January 29, 2024 | Allison Robertson

The Nenets: The Russian Arctic Tribe

Surviving in Arctic Russia: The Nenet Tribe

One of the world’s most untapped travel destinations is the Extreme North of Russia. It spans across nine time zones and is the biggest Arctic territory of any country.

It remains the least developed with almost no tourist infrastructure—likely due to the extreme cold climate.

However, surviving the Arctic is not impossible. Just ask the Nenets, a Russian Arctic tribe that have remained isolated from the modern world in one of the most inhospitable places on Earth.

Nenet tribe split image

Who are they?

The Nenets, also known as Samoyeds, are a Samoyedic ethnic group native to Arctic Russia, Russian Far North.

There are two main groups of Nenets, based on their economy: the Tundra Nenets (living far to the north) and the Khandeyar, or Forest Nenets.

Women of Nenets nationality
longtaildog, Shutterstock

How many are there?

There is approximately 1,500 Forest Nenets. This number can be difficult to track depending on their group sizes and migration patterns.

According to a 2021 census, there were just under 50,000 Nenets in total, living in Russia.

local Nenets residents in traditional clothesevgenii mitroshin, Shutterstock

What are they known for?

The Nenets are most known for nomadic reindeer herding. For traditional Nenets, their lands and reindeer herds are vitally important to their collective identity.

Land is everything to them. The reindeer provide for their home, their food, their warmth, and their transportation.

a girl from the Nenets playing on deer pastures stroking her deerevgenii mitroshin, Shutterstock

Where do they live?

They live in north west Siberia, particularly The Yamal Peninsula: a stretch of peatland that extends from northern Siberia into the Kara Sea, far above the Arctic Circle.

The Nenets call their home Yamal, which means “edge of the world” — and it is.

Little Nenets girlShchipkova Elena, Shutterstock

How cold is it where they live?

In Arctic Russia the ground is permanently frozen. Bodies of water remain ice-covered for most of the year. During the winter, when temperatures can plummet to – 50C.

They have lived in the extreme cold for generations. These temperatures are the norm for them.

Nenets family in the national winter clothesevgenii mitroshin, Shutterstock

What do they live in?

The Nenet people live in large tents or yurts called “chum” (pronounced choom). They are built with wood poles and reindeer hides. These tents can withstand the intense cold.

Most chums are built to accommodate two families, one on each side with a stove in the middle. They have smaller, inner tents that they sleep in for added warmth.

large tents of Nenets tribeKadir Cobek, Shutterstock

Why do they herd reindeer?

The Nenets rely on reindeer for their livelihood. Aside from food, reindeers provide skin, bones, and horns for making clothes and handicrafts.

The number of wild reindeer has decreased over the years, so Nenets people were forced to domesticate large herds, keeping their food source close.

Nenets man and his deerOksana_Shmatok, Shutterstock

Why do they migrate?

The Nenets herders move seasonally with their reindeer, travelling along ancient migration routes. They do this because of the weather, and to preserve the landscapes.

During the winter, when temperatures are coldest, most Nenets graze their reindeer on moss and lichen pastures in the southern forests, or taiga.

In the summer months, when the days are longer, they leave and migrate north.

Nenets man collects a herd of reindeersShchipkova Elena, Shutterstock

How do they migrate?

During migration, the Nenets move their chums (homes) every 4-5 days to keep up with their herd. It is a difficult and long process, taking a few hours to pack up and a few hours to set up, each time.

During this process, they will travel up to 1200km.

Nenets man and their tentsViktor Zagumyonnov, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

How long does it take?

Migration takes about four months.

They must reach their summer quarters before the snows melt and flood great rivers with icy waters too cold and deep for the calves, born along the way, to cross.

Nenets people movingevgenii mitroshin, Shutterstock

What do they use for transportation?

Most traditional Nenets use reindeer as transportation. They load their gear onto wooden sleds that are pulled.

In some areas, the Nenets have negotiated land rights in exchange for snowmobiles. Sometimes there are competitions where snowmobiles are prizes given to the Nenets.

Most families now have at least one snowmobile, but reindeer are still used a lot.

Nenets reindeer herders collecting their houseShchipkova Elena, Shutterstock

What do they eat?

Reindeer meat is the most important part of the Nenets' diet. It is eaten raw, frozen or boiled, together with the blood of a freshly slaughtered reindeer, which is rich in vitamins. They also eat a variety of fish and gather mountain cranberries.

Snow is their primary source of water.

houses of the Nenets tribeKirill Skorobogatko, Shutterstock

How do they prepare their food?

Reindeer meat is best when it is fresh. Ropes are tied around the live reindeer’s neck. They turn its head to face the East and then they pull on the ropes to tighten them until the reindeer is no longer alive.

The hide is removed immediately and hung to dry.

The women cut open the reindeer and everyone sits around it on the ground and begin tearing out the organs and eating them right there. The blood is collected in a bowl and passed around as a “dip” and a drink.

Nenets people in their houseevgenii mitroshin, Shutterstock

How do they care for themselves?

In regard to personal hygiene, the Nenets wash using a bowl of soap and hot water. There is no toilet in their tents, instead, they use a makeshift toilet a few meters away. Toilets are separated into male and female areas.

Nenets will usually take a stick with them to the toilet to fend off any overly-friendly reindeer.

Nenets peopleevgenii mitroshin, Shutterstock

What do they wear?

The Nenets’ coats are made from reindeer hide, and threaded together with reindeer sinew.

Traditional Nenets men wear a hooded parka with fur. It has a drawstring that traps warm air around the hood and waist. A second layer is worn with fur facing outward and sleeves are sewn with attached mittens.

Most of the materials used come from reindeer.

A Nenets reindeer herder girlGrigorii Pisotsckii, Shutterstock

Where do they get tools?

Lassos are crafted from reindeer tendons. They make tools and sled parts from bones. The covers of their tents are also made from reindeer hide and mounted on heavy wooden poles.

Nenets manevgenii mitroshin, Shutterstock

How do they make money?

Nenets make money by selling reindeer—as a whole animal, and in parts. They sell the meat, hide, and antlers individually depending on the buyer. Private sales yield more money.

They also trade reindeer for goods, like snowmobiles and modern tools.

NenetsSergey Rusanov, Shutterstock

What are their spiritual beliefs?

Nenet people have an animistic and shamanistic religion.

There are three worlds – the upper, the middle and the lower. The middle world is where people live. The upper world is where the god of the sky, Num, lives.

“Num” is the same word the Nenets have for weather, which highlights the importance of the elements to the Nenet community.

The lower world is where Num’s evil brother lives, Nga.

Nenets (ethnicity) women and childrenFridtjof Nansen, Wikimedia Commons

What do the worlds determine?

There is an eternal battle between Num (upper world) and Nga (lower world) that represents their struggle (and their reindeer) to survive.

It is greatly impacted by the seasons. In winter, Nga holds the power, and in summer Num holds the power.

Nenets manГустав-Теодор Паули, Wikimedia Commons

Who can travel between the worlds?

Shamans used to hold the power to travel between the worlds, asking for help for the people in the middle world. However, most Shamans passed about 30 years ago.

They were persecuted as religious leaders under Stalin, and since then young people have stopped becoming Shamans.

Portrait of an elderly NenetsVladimir Kovalchuk, Shutterstock

What do they hold sacred?

The number seven is sacred to the Nenet people, and it is encountered often in relation to their spiritual beliefs.

For example, both the upper and lower worlds have seven levels, and their sacred sleds have seven pairs of stanchions, while all others have 3-5.

Nenets women in traditional clothesGrigorii Pisotsckii, Shutterstock

Where are their sacred places?

The middle world is said to inhabit a large number of spirits that can influence the lives of people. This includes animals, places, and natural phenomena.

In order to appease these spirits, the Nenets have sacred sites dedicated to them. These sites will have piles of skills and antlers up to 3 meters high.

Nenets woman and deerGrigorii Pisotsckii, Shutterstock

Where is the most important sacred site?

The most important sacred sites may have a pile of antlers surrounded by polar bear skulls and carved wooden idols.

The most important sacred site is called Severn Chums, located on the north coast of the Yamal Peninsula. It is said that no foreigner has ever seen this sacred site.

Unknown nomad of Nenetslongtaildog, Shutterstock

What are their sacred rituals?

In addition to the sacred sites, they also have sacred poles that are used in building their chums. Each chum is supported by 33 wooden poles. One of the poles stands a bit further out than the rest—this one is the sacred pole.

No one is permitted to cross between the sacred pole and the chum wall.

A herd of reindeerevgenii mitroshin, Shutterstock

What idols are used in rituals?

Nenets have a number of idols that are sacred to the family. The smaller ones represent Nenets gods, and the larger ones represent a chum protector spirit or one of the family’s powerful ancestors.

The gods and ancestors’ idols are passed down from the man’s family, and the chum protector idol is passed down from the woman’s family.

Nenets man in national clothesevgenii mitroshin, Shutterstock

What are the idols made of?

The idols are typically carved from wood. They are dressed in reindeer fur and sometimes have their own tools and jewelry.

Sometimes they are given presents by the family, or given a seat at the table during meals.

Nenets dollsVaija, Wikimedia Commons

What are their birth practices?

When a Nenet child is born, a reindeer must be sacrificed outside the door of the chum. The blood is then smeared along the floor of the chum.

This is part of sya mei—an important part of the Nenets worldview.

A Nenets child in the national fur clothesVictoria Yianni, Shutterstock

What is sya mei?

Sya mei is a force from the other world that can be dangerous in the middle world, particularly in birth and death.

Births are accompanied by sacrifice, and people returning from funerals must perform a special cleansing ceremony where they dance around a bowl full of burning fur and grass.

Nenets peopleevgenii mitroshin, Shutterstock

What is taboo in Nenet culture?

Women in particular must watch their behavior. Most specifically, where they step. This is because the lower half of the woman’s body is associated with birth, which is most affected by the sya mei.

Broken taboos can bring bad luck to the family. If a woman breaks any taboos, they must perform the cleansing ceremony similar to that of the funeral ritual.

woman in national clothes of the Nenetsevgenii mitroshin, Shutterstock

What is taboo for Nenet women?

Women must never step over ropes, lassoes, herding poles or men’s equipment. Women will often pass ropes over their heads to avoid stepping over them.

They are also not permitted to step over men laying down in the chum. This also includes hanging her boots in the chum. If a men steps under the boots it’s the same thing as a woman stepping over him.

Women are also not allowed to wear the men’s boots—but she can wear his fur coat.

Nenets womenevgenii mitroshin, Shutterstock

Do the Nenets have pets?

Actually, yes. The Nenets have Herding Laika, also known as reindeer spitz or olenegonka. It is an aboriginal spitz landrace of dog. They are typically small to medium sized with thick double coats

This dog is not often used for hunting, but more so for herding reindeer and dog sledding.

Laika breed of dogslongtaildog, Shutterstock

Are the Nenets affected by modernization?

The Nenets have adapted to changing climates and modernization over the years. While the Russian Arctic remains virtually untapped, it is not impossible for outsiders to travel there.

Today, the Nenets nomadic way of life is threatened by industrialization, specifically regarding gas reserves.

Nenets men with smartphonesevgenii mitroshin, Shutterstock

Why are the gas reserves dangerous to the Nenet People?

With a relatively new discovery of gas reserves in the peninsula, the Nenets are facing threats to their land by industrial waste. Gas pipelines are taking over the land, and industrialization has begun.

Roads and pollution threaten the quality of life for both the Nenet people and their reindeer.

gas processing plantVladimir B. Aleksandrov, Shutterstock

Can tourists visit the Arctic?

Yes, tourists can travel to the Nenets and even stay with them in their camps. There are no hotels, stores, or modern communication among the Nenets territory.

Tourists can immerse themselves in the Nenets daily lives, culture and customs, including: sharing a chum with a host family, eating reindeer, and help with daily responsibilities.

Nenets peopleevgenii mitroshin, Shutterstock

Is tourism popular?

No. Although it sounds like a cool opportunity, tourists who homestay with the Nenets are few and far between. This is mostly because of the extreme climate and remoteness of the camps, as well as the strict restriction of modern amenities.

Nenets and touristevgenii mitroshin, Shutterstock

Tourist Migration Tours

Tourists can join a migration tour which spans across 12 days and costs approximately $3,000-$4,000 USD.

During this tour, tourists will stay with a host family and observe their natural migration process over a span of almost two weeks, helping with cultural responsibilities and observing the nomadic lifestyle.

Nenets at national festival Vladimir Kovalchuk, Shutterstock

Reindeer Herders Festival

The Reindeer Herder’s Festival is a one-day holiday, celebrated annually in the main cities and villages in the Yamalo-Nenets region in the Russian Arctic.

Tourists can attend the event and also stay with a host family in their chum and experience their culture first-hand.

Nenets on the traditional holidayGrigorii Pisotsckii, Shutterstock

Reindeer Herders Festival: Nenet Involvement

For the nomadic Nenets people, a festival day is a major event, which offers a chance to meet with friends and compete in contests of physical skill and a variety of other competitions.

Some Nenets rely on prizes from this event to aid in their livelihood.

National Nenets holiday Vladimir Kovalchuk, Shutterstock

Final Thoughts

The Nenets may be an isolated, remote Arctic tribe, but they are not opposed to contact with outsiders. They enjoy teaching others of their way of life, and strive to continue to preserve it for as long as they can.

Although travel to the coldest part of the globe is not exactly on everyone’s bucket list, for those intrigued by the Nenet’s extreme way of life it is not completely out of reach...

Arctic tours and festivals are a highlight of the North, and are an experience unlike any other on Earth.

Nenets reindeer herder girl in fur clothes talks on the phoneGrigorii Pisotsckii, Shutterstock


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