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The Nenets of Yamal: a resilient people on the edge of the world

By Dr. William Hanlon Legend has it that a loon, after diving into water, resurfaced seven weeks later with a small stone and piece of gravel and then fell asleep.

By Dr. William Hanlon

Legend has it that a loon, after diving into water, resurfaced seven weeks later with a small stone and piece of gravel and then fell asleep. When the loon awoke, the Yamal peninsula was born full of beauty and spirits, the lords of the sky and earth.

Yamal is a dramatic 700-km peninsula stretching out into the Kara

Sea above the Arctic Circle in NW Siberia. Yamal means "end of the land," is marked with permafrost, a young geology and is 1.5 times the size of France.

The Yamal peninsula is home to a very resilient group of nomadic reindeer herders called Nenets who live very much "on the edge" of the world in many ways.

Approximately 3,000 of a total population of 50,000 practice nomadic reindeer herding on the Yamal peninsula, migrating up to 1,000 km between winter and summer pastures, tending up to 175,000 reindeer.

They have a very close relationship with the land, their reindeer

herds and the spirits of Yamal. Reindeer are a great source of food, shelter, clothing, transportation, and are central to the social, cultural, spiritual, and economic life of the Nenets.

There are two main groups – tundra and taiga/forest Nenets. They speak Nenet language (closer to Estonian and Finnish). Many speak Russian, especially the young adults. The tundra Nenets are fully nomadic and have migrated up and down the Yamal peninsula since at least the 12th century. Lyuba, a 37,000-year-old mammoth calf, was found by a reindeer herder in the Yamal permafrost in the summer of 2007.

The Nenets are a robust, resilient, vibrant culture that has withstood the challenges of the Stalin era, collectivization, colonization, outbreaks of anthrax, TB, brucellosis, extreme weather, climate change and the ongoing challenges of oil and gas exploration.

They withstand the minus 50 C challenges of an Arctic winter and the persistent challenges of the tundra mosquito in summer. They live all year round in a "chum," a tepee like structure of reindeer hide covering a skeleton of long wooden poles.

Structure and order is very important in this nomadic life as Nenets move every two to three days during active migration. Each member of a family and guests have a specific place in the chum.

Labour is assigned in a gender specific fashion with the women looking after the children, chum and everything inside. The men are responsible for looking after the reindeer. slaughtering, choosing new pasture, fishing, repairing sleds etc.

All work hard to survive and often these specific responsibilities get shared during active migration.

They eat raw reindeer meat and raw fish (sturgeon) three times a day and drink fresh reindeer blood occasionally.

There is an iron stove in the middle of the chum, which is used mainly for cooking, melting snow and for heating when there is enough wood available.

To help withstand the extreme cold winters the women wear a beautiful yagushka (double layer of reindeer skin) and the men wear a malitsa, which has hood and gloves attached.

Sometimes Arctic fox, seal and squirrel are used. Material at the base of birch bark and sometimes certain moss and lichen are used for toilet paper and diapers.

One of the Nenet's biggest challenges today is learning to coexist and survive with advancing oil and gas exploration. Yamal currently has the world's largest natural gas reserve. Since the 1970s the Nenets have had to deal with ever increasing numbers of drilling sites, pipelines and railway lines with resultant loss of grazing sites, health issues and loss of fish population.

The Nenet author Anna Nerkagi wrote, "As you tread on the land, you can read its tragedy like a book. There are fewer and fewer chums on the shores of our native rivers and lakes. The shores are being abandoned, orphaned. The lakes cry out, the rivers languish and smaller creeks die away. Gloom and silence have made their home among the hills. Hearths no longer warm the breast of our native land. Many chums have fallen, never to rise again. But we, the ones who have stayed, do all we can. We love. We create. We uplift."

Anecdotally, most Nenets I met recently report a move back to the tundra among young adults after boarding school and time in an urban environment.

In Nenet mythology, the fate of families is often foretold by what

happens to the lead reindeer.

There is a Nenets saying, "those who hurry are in a hurry to die."

It was such a privilege and pleasure to spend some time recently with these amazing people, staying true to their ancestors and traditions.

Despite ongoing political, environmental and economic challenges, they continue to live on the edge, on Yamal, the "end of the land."

Dr. William Hanlon is a doctor in Cochrane who has dedicated the past 35 years of his life to bringing medical aid to some of the most remote and turbulent parts of the world– from the deserts of Afghanistan to the Arctic tundra.