In a Land 'Back of the Beyond' Reindeer Rule the Nomads' Life

Pollution seeps into an ancient culture and economy in this remote Russian peninsula

The patter of hundreds of hoofs becomes louder and louder as anxious reindeer move slowly out of the forest ahead of herders, who are driving them toward a clearing.

Soon there is a mass of antlers and snorting snouts, trapped in a temporary corral of reindeer-hide rope. Several men holding coiled lassos step into the fray, seeking out the best animals to hitch to their wooden sleds.

The men take their time choosing, their careful eyes honing to the task in a tradition that has endured for over 500 years in this remote part of Russia's far north.

Before long, these men clad in their heavy reindeer parkas had hitched up teams of three deer to each sled, which they had hewn from trees.

Some women of this Nenets herding camp help pen the animals on this morning roundup. Others chop wood or clean up in front of the tepee-like dwellings known as chooms.

Stitched together from as many as 60 reindeer pelts, these dwellings can be taken down or assembled in less than an hour.

To an outsider, the scene resembles a 19th-century photograph of Sioux Indians on the American plains, except here the animals are reindeer rather than bison.

But to the Nenets, this is just another day in a lifestyle that has changed little over the centuries.

Apart from a few modern conveniences such as tea cups, radios, and even an occasional generator, about everything these nomads have is made by hand. Even the deer harnesses are hitched together by hardware fashioned from reindeer bone or ancient mammoth-tusk ivory.

Yet with remarkable ease these people are able to step to and from the outside world. Many have left for years at a time, such as when the young men leave for military service.

"I just returned a short time ago from Chechnya, where I had guard duty right in downtown Grozny," says one young man with a military-style haircut seated inside one of the chooms. "I'm sure glad to be back here now."

Like many Nenets, he prefers to give only a Russian name to outsiders, which he says is Oleg. An older man next to him said he'd served in East Germany during Soviet times.

No desire to leave

Asked whether what they had seen of the outside world might tempt them to leave the herding life behind, Oleg merely shrugged.

"This is our life, these are my people, I couldn't leave them," he says, sitting cross-legged.

Oleg's two-year stint in the army was not the first time he'd spent time away. Like all nomadic Nenets children, he had spent his school years in a boarding school in Yar Sale, the largest settlement in Russia's Yamal Peninsula. (Yamal in Nenets translates to "end of the earth," or "back of the beyond."

Each May, he and his peers would be flown by helicopter to join their parents in the north of the peninsula, where the reindeer spend the summer grazing on the lush Arctic grasses.

Apart from the wooden reindeer sleds, helicopters are the only means of transport in the region. During summer the herders use lighter sleds, which can easily glide across the tundra.

Oleg would then fly back to school in August, just as his parents and older relatives would move the herds south to spend the winter in a different part of the tundra.

There, the reindeer - perfectly adapted to the harsh climactic conditions where the temperature can plummet to minus 50 degrees F. - dig below the snow to forage on tundra lichens.

Diet of fish, jam, reindeer meat

Some herds traverse over 1,000 miles during this annual migratory cycle. The people live entirely off the reindeer meat and fish they catch in lakes - save for the times they pass the few isolated settlements on the peninsula, when they stock up on supplies such as tea, jam, and bread.

Fruits and vegetables are almost never eaten, with nourishment coming mostly from blood from freshly butchered reindeer.

"It's sort of like milk, only it's red," says Valeria Nabivna, as she serves visitors raw reindeer meat.

While it is cold outside, inside the choom all is cozy courtesy of the metal stove whose pipe sticks out of the overhead smoke hole. Boards form the floor. At night everyone sleeps on thick parkas made of reindeer skins.

"We wouldn't have it any other way, we've always lived just with our deer," says head of the family, Anatoli Vanuito.

Mr. Vanuito is concerned about the ongoing oil and gas development in the Yamal by Russia's huge GAZPROM company.

The peninsula sits atop one of the world's largest natural-gas fields, and Gazprom has every intention of exploiting it (see story, right).

"In recent years there've been fewer fish, and the reindeer get sick more often now," he laments. "If there are no fish and the deer are sick, that's it for us. We have no other way to live."

An estimated 2,500 nomadic families live in the area. Many Nenets now live in regional villages and settlements, where they confront the same difficulties as people in the rest of Russia, such as how to adapt to a free-market system in remote areas where transportation costs alone have become prohibitive.

The subsidies of Soviet times are now a distant memory, although each family group still belongs to a particular state farm, from which they derive a small salary.

Although still officially obligated to turn over some of their reindeer meat each year to the farm, most herders now have small private herds of their own.

But they still find it difficult making the transition to capitalism, as the region's remoteness and ever-higher costs conspire against meat sales.

"We're not really businessmen," says Vanuito, "so it's hard to know where things will go next."

Yet if the outward trappings of their way of life are any indication, the Nenets long ago learned how to cope with the world around them, showing a remarkable cultural resilience some other native groups have lost.

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