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Peoples

Nganasans

By Tamara Kula


Imagine being one of fewer than a thousand people who share your traditions. From language and cosmologies to art and music, preserving cultural heritage in these circumstances is a formidable task. Take, for example, the Nganasans.


Photo courtesy of Andrii Soldakov
 
Only one region in Russia is completely engulfed by the Arctic Circle. This is the Taymyr Peninsula, part of the larger Krasnoyarsk Region, so far north that it receives 45 24-hour periods of polar night during the winter without the sun ever peeking above the horizon. In summer, it basks in 68 sleepless, sunny days. It is also holds one of the largest populations of wild reindeer in the world.
 
This is where the Nganasans call home.
 
Despite their current population size of about 1,000 people, the Nganasans have succeeded in preserving their culture for centuries. At first by virtue of their isolation, their cultural resilience now continues through their dedication to their heritage. Even as late as the 1930s, they maintained their nomadic lifestyle as hunter-gatherers, following wild reindeer herds. In the spring, they would follow herds on the tundra, camping in river crossings. During the winter, they would live on stores of fish and deer meat in the forest at the tundra's edge.


Photo courtesy of Anna Varaksina
 
The Nganasan people are the native inhabitants of Taymyr District, considered to be descendants of Paleo Siberian and south Samoyedic people who migrated north 8,000 years ago. Nganasan populations continue to be most concentrated in Ust-Avam, Volochanka, and Novaya, with smaller populations in Dudinka and Norilsk. They have long shared their territory and hunting grounds with the Dolgans and Enets, borrowing technology from one another.
 
Their lifestyle has changed dramatically in the past century, and yet they retain their distinct heritage. Their first contact with Russians was in the early 17th century, when the Nganasan people were taxed by the tsar in the form of sable furs. However, their way of life was virtually unchanged until the Soviet collectivization system beginning in the 1930s. The forced settlement drastically altered their lifestyle, with production emphasized over subsistence, as they raised domesticated reindeer instead of hunting them. Even so, they maintained a semi-nomadic lifestyle until the 1970s, when the government created three large settlements for the Nganasan people at Ust-Avam, Volochanka and Novaya. Men were then employed with hunting reindeer to supply the industrial center in Norilsk, while women were often seamstresses. Children started attending boarding schools in Russian, leading to a decline of their native language – a hardship that still affects them to this day.


Photo courtesy of Andrii Soldakov
 
The resilient Nganasan people have creatively adapted to their harsh environment. Reindeer have played a crucial role in both shelter and clothing. Reindeer skins covered the poles of the chum, the traditional Nganasan home. Skins and fur also provided them with outfits, the hollow reindeer hair serving as the perfect insulator against blizzards and winter temperatures that average minus 30 degrees Celsius.
 
Nganasan artwork reflects their social and religious life. Necessarily intertwined with nature, traditional art takes advantage of materials such as reindeer and woolly mammoth bones that are continually used in their artistic traditions today.
 
Animals feature heavily in Nganasan art, from reindeer and mammoths to fox, hare, fish and geese. Their worldview presents an equilibrium with animals, not a subjugation of them. Throughout the centuries, specific patterns and colours arose on clothing to signify marital status and family ties. In particular, black, white and red are endowed with meaning: black is associated with eternity, white with snow and sky, and red with purifying fire. The original shamanistic religious tones are also preserved through their artwork. Though the last of the shamans have died, their influence continues in the form of legends, storytelling, and artwork, as a tribute to the spirits of nature.


Nganasans snow goggles: source
 
These themes continue to play an important role in Nganasan art and clothing. Cultural revivals are growing in cities such as Dudinka, home of the Taymyr House of People's Art. Interest in preservation of language, songs, dances and folklore has given hope that the small Nganasan culture will continue its long tradition of keeping its heritage alive.