In the harsh tundra ('midnightland') that streches along the Arctic coast of Siberia live the Nenet people. They can be found between the Kola peninsula and the mouth of the Yenisei river. They inhabit the tributaries of the river Ob (one of the longest in the world), the Yamal peninsula, Komi republic and the Nenet autonomous district . Traditionally, they are a nomadic people whose lives are dictated by the ceaseless movement of reindeer across Siberia.
It is thought that over 3000 years ago a group of Finno-Ugrian people moved eastwards and mixed with Turkic-Altaic people giving rise to a group of peoples known collectively as Samoyed. The Nenets are the most numerous group (pop. 35,000), the other surviving ones being the Enet,Nganasan and Selkup. The Nenet language is, naturally, a member of the Samoyedic group of the Uralic language family and is spoken by a rapidly declining number.
Several hundred years ago, Moscow began to exercise power over the region, coveting the plentiful supply of reindeer fur and walrus tusk. In 1216 there is mention of a tax collecting. In 1669 Russia built a fort to enforce its rule. This was attacked several times in the 18th century. During the 19th century, missionaries of the Orthodox church attempted to persuade the Nenets to give up their traditional Shamanistic beliefs.
During WII, a group of Nenets rebelled against the Soviets. The revolt was quickly supressed but the Nenets were not an easy people to subdue. Soviet nuclear tests has played havoc with the Nenets genetic health. However, in Soviet times the Nenets did receive money for the sale of reindeer fur. These days, the reindeer trade has become uneconomical and many Nenets have succumbed to vodka which they receive in barter. Male life expectancy is as low as 45.
The nomadic Nenets live in chums. These are conical,teepee-like wooden structures draped in reindeer hide. They can be erected in about an hour. They move about in a convoy of light wooden sleds which they skillfully construct without the use of nails. Domesticated reindeer provide the horsepower (deerpower?). The reindeer herd, in search of lush vegetation, will not stay in one place for more than a day. The Nenets must follow them, through deep snow, and erect their chums in a new spot before nightfall. Every group of Nenets have a leader who leads the way and makes decisions on behalf of the group.
The reindeer are such an integral part of Nenet life that is not suprising the feature in their spiritual beliefs. A shaman ,who beats a reindeer-skin drum, is
the medium to the other dimension and may perform such
feats as divination. Attempts by Christian missionaries to convert Nenets have met with little success.
Many Nenet children are sent to boarding school far from the frozen wastes. Many return. The word 'Nenet' means 'real people' and, to them, the ceaseless quest across the tundra is what constitutes real life.
A TG4 (Irish language channel) documentary