LOCATION: Northcentral part of the Russian Federation

POPULATION: Over 34,000


RELIGION: Native form of shamanism with elements of Christianity


For thousands of years, people have lived in the harsh arctic environment in what is today northern Russia. In ancient times, people relied exclusively on what nature provided and on what their ingenuity allowed them to use and create. The Nentsy (also known as the Yurak) are one of five Samoyedic peoples, which also include the Entsy (Yenisei), Nganasany (Tavgi), Sel'kupy, and Kamas (who became extinct as a group in the years following World War I [1914–1918]). Although many aspects of their lives have changed, the Nentsy still rely on their traditional way of life (hunting, reindeer herding, and fishing) as well as on industrial employment.

In the 1930s, the Soviet government began policies of collectivization, education for all, and assimilation. Collectivization meant turning over rights to land and reindeer herds to the Soviet government, which reorganized them into collectives (kolkhozy) or state farms (sovkhozy) . The Nentsy were expected to conform to the dominant Russian society, which meant changing the way they thought of themselves through education, new jobs, and close contact with members of other (mainly Russian) ethnic groups.


The Nentsy are generally divided into two groups, the Forest Nentsy and the Tundra Nentsy. (Tundra means treeless frozen plains.) The Tundra Nentsy live farther north than the Forest Nentsy. The Nentsy are a minority living among people (mostly Russians) who have settled in northcentral Russia near the coast of the Arctic Ocean. There are over 34,000 Nentsy, with over 28,000 living in rural areas and following a traditional way of life.

The climate varies somewhat across the vast territory inhabited by the Nentsy. Winters are long and severe in the far north, with the average January temperature ranging from 10° F (–12 ° C ) to –22° F (–30 ° C ). Summers are short and cool with frost. Temperatures in July range from an average of 36° F (2 ° C ) to 60° F (15.3 ° C ). Humidity is relatively high, strong winds blow throughout the year, and permafrost (permanently frozen soil) is widespread.


Nenets is part of the Samoyedic group of Uralic languages and has two main dialects: Forest and Tundra.


The Nentsy have a rich and varied oral history, which includes many different forms. There are long heroic epics (siudbabts) about giants and heroes, short personal narratives (yarabts) , and legends (va'al) that tell the history of clans and the origin of the world. In fairy tales (vadako), myths explain the behavior of certain animals.


The Nentsy religion is a type of Siberian shamanism in which the natural environment, animals, and plants are all thought to have their own spirits. The earth and all living things were created by the god Num, whose son, Nga, was the god of evil. Num would protect people against Nga only if they asked for help and made the appropriate sacrifices and gestures. These rituals were sent either directly to the spirits or to wooden idols that gave the animal-gods human forms. A second benevolent spirit, Ya-nebya (Mother Earth) was a special friend of women, aiding in childbirth, for example. Worship of certain animals such as the bear was common. Reindeer were considered to represent purity and were accorded great respect. In some areas, elements of Christianity (especially the Russian Orthodox version) were mixed with the traditional Nentsy gods. Although it was forbidden to conduct religious rituals during the Soviet period, the Nenets religion seems to have survived and is enjoying a strong revival today.


During the Soviet years (1918–91), religious beliefs and practices were forbidden by the Soviet government. Holidays of special Soviet significance such as May Day (May 1) and Victory in Europe Day (May 9) were celebrated by Nentsy and all peoples throughout the Soviet Union.


Births were accompanied by sacrifices, and the chum (tent) where the birth took place would be purified afterward. Children were tended by their mothers until the age of about five. Girls would then spend their time with their mothers, learning how to take care of the chum , prepare food, sew clothing, and so on. Boys would go with their fathers to learn how to tend reindeer, hunt, and fish.


Marriages were traditionally arranged by the heads of clans; marriages today are generally personal matters between adults. There are strict divisions between the activities of men and women in traditional Nenets society. Although women were generally considered less important, the strict division of labor between men and women in the arctic made relations more equal than not.


Reindeer herding is a nomadic occupation, requiring families to move with the herds across the tundra to find new pastures throughout the year. Herding families live in tents made from reindeer hides or canvas and take their personal possessions with them as they travel, in some cases as many as 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) in a year. Nentsy in non-traditional occupations live in Russian log houses or elevated apartment buildings.

Transportation in the tundra is often by sleds pulled by reindeer, although helicopters, airplanes, snowmobiles, and all-terrain vehicles are also used, especially by non-natives. The Nentsy have different types of sleds for different purposes, including traveling sleds for men, traveling sleds for women, and freight sleds.


Today there are still approximately one hundred Nenets clans, and the clan name is used as the surname of each of its members. Although most Nentsy have Russian first names, they are one of the few native groups to have non-Russian surnames. Kinship and family units continue to be the main organizing features of society in both urban and rural settings. These family ties often serve the important function of keeping the Nentsy in the towns and in the country connected. Rules regarding appropriate behavior follow traditional guidelines handed down from elders to young.

Women are responsible for the home, food preparation, shopping, and child care. Some men follow traditional occupations, and others choose professions such as medicine or education. They might also take jobs as laborers or serve in the military. In towns and villages, women may also have non-traditional jobs as teachers, doctors, or store clerks, but they are still primarily responsible for domestic chores and child care. Extended families often include some individuals engaged in traditional occupations and some engaged in non-traditional work.


Clothing is most often a combination of traditional and modern. People in towns and cities tend to wear modern clothes made of manufactured cloth, perhaps with fur coats and hats in winter. Traditional clothes are more common in rural areas because they are more practical. In the tundra, traditional clothing is generally worn in layers. The malitsa is a hooded coat made of reindeer fur turned inside-out. A second fur coat, the sovik, with its fur turned to the outside, would be worn on top of the malitsa in extremely cold weather. Women in the tundra might wear the yagushka , a two-layered open coat made with reindeer fur on both the inside and the outside. It extends almost to the ankles, and has a hood, which is often decorated with beads and small metal ornaments. Older winter garments that are wearing out are used for the summer, and today lighter-weight manufactured garments are often worn.

12 • FOOD

Reindeer are the most important source of food in the traditional Nenets diet. Russian bread, introduced to the native peoples long ago, has become an essential part of their diet, as have other European foods. Nentsy hunt for wild reindeer, rabbits, squirrels, ermine, wolverine, and sometimes bears and wolves. Along the arctic coast, seal, walrus, and whales are hunted as well. Many foods are eaten in both raw and cooked forms. Meat is preserved by smoking, and is also eaten fresh, frozen, or boiled. In the spring, reindeer antlers are soft and grisly and may be eaten raw or boiled. A type of pancake is made from frozen reindeer blood dissolved in hot water and mixed with flour and berries. Gathered plant foods were traditionally used to supplement the diet. Beginning in the late 1700s, imported foodstuffs such as flour, bread, sugar, and butter became important sources of additional food.


During the Soviet years, Nentsy children were often sent to boarding schools far from their parents and other relatives. The Soviet government believed that by separating children from parents, they could teach the children to live in more modern ways, which they would then teach their parents. Instead, many children grew up learning the Russian language rather than their own Nenets language and had difficulty communicating with their own parents and grandparents. Children were also taught that traditional ways of living and working should be abandoned in favor of life in a modern industrial society. Most small villages have nursery schools and "middle" schools that go up to eighth grade and sometimes tenth. After the eighth (or tenth) grade, students must leave their village to receive a higher education, and such a journey for fifteen-and sixteen-year-olds can be quite intimidating. Today, attempts are being made to change the educational system to include studies of Nentsy traditions, language, reindeer herding, land management, and so on. Educational opportunities at all levels are available to the Nentsy, from major universities to special technical schools where they can learn modern veterinary practices regarding reindeer breeding.


Samoyedic peoples have long had some contact with Europeans. The Nentsy and other Samoyedic peoples did not willingly accept the interference of either imperial Russia or the Soviet government in their affairs, and beginning in at least the fourteenth century they often put up fierce resistance to attempts to conquer and control them.


Nentsy have traditionally been reindeer herders, and today reindeer are still a very important part of their lives. Today, sea-mammal hunting is secondary to reindeer herding in the overall economy of the Nentsy. Herding groups continue to be formed around a family core or group of related people. Reindeer herding among the northern Nentsy includes the year-round pasturing of reindeer under the supervision of herders and the use of herd dogs and reindeer-drawn sleighs. Seasonal migrations cover great distances, as much as 600 miles (1,000 kilometers). In winter, herds are grazed in the tundra and forest-tundra. In the spring, the Nentsy migrate north, some as far as the arctic coast; in the fall, they return south again.

The Nentsy who live to the south have smaller herds, usually twenty to thirty animals, which are grazed in the forest. Their winter pastures are only 25 to 60 miles (40 to 100 kilometers) from their summer pastures. In the summer, they turn their reindeer loose and the Nentsy fish along the rivers. In the fall, the herds are gathered back together and moved to winter grounds.


There is little information on sports among the Nentsy. Recreational activities such as bicycle riding occur in the villages.


Children in urban communities enjoy riding bicycles, watching movies or television, and other modern forms of recreation, but children in rural settings are more limited. In villages, there are bicycles, manufactured toys, televisions, radios, VCRs, and sometimes movie theaters. In the tundra, there might be radio and an occasional store-bought toy, but children also depend on their imaginations and the games and toys of their nomadic ancestors. Balls are made of reindeer or seal skin. Dolls made from felt with heads made from birds' beaks are not only toys but important items in Nentsy tradition.


There is generally little spare time to devote to hobbies in Nentsy society. Folk arts are represented in the figurative art that adorns traditional clothing and some personal items. Other forms of expressive arts include carving on bone and wood, inlays of tin on wood, and wooden religious sculptures. Wooden sculptures of animals or humans as representations of gods took two basic forms: wooden sticks of various sizes with one or more crudely carved faces on their upper portions, and carefully carved and detailed figures of people, often dressed with real furs and skins. The ornamentation of women's clothing was especially widespread and continues to be important. Medallions and appliqués are made with furs and hair of different colors and then sewn onto the clothing.


The economic basis of Nentsy culture—the land and the reindeer herds—are threatened today by the development of natural gas and oil. Economic reforms and democratic processes in Russia today present both new opportunities and new problems for the Nentsy. Natural gas and oil are critical resources that Russia's economy desperately needs to develop. On the other hand, the reindeer pasture destroyed by resource development and the construction of pipelines is critical to the survival of the Nentsy culture. These two land-use strategies compete with each other.

Unemployment, inadequate health care, alcohol abuse, and discrimination all contribute to declining standards of living and higher disease and mortality rates among the Nentsy. Social welfare payments for children, old people, and the disabled are essential to the well-being of many families unable to support themselves entirely through jobs or traditional means.


Hajdu, P. The Samoyed Peoples and Languages . Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1963.

Krupnik, I. Arctic Adaptations: Native Whalers and Reindeer Herders of Northern Eurasia. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1993.

Pika, A., and N. Chance. "Nenets and Khanty of the Russian Federation." In State of the Peoples: A Global Human Rights Report on Societies in Danger . Boston: Beacon Press, 1993.

Prokof'yeva, E. D. "The Nentsy." In Peoples of Siberia. Ed. M. G. Levin and L. P. Potapov. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964. (Originally published in Russian, 1956.)


Embassy of Russia, Washington, D.C. Russia. [Online] Available , 1998.

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Wyatt, Rick. Yamalo-Nenets (Russian Federation). [Online] Available , 1998.

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