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Nenets: The Women Standing at Land’s End

  • GPS location: 70° 0' -1.63"N 69° -59' -58.77"E
  • Spoken language : Yamal

For centuries, the Nenets have traveled across the Siberian arctic in one of the most challenging feats humanly possible. The Nenets are nomadic reindeer herders. In fact, they are the last tribe of their kind that herds reindeer in this way. The reindeer play a critical role in the Nenets culture.

In fact, they rely heavily on their reindeer for everything from tools and clothing, to food and transportation. They take these herds of reindeer with them along the same ancient migration routes they always have. Each Nenet not only has a responsibility to help care for the herd along their journey, but they are each given a sacred reindeer, which is not harnessed or slaughtered until it is unable to walk. It is one of the many traditions that the tribe maintains along their journey.  

Photo by: Kim Frank
Photo by: Kim Frank

 However, now that the modern world knowns that this peninsula they travel on is home to one of the largest gas reserves in the planet, things have started to change along this path. There is now new infrastructure in place, and the Nenets’ migration routes are threatened by this infrastructure. Roads are difficult for reindeer to cross and the pollution from this development impacts the quality of the pastures the reindeer migrate to.

The pollution and climate change is also impacting the vegetation in the tundra, which is the only source of food for the reindeer along their journey.  Every year, this group of indigenous people moves their herds from summer pastures in the north, to winter pastures in the south. As they travel to the arctic circle, this group, and their herd of reindeer are faced with unpredictable landscapes and temperatures that can drop as low as -50C. In addition to walking and sledding through these long stretches of land, they must also cross the fifth largest river in the world right as it freezes.

Photo by: Kim Frank
Photo by: Kim Frank

However, this tribe isn’t just about their struggles or difficult journey. They are a tribe that is characterized by their bold and beautiful culture. They are also a tribe with a difficult history, and one that saw them overcome early Russian colonization and the threats of Stalin’s regime. However, even after all they have overcome, the modern-day threats of climate change and oil and gas development is poised to provide them with their greatest challenge yet. In a recent article from Maptia, writers Alegra Ally and Kim Frank take a deep dive into the women of this indigenous tribe, highlighting the day-to-day excursions of tribe member Lena and her family. Using a series of field journal entries, the article details what it is like to travel across the freezing tundra as the family tries to migrate to winter grazing lands, reindeer in tow. 

They must cover themselves in swathes of fur to keep frost bite at bay, travel along some of the most dangerous frozen lands in the world, and they stay only in small tents known as “chums” when it is time to rest. The women along for the journey help create warm homes out of these tents, pack and unpack their sleds filled with supplies, and keep the family fed, healthy and happy along the journey—even the mothers who are caring for small children or expecting children of their own. 

Photo by: Kim Frank
Photo by: Kim Frank

This is just the story they tell in their piece. While detailing a 50 day journey with the Nenet, they tell Lena’s tale, the tale of a woman who is not only trying to survive with her family on their journey, but who is on the brink of giving birth as well. As she navigates the challenges presented in her trek along with the attempt to safely deliver her baby and return back to her tribe, you see the intricacies that come with making this type of life work. It is a fascinating look at the sheer strength it takes not only traveling in such an extreme environment, but in maintaining this tradition amidst a changing climate.

The passage is part of a larger, photography book that showcases images from this amazing journey. It is riddled with stories about the impact of extreme cold, the physical responsibilities of taking a journey like this and how rapid climate change and industrial development are starting to pose a threat to this tribe’s way of life. In this journey alone, travel is delayed by weeks because not enough snow has fallen to take the journey. And every year, it only has potential to get worse. 

Photo by: Kim Frank
Photo by: Kim Frank

The photos of this tribe and of their journey in the arctic truly has to be seen to be believed. They continue to hold family values and traditions, while navigating the unpredictable tundra ahead of them—in a journey that is truly awe-inspiring to behold. They make their way through areas of the arctic that have rarely even been photographed on an annual journey that is nothing more than a day’s work for this nomadic clan.

Photo by: Kim Frank
Photo by: Kim Frank

Every year, the tribe, travels to “Yamal” which means “the end of the world” in their native language. They go through this excruciating process year after year, whether or not there is a global pandemic, whether or not they are with child and whether or not the weather cooperates. It is part of their being. And once they have done that, once they have found the grazing lands for their herd, their journey isn’t done. They will trave again, face extreme conditions again and move again as their ancestors always have. Their nomadic life means their journey is never complete so they power through as they continue to keep their tribe’s traditions alive. 

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