It’s getting dark and despite being frozen I can still feel the sharp hail like ice particles hitting me in the face. This is getting serious now, the freezing fog has closed in, visibility had been reduced and we are almost out of fuel, we have been searching for the last three hours yet no sign of the Nenets Reindeer Herders.
I’m in what can only be described as an open top wooden box on skies; it is being towed by a snowmobile through the Arctic Tundra in -40 degrees centigrade. We left the remote village of Yar Sale three hours ago in search of the Nenets.
An hour later, 200 miles inside the Arctic Circle we catch a glimpse of movement through the fog, within seconds we are surrounded by 2000 reindeer, then in what seemed like slow motion, emerging from soup of iced fog, I see, sat on a sled pulled by eight reindeer, the frame of a person, wearing thick furs, a huge hood with a long snoot, I can just make out an old mans face set deep within the hood, this was my first encounter with the Nenets people.
The Nenets are nomads; they live in the one of the most remote and harshest environments, migrating over 600 miles twice a year, where winter temperatures regularly reach -50c. Living a traditional way is not just a choice, it’s a battle to retain a cultural identity in an ever decreasing global society. They are reindeer herders, to them the reindeer is everything, transport, clothing and food. Without this hardy beast the Nenets simply wouldn’t be able to continue the life they lead.
In Soviet times they were forced to integrate, their own language banned, only allowed to speak Russian. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union they have thrived, passionate about their culture and their reindeer, but now they face new threats, climate change, the draw of the big cities for younger generations and the exploitation of their environment by gas companies.
I lived with the Nenets for just over two weeks, the Russian authorities not allowing me to stay for longer. The family unit or Brigade was made of two small families, with the grandparents living with one of them. The families lived in separate tents, called Chums, very similar to Tepees, clad in layers reindeer furs and skins.
Inside, the Chum was very basic, no furniture, other than a small table and plenty of furs to sit on. In the middle was a stove, which also provided heating, a metal chimney that rose up and out of the Chum at the highest point. There were nine of us living in the Chum, the grandparents and a family of two adults and three young children, my interpreter along with myself.
On that first night, under the flickering light from a small gas lantern, the conversation flowed; they were fascinated that I chose to visit them, telling me I should have gone to somewhere warm on holiday. We talked about their way of life, the obstacles that they face. They explained how climate change has effected them, when they migrate south in the winter they have to wait longer for the rivers and lakes to freeze, they have to cross them on the 600 mile long migration. On the return journey in spring, they now have to leave two to three weeks earlier, otherwise the lakes and rivers have thawed, leaving them stranded and unable to migrate back to the high Arctic. They were warm, friendly with kind faces, yet direct, straight to the point and I loved the cheeky sense of humour they all displayed. I could see the family was very close, loving and affectionate toward each other.
Following a cooked dinner, boiled reindeer meat and some rice, I needed a pee; I pulled on my boots and thick jacket and headed for the door flap. “Take the stick,” the old man shouted, “Why” I replied, “You will need it, just wait and see”
Bewildered, I took the stick that was left by the door flap of the tent and headed out into the Arctic darkness; I walk some distance away from the chum and started to pee. Out of the darkness came half a dozen reindeer, rushing towards me, I started to walk backwards as I pee’d, I could see that the reindeer started to lap up the yellow snow, they pushed forward towards me, trying to lick the source of the pee, now I realised what the stick was for.
Two days later we were on the move, the Chums had been dismantled before sunrise, everything loaded onto sledges that were tied together in threes, with about eight reindeer being used to pull them. As everyone pulled together to get the sledges ready, the grandmother made one final cup of tea, the final bit of warmth before we set out. As we moved off over the snow, the rest of the reindeer, being natural herd animals just followed on.
We travelled over the flat Tundra at speeds between 3-5 miles an hour. Just as the setting sun disappeared over the horizon, we stopped and setup camp. In the winter months daylight only lasts for three hours, we had only travelled about 16 miles.
Although it had only been a few days, I was really getting to know the family. The children took a keen interest in the camera and loved seeing their own image displayed on the screen on the back. Daria, was particularly bright, when I showed her the display on the back of the camera, her face came alive as she pointed out members of the family I had photographed, she was only three years old.
That morning the men got to work rounding up the reindeer, bringing them closer in towards the tents, it was a selection process, but I couldn’t figure what they were being selected for. After a while they let the reindeer loose, all but four, I had a sickening feeling of what was going to happen, the fate of these four, young male reindeer was sealed.
With a sharp blow to the back of the head and a careful nick to the throat, the reindeer died in less than a minute. For me it was a sad sight, however, the reality is that this family relied on the reindeer, without them they could not survive in the Arctic. I watched and photographed the butchering process, with extreme skill and dexterity; the reindeer carcasses were dismantled in such a way that hardly any blood was spilled on the snow. Then out of the blue I saw one of the men scoop up a cup full of blood, he then thrust the cup towards me, and without thinking I took the cup and drank from it. The blood was warm and thick; it tasted of iron and grass. I thought it would be disgusting; actually, it wasn’t what I had imagined in that split second between being handed the cup and taking my first sip.
The elder took time to explain to me that everything get used, nothing goes to waste, the fur is used for clothing, the sinews used for sowing, the bones are crafted into tools, the meat and blood for food and they often trade the antlers for sugar and bread.
That night in the warmth of the chum we talked about politics, they had heard of Donald Trump and asked if Margaret Thatcher was still doing a good job as Prime Minister, they possessed a skewed idea of the world beyond. The conversation moved on, they told me that regularly at night, they had to chase wolves away, however, now there are none, they blamed the oil companies, they make too much noise, build roads and railway lines, they have scared away the wild animals and it’s harder for us to move around our own lands because of the trains and roads.
For two weeks I endured temperatures of -40 and driving winds, I lived alongside a nomadic group that has survived Soviet integration, the banning of their language, as well as the unforgiving environment. Will they survive the threats presented by climate change and the exploitation of their lands by oil and gas companies? For certain they are finding it more difficult each year, yet despite this, they are determined to protect their heritage, to fight for the traditional way of life and to challenge those that endanger it.