(photo credit: Courtesy)
A delegation of the Israeli MyHeritage company recently returned from a monthlong stay with the remote Nenets tribe, an indigenous people of the Siberian arctic.
The journey was part of a Tribal Quest Expedition project, which sees MyHeritage members documenting the stories of the people they meet as a continuation of its mission “to preserve the family histories of remote tribes.”
“People living in remote locations with limited access to modern technology don’t have the tools to digitize their rich family histories, and they are often left unrecorded,” the Tribal Quest web page states. Seeking to expand the database of such stories, their teams will visit tribal communities around the world to ensure future generations know exactly where they came from.
Thus far, delegations have visited Namibia, Papua New Guinea and most recently the Yamal-Nenets region of northwest Siberia. Yamal means “the edge of the world,” in the language of its indigenous inhabitants.
The Nenets people are a nomadic tribe of reindeer herders, the animal permeating all aspects of their lives; they use their fur for clothing and tents, eat reindeer meat as their staple food, sell them for money and sacrifice them to the gods of their ancient animistic religion. Reindeer also pull Nenets people on the wooden sledges they use to migrate to new reindeer grazing grounds.
The Nenets live in extreme climatic conditions, cut off from the modern world and with limited access to technology, and thus restricted in their ability to document their family history. The tribe’s culture and heritage are based on collective memory and are passed from generation to generation by word of mouth.
“It was a slow process with each family, and they realized it’s important for them, for their children, for the next generations,” says Shahar, human resource specialist of the Tribal Quest team.
“I would like that everything that used to be would never cease to exist, and our children would pass down our heritage to their own children,” a Nenets interviewee says in a video circulated by MyHeritage.
Many members of the tribe, however, are already conducting urban lives, having moved to the nearby towns in recent years. An urbanization process is expected to intensify in the coming years, and their integration into modern cities could cause the loss of their culture and tribal heritage, MyHeritage says.
Under the Soviet Union, the Nenets culture suffered when authorities tried to force the people into collective farming and to settle down permanently in villages. Today, the land and reindeer herds now face threats by oil and natural gas development.
Yet their heritage is still alive after thousands of years.
“There is something very proud and strong in their ability to preserve their identity,” says Golan Levy, the head of MyHeritage’s delegation.
Levy notes that in addition to all the aforementioned uses they make of reindeer, they also make clothes and shoes out of their fur and skin, which enables the people to survive at a temperature of minus 50 degrees.
“It is one of the most determined communities in the world that is struggling daily against the elements of nature, wandering over vast areas in total isolation, with an endless dependence on their family members,” he says.
The Israeli team observed, experienced and recorded their ways of life and interviewed dozens of members of the tribe, including video interviews.
The descendants of the tribe will have free access to the documentation, and through it they will be able to transmit the culture of their forefathers to future generations.
The team built 13 family trees, with information about over 3,000 people, including thousands of pictures and videos documenting their daily life and family unit.
There are an estimated 40-50,000 Nenets people, but according to MyHeritage, most have already moved to villages and towns. Some 10,000 of them live in keeping with the tribe’s traditional nomadic lifestyle, herding 300,000 domestic reindeer in the Yamal Peninsula.