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Children of the Tundra

Nomadic Nenets children at a city boarding school miss the freedom of the Arctic

People who live in the tundra are accustomed to a nomadic life. Their homes are ascetic, food is basic, and deer are everything. They may roam the vast frozen plains, hundreds and hundreds of kilometres from the nearest settlement but they are not entirely disconnected from the outside world. 

Children of the indigenous Nenets group in Russia’s Far North are sent to boarding schools for nine months every year. Just like regular pupils, Nenets children study all the basic subjects, but they also learn about their native land's history and culture.

Nenets people reindeer herding
For the Nenets indigenous people, life revolves around reindeer herding, which provides the nomads with food, shelter and transportation.

Away from the tundra, being separated from the family is not easy: many can’t wait for the reunion. The most impatient even attempt to escape and set out on a perilous journey through the wilderness.

At home during summer, though, nomadic children try to soak up everything about their Nenets life of reindeer herding and Arctic survival. Boys and girls help their parents care for their herds, build traditional sledges, pitch tents known as chums, and enjoy the typical Nenets diet of reindeer meat, fish and berries. Some parents worry that it’s not enough, saying their kids don’t learn self-reliance. Others fear their children will choose the comforts of city life over traditional nomadic living.

Nenets indigenous people
A young Nenets tries his hand at traditional sledge building.

RTD travels to Russia’s extreme north to learn more about how modern education is woven into traditional Nenets ways. Will their unique culture be threatened with disappearance if the nomadic children are sent away to be schooled?