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ETHNONYMS: Yurak, Yurak-Samoyeds


Identification. The Nenets are the largest of the groups generally referred to as the "Samoyeds." The Samoyeds also comprise three other linguistically related ethnic entities: the Enets, the Nganasan, and the Selkup. Two more Samoyed peoples, the Mator and the Kamas, survived until modern times (the nineteenth and twentieth centuries) but are now extinct. The Samoyed peoples may be divided into three groups according to their ecological environments: the Tundra Samoyeds, the Taiga or Forest Samoyeds, and the Mountain Samoyeds. Culturally, the most archaic group of the Tundra Samoyeds is the Nganasan, whereas the Selkup are the most typical Forest Samoyed group. In this division, the Nenets and the Enets show a dual cultural affiliation in that they are comprised of both tundra- and taiga-dwelling groups; these groups are referred to as the "Tundra Nenets," the "Forest Nenets," the "Tundra Enets," and the "Forest Enets." The Mountain Samoyeds used to comprise the Mator and the Kamas. Although linguistically extinct, the latter still survive to some extent in the modern Khakas and Tuvan ethnic groups. An especially remarkable remnant of the Mountain Samoyeds is formed by the culturally unique northeastern groups of the Tuvans, the Tofalar.

The modern international name of the Nenets derives, through Russian, from the Nenets noun nyenecyaq (singular, nyenecyq ), "human beings," used as an ethnonym by western groups of the Tundra Nenets. An etymological cognate of this item in the form nyeesyaaq (singular, nyeesyang ) is used ethnonymically by the Forest Nenets, and further etymological cognates underlie the modern appellations of the Enets and the Nganasan. Eastern groups of the Tundra Nenets traditionally call themselves Khásawaq (singular, Khásawa), "men." In the past the Nenets were normally referred to as the "Yurak" or the "Yurak-Samoyeds," or even simply as "Samoyeds." The other Samoyed peoples have also been known by a variety of alternative ethnonyms, all of them covered by the general appellation "Samoyed." In modern ethnic taxonomy the term "Samoyed" is used to refer to the whole group of the six distinct Samoyed peoples, with no specific reference to any one of them.

Location. The Tundra Nenets territory extends from Kanin Peninsula at the White Sea in the west (approximately 45° E) to the western part of Taimyr Peninsula in the east (approximately 85° E), a distance of some 2,000 kilometers. Descendants of a small group of recent Tundra Nenets settlers also live on Kola Peninsula. In the north the Tundra Nenets territory follows the arctic coast, but extends to a number of islands in the Barents and Kara seas, including Kolguyev, the southern part of Novaia Zemlia (approximately 72° N, now abandoned because of nuclear tests in the late 1950s), and Vaigach. In the south the Tundra Nenets territory follows the northern tree line, but also covers the forest tundra zone, yielding an overall width varying between approximately 100 and 700 kilometers north to south. The Forest Nenets territory, on the other hand, is more compact and is completely located within the taiga zone, extending over the region between the northern tributaries to the middle course of the Ob River (approximately 70° E) in the west and the upper course of the Pur River (approximately 77° E) in the east, a distance of some 400 kilometers.

The territories of both the Tundra Nenets and the Forest Nenets (as well as those of the Enets and the Nganasan) are climatically well within the arctic zone. The landscape is covered by snow for most of the year, and the rivers flowing into the Arctic Ocean are free of ice only for a few months, starting in June or July. The mean temperature of the coldest month (January) varies between 15° C and 30° C; that of the warmest month (July) is around +10° C. The tree line is mainly formed by the larch on the Siberian side, whereas in the European Arctic the birch is the typical northernmost tree. The climatic conditions are reflected in the fact that the principal garment of all of the Tundra Samoyeds is the fur coat, parka in Nenets (the source of the English word "parka"). Clothing is often worn in two layers, consisting of an inner coat with the fur inside and an outer coat with the fur outside. The main material for the clothing comes from reindeer hides, but hides from other mammals, including the polar fox, various seals, the squirrel, and the domestic dog are also used occasionally. During the summer the climate allows lighter clothing made of imported textile material.

Demography. The Nenets are today numerically the largest and in many respects the most vigorous of the so-called small minorities of the Far North. Numbering more than 34,000 individuals (1989), they are also the largest Samoyed people, by far exceeding in number the Selkup (fewer than 3,600 individuals), the Nganasan (slightly more than 1,200 individuals), and the Enets (less than 200 individuals). The overwhelming proportionprobably more than 95 percentof all Nenets belong to the Tundra Nenets subgroup, whereas the Forest Nenets remain of marginal demographic importance. Unlike the other Samoyed peoples, whose populations are today either stable or declining, the Nenets show a steady population growth (about 20 percent between 1970 and 1989). Although no exact statistical data are available, it may be presumed that the death rate among certain segments of the Nenets population, notably young males, is still exceptionally high, as it is among all the "small peoples of the Far North."

Linguistic Affiliation. The Forest Nenets are separated linguistically from the Tundra Nenets by a considerable dialectal difference, rendering the two idioms almost mutually unintelligible. The dialectal differences within Forest Nenets are also relatively great, whereas Tundra Nenets is remarkably uniform over the huge territory where it is spoken. This situation makes the native language sociolinguistically viable as the vernacular of the Tundra Nenets even in the future. Nevertheless, the native-language proficiency rate is slowly deteriorating among the Nenets (between 1970 and 1989 it fell from some 83 percent to some 79 percent, but the figure is probably higher if only the Tundra Nenets are considered). At the same time, knowledge of Russian as a second language is increasing rapidly. This, in turn, is beginning to have demographic consequences in that it furthers an increase in ethnically mixed marriages. There is also local bilingualism with other neighboring languages, notably Komi and Khanty. Bilingualism with Nenets is widespread among the remaining Enets population. Although Nenets and Enets are two distinct and mutually unintelligible languages, the Nenets seem to have been assimilating parts of the Enets population for a long time. Historical data indicate that an intermediate idiom, today technically termed "Yurats" (or Yurak), still existed in the eighteenth century and was ultimately assimilated by the Nenets.

History and Cultural Relations

From archaeological and folkloric evidence it is known that the territory now inhabited by the Nenets had human populations long before the spread of any Samoyed language to the north. In all likelihood, traces of these populations still survive in the composition of the modern Nenets, although the original pre-Nenets languages have become extinct. This means that the modern Nenets may be assumed to have two basic ethnogenetic components: a northern component, continuing the earlier local arctic populations, and a southern component, connected with the introduction of the Samoyed language to the north. A similar dualism may be assumed to characterize the ethnogenesis of the Enets and the Nganasan. It has been assumed that Nenets society may still show traces of an earlier division into two exogamic phratries, corresponding to the southern and northern ethnogenetic components. Although not proven in detail, this assumption is supported to some extent by the information that an analogous phratrial division is characteristic of the aboriginal peoples living immediately to the south of the Nenets, notably the Mansi and Khanty, and also of the Selkup.

Together with the other Samoyed peoples, the Nenets belong linguistically to the easternmost or Samoyed Branch of the Uralic Language Family. The core territory of the Proto-Uralic speech community was presumably located in the region of the southern Urals, from where the Samoyed branch separated by diffusion toward the east. The Proto-Samoyed speech community seems to have centered on the region between the middle courses of the Ob and Yenisei rivers in western Siberia, where it underwent further diffusion after the so-called Hunnic period in Central Eurasian history (beginning approximately 200 b.c.). As a result, the linguistic ancestors of the Mountain Samoyeds moved toward the Sayan region in the southeast, whereas the linguistic ancestors of the modern Tundra Samoyeds moved in a northern direction along the Yenisei Basin. The first group to separate from the Proto-Samoyed speech community seems to have been formed by the linguistic ancestors of the Nganasan, whereas the Nenets and Enets together constitute a second wave of linguistic expansion toward the north. The Nenets were first concentrated in the region around the lower course and the mouth of the Ob River, from where the language was carried further along the arctic tundra zone.


Although the permanent settlements within the Nenets territory are the result of the recent involvement of alien (mainly Russian) immigrants and administrators, a considerable proportion of contemporary Nenets live, for at least part of the year, in these very settlements. Housed in Russian-style log buildings and even buildings with modern elements, these settled Nenets, most engaged in industrial and intellectual professions, are apt to interact intensively with the dominant Russian society in all aspects of life. A very regrettable practice is connected with the so-called internate system, involving the concentration of Nenets and other aboriginal schoolchildren of various nationalities in large education complexes located in the settlements. The working language of these education complexes is Russian, which hinders the development of native-language skills. At the same time, the children are also being deprived of the possibility of becoming fully familiar with the cultural and economic patterns of their traditional culture.

The traditional type of dwelling of the Nenets is the conical tent, the use of which is also necessitated by the nomadic mode of life connected with reindeer breeding. The Nenets tent consists of a framework built from twenty-five to sixty poles, which are carried along in a sledge during migrations on the treeless tundra. The tent covering consists of reindeer hides that are sewn together and, in summer, also of specially prepared pieces of birch bark. The interior is planned to house the whole household, up to several families, but if several households migrate together a corresponding number of tents are erected close to each other to form a camp. A sheet of iron for the hearth is placed in the middle of the tent, and a movable plank floor is built on either side of it. The rest of the floor is covered with grass mats and hides. Cooking on the hearth is facilitated by a central vertical pole that is considered sacred. The places for sitting and sleeping are occupied with regard to an established social ranking, with the back part of the tent considered sacred. A recently introduced alternative to the traditional tent is the balok, a rectangular box (approximately 2 X 2 X 4 meters in size), built from a wooden frame, having a reindeer-hide covering, and standing on a sledge. The balok has gained some popularity among the easternmost Tundra Nenets (and even more among the Nganasan), but it has not been able to replace the tent as the basic dwelling used by most Nenets reindeer nomads.


Arctic hunter-gatherers and reindeer breeders, the Nenets traditionally rely upon three resources: game, fish, and reindeer. Hunting wild reindeer seems to have been of particular importance in the past (as it still is among the Nganasan), but it has been largely replaced by systematic reindeer breeding, small-scale among the Forest Nenets and large-scale among the Tundra Nenets. Today the reindeer herds within the Tundra Nenets territory amount to at least one-third of the total reindeer stock in the Russian North. Not all of the local reindeer, however, are controlled by the Nenets: since the last century part of the trade has been in the hands of immigrant Komi (so-called Izhma Komi) reindeer breeders. Since forced collectivization (in the 1930s), Nenets reindeer breeders have found themselves in an especially difficult position economically, for the officially permitted number of private household reindeer has not been sufficient for subsistence. This has speeded the process known as the "lumpenization" of the Nenets, as also observed among the other small minorities of the Far North. (The term "lumpenization" was originally used by Marxist theoreticians to refer to the deterioration of the economic and social position of the proletariat under capitalist conditions, but, ironically enough, it is currently often applied to describe the effects of Marxism itself upon the fate of Soviet minority peoples, notably the small minorities of the Far North.) For the average Tundra Nenets there have traditionally been few choices of alternative occupation. Along the arctic seacoast, however, sea-mammal hunting has some economic significance to the local Nenets.

Intensive reindeer breeding among the Nenets has only become possible through the simultaneous development of an effective system of transport. Although dugout canoes in summer and skis in winter have been sufficient for short individual trips, the constant long-distance movements required by the seasonal cycle of the wandering reindeer have led to the perfection of the so-called Samoyed sledge, used both in winter on the snow and in summer on the bare ground. The sledge is normally drawn by one to seven reindeer, although dogs are also occasionally harnessed by the westernmost Tundra Nenets. The Samoyed sledge is characterized by a very elegant general construction, with flexible joints, very long and narrow runners, and high backward-leaning stakes. For specialized purposes, a number of sophisticated variant types are used, such as the women's sledge and the household sledge. During collective migrations, several sledges are tied together to form a caravan.

Kinship, Marriage, and Family

Kin Groups and Descent. Below the level of the two rudimentary and somewhat hypothetical phratries, the basic unit of traditional Nenets society was the patrilineal exogamic clan. Each clan had its own territory with pasturelands as well as hunting and fishing grounds, a cemetery, and places of worship. Some 100 clans survive, each possessing a more or less well-preserved tradition concerning its origin. Most important in the present society, each clan still has a name of its own, today used as the official surname of the clan members. Thus, the Nenets are one of the very few among the small minorities of the Far North having a set of their own non-Russian (and even non-Russianized) surnames. Given names, on the other hand, are rarely of Nenets origin today, although an unofficial Nenets given name may occasionally exist beside an official Russian one.

Kinship Terminology. The Nenets system of basic kinship terms distinguishes between three senior (grandparent, parent, elder sibling) and two junior (younger sibling, child) age categories. The terminology is slightly more differentiated for males than for females, but several important categories (sibling, younger sibling, child, parent-in-law of husband, younger sibling-in-law of husband) are expressed by sexually undifferentiated terms.

Marriage and Family. Until recently marriage was a matter decided by clan leaders; there were occasional cases of polygyny and levirate. In the family, the position of women was once inferior to that of men, and taboo restrictions limited women's activities, especially in connection with menstruation, pregnancy, and childbirth. On the other hand, the strict division of labor in the severe arctic conditionsthe men being concerned only with subsistance activities and the women taking care of dwelling, clothing, and childrentended to favor equality rather than inequality of the sexes. Children, too, used to be encouraged to be independent and are still being introduced today, at a very early age, to the sexually differentiated responsibilities of the adults.

Sociopolitical Organization

The Tundra Nenets territory is divided into three "autonomous" (previously "national") okrugs: The Nenets Okrug of Arkhangel Oblast (okrug area: 176,000 square kilometers; total population in 1979: 47,000); the Yamalo-Nenets Okrug of Tyumen Oblast (okrug area: 750,300 square kilometers; total population in 1979: 158,000); and the Taimyr or Dolgano-Nenets Okrug of Krasnoyarsk Krai (okrug area: 862,100 square kilometers; total population in 1979: 44,000). The Tundra Nenets population is centered in the Yamalo-Nenets Okrug (presumably about 75 percent of all Tundra Nenets), the rest being divided between the Nenets Okrug (some 15 percent) and the Taimyr Okrug (some 10 percent). The Taimyr Okrug also includes the territories of the Tundra Enets (to the east of the Nenets) and the Nganasan (to the northeast of the Tundra Nenets). The Forest Nenets territory is divided between the Yamalo-Nenets Okrug (the Pur Basin) and the Khanty-Mansi Okrug (the Ob Basin). In all of their administrative areas, the Nenets are outnumbered by other ethnic groups, notably the Russians. The latter tend, however, to live in compact urban centers, separated from each other by wide expanses of sparsely populated aboriginal areas. Only recently have mining and oil-drilling activities been intensified to the extent that they pose a serious threat to the Nenets population in many localities, particularly the Yamal Peninsula.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religion. The traditional religious conceptions and customs of the Nenets fall within the general definition of Siberian shamanism. The shamans, of whom there were several categories, were the principal mediators between humans and spirits. The latter used to be represented by anthropomorphic wooden idols, of which great numbers were assembled in the sacred places of the Nenets. During the last few centuries the traditional religious conceptions came to be mixed with elements of Christian origin, and figures from the Orthodox pantheon, notably Nikolai Chudotvorets, or Mikulay in Nenets, were adopted as patrons. Officially, Christianity reached only the western Tundra Nenets, whereas some of the eastern groups preserved shamanism until the Stalin period. Today the shamanist worldview seems to have largely vanished in favor of the official materialistic ideology.

Arts. Among the Nenets, the scope of figurative art is traditionally limited to the ornamentation of everyday artifacts and articles of clothing, but they have a rich tradition of oral literature and music. Two main categories of folklore include the long epic songs (siudbabts ), as well as the short personal and lyric songs (yarabts ). Sung in anhaemitonic pentatonics and following an archaic textual pattern with a complicated rhythmic superstructure, these songs seem to reflect a tradition of considerable age. Only fragments of the old epic poetry are still performed today, but personal and lyric songs are a living and developing genre. Several native poets and writers have emerged on the basis of these folkloric traditions. Some of them are today raising their voices to help save the cultural heritage and ethnic identity of the Nenets.

See also Nganasan; Selkup


Hajdú, Péter (1962). The Samoyed Peoples and Languages. Bloomington: Indiana University Press; The Hague: Mouton.

Khomich, L. V. (1976). Problemy etnogeneza i etnicheskoi istorii Nencev (Study of the ethnogenesis and ethnohistory of the Nenets). Leningrad: Nauka.

Prokof'yeva, E. D. (1964). "The Nentsy." In The Peoples of Siberia, edited by M. G. Levin and L. P. Potapov, 547-570. Translated by Stephen P. Dunn and Ethel Dunn. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Originally published in Russian in 1956.



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The Nenets are the most numerous of Russia's northern peoples, numbering about 35,000, and one of the most northerly. Their homelands stretch along the Arctic coast, from northeastern Europe to the Taymyr Peninsula. Most Nenets are concentrated in the Nenets Autonomous District and the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District. Much of their territory is tundra; and their economy, based on large-scale reindeer pastoralism, has been the main adaptation to this harsh environment. The Nenets language belongs to the Samoyedic branch of the Uralic languages. Language retention among Nenets is higher than among most other northern peoples, due to the remoteness of their settlements and their continuing nomadism.

Western Nenets have a long history of contact with Russians, some paying tribute to Novgorod by the thirteenth century, and to the Tatars shortly thereafter. As Russians began to colonize Siberia in

the mid-seventeenth century they met occasional fierce resistance from Nenets groups. They also incorporated Nenets into state-building projects, resettling some to Novaya Zemlya in the nineteenth century, in an effort to ensure sovereignty over those islands.

The Soviets began to establish reindeer-herding collective farms in Nenets territory in 1929. Repression of wealthy herders followed, as did the confiscation of their reindeer and the general sedentarization of children, elderly, and some women. Nenets opposed such moves in several uprisings, which the Soviets quelled, then covered up. However, given the minimal prospects for developing this part of the Arctic, the Soviets generally encouraged the continuation of traditional Nenets activities.

Nenets homelands are particularly rich in oil and gas deposits. As technology improved by the latter twentieth century, making exploitation of these resources viable even given the harsh Arctic clime, development ensued. The greatest challenges for the Nenets became the construction of gas wells and pipelines across their reindeer pastures. Reindeer herds at the beginning of the twenty-first century exceeded pasture carrying capacity, and pasture destruction due to hydrocarbon development has exacerbated this problem. Development also encouraged massive in-migration into Nenets homelands by non-Nenets peoples. In post-Soviet years, these gas-rich areas experienced less out-migration than other northern areas.

Since the demise of the Soviet Union, Nenets have actively pursued their rights, creating regional Nenets organizations for this purpose. Reindeer-herding leaders have established ties with herders in Finland, Sweden, and Norway to pursue complementary agendas of economic development and environmental protection.

See also: nationalities policies, soviet; nationalities policies, tsarist; northern peoples; siberia


Golovnev, Andrei V., and Osherenko, Gail. (1999). Siberian Survival: The Nenets and Their Story. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Krupnik, Igor. (1993). Arctic Adaptations: Native Whalers and Reindeer Herders of Northern Eurasia. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England.

Gail A. Fondahl