Nenets of Siberia
Tue, 29 Nov 1994 12:50:00 -0400

Excerpts from an article in the Science section of Tuesday's (11/22/94)
New York Times entitled "Arctic Tribe's Hard Life Unchanged for Centuries":

"A nomadic tribe of reindeer herders who dress in skins, practice ritual
sacrifice and have been using the same types of homemade tools and wooden
sleds for more than 1,000 years...

"The Nenets, who wander across the northernmost reaches of the Siberian
Arctic, eat raw fish, drink reindeer blood and live year-round in
reindeer-skin teepees called chums. Last summer archeologists came upon a
group of about 1,000 Nenet reindeer herders who have had almost no contact
with western culture....

".....But the Nenets, who have preserved and extended a cultural heritage
that may be 10,000 years old, could provide the best proof yet that humans
not only can adapt to the harshest possible conditions, they may choose them.

"....'It was as if we were on the Great Plains in the 1830's,' he said,
recalling his astonishment. 'They live with no connection to the modern
world. they drive their herds nearly 1000 miles every year and they will
forego any convenience to preserve their way of life.'

"By discovering how the Nenets survived when so many other indigenous
groups have succumbed to the rapid pace of modern life, and by seeking
their origins and understanding their traditions, the researchers hope to
understand the complicated cultural landscape of northern Siberia and how
this culture maintains its traditions in the midst of industrialization.

"...thousands of Nenets exist as if they lived in the fifth century.
Some of them appear never even to have known there was a Soviet Union.

"They are fanatically motivated to preserve their traditions, their
language and their rituals.. No Arctic people that we know of have persisted
for so long and so defiantly.

"The Nenets rarely depend on outside forces for their food, living on
reindeer, fish and whatever else they can forage from the forbidding arctic
soil. Other than ceramic teacups, which are common, most of what they use is
made by hand. They believe in shamans, who have tremendous power over their
clans, which are essentially large extended families. The people believe that
certain stones with unusual shapes are remnants of the gods who have guarded
them for milleniums. They live by proverbs as simple as "If you don't eat
warm blood and fresh meat, you are doomed to die on the tundra."

Richard Leary