1. Life conditions of Yamal tundra people reindeer herders Nenets and Khanty
  2. Who are Khanty and Nenets people? Culture and traditions of Yamal natives
  3. What is the difference between Khanty and Nenets people?

Is it easy to be a reindeer herder in Russia? Culture and everyday life of Khanty and Nenets people – indigenous population of Yamal, Russia

Nenets and khanty nomads with reindeers, tour to herders of Yamal, Russia

Today we can watch that globalization is walking around our planet. Life becomes easier, cultures mix with each other and step by step parts of the world lose their uniqueness. To be honest, I’m not a fan of this process and really wish all nationalities and cultures to stay unique as it was around 100-200 years ago. Life and travelling was much more interesting that time, don’t you think so? 🙂 More than 100 nationalities live in Russia today, and I’m really happy that we still can find people who have saved their traditions for centuries in our country and we can learn about their interesting culture. Besides, now everybody has the opportunity to Visit Khanty and Nenets people and participate in Reindeer Herder Festival – major event of the year for nomads of Yamal. Here I will tell you about culture of Khanty and Nenets people – indigenous tundra people living in Russian Arctic, Yamal area.

Life conditions of Yamal tundra people – reindeer herders Nenets and Khanty

Yamal is a northern region of Russia and a part of so-called Russian North or Russian Arctic. It is severe but a very beautiful area that is rich with different minerals and resources like oil and gas, but unfortunately it is very poor with resources that local people can use in their life. And this fact, of course, had great influence for the culture of native tundra people living in Yamal.

Yamal is a region with so-called permafrost – this means that even in summer time (which is extremely short and never hot here) the ground thaws only for 10-15 cm (4-6 inches), plus lack of sun and warming makes this region not suited for agriculture. A lot of plants that we are accustomed to seeing in our more temperate regions simply will not survive in these conditions, so everything that is growing here has a very small size because of very short roots, like dwarf birch that is actually a bush of 30-50 cm (12-20 inches) height. But tundra is very rich with such things like mushrooms, berries and mosses that are favorite “delicacies” for reindeer.

And also its rivers and lakes are full of different types of delicious fish! So as you may guess, Khanty and Nenets people are mostly reindeer herders and fishermen, but I will tell you more about it below. If you want to learn more about national cuisine of these people, you can read about it in the article Khanty and Nenets traditional food and dishes.

Who are Khanty and Nenets people: culture and lifestyle of Yamal natives

Nenets and Khanty people are really different, they have different traditions and origin, but live side by side to each other for centuries in the one region and have very similar lifestyle.

Khanty and Nenets are mostly peaceful nations, not warlike. During their whole lives they are roaming with herds of reindeer far away from each other. Sometimes they are roaming alone just with members of their family, sometimes they gather in small groups (2-3 families) and roaming together. Today there are around 3000 of such groups roaming in Yamal tundra and every group has from 1000 to 3000 reindeer, so just imagine how much food they need to feed these herds!

On arrival to a new place, the tundra people make “stoybische” – camp of reindeer herders, set “chums” – traditional Khanty and Nenets houses, and stay there for 2-6 weeks until the reindeer have consumed the available food in the area, then dismantle chums, collect all belongings and move to another place. A chum is a traditional tent with conical shape made of poles (long wooden logs) and covered with reindeer fur skins or birch bark depending on the season. But today they sometimes use tarpaulin for these purposes.

Usually Yamal nomads set stoybische in 3-4 km from the grazing place of main herds. They leave in stoybische 5-10 reindeer for transport needs, dogs for protection from wolves and 5-10 “avkas”. An avka is a reindeer tamed from birth and kept as a child’s pet and are treated almost like a babysitter for the children. Avkas are the only reindeer which will die with their own death, because avka is a friend, it is prohibited to sell, gift or kill them.

Khanty and Nenets people still observe definite gender roles, unlike other societies. The women do all the household chores: child rearing, collecting berries and cooking, the processing of reindeer skins and making clothing, and even the difficult chores such as wood chopping and the construction and dismantling of the family chum!

The men’s jobs are only the reindeer herding, hunting and fishing if there is a lake or river not far from stoybische. But no doubt, they do as much as it possible!

Yamal is quite a wild area and density of population here is very low, that is why rivers and lakes of Yamal are full of fish! When Nenets and Khanty men go fishing, they don’t take any food with them, only fishing equipment and salt, because man can never become hungry near the river. Especially since raw fish is ok for eating 🙂

What is the difference between Khanty and Nenets people?

Nenets and Khanty people have lived together for ages, have very similar lifestyles, very similar appearances, and even engage in mixed marriages sometimes. That is why on the internet you can find articles that don’t distinguish between these Yamal peoples, but their culture is very different. Nenets people are the ethnic majority in the Yamal region, but actually the Khanty people are more advanced and have a much richer culture than Nenets.

Khanty and Nenets clothes and traditional dress

The attitude to clothes is very different for these nations. Khanty people are the fashionistas of Russian Arctic. They have more complicated and abundant ornamentation than Nenets. Usually these ornamentation cover huge area of clothing items, sometimes the whole front part of them is covered elaborately. The ornamentation usually consists of small beads, such beadwork requiring much time and skill by the creator.

The Nenets people use a simpler style of decoration to their clothing, using pieces of colorful fabrics. They value their style just as much as the Khanty do theirs, but it is easier and faster for the Nenets mother to clothe her family for any celebration 🙂 

But no doubt, both traditional clothing styles are very beautiful, especially during celebrations like Reindeer Herder Festival in Salekhard – the major event of the year for all tundra people. People who visit this event for the first time can hardly differentiate the Nenets from the Khanty, but if you see someone like these ladies below – be sure it is 100% Khanty!

As for summer clothes, the Khanty try to use light textiles like cotton, and the Nenets still use heavy materials like felt, fur and wool summer clothes but in less volumes than in winter.

Sometimes Nenets people just don’t pay attention to it and wear old worn out winter clothes in summer.

Also Khanty women have jewelries as Sacklopses – huge necklaces made of beads, and Nenets women don’t need any extra things for their outfits.

Difference in the language and communication styles of Nenets and Khanty people

These nations have very different languages and can’t understand each other when each speaks in their own native language, so they both speak Russian to communicate with each other. Khanty speak Ugric language that is part of the Finno Ugric language family and has some similarity with Finnish, and Nenets language is in Samoyedic language group.

Nenets and Khanty people live in the tundra region with their reindeer and mostly only their family for communication for a year. With such isolation, daily conversations tend to be limited and basic. The most popular topics discussed are: how much fish did a man get, a reindeer broke his leg, we need to go roaming soon again because the moss for the reindeer is almost finished, etc. That is why these people don’t like to talk a lot, but in comparison between them, Nenets are more “chatty” than Khanty people 🙂

It is also interesting that if you ask a question they don’t want to reply, they just say nothing! They will not tell you “I don’t want to discuss it” or “let’s talk about something else”, NO – they just keep silent and continue doing what they were doing before this question! And you may feel like an idiot, very confused, but they don’t! It is hard to get used to this silent treatment, but all you need to do in this situation is just ask another question and continue the conversation 🙂

(You know, sometimes I think that we need to borrow this skill from them for when you next encounter a very annoying person 🙂 )

Cemeteries and funeral traditions of Nenets and Khanty people

Funeral traditions of Khanty and Nenets people are totally different. As I told before, there is permafrost in this region, so it is very difficult to dig a deep grave. But Khanty try to do it as much as possible, so you can see that their coffins look like small houses dug in the ground by half, but Nenets just put the body in the box and just leave this box on the ground.  Khanty are baptized nation, Nenets are pagans. That’s why you can see Orthodox icons in some Khanty chums, and also they put wooden crosses in front of their graves. Nenets put a wooden stick with the bell to make connection with underground world. So when people come to the cemetery to visit their relative, they need to ring a bell for him to know that somebody came.

Khanty prefer to be buried near their relatives, Nenets don’t pay a lot of attention to this fact, and usually they are buried not far from where they died. Khanty don’t put a lot of stuff into coffin, Nenets put as much as possible not to leave any free space there. Because they are afraid that dead person may come back to take something that he needs and can take also somebody of relatives with him to underground world.

Khanty and Nenets traditional music and dancing

It is strange, but the only traditional musical instrument Nenets have is tambourine, but at the same time Khanty people have 27 different instruments and every instrument was connected with some specific ritual, so they didn’t use all of them at the same time.

Khanty people have more complicated plucked and stringed musical instruments in addition to tambourines and drums that are quite common in cultures of other indigenous people of the world.

As for dancing, everything is simple – Nenets people unlike Khanty don’t have traditional dancing culture. They play music, sing songs, tell fairytales, but don’t dance. Nowadays there are some ethnical Nenets bands that play tambourines and dance during their concerts, but in fact their dancing is a mix of dancing motions from other dancing cultures of North like Khanty, Chukchi and Koryak dancing.

As you can see, cultures of Khanty and Nenets people are very different, but both are worth of learning. Nowadays you can Visit Nenets and Khanty people by your own during trip to Russia, stay with them in stoybische and experience everyday life of Yamal tundra people. I guess that it will be one of adventures you will never forget in your life 😉

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Dmitry Doronin

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