Chebotaeva N.A. Our Neighbours: the Forest Nenets. Traditional Upbrining // Science. First Hand – 2006. – №3(8). – P. 79-85// Science. First Hand – 2006. –Special Issue. – P. 15-21.


The Forest Nenets usually celebrate a birthday only once in a lifetime — when the baby arrives in the world. It is a day of great joy for the parents and  all the relatives. In the old days, they would invite a shaman to initiate the baby into the world of people and to protect him from the evil spirits. By the shaman's arrival, the ceremony of purification would have been held.

Now shamans are not invited, for real shamans are very rare. But the ceremony is still practiced in virtually every family. Here is how M. and O. Prikhodko de­scribe it (2002): "The grandmother burned a scrap of beaver fur, some tree mushroom and a branch of wild rosemary; put otter's bones over the ashes; sprinkled with birch shavings and fumigated Khomani's cradle, her mother and the bed. Then the grandmother threw a scrap of otter skin and birch buds on the ashes and fumed the chum, Khomani's father and her two-year-old brother Khomaku." There are some common rules of the ceremony; nevertheless, each family has its own tradition of carrying it out.

On the occasion of a birthday, a young reindeer is killed. The guests, relatives and neighbors, give their presents: a piece of chintz or broadcloth, birch dust for the cradle, matches, a bag of food. The baby's wealthy relatives, as well as the baby's father, mother and siblings give the newborn a young reindeer calf each. The mother puts matches into the cradle, for they are said to possess some magic qual­ity: it is believed that they can scare away evil spirits. In the old days, they would put a coal into the cradle and ask the fire to protect the baby from evil spirits.




A first year of baby's life is spent in the cradle. The baby sleeps and plays in it, is transported in it when moving on to a new place. Regardless of the number of children in a family, there is usually only one cradle. It is made for the firstborn and is passed on to other babies. When the cradle is worn out, they make a new one; the same happens if a baby dies.

The cradle is one of the most expensive things for the northerners. With the Forest Nenets, the cradle is made by men. It is oval-shaped and has a flat bottom. As a rule, they used to make it out of birch, but with the advent of new materials they make it out of plywood. On the inside, the bottom is equipped with spe­cial belts that help to hold the baby. It is very convenient for the mother: She can tend to the house without 1 worrying that the baby can fall out or nurse the baby taking it out.

The Forest Nenets pay very much attention to the decoration of the cradle. For this purpose they use beads, broad­cloth, metal buttons, and other things.

Before the modern means of keeping the baby clean appeared, they used to put a baby inside a reindeer calf’s skin enveloping its legs. A special scoop made out of birch bark was placed on the skin and filled with birch dust, which satu­rated moisture and served as an oil-cloth. This was covered with a piece of long and heavy fur cut from the reindeer's neck, which substituted for a diaper. As it got dirty, a clean one was put in. Today the Forest Nenets use diapers, quilts, and special clothes for the newborn.

Cradles of the Forest Nenets are perfectly fit for the nomadic way of life. Light and durable, they are easy to transport in a boat, and to tie to a chum pole or to a tree branch. If the baby is sleeping, it is covered with a shawl to protect it from the light, gnats, and noise. When transporting the baby in winter, they place the cradle in a fur case made of reindeer skins or in a quilt. It fully covers the cradle, leaving only a small hole for breathing; and the baby feels warm and cozy even outdoors.




All children, boys or girls, wear the same clothes. These are fur clothes that resemble clothes for the adults. Mittens are sewn to the sleeves so that they make a single whole together; bells are sewn to the inside of the sleeves, which helps the mother to know where her child is.

Summer children's clothes are made of chamois, reindeer skin without pile; and winter clothes are made of reindeer fur. Children's garments resemble those of the adults, but their designs are simpler: hare ears, heads, and the like. Tradition­ally, they use for sewing threads made of reindeer sinew, for they are much more durable than the factory-made. To make the clothes warmer, they try to make as few seams as possible. A narrow ribbon of broadcloth or a long hair from reindeer's neck is put between the pieces of fur to make the seam thicker.

Today the Forest Nenets wear both national and modern clothes. They are frequently handed down from older children to younger ones. Every child has a holiday garment, which they put on when visiting someone or going on a long journey.




When a baby is born, the Forest Nenets give it a name, but they do not use this name in everyday life replacing it by a nickname ("kid name"), which they use until the child is fifteen. G.M. Katkileva, a Forest Nenets, says: "My Nenets name is Umy, which means 'kiss'. My older brother called me that. My mother was chopping firewood in the yard, and my brother said, 'I keep kissing her, and she keeps crying.' So I was called Umy. I was registered as Galina later." The nickname can indicate where the baby was born; whether it was the first, or second, or other in the family; if it was longed for; what kind of hopes are set on it.

As a rule, real Nenets names are never repeated. Every child is given a new name, because the name of the dead is not supposed to be uttered. If two people share a name, and one of them dies, the other changes the name. At the same time, we have data that the Forest Nenets used to give names honoring the grandfather in the father's line.

Names are not used to call adult people. When communi­cating, the Forest Nenets use the terms of relation: mother, brother, father, etc. The Russian culture and contacts with the Russian population have influenced the tradition of name-giving. The Forest Nenets began using Russian names, while keeping their clan surnames, for example, Valery Pyak, Roman Vello, Roman Ayvasedo.




It is usually mothers who are in charge of their children until the latter reach the age of five to seven; if children lose their parents, they are brought up by their grandfa­ther, grandmother, or other relatives. From two years of age, children wake up in the morning with the rest of the family, wash, have breakfast together, and then play with their siblings next to their chum. Forest Nenets children are very hard-working. They help their parents to store up firewood for the hearth and snow for drinking water, to stoke the stove and wash the dishes. They are responsible for making a stock of berries for the winter. When the ber­ries are ripe, children take some food with them and go to the forest for a whole day.

From the day of birth, children are brought up in two separate "schools", male and female, for work is strictly divided between men and women: men fish, hunt and herd reindeers; and women do housekeeping, build and put in order their chums, store up the firewood, cook, sew and take care of the children.

The principal teacher for a girl is her mother. From about three years of age, the daughter helps her mother to make beds, wash the dishes, scale the fish, pluck the game. She is still very young when she begins sewing. When she is about six, the girl gets her needlework bag, in which she keeps everything necessary for sewing. She is taught to take care of the needles: they tell her that if she loses a needle, she would have nothing to sew with, and it is impossible to purchase a needle in the tundra. If there is a grandmother in the family, the grand­daughter sews a needle-case for her, then a bag for ritual accessories. So the girl not only learns to sew but also to take care of the other members of the family. As a rule, when the little mistress is ten or eleven years old, she can tailor and sew clothes for her dolls; and when she is fourteen, she is able to make large items, mend mittens or hats. At the age of eight, the girl can lead a string of cargo sledges or mind her younger siblings.

The boys  try to imitate the adults in everything. When they are five, they keep around their fa­thers. Watching their work, they learn how to braid a lasso, carve a wooden sheath, bend sledge skids. From seven years of age, under the guidance of their fathers and older brothers, boys learn to plane, saw, chop, and ride reindeers. Contacts with reindeer foster in the children love for the animals, ignite interest in reindeer herding. The adults teach the children to take care of the calves who were born weak or lost their mothers right after birth. At first, little reindeers live in the chum, sleeping next to their little master, who takes care of them and feeds them. Even when they grow up, the tame reindeers stay around the chum and people and willingly play with children. The Forest Nenets children adore dogs, who are practically family members. From an early age on, the Forest Nenets teach their children to be friendly towards one another, instill such qualities in them as generosity, amiabil­ity, and hospitality. Little guests are presented things or toys of their peers, if the owner permits. In everyday life, the Forest Nenets fol­low a lot of rules of politeness.

The children are taught to express their gratitude with their actions. For example, if you are treated with some delicacy, it is impolite to return the bowl empty, you have to put something delicious in it, too.

The Forest Nenets respect food and they have certain rules of treating foodstuff. For example, it is forbidden to laugh at food and to eat up after the old people lest you fall ill. Boys are not supposed to wash dishes, or they may turn out to be bad hunters — all the birds and beasts would hear the scratch of the dishes from afar.

It took centuries to form ethic rules for contacts be­tween the relatives. Basic ones are respect for the older and care for the younger. The Forest Nenets, as other Northern people, do not object to their parents, even if they are wrong. With particular respect children treat their father as the principal bread-winner of the family. Adults also respect their children. For example, it is unacceptable to raise one's voice or, worse, to lay one's hand on a child.

Relationships between the people and their environment, and people's behavior in the taiga are governed, to a great extent, by the old principles of sin — taboos. Parents explain that it is a sin to dig out earth worms, destroy birds' nests, break tree branches, litter in the forest, because God can punish the guilty party. It is explained to the children that it is forbidden to spit in the water, earth and fire, for each of them has a face. You can­not put a sharp object into the soil, because you will then poke the Earth in the eye. It is forbidden to wave a knife or an axe without need, for it can offend the forest spirit.

From an early age, the children are taught that it is bad to steal, to be greedy, to offend orphans, to cheat, to complain, to boast, to have bad thoughts in mind, to scatter things in the chum, to throw them in the forest, to eat outdoors. They are forbidden to make noise in the presence of adults. The children know this rule very well, and when guests come, they go outside and play. Usually, the adults interfere in children's games and conflicts only when the matter gets out of hand. Then the children are moved apart, but the ringleaders are not scolded. As a rule, there are no telltales among Northern chil­dren: everybody is responsible for his or her own faults.




Games are an important step in the child's development, they help the child to learn things about the world. In their games, children do not just mimic grown-ups, they unconsciously prepare themselves for an independent life. Future hunters and reindeer herders need practical skills, and they get them through games.

The boys' toys and games can be divided into four groups: common, hunting, herding, and fishing. One of the favorite games is lasso throwing. Competing in their adroitness, boys are trying to throw the lasso loop over the sledges head or reindeer antlers lying on the earth. Imitating the adults, children jump over small sledges, harness dogs and ride dogs' relays. In their games, children often use animal skins, hare paws, reindeer antlers, bird wings and claws: the children attach them to their clothes, pretending to be this or that animal. But the adults do not allow their children to play with the skin, bones or teeth of a bear, for it is a respected animal.

Playing "hunters" is very widespread among boys. Boys' toys include real traps, parts of traps and some other hunters' ac­cessories that help the children to learn to hunt. A father makes the first bow for his son; and when a boy turns six or seven, he can make a bow and arrows by himself. Toy arrows are lighter and shorter than the real ones, but you can shoot them. As a child grows, the bow is several times readjusted and made more complicated; it becomes a real weapon, with which small animals and birds can be hunted.

The girls play their own games. Their toys include dolls, dolls' clothes and dolls' household. In old days, the dolls' heads were made of the beaks of waterfowl, because it was believed that migrating birds each year go to God and return pure and innocent. The clothing for them was made out of scraps of colored fabric and fur. The dolls did not have faces, hands and