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Forest Nenets

The Forest Nenets

The Forest Nenets live to the south of the Tundra Nenets and are a much small group with a population of only around 2,000. They live in the centre of the West Siberian Plain in an area that is much smaller and compact compared with that of the Tundra Nenets. Their territory is located entirely within the taiga (forest) region, extending between the northern tributaries to the middle course of the Ob River in the west and the upper course of the Pur River in the east, a distance of some 400 kilometres. Most of the territory of the more northerly Forest Nenets lies within the Yamal Nenets Autonomous District while those who live further south around the Numto District come under the administration of the Khanty – Mansiysk Autonomous District.


The Forest Nenets language, like the Tundra Nenets, belongs to the Samoyed linguistic group. Although the Forest Nenets language is widely believed to be a dialect of the Tundra Nenets, in reality the differences between the two languages are almost as large as those between English and Dutch. With only about 1,300 speakers, Forest Nenets is now considered to be an endangered language.

Daily Life

Forest Nenets Girl

The majority of Forest Nenets are situated in quite isolated rural areas. They mostly live in camps or small villages where they eke out an existence from a combination of reindeer breeding, fishing, hunting and trapping. Their reindeer herds are generally much smaller than those of the Tundra Nenets with an average family perhaps owning a maximum of 50-100 reindeer. They rely more on their hunting and fishing. Although in some areas the Forest Nenets still use reindeer skin and canvas tepee style tents, in most areas they live in log cabins in the forest. The herders there do not make the same long migrations with their reindeer between winter and summer pastures the Tundra Nenets do. Most Forest Nenets’ seasonal migrations are less than 100 kilometres.


The main diet of the Forest Nenets is reindeer meat, fish and game. Reindeer meat is eaten primarily in the winter while in the summer they eat more fish and game as well as birds like geese and ducks. They catch quite a variety of species of fish that includes ide, sturgeon, whitefish, burbot, white salmon and pike. Pike is considered sacred by some clans of Forest Nenets and women are not allowed to either cut it or eat it. At times when food is abundant they will smoke and dry meat and fish it to preserve it. In the summer they also collect berries that they either eat fresh of preserve by making jam. Nowadays they have access to flour and make bannock and bread while local shops also stock a variety of Russian foods.


The Forest Nenets mainly use reindeer sleds as transport. They have a variety of types of sled for different with a special sled for women. In forested areas they would normally use about three reindeer to pull a reindeer sled. Nowadays, they also use modern types of transport like snowmobiles and factory produced motor boats.

Traditional Beliefs

The Forest Nenets, like their Tundra Nenets neighbours, have animistic traditional beliefs. Their principal deity is ‘Num’, god of heaven who created the forest, animals and people. He watches his creations but does not interfere with earthly matters. For that he has assistants that are spirits who are masters of the earth, rivers, lakes, wind and fire. In the eyes of the Forest Nenets, the spirits personified the two opposite forces of good and evil. The breaking of taboos, customs and rituals was considered one of the main reasons that allowed evil spirits to make people ill and meddle with their lives.


The Forest Nenets use very similar reindeer skin clothing as the Tundra Nenets although the designs and decoration are different. For men the Malitsa, a reindeer skin hooded parka is the main item of clothing and for Women it’s the two layered reindeer skin called ‘Yagushka.” Traditional clothing is most often worn when people are out in the forests or at camp. Back in the villages and towns, modern Russian clothing has now usually worn.

Social Problems

Gas Flare

Up until the 1960s the Forest Nenets lead a very isolated existence, but the quest for oil and gas has changed all that. Their territory has been carved up by roads and towns and villages have sprung up in areas that until relatively recently were only taiga (forest). Some of the herders in the south of the Purovsky region are now surrounded by oil and gas fields that it is no longer possible for them to move with their reindeer from winter to summer pastures. The Forest Nenets face many of the same problems experienced by the Tundra Nenets, high rates of unemployment, poor healthcare, alcohol abuse and racial discrimination. They have not found it easy to adapt to the enormous changes taking place in their territory, and the future of the Forest Nenets culture does not look rosy.

Text © B & C Alexander

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