7 FACTS ABOUT THE NENETS — REINDEER HERDERS OF THE NORTH
- The Nenets are one of autochthonous small-numbered Samoyedic peoples. They live in the European part of Russia (in the North) and in West Siberia. In total, there are about 45 000 Nenets residing in different regions of the country. They comprise one of the biggest ethnic groups among the indigenous small-numbered peoples of the North.
- The Nenets who live in Taymyr settle in the lower reaches of the Yenisei. After the Dolgans, they are the second largest ethnic group of the peninsula. There are 4007 Nenets living in the Taymyrsky Dolgano-Nenetsky Municipal District.
- The word “Nenets” is a modified endonym of this ethnic group. It comes from the word “nenets’,” which means “human.” Ethnographers and other peoples of the area called them “Yuraks,” “Samoyeds,” or “Samoyeds-Yuraks.” The word “Samoyed” derives from the term saam–jedna – “the land of the Sámi.”
- The Nenets can be divided into three groups based on their modes of subsistence. The Tundra Nenets (including the Nenets of Taymyr) practice reindeer husbandry: they raise animals for meat and hide. The Forest Nenets, who live in taiga areas near the rivers Ob’ and Yenisei, are hunters and fishers. They use deer for transportation purposes. Finally, there are also the Kolva Nenets who have been living near the river Kolva since the late 19th century. People of this last group are descendants of marriages between Nenets men and Komi women. The Kolva Nenets have adopted a settled lifestyle.
5. The Nenets language is one of the Samoyedic languages that belong to the Uralic family. There are two dialects of Nenets: Tundra Nenets and Forest Nenets, each having their own subdialects.
6. In winter, Nenets reindeer herders live in movable “trailers” known as balkas, that are covered with warm deer hides. In summer, they move to their traditional dwellings – conical chums covered with thin yet solid “spring” hides called nuks. In Nenets, a chum is called “mja.”
7. A hearth played a very significant role in every chum. People would say: “Let the fire in your chum never go out.” It was a symbolic phrase that meant: “Let your line never break.”
ORNAMENTS OF TRADITIONAL NENETS CLOTHES
The Nenets have preserved their traditional clothes that were designed to help people survive in the harsh climate of the North. Nenets dress can be made of fur or broadcloth, depending on the season.
Traditionally, Nenets clothes were decorated with narrow broadcloth piping, or ornamented stripes made of skin obtained from deer shins and coloured black and white.
Cut out ornaments are sewn to clothes with a blanket stitch with the help of mouliné threads. To make a so-called “fur mosaic” pattern, the Nenets use dyed skin from deer shins. They put stripes of different shades one on top of the other and fix them with temporary stitches. Then they cut out the pattern on a special board with a very sharp knife. After that, the temporary stitches are undone. This way Nenets masters obtain four stripes with beautifully carved edges. Stripes of different colours (black and white) are then sewn together with small decorative stitches.
The Nenets give much consideration to the inherent properties of fur when making their ornaments: they take into account different shades, textures, density, length and stiffness of fur.
The traditional Nenets ornaments are based on geometricized natural objects that the people could see in taiga and tundra. Among the most common motifs are “ears of a hare,” “deer antlers,” “broken deer antlers,” “elk antlers,” “fawn antlers,” a “running dog,” a “deer trail,” et cetera.
Examples of Nenets ornaments from the collection of Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography (the Kunstkamera). Collected by G. D. Verbov. Illustrations from the book by L. V. Khomich “The Nenets” (in Russian). “Nauka” Publishing House. Moscow-Leningrad, 1966. Pp. 189, 191.
Ornamented stripes with the fur mosaic adorn edges, sleeve heads, hemlines, and sleeve vents of outerwear, as well as female headgear, traditional footwear, and bags for fancywork.
In the following section, we observe adornments and ornaments on female festive clothes from the collection of the Taymyr Museum of Local History (Dudinka).
Ornaments and Adornments on Female Festive Clothes
Female outerwear, a parka, is an unbuttoned fur coat. Its collar is traditionally made of Arctic fox fur, as this material minimises heat loss. The Nenets call such parkas “ne pany.” In the West, this piece of clothing is referred to by a Russian word “panitsa,” while beyond the Urals, it is known as “yagushka.”
To produce such clothes, Nenets masters would sew together several details made of deer leather: two upper fronts, front flaps, a body back part, and two side parts. The body back part itself was made of three pieces of clothing, with one in the middle being of a different shade than the other two. The colour of fur used for the front flaps also differed from fur used for the upper fronts, and usually was black.
Some elements of the parka – the middle of the body back part, the edging, and the front flaps – were adorned with ornaments. Ornaments of vertical panels were called “small heads akin to a chum.” Horizontal stripes that decorated the edging had a pattern known as a “birch branch.”
Stripes of red and blue clothing and a narrow band of white fur decorate the parka’s wide cuffs. Mittens are solidly sewn to the sleeves. The two front flaps are tied with laces made of deer buckskin. Upper laces are tied from the inside – to do that, a woman would pull her arms out of sleeves. Lower laces are tied from the outside, so the two front flaps overlap.
Decoration and Ornaments of a Female Festive Hat
Only Nenets women wear hats, men do not. Traditional female headgear is a fur bonnet with rich edging made of Arctic fox tails. The bonnet itself is made of deer hide with short-haired fur. Such hats have two layers of a pelt – one from the inside and one from the outside.
The bonnet has three main parts: a wide stripe that covers the crown of a head and ears, a semicircular detail that covers the top of a head, and a wide back part that forms a semicircle and covers a neck and a back. The upper part of the bonnet is made of skin from a fawn’s forehead. The antlers are substituted with tassels made of several stripes of coloured clothing.
All three parts of the bonnet are joined together with the help of ornamented stripes of fur. For that, stripes of contrasting colours are sewn in the technique of fur mosaic. Lines of multicoloured clothing add extra flamboyancy to the composition.
The back part of the bonnet is adorned with various accessories: beaded stripes and metal pendants, rings, large coloured beads, and ornamented plates. These adornments serve a practical purpose: they add weight to the hat, make it sit tightly, and protect its owner against cold weather.
Each article of female clothes reflects the way a Nenets woman understands beauty and harmony, the world and her place in it. Such clothes give her a chance to communicate messages about herself and her family, tell other people where she lives and where she comes from.
This article about the ornamentation of Nenets traditional clothes is the third one from the series of publications dedicated to the patterns of indigenous peoples of Taymyr. Ornamika works on these materials in collaboration with the Regional State Budgetary Institution of Culture “The Taymyr Museum of Local History” (Dudinka). Early on, we wrote about the meaning of Nganasan patterns and the technique of their making, and about beaded ornaments of the Dolgans.
Lidiya Aksyonova, a Senior Researcher of the Taymyr Museum of Local History, helped us prepare this article and describe the ornaments.
The photos of the traditional Nenets clothes used in this article are the property of the Taymyr Museum of Local History. They cannot be published on other sources without the permission from the Museum board.
- Aksyonova L. K. “Clothes of the Nenets from the Taymyr Peninsula” (article; in Russian), and descriptions of ornaments in Nenets traditional clothes (materials were provided by the Taymyr Museum of Local History).
- Kaplan N. I. The Reindeer Path (in Russian). Leningrad: Avrora, 1974.
- “Traditional Clothes of the Indigenous Peoples of Taymyr” (catalogue of the collection; in Russian). Vol. 1. “Izdatelsky Dom ‘KP Plus’” Ltd. Krasnoyarsk, 2006.
- Ornaments of the Peoples of Taymyr. The Dolgans. The Nganasans. The Nenets (album) / ed. and ill. by V. Randin; foreword of Yu. Tradinarov. Norilsk: Taymyrpressfoto, 1994.
- Prytkova N. F. Clothes of the Samoyedic Peoples as a Historical Source. From the book “Clothes of Siberian Peoples” (in Russian). “Nauka” Publishing House. Leningrad, 1970.
- Khomich L. V. The Nenets. “Nauka” Publishing House. Moscw-Leningrad, 1966.
- “To See The Northern ‘You’”. An article about the Taymyr Nenets on the online media platform “Taymyrsky Telegraf” (in Russian).
Editor of this article: Elizaveta Berezina.