual relations were not condemned. In recent times there have been occasional breaches of exogamy. Marriages with members of neighboring groups are common now, usually between a Nganasan woman and an outsider. Such marriages are often unstable and, in the majority of cases, the children are considered Nganasan and remain with the mother. The formerly clear delimination of Nganasan clans is becoming less clear. For example, there are now Dolgan men with Nganasan clan names resulting from marriages to Nganasan women.

Kinship Terminology. By tradition, a younger person may not address an elder by name, but only by a kinship-affinity or relative-age term. Given exogamous names, a knowledge of kinship is vital. The terminology for members of the older generation and that of Ego is complicated and elaborate. The system as a whole does not have "descriptive" terms (i.e., for one particular type of relative) but, rather, is classificatory and reckons in terms of lineage and age.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Traditional marriage was concluded between young people at about 17 to 18 years of age, when they had shown they were capable of caring for a family: a man by success in the hunt and reindeer herding and by the ability to prepare sleds, tipis (Russian: chum ), poles, and a wooden cradle; a woman by her ability to set up a tipi, process hides, sew clothes, and prepare food. Control over these matters was by the oldest generation. All negotiations between the clans of the groom and of the bride were conducted by specially selected persons, who reached an agreement about the gifts to be exchanged. During the first period after the wedding the young couple lived alternately with the parents of the groom and those of the bride. Then they set up their own dwelling and, with the support of relatives, organized their household economy. Premarital children were never an obstacle to a marriage and often remained in the family of the bride's father. Today marriage is registered in the village soviet in accordance with the law. The young couple settle in with parents or other relatives in the village, or at a hunting site. They eventually receive a government apartment.

Domestic Unit. Previously the nomadic collective included several related families. Now nuclear families predominate, usually consisting of a married couple in their productive years and their children. Parents often prefer to live separately from their grown children, unless they are left alone (i.e., by the death of a spouse). Older children usually study far from the family dwelling, returning only for vacations. Cooperation between families is common, and it is obligatory to provide old people with game from the hunt.

Inheritance. According to traditional law, the youngest son inherits his father's reindeer and his livestock mark. The nomadic dwelling is usually left at the grave site; sometimes it continues to be occupied by those who lived with the owner before his death (after a cleaning ritual has been carried out).

Socialization. Earlier, all education pertaining to the hunt, reindeer breeding, fishing, and knowledge of the kinship system and the management of the economy took place in the family or the nomadic group. Today the government, through kindergartens, schools, and special schools, has taken this obligation upon itselffor the most part tearing the children away from the traditional family. The influence of the family is sufficient, however, to make people regard their language as their native one, to value their ethnic identity, and to have some knowledge of their traditions. Usually after about the age of 30, having completed their schooling and returned to their family and their traditional activities, children begin to reacquaint themselves with their traditional culture.

Sociopolitical Organization

The Nganasan have their representatives in each of the three village soviets as well as in the Taimyr District Soviet. They do not have their own representative in any of the higher organs of power of the Russian Federation.

Social Organization. The majority of Nganasan are trappers and fishers, seamstresses, animal herders, and, to some extent, reindeer breeders. Some work in local institutions of public health or culture and in schools or boarding schools. Hunting brigades are sometimes formed according to traditional kinship principles.

Political Organization. In December 1989 the Association of Native Peoples of the TAD was set up for the defense of their rights; the Nganasan also joined. They also have a representative on the Council of the Association of Minority Peoples of the North, the founding meeting of which took place in Moscow in March 1990.

Social Control. Village soviets and groups for public control connected with state enterprises are called on to combat offenses against the norms of customary law. A major role in the local village is played by public opinion (formed under the influence of the older generation).

Conflict. Before the Taimyr became part of Russia, bloody conflicts often arose among the various nomadic groups, even between Nganasan groups that were related to each other. These conflicts, as reflected in folklore, were basically over the control of reindeer herds. Russian power reduced these conflicts, but there were still occasional skirmishes with small governmental military units until the nineteenth century, by which time the territories of migration and of the autumnal hunts at river fords were almost completely stabilized. The wealthier Nganasan and Dolgan reindeer breeders suffered because of collectivization policies and expropriation of the reindeer herds in the 1930s. Their ensuing revolt was put down and many people were repressedincluding the shamans. Later the Nganasan took part in World War II (1941-1945); their collective economies supplied the army with warm clothing, meat, and fish.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Reverence for the Great Mother Sun, Earth, Moon, Water, Fire, etc. was characteristic of earlier, shamanistic folk beliefs and shamanism. In contrast to neighboring peoples, the Nganasan were not subjected to Christianization. The contemporary younger generation, which observes certain traditional customs, is basically nonreligious. The last acknowledged Nganasan shaman died in 1989. Old people, however, can sometimes give help by methods that are close to those of the shamans.

Ceremonies. At the beginning of the twentieth century there were still several seasonal holidays and rituals that were common to the Avam and Vadev. There were rituals for the success of the hunt, for preparing the herd, and for improving the health of the community. Today general governmental holidays are observed. There are attempts to reestablish ritual with the participation of a shaman, but at the level of a folklore festival.

Arts. The ability of women to decorate the national fur costume is still highly valued today. Up to the present time there are personal songs or melodies in use that can be given as gifts or transmitted by inheritance. Some old men preserve epic oral folklore, which they sing, as well as historical legends and myths. The basic musical instrument, which is disappearing from everyday use, is the shaman's tambourine.

Medicine. Popular techniques of curing are limited. The shaman was usually concerned with health and exorcising the spirit of evil. Today there is in each of the three settlements a small hospital with a staff of medical personnel and the potential for transporting an ill person out to a large medical center by air.

Death and Afterlife. Traditionally, death is a boundary beyond which life continues in another world with the same activities as in this life. The Nganasan hold a funeral for an old man by placing him in a sleigh above ground, in a tipi without a covering, and supplying him with the needed possessions and food for the road. Today, the usual grave in the earth is becoming more common. It is to be visited once a year on the anniversary of death, but after three years should be left in peace.


Gracheva, G. N. (1983). Traditsionnoye mirovozzreniye okhotnikov Taimyra (The traditional worldview of the hunters of Taimyr). Leningrad: Science.

Popov, A. A. (1964). "The Nganasans." In The Peoples of Siberia, edited by M. G. Levin and L. P. Potapov, 571-586. Translated by Stephen P. Dunn and Ethel Dunn. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Originally published in Russian in 1956.

Popov, A. A. (1984). Nganasany: Sotsialnoye ustroystvo i verovaniya (Nganasans: Social organization and creed). Leningrad: Science.

Simchenko, Yu. B. (1976). Cultura okhotnikov na oleney severnoy Yevrazy (Culture of the hunters of cervines in northern Eurasia). Moscow: Science.

Tereshchenko, N. M. (1979). Nganasanski yazyk (Nganasan language). Leningrad: Science.

GALINA N. GRACHOVA (Translated by Paul Friedrich)