“Wow! There is nothing–just white!”  I exclaim whilst staring at the vast Russian tundra from the little window of the tiny local plane, which was going to take us from Naryan-Mar, the capital of the Nenets Autonomous Okrug to Indiga, in the heart of northwestern Russia.   Unimpressed, Tom looks at me and says: “You are talking like an oil person, Diana. This is valuable reindeer pasture!”

It was the 15th of February and we were heading to the first of the seven villages in the far reaches of the Russian Arctic, in which we were to conduct interviews with elders, reindeer herders, teachers and local administrators on climate change, ethnicity and language, as part of the Circumpolar Land Use and Ethnicity Project. An IPY project led by Hugh Beach (Upssala University), Tom Thornton (Oxford University) and coordinated by Tamara Semenova (Russian Academy of Sciences and Ministry of Culture).

And so again, I open and close my eyes. Yet all I can see iswhite.….an endless frozen desert. Having never been to the Arctic, it was hard for me to imagine how people could live in such extreme ‘nothingness’.  But I was soon to encounter the unimaginable! In such a hostile landscape, where temperatures can drop to  -50C and vegetation only grows for few days a year, communities of reindeer herders have lived for thousands of years moving hundreds of kilometers between seasonal pastures. Ironically, it’s precisely this hostility which makes the landscape so vulnerable and delicate.

Referred in the 90s as “Arctic Kuwait” due to the exploration of its vast oil and gas deposits, the Nenets Autonomous Okrug, home to the Nenets indigenous people, has become a landscape of contested resources. Reindeer herding used to be a family occupation, the entire family used to live and migrate together. However, during the Soviet period, collectivization policies forced women and children to settle down in villages and reindeer herders to practice a shift mode of herding. This semi-nomadic lifestyle completely eroded the nuclear family. And, to this day the lives of the men who continue to herd reindeer are divided between their homes in the village and their chums (traditional tents made of reindeer fur) in the tundra.

As reindeer migration routes are being encroached upon and trespassed by pipelines as development projects and oil rigs become the new wayfinders, a new landscape is silently unfolding.  And so I was eager to find out how easy it would be for the Nenets to interpret satellite images of their territory. I took with me satellite images of the villages we had planned to visit at different scales, and did some participatory mapping exercises in a high-school in Naryan-Mar as well as with local people in the villages of Krasnoe and Indiga. In a matter of seconds, they had scanned the images and were drawing lines and writing down the names of the rivers on the map with avid enthusiasm.  Even the people who had not grown up in the tundra could recognize most features on the map, recollecting stories passed along from their elders. Amused at my astonishment, Andrey, a herder from Indiga, reminded me that: “If we don’t know our land, we’ll freeze!”

Getting lost in the Arctic tundra, where winter lasts eighth months out of the year, is something which you just can’t afford to do. And, it’s precisely this intimate knowledge of the land, which is so precious that needs to be protected, as most of the elders said. The faith of this endangered way of life, which for thousands of years has proven to be so resilient in responding to changing circumstances, has allowed the Nenets to live and thrive in the Arctic tundra for thousands of years. 

Due to the disintegration of the nuclear family and to forced introduction of internat-schools (boarding schools), the valuable skills needed to herd reindeer are dwindling away, which is causing great anxiety amongst the elders. The Yamb-To Nenets were the only community who managed to escape collectivization and schooling; to this date, they still follow a unique nomadic lifestyle. This way of life needs to be documented, cherished and revitalized among the young; it is their heritage, but it is also ours. The Nenets represent a unique case of humanity’s ingenuity and resilience in the face of difficult odds, in the midst of one of the most inhospitable climates on earth. Living amongst these communities has humbled me in many ways; despite all the adversities, they still remain an integral part of the ecosystem. Not fighting against nature, but being part of it.  We have a lot to learn!

I am extremely grateful for the hospitality I received by the reindeer herders, who shared their chums, malitsas (traditional coats made of reindeer fur) and life with me.  I am also indebted to ExCites, my research group, for their support and intellectual stimulus. And a big thank you to my travel companions; Olga, Tamara, Tom and Alex for ‘walking behind me’ and of course to Hugh, for making it all happen!

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