Pitching a Tent in the Siberian Arctic Winter

Every time the Nenet reindeer herders migrate they must pack their whole tent away, drag it across the tundra on sledges, and erect it again in a fresh place, often in below zero weather. Survival depends on working together as a team. Sometimes they must pack and move every three to five days to keep up with their herd. They are not pitching on a lake but a small mound where the snow blows a little thinner.

Behind the tent an invisible line extends out into the tundra. It is called the sawei line, and a woman cannot cross it. It will bring bad luck to the tent. This sanction is connected to the spirit pole that stands at the back of the tent, which is sacred and a woman cannot cross underneath it; only a shaman may sit in this holy place.

Everyone washes using a bowl of soap and hot water, just like most of our grandparents did before everyone had pipes and taps. There is no toilet in the tent so they find a spot a few hundred meters away.

Most families now have at least one snowmobile, but the reindeer are still used a lot. Gas companies have been in the area and given away snowmobiles as part of land access negotiations. Also sometimes there are competitions with them as prizes, or sometimes they sell a load of reindeer and buy one. They still use a sled to go to town, or trading posts to buy groceries.

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