The Nenets on social media – a self-portrait | Polarjournal
On the Yamal Peninsula, some Nenets still live as full nomads with their herds of reindeer. However, this does not keep the younger generation from being active on social media. Photo: Sergey Karpukhin

Living in Russia, 600 km north of the Arctic Circle, the Nenets are an indigenous nomadic people group with tens of thousands of members. They mainly live from reindeer herding in various parts of northern Siberia, but also from hunting and fishing. Although many have now settled down, there are still so-called complete nomads who move around the Yamal Peninsula in family units with their reindeer herds. In summer they migrate to the coast of the Arctic Ocean and in winter through the southern taiga.

The Nenets have preserved their culture and customs more than any other Siberian ethnic group and also maintain their native language, which belongs to the Samoyedic languages and is related to the Finno-Ugric languages. The name Nenets means “people”, and the name Yamal means “the end of the world”.

The name of the ethnic group “Nenets” has been included in the Russian government’s “List of Indigenous Minority Peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East of the Russian Federation”.

In the 1990s, large natural gas deposits were discovered on the Yamal peninsula. Thus, some important grazing areas for the Nenets were cordoned off for natural gas extraction. The reindeer herders initially resisted, but the gas companies financed the development of new villages. This partly changed the lifestyle of the Nenets on peninsula. Nevertheless, they are largely sticking to their traditions.
In recent years, as already mentioned in the article “Mobile radio affects the reindeer herders’ routes” here on PolarJournal, several mobile phone masts have been erected in the Nenets’ territories. This not only changed their transhumance (transhumance), but also their communication behavior. So the question arises: How do the Nenets use social media for themselves and their concerns?

Digital platforms such as Instagram and YouTube enable passive and active participation in content. Social media has a wide reach and is therefore actively used by this indigenous group.

At the Northern (Arctic) Federal University (NArFU), the educational project “Preserving the Nenets language and culture together” was carried out in 2022(report, in Russian). According to this, special attention has been paid recently to the preservation and development of small indigenous cultures and languages of Siberia and the Far East. One of the main goals of the university’s educational project was in fact the preparation and implementation of a re-training programme “Teaching the Nenets language and culture of the Nenets people in the context of digitalization” for Nenets language teachers and cultural workers. The project was due to start in January 2023. However, the project has apparently not yet been implemented.

Some young Nenets have found their own digitized ways to show and spread their identity on social media. By entering #ненцы on Instagram, for example, one quickly comes across the professionally designed profile of the community tanamskayatundra with 4,236 followers.

The Instagram profiles of tanamskayatundra and pro_yamal.

It is a clear and informative profile with various menu items that focus on everyday life, such as clothing or festivals. The account is also intended to be commercially useful and offers a sales platform for everyday products under “Advertising”. Clicking through the photos provides a very nice insight into the everyday life of the Nenets and the self-portrayal of the authors. Very traditional lifestyles are shown, the people dress predominantly in traditional clothes and maintain their nomadic way of life. Accordingly, many photos of pointed yurts, the so-called Tschum, are posted. But the focus is nearly always on reindeer in summer and winter, as they are the central theme: Reindeer skins are used to produce clothing and tents – even lassos are often made of sinew – and they serve as a means of transportation.

A special feature in Yamal could be the strong emphasis on the solidarity of the young people with their family members and the older generation, who are often depicted. Rather than seeing a dichotomy between traditional and popular culture on social media (as many indigenous activists tend to do), most indigenous youth find valuable aspects in both.

Professional photos on the VK profile of tanamskayatundra, #nenzen and profile of Sega_bega.

In Russia, VKontakte (VK) is the largest Russian digital network and is considered the most important social media channel. VK is very similar to Facebook in terms of appearance and use: music, images, videos and other files can be shared and published directly. The tanamskayatundra community has an even larger number of followers there, at 11,000. The respective profiles on Instagram and VK are interlinked. Initially, numerous reindeer herds and individual animals are also featured on VK, as well as short films about transhumance and families, for example. Unlike Instagram, VK also functions as an advertising and sales platform. For instance, it is possible to buy snowmobiles or apply to become a reindeer sled rider and tourist guide.

Leaving these public pages of the Nenets and looking at individual profiles, most of them look similar. The majority of them are about reindeer, children, dogs, families and life in the Tschum.

But what drives the young people of the Yamal region? How do they present themselves and who do they want to reach with their social media profiles?

There are some young artists, such as Victor Segoj, who publish their traditional art. Victor Segoi calls himself sega_bega on Instagram and presents his carvings made from horn and bone. This young Nenze travels a lot and also lives, away from his traditional origins, in Moscow. Yet, he often posts how proud he is of his origins and of the knowledge his father taught him about reindeer husbandry.

Moreover, he presents himself on the street in both traditional clothing and modern outfits. Most of the comments are praise and compliments. Among young men, videos of traditional tug-of-war or competitions are also often posted. It is noticeable that many profiles on both Instagram and VK appear very romanticized. ” On Instagram, “_the_tysia_family_7_8_9” presents romantic winter landscapes on the one hand and Christmas-like close-ups on the other. Images of good-looking young women and men are followed by the typical reindeer photos. There is a strong sense of harmony with nature and a desire to preserve one’s own culture.

The profiles of young women are mostly about clothing and handicrafts. They present themselves in colorful traditional costumes, for example in a café, but also outdoors.

Generally speaking, it is apparent that the younger generation in particular actively uses social media and moves and presents itself with ease in both urban and traditional environments. The various profiles testify to a skillful use of social media.

Reindeer are almost always at the center of Nenets life. The “Reindeer Herder’s Day”, which takes place in various districts of Yamal from the end of February to the beginning of April, is therefore very important. The main theme of the festival is a reindeer sleigh race. In addition, snowmobile races and traditional competitions such as wrestling, lasso throwing and a kind of leaping frog are also held. Instagram has less information and profiles than VK, where beautiful and professional photos and videos are frequently posted. Almost everywhere there are links to the official website for this major Nenets festival.

The VK profile of _the_tysia_family_7_8_9 and a post about Reindeer Herder’s Day.

As in other Arctic cultures, the Nenets also have their own official social media profile with 64,000 followers. It is an active platform for political and cultural exchange, always highlighted with attractive photos.
Some cultural groups and communities can also be found on VK, including the profile of an ethnographic center “Касум Ёх” in Kasim, a little further south of the Yamal Peninsula. Traditional crafts are primarily featured there and attention is drawn to cultural group activities. Even the library in Naryan-Mar maintains a very active profile on VK. However, it mainly discusses and presents Russian literature. Also in Naryan-Mar, there is an ethnocultural center that even runs its own video platform on “VK Video”. Short documentaries and music videos on theater, dance, arts and crafts and traditional lifestyles such as pointed yurt building are presented there. With over 4,800 followers, it is the most active Nenets cultural group on VK.

The official Nenzen profile on VK.

Interestingly, all of the Nenets’ public group profiles reference the March 15-17 presidential election, along with an already active link for the election. Some profiles feature pictorial instructions on how to vote online.

Overall, social media promotes the goals of groups and can move their ideas forward. This allows indigenous groups to strengthen their cultural and ethnic ties to the community through content and create a sense of belonging. Despite all the restrictions and government surveillance, the Nenets seem to be able to produce content to educate the public about their culture, strengthen community ties and create a digital space of belonging. Therefore, exploring the use of social media is essential to understanding the evolution of Nenets cultural values.

Benedikta Rabius is an ethnologist, Slavist and graphic designer.

Following extensive travels through Russia, from west to east, she decided to study ethnology and Slavic studies at the University of Göttingen. Her great interest in the ethnic groups of northern Siberia has taken her to Yakutsk, Kamchatka and the Altai Mountains time and again.

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