Photos by Andrei Golovnev

The Nenets and Khanty of Yamal Peninsula

Arctic reindeer pastoralists, the Yamal Nenets and Khanty traveled great distances up and down the peninsula, moving from northern tundra pastures in summer to the more protected sub-Arctic taiga in winter. By 1900, a few families had amassed thousands of reindeer, but most herds were much smaller, ranging from several dozen to several hundred.

The culture and technology of the Nenets and Khanty were well adapted to the nomad pastoralist lifestyle of this arctic environment. Traditional social institutions based on clan membership allowed them to share animals and food, unite and divide herds, and use all nearby resources. Religion and other cultural beliefs stressed respect for the land and its resources.

Beginning in the early 1930s, Yamal and other regions of the Russian north underwent a dramatic series of changes. Following Stalin's vision of socialist development, the Soviet government forced Nenets and Khanty reindeer breeders on to newly established collective farms (kolkhozy) while prosecuting the rich kulak owners. Boarding schools were also established, first for children of nomadic families, and later for those of settled villagers as well. Turning children over to state-run schools eventually led to serious adjustment problems for young people who, after ten or more years of Soviet education, retained little knowledge of their parent's subsistence economy, family life, and native language.

Three decades later, the collective farms were transformed again into state-owned "soviet farms."(sovkhozy). Deprived of their lands, subsistence rights, and reindeer, most Nenets of Yamal became hired workers in reindeer breeding state enterprises, although about 1750 indigenous residents, comprising 343 households, still have small private herds, living on the tundra and more southern tiaga largely separate from the collective economic system.

It should be noted, however, that prior to the discovery of huge gas deposits in Yamal, the region's economy had once again become stabilized. This included the establishment of sustainable fishing and hunting enterprises along with the reindeer breeding industry. Severe problems of tuberculosis among the young were also largely brought under control. And while boarding schools brought adjustment difficulties for parents as well as children, the latter did have the opportunity to continue their education beyond the primary level. Special incentives including financial support enabled indigenous students with demonstrated academic abilities to enter higher level educational institutes and universities as well.

A major problem facing the people and the government is how to assure a sustainable future forYamal's Nenets and Khanty peoples - culturally as well as environmentally. At present, the Yamal native people's association, Yamal Potomkan [Yamal for Future Generations], has limited experience and no legal base. The legislative status of the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Okrug is also unclear, thereby further hindering legal improvements for Yamal's indigenous people. In such circumstances, questions about gas development can be addressed with little if any serious negotiations - or a few urban-based native elites, strongly influenced by regional bureaucrats and powerful industrial managers, could sign documents that fail to solve the problems of land, resources, and compensation in an equitable manner.

[Adapted in part from Alexsandr Pika and Norman Chance, "The Nenets and Khanty of the Russian Federation," in State of the Peoples: A Global Human Rights Report on Societies in Danger, Marc Miller (ed.); Boston: Beacon Press (1993)]

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