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Tribes of Siberia

Nenets & Chukchi. The Nenets are reindeer herders, migrating across the Yamal peninsula, thriving for more then a millennium with temperatures from minus 50°C in winter to 35°C in summer. The ancient Arctic Chukchi live on the peninsula of the Chukotka. Unlike other native groups of Siberia, they have never been conquered by Russian troops. Their environment and traditional culture endured destruction under Soviet rule, by weapons testing and pollution.

Chukchi folklore includes myths about the creation of the earth, moon, sun, and stars; tales about animals; anecdotes and jokes about foolish people; stories about evil spirits responsible for disease and other misfortunes; and stories about shamans with supernatural powers.

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Due to the harsh climate and difficulty of life in the tundra, hospitality and generosity are highly prized among the Chukchi. It is forbidden to refuse anyone, even a stranger, shelter and food. The community is expected to provide for orphans, widows and the poor. Miserliness is considered the worst character defect a person can have.

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Chukchi beliefs and practices are best described as a form of shamanism. Animals, plants, heavenly bodies, rivers, forests and other natural phenomena are all considered to have their own spirits. During their rituals, Chukchi shamans fall into trances (sometimes with the aid of hallucinogenic mushrooms), communicate with the spirits, allow the spirits to speak through them, predict the future, and cast spells of various kinds.

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Traditional Chukchi sports are reindeer and dog-sled races, wrestling, and foot races. Competitions of these types are often performed following the reindeer sacrifices of the inland Chukchi and the sea spirit sacrifices of the coastal Chukchi. The coastal Chukchi, like the neighbouring Eskimo, enjoy tossing each other high into the air on walrusskin blankets. Chukchi of all ages traditionally enjoy singing, dancing, listening to folk tales and reciting tongue twisters.

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For at least a few hundred years, the coneshaped yaranga has been the traditional home of Chukchi reindeer herders. It takes about 80 reindeer skins to build a yaranga.

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The traditional dress for Chukchi women is a kerker, a knee-length coverall made from reindeer or seal hide and trimmed with fox, wolverine, wolf or dog fur. On holidays and special occasions, women can be seen wearing robe-like dresses of fawn skins beautifully decorated with beads, embroidery and fur trimmings.

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Although both sexes share responsibility for running the household, they have different tasks. Chukchi men drive their reindeer in search of  vegetation and travel to the edge of the taiga to hunt sea mammals and gather firewood and fish. The women’s work includes cleaning and repairing the yaranga, cooking food, sewing and repairing clothing and preparing reindeer or walrus hides.

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Sculpture and carving on bone and walrus tusk are the most highly developed forms of folk art among the Chukchi. Common traditional themes are landscapes and scenes from everyday life: hunting parties, reindeer herding and animals native to Chukotka. In traditional Chukchi society, only men engage in these arts. Chukchi women are skilled at sewing and embroidering.

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The staple foods eaten by the inland Chukchi are products of reindeer farming: boiled venison, reindeer brains and bone marrow, and reindeerblood soup. One traditional dish, rilkeil, is made from semi-digested moss from a slaughtered reindeer’s stomach mixed with blood, fat, and pieces of boiled reindeer intestine. Coastal Chukchi cuisine is based on boiled walrus, seal, whale meat/fat and seaweed. Both groups eat frozen fish and edible leaves and roots.

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The Chukchi are an ancient Arctic people who chiefly live on the peninsula of Chukotka. They are unusual among the Northern people in having two distinct cultures: the nomadic reindeer herders (Chauchu) who live in the interior of the peninsula, and the village-based marine mammal hunters (Ankalyn) who live along the coasts of the Arctic Ocean,the Chukchi Sea and the Bering Sea.

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The Nenets people of the Siberian arctic are a nomadic tribe of reindeer herders. Migrating across the Yamal peninsula, where the Ob River and Ural Mountains meet the Arctic coast, the Nenets have thrived for more than a millennium in one of the most inhospitable places on earth, with temperatures that dip to minus 50°C in winter and soar to 35°C in summer.

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Shamanism is still practised in parts of the tundra. Nenets have an animist belief system centred on local deities. These are represented by wooden idols that they carry on sacred sledges. Figurines representing ancestors also play an important role. Several times a season, the sacred sledge is anointed with freshly slaughtered reindeer blood. When they sacrifice a reindeer, they split the animal in half, starting at the skull.

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The Nenets still rely on traditional clothing sewn by the women. Nenets men wear a Malitsa, which is a coat with hood made of around 4 reindeer skins, fur on the inside and leather on the outside. In extremely cold conditions, men wear yet another layer of reindeer fur, known as a Gus.

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The Nenets still rely on traditional clothing sewn by the women. The women wear a Yagushka which has a double layer of around 8 reindeer skins.  Both men and women wear hip-high reindeer skin boots consisting of an inner (tobaki) and outer boot (kisy).

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Migrating across the Yamal peninsula, where the Ob River and Ural Mountains meet the Arctic coast, the Nenets have thrived for more than a millennium in one of the most inhospitable places on earth, with temperatures that dip to minus 50°C in winter and soar to 35°C in summer.

No Arctic people that we know of have persisted for so long and so defiantly. Today, more than 10,000 nomads herd 300,000 domestic reindeer on the pastures of the Arctic tundra. After possibly thousands of years of existence, the Nenets now face perhaps their greatest challenge. Since the discovery of oil and gas reserves in the 1970s, the Nenets have had increasing contact with the outside world and the infrastructure on the Yamal Peninsula has been rapidly expanding.

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On their annual migration of over a thousand kilometres, these people move huge herds of reindeer from summer pastures in the north to winter pastures just south of the Arctic Circle. The migration includes a 48km crossing of the frozen waters of the Ob River.

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Reindeer play a vital role in the lives and traditions of the Nenets. Aside from their market value, reindeer provide a source of food, shelter, clothing, transport, spiritual fulfilment and means of socialising. A bride price or dowry in the form of reindeer is therefore still common.

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When talking amongst themselves, Nenets speak a Finno-Ugric language. However, every Nenet under 50 speaks fluent Russian, as from the late Stalin period onwards, all children have been enrolled in Soviet boarding schools. At first, families resisted this policy, but today, boarding schools have become part of the typical Nenets life cycle and parents are supportive of the opportunities that this education provides.

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The Nenets live in one-family chums, made of reindeer skins laid over a skeleton of long wooden poles. During migrations, chums are moved every other day. A carefully chosen chum site should provide pasture and good quality ground, as well as a nearby source of water from which they can brew their favourite beverage, Sri Lankan black tea.

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