This series is about people and their culture only…without politics.

Hi everyone! I am Olga, one of the AYN Board of Directors members. I would like to show you the real Russian North and introduce you to young and talented Indigenous people living there.

My first interviewee is Oksana Yar (in the picture below), a photographer, ethnoblogger, and craftswoman. We have talked about reindeer husbandry and life in the north.

(c) Oksana Yar

  • Oksana, please tell me about yourself. What do you do? Where do you live? Where are you from?

Hi, everyone! I come from a small village, Siikha, on the Yamal Peninsula. I used to live there while I was a child, until I was about 10 years old. We lived there with our parents. We migrated with the herd there, set up a choum (tent), and conducted the traditional way of life. Later we moved to the Nadym district, where we live now. Anyway, Siikha is my little homeland, which I would, of course, like to visit again someday to see how it is now. My memories of Siikha left are that it’s a small village with huts. But now it has already transformed; everything is different there, and the small huts have already been demolished. And now I live in Nadym. This is our home. My family and I continue reindeer herding, but this time in fenced areas. That is not the way it is in Yamal, when herders and the herds migrate, every time set up choums in a new place, and look for a pasture. Here, we live in a forest, and we have several fences – summer and autumn – depending on the time of year, we have our own fence. In this format, we conduct our traditional way of life.

Choum – the traditional dwelling of the inhabitants of Yamal (c) DiscoverYamal

  • Very interesting. As far as I know, the Khanty practice a similar type of reindeer herding. How does the place where you live now differ from the rest of Russia, or in general, in the Arctic from other cities?

I haven’t travelled around Russia a lot; let’s take, for example, our Yamal and compare the Yamal Peninsula and where I live, the Nadym district. Here, we are located further south. Sometimes it happens that I chat with my friends via messengers. Let’s say they still have snow in the spring and in June, but here it is blossoming. It’s winter there, but here it’s already summer. Summer is approaching soon here. Besides, we have a lot of swamps, which makes it difficult to have a nomadic lifestyle here. That’s why our reindeer herders have a more settled lifestyle here.

  • How else do these natural conditions influence your lifestyle, besides what type of reindeer herding you conduct?

Naturally, it is more difficult to herd deer in the forest without a fence. If you let them freely graze in the summer or fall, we can say goodbye to the deer; we won’t see them again. That’s why we build fences to keep them somehow. And in winter, a fence is not particularly needed. Snow is thick, and they can not run away because it’s difficult for them to move. They still need to get moss, and we can now let them graze freely because they move very slowly. Of course, we still control where they are, but not as much as in the summer, fall or spring.

Naturally, it is more difficult to herd deer in the forest without a fence. If you let them freely graze in the summer or fall, we can say goodbye to the deer; we won’t see them again. (c) Oksana Yar

  • I just imagined it, and it’s probably similar to herding cows. I have experience of herding cows as a child. If they enter a forest, that’s it. You won’t get them back. The herd was lost. It fled in different directions. Do reindeer have some kind of, well, restive deer or doe that leads the herd?

Yes, there are such deers and I find it very annoying. At some point, you seem to have already gathered them, but suddenly, some leader appears who decides that they need to do it differently and urges them to run into the forest. Although we just collected them and drove them out of the forest. It also happens that we go into the forest to collect them. It can be especially funny in winter. The dog is barking, and they are hiding behind the trees and checking your reaction, whether you have noticed them or not. It’s often like this with our deer. You drive, seeking for them, and they are just standing there and looking out. If you haven’t noticed them, they will remain standing there or go the other way before you can see them.

You drive, seeking for them, and they are just standing there and looking out. If you haven’t noticed them, they will remain standing there or go the other way before you can see them. (c) Oksana Yar

  • From my experience, we had some specific impudent cows or several specific cows, and we passed on this information to each other that we need to keep an eye on them; you need to stand next to them because now they are about to run away.

Yes. Especially in spring, it happens when females, having just given birth, try to take the newborns somewhere further so that no one approaches them. Well, or in the fall, for example, when the males start running around there and go crazy.

  • Nature is curious. Each season has its own specific details you need to know and keep in mind. Your family is engaged in reindeer herding; you yourself grew up among reindeer herders in the wild. Do you think growing up in this environment has affected your personality? Are you any different from your peers from big cities?

Living side by side with nature all your life, you start treating everything, especially nature, with caution. For example, on New Year’s Eve, everyone starts cutting down Christmas trees to set in an apartment. It is very painful for me to see these stumps of trees because all this is for one holiday. And for me, it is very bitter. I always tell my friends that it is better to put up an artificial Christmas tree. Nowadays, there are a lot of different things, and you can buy fragrances that will smell like a real tree. And the Christmas trees sold in shops look so real. You don’t have to chop it. For what?

Besides, when you are in nature, you need to be environmentally friendly and not leave trash behind. I take photographs, and sometimes I go into the forest within the city looking for a shooting location. I see garbage, and it’s very painful to see how people treat nature, especially those who have not been accustomed since childhood to treat it with care.

  • Are there any other ways the harmony of life with nature manifested itself in your everyday life?

If we talk about reindeer husbandry and about life in the forest, we move the herds so that they do not damage the soil. And in general, it is about helping each other. This is a kind of symbiosis when you live in the forest and herd reindeer. The forest feeds you, and you protect it. We have a forest fire problem. So we try to put away some things that could lead to a fire and always leave the forest clean of any garbage. And, of course, we always keep an eye on the forest around us up to 50 kilometres away. In summer, we always carry binoculars with us and make sure that the ground doesn’t burn. After all, we live here, we still have a long time to live. These pastures feed us, and our deer must have something to eat. Every time there is some kind of smoke, we immediately call, and Yamalspas, the Ministry of Emergency Situations troupes arrive, and all this is extinguished instantly. As I have already mentioned in order for our land to feed our reindeer longer, we change the grazing area. We are building a fence in a different place. In a place that we have used for 2-3 years in a row, we no longer build a fence, we move it to another place so that the earth can rest and recover.

If we talk about reindeer husbandry and about life in the forest, we move the herds so that they do not damage the soil. (c) Oksana Yar

  • Reindeer herders’ families usually have many children in order to pass this profession on from parents to children and train the next generation of herders. If you have any brothers and sisters, do they continue the work of their parents, or maybe you yourself plan to continue?

To practice reindeer husbandry, you need a partner, a man who will support you. It will be very difficult for a woman to do this alone. It is a work for two people to support each other. I have brothers and uncles who are engaged in reindeer herding. I have a sister who doesn’t live in Tundra; she’s already more of a city dweller. As for me, I do my best to help my parents.

  • I saw a video from Yamal Media about how young men, reindeer herders, who want to continue their business, come to villages and cities, looking for brides. You say you need a partner. How is this going now? How do such couples meet?

Most people get acquainted via social networks. I have a couple of my friends who met this way. Plus, people still get to know each other at the Days of reindeer herders. It is a festival that we usually have in February-April throughout Yamal. At this holiday, people meet each other and look for brides. And they also meet in the city, somewhere at youth events. Traditionally, as it used to be, they came to get married in tundra from one chum to another. Well, I’m far from this because I don’t live where this happens, so I can’t say whether this happens nowadays or not. I am telling this based on my experience and what I have seen and witnessed.

  • I would like to know about the role of women in the tundra, because there is a lot of material about reindeer husbandry, brave, strong men who herd reindeer. But let’s talk about the role of women in reindeer herding.

Oh, this is just wow… I am impressed by the women living in the tundra! In fact, this is a titanic work they are doing. First, you need to sew clothes and prepare the home itself. These are not just skins glued together. You have to process each skin and sew it together, and only then can you put the tent itself. Secondly, you need to cook, wash the dishes right away, and prepare the bed. Somehow, women have to manage to make clothes and shoes. Besides that, they need time to sew some festive clothes for themselves so that they can come to Reindeer Herders Day, show themselves and participate in a competition. Plus, you have to raise your children.

I am impressed by the women living in the tundra! In fact, this is a titanic work they are doing. (c) Oksana Yar

When we kept a nomadic lifestyle in the Yamal tundra, my mother was also working as a travelling paramedic. Now I’m wondering how she managed to do it all! She worked and took care of the house, and somewhere else, she managed to help our father herd reindeer. Well, this is tough.

Now I’m thinking, how do people manage to do everything? I wake up, and it’s already lunch, I did something and it’s already evening, how come?

But the people there, especially women, are simply incredible, how they manage to do everything. In such harsh conditions, it can be cold, but they do not give up. Those women who still live in the tundra are amazing women.

But the people there, especially women, are simply incredible, how they manage to do everything. In such harsh conditions, it can be cold, but they do not give up. Those women who still live in the tundra are amazing women. (c) Oksana Yar

Some moments have become easier now. Many people buy tablets and phones. And they give a phone or a tablet to a kid, and that’s it, the child is busy. And in terms of clothing, it’s easier – many people buy jackets and boots. Plus, there is electricity now.

Previously, we had to buy lamps all the time, make sure we always had light, and buy wicks. But that was a long time ago, of course. Now, there are generators. Everything is much simpler. But still, this does not change the fact that it is difficult to live in the tundra.

  • So from setting up the choum to folding it, all the work is done by a woman – setting it up, arranging it, cooking for husband and kids, putting them to bed, and also making clothes.

Yes, and also prepare water and firewood. It’s all done by a woman. Those who live in the Tundra are not weak of heart. These are strong women, I think.

  • It seems to me that we need to talk more about this because it is a huge amount of work. And this is very inspiring. It seems to me that we need to build on this image of the North, the Northern people.

It seems to us that it is very difficult, but when I recall the time I lived in the tundra, well, of course, I was a child, but still. I helped my mother with everything. And it seemed to me that it was just usual life, and there was nothing complicated about it. It was just our life. And I never heard from my mother that it was hard for her, that she didn’t have time to do anything. And somehow, all this was easily done. But living in the city, of course, from the outside it seems that it is very difficult.

  • It is possible to say that a person gets used to everything and to good things, especially quickly. But it is important not to devalue this work and talk about it, even though the people living there may not consider it to be something so great.
  • You talked about Reindeer Herder’s Day, which will soon be celebrated somewhere. I understand that celebrations start in the south and then move to the north, right? What factors do people usually consider when they set the holiday dates? Are they looking at some natural indicators, that the snow is starting to melt, is someone flying in?

No, our people migrate throughout the year with their herds, and when the route is almost finished from north to south when people come to our area, that’s when the holiday dates are set. On these days, people from the north are slowly moving south. Probably so.

  • You talked about how technology and some technical solutions are integrated into traditional life. How do you feel about this? How does this affect the traditional way of life? Isn’t this globalization eroding it?

To be honest, I don’t really like it when children are kept busy with tablets and phones. But I don’t have children of my own yet. I can’t help but notice that our children stop to speak our language, and we are losing it. They watch more content in Russian. There is a tendency that children are getting used to the Russian language environment, and they, little by little, it seems to me, are forgetting how to speak their native language. Moreover, they adopt some habits of the characters that are shown in cartoons.

Uralic language family map (c) Fenno-Ugria

This was not the case in my childhood. We played games that adults and older children showed us. We played and talked in Nenets, and during these games, we learned how to catch or drive reindeer. We sewed clothes for toys. The boys learned to make some decorations for their first belt. I don’t know if this is still the case. But from what I see on social networks, many people use phones and tablets. And adults, too, are on their phones and tablets. I am not happy with this trend.

Televisions have come in choums. People in the evenings no longer tell each other stories or chat in their own language. Adults don’t tell tales that have been passed down from generation to generation. It’s all forgotten, and some traditions are also lost. Elders once told me that in the evening, you can’t play, run, or scream. And now, I don’t know, maybe with the advent of technology, somehow everything is forgotten too.

  • Speaking of the games. Were you learning some adult skills and exploring this world through games?

Well, yes, these are always not just games to occupy time, but educational ones. Girls sewed dolls; we had traditional toys with bird beaks. We came to visit each other, gifted dolls, sewed yagushkas for them, built small choums for the dolls. Then we built mini-choums for ourselves in which we came to visit each other. I hope, of course, that this is still the case somewhere.

Not a single yagushka is repeated. An outfit with a pattern is considered rich. (c) Yulia Chudinova / Yamal-Media

  • This case about the Russian language environment surrounding children and them not speaking their own language is widely spread in ethnic regions. Do you speak the Nenets language?

I understand it well. It seems to me that I speak poorly, but I still try to use it. As a child, I always spoke Nenets. It was already when my parents brought me to the city that I had private lessons with a teacher to understand Russian. Well, somehow, in the process of living in the city, I became Russified, one might say. There were Russians around me, everyone spoke Russian. Only my parents speak Nenets. To this day, we still talk at home (in Nenets). Unfortunately, there are no Nenets among my friends here in the city. I have pen pals somewhere far away who speak Nenets. But I also have friends, of course, Nenets, but somehow we don’t really manage to talk among ourselves because we are still a little urban, and it seems to me that from the outside, we speak somehow strangely. But still, we try, we try.

  • It’s great that you’re trying. Yes, I often hear this from indigenous guys that they understand but don’t speak. I have the same situation with the Komi language because I also understand but don’t speak.
  • On the contrary, by the way, my relatives did not speak to me in my native Komi language, they tried to speak to me in Russian. This is a practice that was common among our parents’ generation. Relatives and parents did not speak their native languages to their children so that there would be no accent and that later the children would not be offended in adulthood. I heard such stories a lot from the generation of my teachers and parents. Does this happen to you? Have you encountered such situations among your people?

I probably haven’t met such practice. In general now I at least try to always watch the programs in Nenets. Our programs are broadcast in Nenets, I always watch and listen to them. Somewhere I try to repeat phrases that I liked. Oh, and we also have a lot of videos coming out. Those who study languages make educational videos. I had a friend who made educational videos in Nenets. But now he has abandoned it, moved to another city, and apparently has other interests. And in general, in the tundra, in school, somewhere, there is still teaching of the native language.

  • You live in Nadym now. Have you ever thought of moving to a bigger city, maybe to Moscow, St. Petersburg, or somewhere further south?

I have been to Moscow and St. Petersburg, but no, I have no such desire to move somewhere. Firstly, my parents are here, my home is here, my animals are here. How can I leave all this and move?! I can’t imagine myself without nature. I am a person of nature, and even when I am on vacation, in a big city, as a tourist, after a while, I still get tired of this noise and race. It’s difficult to live in a big city. I probably wouldn’t be able to. During your student years, it seems ok because you are studying and you have nowhere to go. To move there without a reason? No, I’m not going anywhere.

  • I often hear about young people who leave for big cities because they lack something. How developed do you think the youth community is in Yamal, in Nadym in particular? What else should be done to make young people want to stay in their home region?

There are many events held in Nadym to attract local youth. There is a Center for National Culture, which periodically holds events. And in general, in Yamal, it seems to me that we have a well-developed youth environment. Young people are involved in various projects, so they participate in grant competitions. I see a lot that the youth centre that we have in Salekhard periodically holds some events.

In general, an acquaintance of mine who works at a newspaper in Salekhard is a very active young man and always supports some events, he says. He just invited me to his event, for which he won a grant. They attract indigenous youth, conduct workshops, hold events on financial literacy, and teach social design skills.

Reindeer Herder’s Day in Nadym (c) Alina Savina

  • Yamal probably lacks higher education institutions?

Yes, we don’t have any university here. There are only colleges and technical schools. Therefore, probably, our young people migrate to big cities, where there are more benefits of civilization in some respect. That’s why most leave. Although it seems to me that not everyone stays to live there; they still come back. Sometimes I see in the news that there is a new teacher, a new doctor in some village and people still come.

  • I saw the news that a mural of you appeared on one of the buildings in Nadym. Tell us more about this initiative, how did you feel? How did it happen?

Actually, it was so unexpected for me. How it happened. Every year, we host the Ural Graffiti Festival. All over Yamal, artists paint our houses and make some images to match the local realities associated with the north. One day last year, in the summer, I was walking along the embankment with a friend. At that time, I already knew that there would be some new murals made, but I wasn’t particularly interested to know what they would illustrate. We walked past, and on the nine-story building, there was already a face painted, a coloured piece. My friend said it looked like me. I laughed, and we moved on. Then, a week or two passed, and some kind of appearance had already more or less formed. My friend, Elena Nerkagi, our local photographer, sent me a message. She said that this mural was made based on her photograph of me, which we took together for a competition. I was generally discouraged and surprised. It was very nice. I’m still really in shock every time I walk along the embankment. In general, it’s great that such a collaboration happened and this photograph was revived; the artist was inspired by the photograph and made his own art. Below is a video of the process of drawing a mural by an artist inspired by the photo of Oksana made by Elena Nerkagi.

  • Few people can boast that a mural with their image was made in their hometown. Cool, it really transforms the appearance of the city; the city ceases to be grey.

Yes. Most of our cities are northern. And the murals add some uniqueness. Every city can boast of its own beautiful murals. I always admire it when I come to Salekhard. In the villages of the Nadym district, they also try to paint, of course, not such large-scale murals, but they still paint houses, and it also turns out great. Somehow the urban space becomes more alive, I want to live and sing. Artists are still supported, and their work is promoted.

About the Author: Olga Ievleva

Olga is a Komi (one of the Indigenous peoples of Russia) from the Komi Republic. She is a recent graduate of a Master’s programme in international relations with a focus on the Arctic. Writing a master thesis devoted to science diplomacy in the Arctic, she has developed a deep passion and strong research skills in exploring the complex interactions between society, the scientific community, policymakers, and the environment. Her area of interest also includes indigenous peoples of the Arctic and transportation routes of the region. Olga sets a goal to promote youth participation in the process of Arctic cooperation through assuring information accessibility, inclusion equity and transparency of the framework.

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