Samoyedic Peoples of the European Tundra

©Edward J. Vajda


The north European tundra is populated by several related peoples speaking Samoyedic languages. These include the Nenets (formerly known as the Samoyeds), the Enets, and the Nganasan. The Samoyedic language group is distantly related to Finnish and Hungarian. All of these languages belong to the Uralic language family, which includes Finnic, Ugric as well as Samoyedic. The split between the ancestors of these peoples that led to the breakup of proto-Uralic must have occurred at least 8,000 years ago, as South Siberian peoples began to spread out north into what had been the glaciated areas of Europe and Western Siberia.

Despite the fact that most Samoyedic speakers today live north of the Arctic Circle in European Russia, there is evidence that the proto-Samoyeds came from the Altai and Sayan mountain ranges on the border between present-day Russia and Mongolia. Before the 1600's a number of Samoyedic speaking tribes lived here and in areas west of the Yenisei river. Of these southern Samoyedic peoples, only the Selkup remain; the other tribes merged with the Turkic peoples and later with the Russians, losing their language and culture in the process.

The northern Samoyedic people fared better in their inhospitable new home. Samoyeds are often given credit for settling the Arctic wilderness, the treeless region of permafrost and sunless winter days. However, there is ample evidence--both linguistic, genetic, and ethnographic--to suggest that the Samoyedic peoples were not the first settlers of the Far North. Apparently, there were other aborigines already living there as early as six thousand years ago. Whoever these peoples were, and there is evidence that they may have been related to the Chukchi and Eskimo of the Bering Sea area, the Samoyedic speakers seem to have absorbed them and caused their disappearance as a distinct ethnic group. In doing so, the newcomers borrowed some of the aborigines' tundra culture.

The three main groups of Samoyedic speakers--the Nenets (who are divided into forest and tundra subgroups who speak quite different dialects), Enets, and Nganasan--each show differing degrees of genetic intermixing with their aboriginal predecessors. The northernmost Nganasan seem to have preserved the greatest percentage of pre-Samoyedic genes (in their case, perhaps related to the Yukagir).

Numbering more than 34,000, nearly 26,000 of whom can speak their native tongue, the Nenets are the most numerous of the "Small Peoples of the North." The word "nenets," which means "human being" was adopted as the group's official ethnic name only after the 1917 Revolution. Previously, they were known as "Samoyeds," a name whose origin no one can explain (most likely, it derives from the Nenets clan name "Samadi"). The word "Samoyed" had taken on a negative connotation in Russian and was thus replaced, although it remained as a linguistic term--like the survival of such words as "Siouan" and "Eskimo" as linguistic terms.

The Tundra Nenets tribes are spread out across thousands of miles of Arctic tundra. They derive their livelihood from hunting and fishing, as well as from reindeer breeding. There is evidence that the southern ancestors of the Nenets already practiced reindeer breeding before relocating to the north. Their southern pastoral lifestyle may have been borrowed from prehistoric Turkic pastoralists of the steppe zone. The Turkic tribes living in Tuva and the Altai seem to have preserved the type of reindeer breeding from which the Nenets derive their culture. In these southern areas, reindeer are used for pulling loads and are even used as pack animals; the southern Samoyedic peoples even had a type of saddle for riding the reindeer. This feature disappears in the far north, where the reindeer are neither ridden or milked.

Nenets techniques for hunting the animals of the Arctic Ocean seem to have been borrowed from the first Arctic aborigines. Thus, the Nenets word for seal is nyak, the Eskimo word is nesak. Also, the Nenets word for a one-piece Arctic clothing is lu; the Korak word on the Kamchatka peninsula for clothing is l'ku. All of these groups may have borrowed the words from some original circumpolar aborigines. More probably, the first settlers of Arctic Europe were cousins of the present-day Eskimo, Chukchi and other residents of the far northeast region of Asia. Nenets folklore also speaks of the aborigines living in ice dugouts (igloos).

Traditional lifeways--Nenets

The Tundra Nenets traditionally engaged in Arctic-style hunting and fishing--the techniques for which were borrowed from the land's previous occupants. They also engaged in reindeer breeding of a type brought north from the steppe region of Central Asia (except that they neither rode nor milked their animals). The Tundra Nenets often acquired their reindeer from their neighbors in the taiga to the southeast, the Forest Nenets, who spoke a very different dialect (only a small minority of Nenets today are Forest Nenets). Reindeer were pastured on moss during the warmer months; when the moss had been used up in one locale, the Nenets moved their tents to a new area. Reindeer were allowed to wander free in the winter months.

Reindeer provided meat and lard, as well as skins for clothing and tents. Unlike the situation in Central Asia, reindeer were not milked by any of the northern Samoyedic peoples. A herd of 70-100 reindeer were necessary per household. Families with fewer reindeer tended to stay closer to lakes and rivers and used more fish in their diets. Some traditionally used the bow and arrow to fish in the rivers. Thus, unlike most of the other peoples of northern Siberia, the reindeer-herding Nenets were true pastoral nomads.

The Nenets also hunted wild reindeer, particularly in the winter, when some of the hunters would use a trained decoy reindeer to attract the wild bucks and engage them in combat, wherupon the wild reindeer could more easily be killed. Domesticated reindeer which had been allowed to wander free during the winter were corralled in the spring.

During the spring, waterfowl were caught in large nets; it is said that a few hunters could capture hundreds of birds in a single day.

For transportation, the Nenets harnessed sleds (khan) to their reindeer. These sleds are similar to those used in the steppe areas and quite different from those used by the Arctic peoples of the Pacific--another clue that the Samoyedic peoples brought their reindeer with them from southern Siberia. Interestingly, although the Samoyed dog is named after this tribe, it was the Russians who in the 18th century introduced dogsledding to the Tundra Nenets, and not the other way around. The Russians had acquired the technique from the native peoples of the Pacific Arctic.

The Nenets lived primarily in a conical tent called a mya (which very much resembled the Native American tipi), not in an igloo or other type of semi-subterranean dwelling. The mya was made from 30 to 50 wooden poles; in winter it was covered with animal pelts weighed down by stones, in summer by sections of boiled birchbark sewn together. The birchbark was obtained by bartering with more southerly peoples (such as the Finnic Komi or the Ugrian Khanty). Meat, fish and other edibles were often stored on raised platforms near the camp.

The Nenets staple was reindeer meat, lard and blood, supplemented in the warm months with various wild vegetables and berries. Fish and sea animals provided additional protein, particularly to poorer families who had insufficient reindeer. (In pastoral nomadic societies, as a rule, only the poorest members tended to abandon pastoralism in favor of intensive hunting-gathering or even farming, if ecological conditions permitted.)

From an anthropological point of view the Nenets are interesting because they are one of the few Siberian peoples whose social structure revolves around women leaders. The Nenets are divided into dozens of matriarchal clans. Mothers enjoyed great authority in the family. Crimes and disputes within a clan were rare, but interclan fighting was not uncommon. Also, the Nenets might choose a male war chief to lead several clans when raiding neighboring non-Nenets tribes.

The study of kinship terms suggests that originally the Samoyedic peoples practiced a type of group marriage. The children, however, reckoned descent and their place of residence from the mother rather than the father (in other words, they were matrilineal).

The animistic religion of the Nenets also revolves around a female earth spirit, Ya-nebya; a more distant sky god, the male Num; and his malevolent son Nga--the god of evil and death. Interestingly, it is not stated explicitly that Nga was the son of the Earth mother. Ya-nebya helped heal sickness and particularly helped women through childbirth.

As with other Siberian aborigines, shamans interceded between the spirit and human worlds. But in Nenets culture if the image of a spirit did not answer the prayers asked of it, then it could be punished and replaced by another. Offerings of food were left for spirits who delivered what was asked of them. Animal bones left at sacred spots from the numerous offerings to the spirits tended to pile up over the years.

Traditionally, the Nenets laid their dead to rest above ground, building a rectangular wooden coffin over the body (in-ground burial was made difficult by the permafrost). Cemeteries containing up to 20 graves can be found in raised areas near riverbanks or the ocean shore.

Nenets women were bound by certain interesting taboos. They could not walk around the outside of the tent; they could not eat the head of a reindeer or bear meat; they also could not touch any of the men's hunting implements or ever step across a rope. If these taboos were broken, it was thought that misfortune would result for the entire family.

Traditional lifeways--Nganasan

The Nganasan were fewer in number than the Nenets and inhabited a far more inhospitable environment, the Taimyr Peninsula, which includes the northermost tip of Asia. The climate is severe, with frequent winter winds and blizzards. Before the coming of the Russians, the northernmost part of the Taimyr, like most of the islands in the Arctic Ocean, was unpopulated.

The 1989 census over 1200 Nganasan, over 1000 of whom can speak Nganasan fluently. Historically, this people was divided into several clans, each with its own totem animal. The Nganasan (which means "human being") also call themselves Nya; in tsarist times they were known as Tawgi (or Tavgi), or Awam Samoyed, from the name of one of the most prominent clans, Awgi.

Like the Nenets, the Nganasan show evidence that their Samoyedic forbearers absorbed a population of Paleolithic Arctic hunters. Genetic studies have shown a higher percentage of aboriginal genes in this population than in other tundra peoples. Certain ethnographic traits, such as the nomadic hunt for wild reindeer, as well as the spring camps set up by areas in the winter where fish could be corralled into traps and nets, are believed to have been borrowed from northern Siberia's earliest aborigines.

Like other tundra peoples, the hunter-gatherer lifeways of the Nganasan was dependent on climate and terrain. They wintered in the forest by the edge of the tundra, barely emerging from their dwellings; in spring they followed the reindeer herds, which they hunted, onto the tundra, setting up camp in river crossings which permitted easy killing of the migrating reindeer. Nganasan legends tell that their ancestors stayed in the tundra all year and hunted sea animals and fish (these legends are probably the heritage of the pre-Samoyedic component of the Nganasan ethnos). Waterfowl were also hunted with nets. During the summer it was crucial to store up enough dried reindeer and fish to make it through the winter. Early spring was often a time of hunger and even starvation.

Unlike their cousins the Nenets, the Nganasan had very few of their own domesticated reindeer and relied almost exclusively on hunting and gathering. The use of reindeer for pulling loads was less common as well. The Samoyed dog was bred and used for pulling loads (a feature, once again, borrowed only after the arrival of the Russians).

Nganasan dwellings were conical pole tents like the Nenets; these could be dismantled and carried with the nomads from camp to camp.

Unlike the Nenets, the Nganasan were patriarchal, with the father as head of family and clan. The different clans were entirely nomadic with no fixed tribal or clan territory. Camps often included members of various clans. The clan retained its importance as a regulator of marriage. One could not marry into the mother's clan, or into certain other clans either. In other words, the Nganasan were exogamous. Polygamy and under-age marriage were traditionally found among the Nganasan. The bride's family had to provide a dowry. This dowry was kept by the bride throughout her life, and woman were laid to rest with their dowry. Married women were considered unclean once signs of pregnancy were detected, and pregnant women were subject to various taboos. The birth, however, took place in the communal tent rather than a special enclosure--during the birth, dog fur was burned as a purificatory agent. Three days after the birth, the tent and all its inhabitants were ritually purified by heating reindeer fat in the hearth and having all members hold their outstretchend hands over the smoke.

The animistic faith of the Nganasan included beliefs that all things were endowed with life and understanding; it was even believed that human-made objects had an animus and could even understand human speech. Certain objects were revered as the embodiment of spirits. Shamanism was widely practiced within the clan. The Nganasan also believed in the reincarnation of human souls.

In February, when the sun was beginning to peer over the horizon after the long polar winter night, the shaman held a special ritual called the "clean tent" ceremony. From morning till night a shaman sat chanting in one of the tents, invoking the good will of the spirit world for his tribe in the coming year.

The Nganasan had no musical instruments other than the shaman's tambourine and a child's whistle made from a goose feather.

Art forms included mammoth tusk engravings, as well as etchings into leather which were colored with various sorts of dyes.

Traditional lifeways--Enets

The Enets, formerly called the Karasin Samoyed (the word "enets," like "nenets," means "person" or "human being"), live between the Nenets and the Nganasan on the lower Yenisei river. Today there are only about 200 Enets, and fewer than 100 of these are fluent in the Enets language--making this one of the smallest ethnic groups in Siberia.

The Enets were divided into two groups. The Tundra Enets nomadized during the summer in the tundra on both sides of the mouth of the Yenisei; the Forest Enets nomadized in the forests along the Yenisei. Before 1600, the Enets also lived farther upriver along the Yenisei but were displaced by the Kets and Selkups moving northward away from Russian and Turkic pressures in the southern taiga.

The Enets were hunters, reindeer-breeders and fishermen. They hunted the wind reindeer and polar fox. Reindeer were used for transportation. At one time the Enets hunted wild reindeer in much the same fashion as the Nganasan. The Enets tent was identical to the Nganasan, as was Enets clothing. Also like the Nganasan, the Enets were divided into exogamous, patriarchal clans.

Enets legends retain many stories about armed clashes with their Nenets cousins.

Traditional lifeways--Selkup

The Selkup, formerly called the Ostyak Samoyed, are the only surviving ethnos from among the southern Samoyedic peoples. Today they number about 3,600, only about 1,700 of whom can speak any dialect of Selkup fluently. Several related tribes who lived in south central Siberia were assimilated to their Turkic neighbors or the Russian newcomers after 1600. The movement of the Selkups, a word meaning "taiga people," from the Sayan mountains in the south, must have begun at least 2,000 years ago. Selkups, like other, more northerly Samoyedic peoples, show signs of having intermixed with other peoples who already inhabited the northern lands. Whoever these peoples were, they left remnants of their rectangular, semi-subterranean dwellings, called karamo, throughout Selkup territory. The Selkup consider these dwellings to be the houses of their ancestors.

The Selkup themselves lived in log huts built above ground but covered with clay and dirt. The northern clans also used Nenets-style pole tents covered with furs.

The Selkup were semi-nomadic hunters and fishermen. Only the northernmost group adopted reindeer breeding from the Forest Nenets. Of great importance was the hunting of forest birds such as partridge with the help of large nets; nets and traps were also used in rivers and lakes to catch fish. The Selkup tamed ducks during the summer, killing them for winter food when the first snow fell in September.

Selkup legends tells that the Selkups formerly tamed bears, which were then used to engage wild bears in combat. This distraction allowed the Selkup to kill the wild bear was more easily.

Salted fish powder, called porsu, was a winter staple of the Selkup. A type of tea was made from a local variety of honeysuckle.

The Selkups were divided into exogamous clans; they were patriarchal like the Enets and Nganasan. (The matriarchal nature of the Nenets was unique among the Samoyedic peoples and may possibly have been borrowed from some now vanished Arctic group of aborigines.) Hunting and fishing implements were owned collectively by the clan. Hospitality between clans was considered a duty.

Although the clans were patriarchal, women had many of the same basic rights as men and could equally participate in hunting and fishing. This differed from the practice among many Siberian tribes, where women were not even allowed to touch hunting or fishing gear, lest ill luck befall the hunt.

The Selkup believed in the benevolent sky deity Num and an evil underground spirit called Kyzy. Selkup shamans were supposed to chase away evil spirits to promote healing and clan welfare.

The shaman's tambourine was considered to be a living reindeer which transported the shaman's spirit to the sky during rituals. A special ritual was performed to enliven the tambourine to perform this task. Shamans were said to be transported to a hot mountainous country during the ritual (probably an echo of the southern Sayan mountains from which all Samoyeds peoples originated. During such rituals the Selkup practiced ancestor worship using small wooden idols.

Selkup legends retain allusions of war with southern Turkic tribes, as well as bad relations with the northern Nenets