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The Nganasans

The Nganasans People of the Arctic

The Nganasans are the most northerly indigenous people in Siberia. They belong to the Samoyedic group of Uralic peoples and settled on the Taymyr Peninsula that protrudes into the Arctic Ocean around 500 AD. These early Nganasans were primarily nomadic hunters. The Taymyr Peninsula has a particularly harsh tundra environment with a severe climate. The average temperature in winter is below -30°C and the summer high is +13° C. The fauna of the Taymyr Peninsula is polar and includes species like: arctic fox, wolf, wild reindeer, arctic hare, ermine and lemming. In coastal areas polar bears can also be found.

Today the population of the Nganasans is only about 830. They live in the Avam district of the west of the Peninsula in the Pyassina, Dudypta and Boganida river valleys. Other groups live further east in the Khantanga district along the River Heta and also by Lake Taymyr and Khatanga Bay. The Nagansans neighbours are the Nenets and Enets in the west and the Dolgans and Yakuts in the east.


The Nganasan language belongs to the Samoyedic branch of the Uralic languages, and with Nenets and Enets languages it makes up the Northern Group. It has two distinct dialects, the Avam or western dialect and the Khatanga or Eastern dialect. Their name is derived from the word ‘nganasa’ which means ‘man.’

Daily Life

Up until the 1930s the Nganasan led a traditional lifestyle. Their main occupation was hunting wild reindeer and fishing. The led a nomadic existence following the herds of wild reindeer on their seasonal migrations up and down the Taymyr Peninsula where they lived in conical reindeer skin tents. Each Spring the Nganasans would follow the herds of wild reindeer away from edge of the forest where they had spent the winter, up to the north of the peninsula. During the summer some of the men would go very far north to the Byrranga Plateau to hunt reindeer, but most stayed further south. With the advent of the summer fishing season, small, scattered, family groups enjoyed a settled life until the end of July and August when they came together for communal hunts for geese. Because they were moulting at that time, geese could be easily trapped in nets. At then end of August the Nganasans would move south again and often set up camps at points on rivers and lakes where they could hunt wild reindeer as they crossed. After hunting at these crossings and ice fishing in the autumn, the Nganasans returned to the edge of the forest to spend the winter. They hunted mainly with bows and spears until the middle of the 19th Century when Russian shotguns were introduced.

Although they were mainly hunters, they had always kept some domesticated reindeer as decoy animals. Later they began breeding reindeer and by the middle of the 19th Century the Nganasans were the most important reindeer herders in the Taymyr Region. Today much of the traditional life of the Nganasans has disappeared and most of them were coerced in Soviet times to settle in villages. However, there still are a few families who spend part of each year out at camps hunting and fishing.


Reindeer meat was the staple food of the Nganasans and they also ate ducks and geese in the summer. They caught and ate a variety of different species of fish including, white salmon, muksun, sea trout and broad white fish. In the past the Nganasan did not have bread and on the occasions that they could buy flour they would usually make a type of pancake. Of the imported products they could get only tea and leaf tobacco were consumed in significant quantities. Nowadays the Nganasans still eat their traditional foods of reindeer meat and fish, but their villages have shops that also sell a whole range of Russian foods.


Nganasans Dogsled
Dogs were the main form of transport for the Nganasan, but they also used reindeer and travelled a good deal on foot. In the summer they used dugout canoes for fishing and caribou hunting. Nowadays modern snowmobiles and factory manufactured boats have more or less replaced their traditional forms of transport.

Traditional Beliefs

Nganasans Shaman's Clothing
The Nganasans had animistic beliefs and practiced shamanism. They believed that even objects made by man had live spirits that could understand human speech. They also idolised some natural objects like rivers and mountains and sacrificed reindeer or dogs to them. According to their traditional beliefs supernatural beings are divided into three main categories. Firstly, Nguo or “owners” of the main natural phenomena, such as sky, sun, earth, fire and reindeer. Secondly, Barussi, that were anthropomorphic beings who inhabited rivers, lakes and the sea, who were harmful to men. Thirdly, Dyamada, who were special spirits that served shamans. Almost every nomadic group had its own shaman whose main function was communicating with the spirit world to cure the sick and ensure people’s well-being.


Nganasan clothing was made from reindeer skins. Purchased fabrics (most often white, red and black cotton) were mainly used for trim and decoration. Men’s clothes consisted of a thick double layered ‘lu’, a loose pullover shirt made of white reindeer skin with the fur on the inside and trimmed with white dog or arctic fox fur. When travelling in cold weather men would also wear a ‘sokuy’, which was similar to the parka style of a Nenets ‘malitsa’ but with the fur facing outwards and a hood that had a high fur plume over the forehead.

Women’s clothes consisted of reindeer leather overalls ‘foniye with decorative metal pendants other ornaments sewn onto the front. They also wore a coat ‘lifariye’ which opened down the front. Women often wore a bonnet style cap made from white deerskin with black dog fur trim. The clothes were adorned with appliqué, the geometric patterns of which were an indication of their owner’s social standing.

Their footwear ‘faimu’ was not narrowed at the ankle and has the shape of a cylindrical bag. They were made from white leg skins of reindeer, with the soles made from reindeer foreheads or leg skins sheared to form a rough surface so they gave good grip. Women’s wore shorter boots which were worn over fur stockings called, ‘tangada’.

Social Problems

Alcoholism, unemployment, poverty and suicide are the main social issues found in Nganasan communities. They are widely attributed to the loss of their culture and the sedentary life in settlements.

 Text © B & C Alexander

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