INVISIBLE SPACE PLACEHOLDER
YAMAL CULTURE

The people of the Yamal are Nenets reindeer herders. They have been known to live in this region prehistorically and historically. There are 7,500 Nenets people living in the Yamal Peninsula today. Their total population in the four autonomous Okrugs, (Yamal-Nenetsky, Nenetsky, Taymyrsky, and Khanty-Mansiysky), is approximately 35,000. They are assumed to have lived in this region for the last one thousand years as reindeer herdsmen and have been pastorialists since the 17th or 18th Century. One would presume that these people had been acculturated during the last seventy five years of Soviet rule, but, in fact, the Yamal Nenets have maintained their traditional way of life. They still travel by sled and reindeer; live in teepees or as the Russian call them "chum", or in Nenets "mya"; live off the land; and still worship their own deities. It was interesting to learn that they have maintained their lifeways despite all of the changes occurring with minority peoples throughout the world today.

- Sven Haakanson

YAMAL WOMEN

Yamal Video Field Notes
The team spends a wonderful evening in a Nenets summer camp.
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Today was the kind of day you can't do justice to in some diary notes - too much happened, yet it's impossible not to include some details of our encounter, late in the day, with a Nenets summer base camp. We had been hoping a meeting like this would take place in the field, but could not count on it here, because most of the summer herding is down in western and northern Yamal. We had spent the morning and afternoon in an abandoned Nenets camp and as we left, Sven noticed some tents against the skyline to the west. We took cameras, three loaves of bread and one bottle of Vodka and trekked across the marsh to the camp, which looked striking with its six conical tents. These tents seemed to symbolize something special and unusual. I guess it is partly because of the very traditional life the people seem to lead, with few trappings of the outside.

SVEN APPROACHING A NENETS CAMP

Click on the photos to see a larger version.

- William Fitzhugh

Kids who had run out to meet us beat a hurried return back into camp as their bravado failed. We quickly realized that the camp was mostly composed of women, older people, and young children. Andrei greeted them in Nenets, which he can speak a bit, and then conversation took up in Russian, which all but two of the older people understood. We were meeting amidst the sleds first, but then were offered tea inside.

NENETS MEN BUILDING A SLED

- William Fitzhugh

One of the surprising things about the group outside was the number of people who were dressed in traditional skin clothes. Many more embroidered coats, bags, etc. could be seen inside. Their dogs lounged near the door, and even a reindeer seemed to be comfortable and welcome. We later learned she had been found as a stray on the tundra, having lost her mother and become separated from the herd. She came and went freely, using her antlers to poke her way in the door. When she started urinating a bit inside, the old lady - the older man's wife - would lead her outside. They even fed her from the table - raw fish was relished by this rather large house pet.

NENETS OWMAN AND CHILDREN

- William Fitzhugh

Periodically the tent was made extremely smokey by closing the smoke flap at the top of the tent to drive out the swarms of mosquitoes. The fire place was directly in the center of the tent. The women were burning low brush willow to heat their tea kettles and to smoke out mosquitos. We were served tea and hard bread with teaspoons of butter and sugar. The camp was a summer camp established for the elders, women, and children, while the men had moved north with their reindeer herds. According to Golovnev this was the first summer camp of this composition he had ever encountered. Normally the whole community would move with the herds during the summer months.

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- Sven Haakanson

On a hill to the northeast I noticed a small triangle of sticks erected, decorated with strips of red cloth and with fish hanging from its top. This is an offering to the gods, perhaps because fishing was important to this village for its survival from the nearby lakes, until the men return with the reindeer and they could get fresh meat. The ladies gave me an old wool felt cloak with a hood to wear to keep the mosquitos at bay - they were positively awful tonight. The cloak helped but I still got creamed, and then began to feel itchy and wondered if I would get lice or something from the old thing (I didn't, and found the Nenets to be very hygienic and clean).

MOSQUITOS ON BILL FITZHUGH'S BACK

- William Fitzhugh

When the men got back from fishing we were invited in for a supper of raw whitefish, tea, and stale bread. We had brought up three loaves of ours and a bottle of vodka which was appreciated. The fish was good and is eaten by holding a bite in the teeth and slicing upward with your knife, being careful - for neophytes in such activity, like us, not to cut off your nose. It was by now quite late into the evening. Our hosts invited us to stay with them, they had extra bedding; Sven would stay with his friend in another tent. That settled, the evening spun on in talking. Through Andrei they explained the set up of the tent; its special places, names of parts, how it was constructed, etc. There is something that is very beautiful about this type of conical tent.

TWO MEN AND SMALL FISHING BOAT

- William Fitzhugh

As evening passed we made ourselves comfortable in Nenets felt bootliners and tanned kneehigh boots, warming ourselves with a reindeer hide coat and leaned back into the bundles of furs along the tent walls, and listened to a long epic tale told by the old man together with a younger woman whose job was to repeat, more or less verbatim, the last few words of each segment of the story. The segments were spoken in 30-60 second lengths. She was like an encouraging audience to the narrator and is considered crucial to the Nenets folk tradition. So my last recollection of this rather remarkable day was falling asleep to a Nenets epic spoken by a true master. He was also, probably, part shaman, or at least the inheritor of those traditions as far as that was possible for a native person in this culture in the Soviet era. One certainly didn't get the feeling that much had changed in Nenets lifestyle and customs as a result of Communist rule. It seemed unbelievably traditional to me, more so than I could ever have dreamed.

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Click on the photos to see a larger version.

- William Fitzhugh


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