1. THE NENETS
The Nenets (singular form) are the largest ethnic group among the speakers of the Samoyedic languages. According to the 1990 statistics they numbered up to 34.190 persons, of whom those, who spoke Nenets as a primary language, averaged to 82% (Janhunen 1990)1.
By their language and their culture, the Nenets form a surprisingly uniform group without any major dialects or cultural units deviating heavily from the whole, except a small group called Forest Nenets or Nyesha".
Thus their future on the level of cultural continuity seems much more favourable than that of many other Siberian arctic or subarctic indigenous people, including for example the Sami of Northern Scandinavia. On the other hand, there is a clear division between those who still continue with their pastoral reindeer economy in tundra areas, and those who gather in polyethnic villages and population centers. The reindeer herders of the tundra have fewer problems in continuing their traditional way of life, than their sedentarized kinsmen, who acculturate more rapidly to their neighbours (of whom a dominant part are Russians and Ukrainians). It must be said, though, that the last "free" reindeer pastoralists do not represent a cultural isolate in Northern Eurasia and Western Siberia. They all are to some extent dependent on the adjacent economical systems (primarily the state economy, which provides products of industrial technology and agriculture by trade).
In addition, it is important to emphasize that irrespective of the relatively good future prospects concerning their culture and language, they are an ethnic minority in their own land. Perhaps it is not so true on the sparsely populated tundra, but it is especially so in villages and towns. Also the last habitations of the pastoralists of the tundra face considerable changes: they happen to be located in the neigbourhood of rich oil and gas deposits (e.g., in the Kara Sea and Yamal Peninsula).
The Nenets language belongs to the Samoyedic branch of the Uralic languages (the other branch being the Finno-Ugrian)2. The main dialectal division is made between the Tundra Nenets (a 95% majority) and the Forest Nenets. Notwithstanding the immense area inhabited by the Tundra Nenets, their dialectal differences are minimal. However, Forest Nenets differs from Tundra Nenets as sharply as for example German from Dutch, beyond the level of mutual understanding. The Nenets literary language was established in 1930's3.
The former appellation of the Nenets was "Yurak Samoyed". Their present appellation, the "Nenets", which is what they call themselves, was established in Soviet time, along with similar practices among the other indigenous peoples of Siberia.
The Nenets inhabit an immense tundra- and forest-tundra-zone from the Kanin Peninsula in the European side to the Taimyr Peninsula in the Siberian side of the Russian North. Formerly they inhabited also some of the major islands in Barents and Kara Sea, like Novaya Zemlya, from which they were forced out by the government, once it became a nuclear base.
The major subgroups of the Tundra Nenets are 1) the Western (or European) Nenets to the West of the Ural mountains, 2) the Ob and Yamal Peninsula Nenets and 3) the Yenisey and Taimyr Peninsula Nenets. The Forest Nenets inhabit mainly the Pur river and some of the according northern tributaries of the Middle Ob.
The present Nenets are mainly reindeer herders, hunters and fishermen. Before adapting the techniques of herding the semi-domestic reindeer, they were mainly hunters of the wild reindeer. This means that the reindeer - either wild or domestic - represents one of the elementary subsistence patterns in their culture, reflecting substantially as well in the material culture as in the symbolic culture. The reindeer is the raw-material source of food, clothing, household tools and transport. It is the main unit of social status and wealth.
The Nenets adopted a nomadic form of reindeer pastoralism. It means that a household (especially before: of the same family) transhumances along with the annual migration routes of their reindeer stock, thus herding it a year round. The traditional type of dwelling, a conical hut (mya") is ideal for the mobile migratory way of life.4 During the Soviet time the reindeer economy was reorganized into the kolkhoz/sovkhoz system. This system still exists and it means, that the majority of the reindeer-herders work in some of the state "farms". While the farms have a village as their center, this means, that most of the reindeer-herders live in villages and mostly their families are stationed in the villages, while the herders work periodically (for example two weeks) with the reindeers in the tundra as shift-workers. The principle of the state farms has been that of maximizing the population of the reindeer herds for the sake of production. This has caused problems of overgrazing, big herds spoil the ground and potential epidemics are much more disastrous.
1According to Russian statistics, the population rate is 34.665, of which 77.1% speak Nenets and 18.1% Russian as primary language, and 61.7% Russian as secondary language and 35.3% don't master any secondary language (Yazyki... 1990). See also Salminen's (1997) account about the Nenets language.
2It is nowadays regarded as correct not to refer to the Uralic language family, containing Finno-Ugrian and Samoyedic branches, but simply to speak about Finno- Ugrian language family, containing Samoyedic branch (cf. Salminen 1997).
3The Nenets terms presented in this article are Latinized from the Nenets literary forms (written in Cyrillic). As such they are only approximations of the original phonetic forms. In this Latinization, the ascending accent mark (´) over a vowel indicates length. The apostrophes ' and " stand for laryngal stops (cf. Cockney "bottle = bo'l"). Nasal "n" is written as ng. It is a sound that can occur also in the beginning of a word in Nenets. In addition to its normal usage in English, letter "y" stands for palatalization of the former consonant (e.g., tádyebya). If not preceded by palatalized consonant, letter "i" stands for middle-i and letter "e" indicates a sound in between of e and æ (cf. English "hat"). In addition, the Forest Nenets voiceless "l" is written here with an uppercase "L". As an exception to these rules, I have latinized the Nenets names with more straight correspondence to their Cyrillic forms.
4A comprehensive monograph on the Nenets is made by a Russian ethnographer Lyudmila Khomich (1966, 1995). Andrey Golovnëv's "Talking Cultures" (Golovnëv 1995) is also a must reading to anyone interested in the Nenetses, in the native peoples in Western Siberia, or in issues of cultural ecology in general.