Reindeer herders of the Arctic Tundra

13/12/2019 16:31

The nomadic Nenets people of the Arctic Tundra keep an ancient style of herding reindeer alive.

I have always harbored a life-long desire to travel to places that are off the beaten track, in order to gain new perspectives on the world and share them with others.

In March 2019, I embarked on an adventure to visit the Nenets, a nomadic tribe whose main livelihood is herding reindeers, on Yamal Peninsula in Russia. There are about 40,000 Nenets, mostly living on Yamal, which means “the end of the world.” And it is an apt name for this remote and frigid land of permafrost and unforgiving temperatures which can plummet to -50°C.

Reindeer Herders’ Festival
This Reindeer Herders’ Festival is held yearly at Salekhard, usually on the last Saturday of March.

As I arrived at a Nenets camp, I was greeted by small barking dogs and saw several teepee-shaped tents called chums. The chums were far larger than I had expected, perhaps five to six meters in diameter, supported by strong wooden poles and completely covered by multiple layers of reindeer skins. At the center of each chum is a metal wood-fired oven used both for cooking and heating. Sleeping, preparing food and eating are all done inside this warm shelter.

Our hosts Stefan and his wife, Svetlana, together with their closest relatives welcomed us into their home with open arms. In the Nenets community, women generally do all the cooking, cleaning and sewing while caring for any sick or orphaned reindeer. The men handle the reindeer herd, watch out for natural predators like wolverines and polar bears, chop firewood and repair sleds.

Electricity is supplied through a power generator, and water comes from melting snow.

Dinner times were wonderful sharing opportunities for us to find out more about their lives. Our meals consisted of stewed or boiled reindeer meat, fish caught from rivers and potatoes and bread bought from grocery stores in the nearest village. All parts of the reindeer are used; meat and organs are eaten, the hide is used for the covering the chums and for clothing, even tendons are used for threads. I found the reindeer meat to be surprisingly good, very much like mutton without the gamey smell and taste. When a reindeer is slaughtered for food, the warm blood is drunk right away, an experience I did not mind missing out on.

A reindeer
Nenets use all parts of the reindeer, including hide, meat, bones, innards and antlers. Nothing is left to waste.

Keeping warm in the Arctic’s intense cold is a primary concern, and Nenets outfits are up to the task. The men wear a plain poncho-like top over layers of reindeer skin clothing, with long soft reindeer boots highlighted with brightly decorated tassels. The women’s clothing was much more colorful, beautifully hand-sewn and featuring intricate details.

The Nenets reindeer herders maintain a unique lifestyle, which differs from other nomads such as the Kazakhs in Mongolia. While the Kazakhs drive their herds to grazing grounds in the morning and then bring them back in the evening, the Nenets leave their herds to graze wherever the reindeers find food. Reindeers live on lichens found under the layer of snow, moss and sometimes bird eggs, and when the food supply is exhausted, the Nenets have to pack up their camps and follow the reindeer to their next grazing grounds. In summer, the reindeer migrate north towards the Kara Sea and in winter head south.

Sometimes, the Nenets will round up their reindeer herds kilometers away and drive them back to the camp for inspection with the help of their Samoyed dogs. Neighbors are invited to come and identify the reindeer that belong to them, as reindeer from different herds often get mixed up and this is an opportunity for everyone to claim their own.

This nomadic community practices mutual cooperation for survival in such a harsh environment. One year, an avalanche wiped out the entire herd of a Nenets family and neighbors rallied around by contributing reindeer to help the distressed family get started again.

I visited a school in a town called the Land of Hope, which teaches children in both Russian and Nenets language and offers lessons about Nenets history and culture. There are currently only seven students at the boarding school, six girls and a boy. The Land of Hope has about thirty residents and is also home to an Orthodox Church and kindergarten.

A group photo of students with their teacher
There was a total of seven Nenets children studying in this school.

The city of Salekhard, meanwhile, organizes an annual Reindeer Herders’ Festival to draw in both local and foreign tourists. The festival lasts for a day and is usually held on the final Saturday of March, as reindeer herders from around the region come together to compete in various events like snowmobile and reindeer sled racing in a carnival-like atmosphere.

My visit with the Nenets could not have been more different from my life back in the city, but I was made to feel at home in this remote corner of the planet.

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