NADYM, RUSSIA — The Nenets camp is set in the forest not far from the city of Nadym, which last month hosted an international gathering of reindeer-herding peoples from across the Arctic.
At the first such meeting in Norway in 1993, delegates formed a union to represent the interests of reindeer peoples. This time the emphasis was on discussing common problems as well as to take part in traditional sports competitions such as lassoing, wrestling, and reindeer races.
Delegations came from all corners of Russia, a country where over a dozen ethnic groups make their primary living from reindeer.
They range from groups such as the Nenets whose entire life cycle is tied into herding, to more settled peoples who now mainly use snowmobiles, rather than reindeer sleds, and live in villages.
The next largest contingent consisted of Sami people (once known as Lapps) from Finland, Sweden, and especially Norway. Herding in those countries is far more developed, given that technology and sophisticated marketing techniques have resulted in a lucrative market for reindeer meat in much of Europe.
"At home we can't keep up with the demand, whereas here in Russia it's just the opposite," says Ristin Mortensson, who maintains her own herd in central Norway. "One thing we discussed was how to establish an export trade link, which would help all of us."
She and other delegates found it fascinating to have met with the Nenets and other herders from Russia. One day of the congress, all the delegations went to visit the Nenets' choom camp where many reindeer were slaughtered. "They live the way our people did over 60 years ago, before the war changed everything," says Marit Broch Johansen of northern Norway. "After hearing about them, it was wonderful to see them here."
One delegate from China has a lucrative business harvesting the velvet-like fur from deer antlers known as panti, sold as an aphrodisiac throughout the Far East.
Unfortunately many delegations failed to attend due to high transportation costs, including one of the few herders who live in Alaska. Domesticated reindeer have never been big in the Americas, where the tradition has always been on hunting wild caribou, which are of the same species as reindeer. Early this century, attempts to bring Sami to Alaska to build up a herding industry failed in a conflict with the local hunters.
Another reason domestication largely failed in Alaska was attempts to increase the size of the herds too quickly. This caused overgrazing as well as tension with caribou hunters.