In the language of the indigenous Nenets, “Yamal” means “the end of the world.” A fitting name for such a place. It is a remote, wind-blasted area of permafrost, serpentine rivers, and dwarf shrubs, and has served as home to the reindeer-herding Nenets people for over a thousand years.
The Nenets people of the Siberian Arctic are the guardians of a style of reindeer herding that is the last of its kind.
Personally, I’m not one for cold temperatures but, when I learned of the Nenets tribe a few years ago, I knew Yamal was a place I had to visit. I couldn’t miss this extraordinary remote region of the world.
The Nenets live in chums (tents), which are made of reindeer skins laid over a skeleton of long wooden poles. The community I visited was quite remote and there were only two chums. The Nenets and I moved quite a lot for hunting and fishing in the days I was with them and I became accustomed to the tiny tribe. I was in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by three families (10 people total), two chums, 100 reindeer, and the mind-blowing, empty Siberian desert.
While there, I couldn’t help but notice the strong traditions and respect for nature that the Nenets people have.
The women are subject to many serious taboos. In the Nenets culture, there is a force called “sya mei,” which comes from the world of birth and death. Newborn babies, people who have recently attended a funeral, and all women of menstruating age are affected by it and must observe hundreds of rules.
Many Nenets are quiet, and are hesitant to open up to outsiders. This is partly because of their isolated communities, as many have never interacted with foreigners, but also because silence is a sign of respect in the Nenets culture. There are no words for “thank you,” “sorry,” or “love” in their language. One Nenets man explained, “You should not put these emotions into words, but show them through your actions instead.”
This action-oriented mindset is also seen in how Nenets welcome guests — not by immediately starting conversations, but by trying to make them feel at home. Even so, some younger members of the Nenets families I was with were quick to open up to me, which I appreciated.
Nenets herders and their families practice nomadic herding and migrating over long distances, with several routes crossing the Ob River in Siberia. Herders in this region maintain close connections to their reindeer on a year-round basis. The reindeer are used for meat production, traditional handicraft production, and transportation, and are central to the social, cultural, spiritual, and economic life in Nenets communities.
To be with the Nenets for several days was an honor and I hope to repeat the experience again someday. I have been hunting, fishing, and have joined the Nenets during their migration (when everything, including the chums, are moved with all the reindeer). It is incredible to see how people can survive in one of the most extreme regions of the world.