Identification. The Nenets are the largest of the groups generally referred to as the "Samoyeds." The Samoyeds also comprise three other linguistically related ethnic entities: the Enets, the Nganasan, and the Selkup. Two more Samoyed peoples, the Mator and the Kamas, survived until modern times (the nineteenth and twentieth centuries) but are now extinct. The Samoyed peoples may be divided into three groups according to their ecological environments: the Tundra Samoyeds, the Taiga or Forest Samoyeds, and the Mountain Samoyeds. Culturally, the most archaic group of the Tundra Samoyeds is the Nganasan, whereas the Selkup are the most typical Forest Samoyed group. In this division, the Nenets and the Enets show a dual cultural affiliation in that they are comprised of both tundra- and taiga-dwelling groups; these groups are referred to as the "Tundra Nenets," the "Forest Nenets," the "Tundra Enets," and the "Forest Enets." The Mountain Samoyeds used to comprise the Mator and the Kamas. Although linguistically extinct, the latter still survive to some extent in the modern Khakas and Tuvan ethnic groups. An especially remarkable remnant of the Mountain Samoyeds is formed by the culturally unique northeastern groups of the Tuvans, the Tofalar.
The modern international name of the Nenets derives, through Russian, from the Nenets noun nyenecyaq (singular, nyenecyq ), "human beings," used as an ethnonym by western groups of the Tundra Nenets. An etymological cognate of this item in the form nyeesyaaq (singular, nyeesyang ) is used ethnonymically by the Forest Nenets, and further etymological cognates underlie the modern appellations of the Enets and the Nganasan. Eastern groups of the Tundra Nenets traditionally call themselves Khásawaq (singular, Khásawa), "men." In the past the Nenets were normally referred to as the "Yurak" or the "Yurak-Samoyeds," or even simply as "Samoyeds." The other Samoyed peoples have also been known by a variety of alternative ethnonyms, all of them covered by the general appellation "Samoyed." In modern ethnic taxonomy the term "Samoyed" is used to refer to the whole group of the six distinct Samoyed peoples, with no specific reference to any one of them.
Location. The Tundra Nenets territory extends from Kanin Peninsula at the White Sea in the west (approximately 45° E) to the western part of Taimyr Peninsula in the east (approximately 85° E), a distance of some 2,000 kilometers. Descendants of a small group of recent Tundra Nenets settlers also live on Kola Peninsula. In the north the Tundra Nenets territory follows the arctic coast, but extends to a number of islands in the Barents and Kara seas, including Kolguyev, the southern part of Novaia Zemlia (approximately 72° N, now abandoned because of nuclear tests in the late 1950s), and Vaigach. In the south the Tundra Nenets territory follows the northern tree line, but also covers the forest tundra zone, yielding an overall width varying between approximately 100 and 700 kilometers north to south. The Forest Nenets territory, on the other hand, is more compact and is completely located within the taiga zone, extending over the region between the northern tributaries to the middle course of the Ob River (approximately 70° E) in the west and the upper course of the Pur River (approximately 77° E) in the east, a distance of some 400 kilometers.
The territories of both the Tundra Nenets and the Forest Nenets (as well as those of the Enets and the Nganasan) are climatically well within the arctic zone. The landscape is covered by snow for most of the year, and the rivers flowing into the Arctic Ocean are free of ice only for a few months, starting in June or July. The mean temperature of the coldest month (January) varies between —15° C and —30° C; that of the warmest month (July) is around +10° C. The tree line is mainly formed by the larch on the Siberian side, whereas in the European Arctic the birch is the typical northernmost tree. The climatic conditions are reflected in the fact that the principal garment of all of the Tundra Samoyeds is the fur coat, parka in Nenets (the source of the English word "parka"). Clothing is often worn in two layers, consisting of an inner coat with the fur inside and an outer coat with the fur outside. The main material for the clothing comes from reindeer hides, but hides from other mammals, including the polar fox, various seals, the squirrel, and the domestic dog are also used occasionally. During the summer the climate allows lighter clothing made of imported textile material.
Demography. The Nenets are today numerically the largest and in many respects the most vigorous of the so-called small minorities of the Far North. Numbering more than 34,000 individuals (1989), they are also the largest Samoyed people, by far exceeding in number the Selkup (fewer than 3,600 individuals), the Nganasan (slightly more than 1,200 individuals), and the Enets (less than 200 individuals). The overwhelming proportion—probably more than 95 percent—of all Nenets belong to the Tundra Nenets subgroup, whereas the Forest Nenets remain of marginal demographic importance. Unlike the other Samoyed peoples, whose populations are today either stable or declining, the Nenets show a steady population growth (about 20 percent between 1970 and 1989). Although no exact statistical data are available, it may be presumed that the death rate among certain segments of the Nenets population, notably young males, is still exceptionally high, as it is among all the "small peoples of the Far North."
Linguistic Affiliation. The Forest Nenets are separated linguistically from the Tundra Nenets by a considerable dialectal difference, rendering the two idioms almost mutually unintelligible. The dialectal differences within Forest Nenets are also relatively great, whereas Tundra Nenets is remarkably uniform over the huge territory where it is spoken. This situation makes the native language sociolinguistically viable as the vernacular of the Tundra Nenets even in the future. Nevertheless, the native-language proficiency rate is slowly deteriorating among the Nenets (between 1970 and 1989 it fell from some 83 percent to some 79 percent, but the figure is probably higher if only the Tundra Nenets are considered). At the same time, knowledge of Russian as a second language is increasing rapidly. This, in turn, is beginning to have demographic consequences in that it furthers an increase in ethnically mixed marriages. There is also local bilingualism with other neighboring languages, notably Komi and Khanty. Bilingualism with Nenets is widespread among the remaining Enets population. Although Nenets and Enets are two distinct and mutually unintelligible languages, the Nenets seem to have been assimilating parts of the Enets population for a long time. Historical data indicate that an intermediate idiom, today technically termed "Yurats" (or Yurak), still existed in the eighteenth century and was ultimately assimilated by the Nenets.