Success at the Edge of the Land: Past and Present Challenges for Reindeer Herders in the West Siberian Yamalo-Nenetskii Autonomous Okrug

By Stammler, Florian | Nomadic Peoples, December 2002 | Go to article overview

Success at the Edge of the Land: Past and Present Challenges for Reindeer Herders in the West Siberian Yamalo-Nenetskii Autonomous Okrug


Stammler, Florian, Nomadic Peoples


Introduction

Twenty-three-year-old Kolia lives as a reindeer herder in the northernmost part of the Yamal peninsula, whose Nenets name is translated as 'edge of the land'. The above quote was his answer to my question, whether he would be ready to give up his herd on the tundra in exchange for a job in a town of village. This simple and clear statement in favour of a future life on the tundra is not exceptional for Nentsy youth, although Kolia and other young men went to a Russian boarding school for eleven years, did their service in the Russian army, and lived a few years in big cities like Tyumen' or Rostov on the Don, cities of a world which they themselves call 'civilised', in comparison to the tundra where they live. Kolia fought in Chechnya, was wounded and spent six months in St Petersburg in rehabilitation, experienced all the blessings of civilisation, but never had doubts about coming back to the tundra, marrying a Nenets woman who would work as a chumrabotnitsa, (1) and herding his reindeer.

Kolia's case is illustrative of both the persistence and continuity and yet also the flexibility and adaptability of the reindeer herders' way of life. I shall narrate a success story of reindeer herding in a region whose indigenous inhabitants live in chums (tepee-like tents) on the tundra far from the villages, but which is today among the richest regions of Russia, containing 90 percent of all Russian gas reserves. The indigenous Nentsy always were and still are very proud and convinced of being the best reindeer breeders of the Russian Federation. Indeed, more domestic reindeer graze on the territory of the Yamal-Nentsy than anywhere else in the world. Concerning the future of reindeer herding, this is a development that leads authors such as Krupnik to a 'reserved optimism, particularly in certain areas, based upon historical record of endurance and adaptability of the Siberian indigenous people' (2000a: 49).

In this paper I mainly focus on the reindeer herders themselves: how did they manage to continue their economy, in the face of so many external obstacles? Recently, Anderson and Ikeya observed that very little research existed on 'the subtlety by which people attempt to engage with surrounding forces so as to change its political environment in its own terms' (2001: 2). This contribution will try to fill this gap a little, by identifying the common traits that can be found in all interactions between reindeer herders and outsiders, including Soviet power elites, geological explorers, commercial entrepreneurs, and gas- of oil producers. The main argument is that it is the pattern of these interactions that makes this region more successful than others. These people are no victims of manipulation of exploitation; they are actors who dominate and sometimes dictate their engagements with surrounding forces.

Data for this article were gathered in 2000 and 2001 during anthropological fieldwork in the YNAO (2), sponsored by the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle, Germany. The main work was done on the tundra of the Yamal peninsula. Interviews in the villages, in Salekhard and in Moscow contribute different perspectives to understanding the present developments and also provide historical insights.

I shall begin by first briefly reviewing the YNAO as a region and then focus on reindeer breeding.

The YNAO

The YNAO is one of the less famous, but most important regions of the Russian Federation. (3) With an area of 750,300 [km.sup.2] (about one-and-a-half times the size of France), it is situated in the West Siberian North on the geographic border between Europe and Asia east of the Ural Mountains (Figure 1). The population of 496,600 people is made up mainly of Russian-speaking industrial workers and administrative staff who live in the cities in the south of the region: Novyi Urengoj, Nadym, Nojabrsk, Muravlenko, Gubkinskii, and the administrative centre Salekhard with the neighbouring Labytnangi. …

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