Life Centre of Nenets – the Chum
Vernacular architecture of Siberia has a lot of preserved treasures which are successfully operating today and still have the same identity as thousands of years ago. One of them has been carefully kept by Nenets, also referred as Hasova, Samoeds, Evenks or Uraks. Their dwellings, chums, are very resistant not just to weather conditions, but to the time, too. They are very simple by form and easy to construct, which is important for ethnic group of Nenets and corresponds to their nomadic way of living.
Nowadays, the impetus of infrastructure reaches even the distant places which were once wild. Yamal peninsula, the place where the Nenet people abide, is not an exception. Analyzing present conditions, estimating previous and further changes of climate, ecosystem created by air, water pollution and new economical projects it is easy to state that, unfortunately, cultural purity and uniqueness of Nenets and their region are endangered. Therefore, I would like to raise some primary problems and indicate the importance of this ethnic group representing the main element of their existence – cone shaped dwelling.
Siberian Region of Russia preserved local archeological, linguistic, religious, shamanic, architectural culture due to the following factors – geographical position, harsh climate, severe waterlogging, winds and other weather conditions. Nenets are ingenious population of the European North, Western and Middle Siberia and is the most numerous one. Nomadic tribe culture presents a rare example of vernacular architecture operating in the modern world like thousands of years ago. The traditional tent, called chum, is the center of Nenets’ lives, both everyday and sacred ones. Moreover, it conceals numerous answers to questions of many spheres, not limited just to Siberian region but encompassing the entire world.
In 1930s and three decades after it experienced consequences of Soviet Government order, which were ably presented by A. Pika and N. Chance in the book “The Nenets and Khanty of the Russian Federation“: “Deprived of their lands, subsistence rights, and reindeer, most Nenets of Yamal became hired workers in reindeer breeding state enterprises”.
Nowadays, representing economic interest to the country and investors, due to gas deposits in the soil, Nenets culture and life are about to change very strikingly. New Yamal Project led by Gazprom company and beforehand constructed railway had an impact on the land, its people and ecosystem. In their article “Sustainability, equity, and natural resource development in Northwest Siberia and Arctic Alaska” N. Chance and E. Andreeva stated that “…the most dramatic evidence of environmental devastation and social disruption is found in the Russian North.”
Therefore, more detailed researches have to be conducted in order to save uniqueness of the reindeer people and their culture, which is even more fragile because of its nomadic basis. And to preserve vernacular architecture means to preserve traditions, folklore, language, and history. (….)
Region inhabited by Nenets, Yamal peninsula and Vaigach island, has not been thoroughly studied yet. According to researchers P. Boyarsky and V. Stolyarov (2000) we can easily state that it has been preserved and guarded by locals because of its sacred holy meaning. R. Jones, a member of S. Borrough’s expedition in 1556 wrote about the Vaigach island: “wild Samoyeds live there, not allowing Russians to land”.
Region inhabited by Nenets, Yamal peninsula and Vaigach island, has not been thoroughly studied yet. According to researchers P. Boyarsky and V. Stolyarov (2000)3 we can easily state that it has been preserved and guarded by locals because of its sacred holy meaning. R. Jones, a member of S. Borrough’s expedition in 1556 wrote about the Vaigach island: “wild Samoyeds live there, not allowing Russians to land”.
Detailed information was provided by the expedition of D. Andersons, in collaboration with the archaeological field research team of Dr. Viktor Vetrov of the Irktusk State Pedagogical University and Baikal Archaeology Project (BAP)2 and then listed by D. Andersons in the article “Dwellings, Storage and Summer Site Structure among Siberian Orochen Evenkis: Hunter-Gatherer Vernacular Architecture under Post-Socialist Conditions”. The author states that Evenki cone-shaped dwellings are an example of “how vernacular architecture reflected social structure”. He also mentions Sergei Shirokogoroff, who “provided an early authoritative schematic of the structure of a conical lodge with its distinctive pattern of names, which in turn implied certain roles to men, women and to guests”. (1929:255–256) It is important to mention that dwelling still remains the same exterior and interior structures. That can be respectively transferred to the way of life, religion and mindset. For instance, even today chums are purified by means of shamanic rituals, using local herbs and oils after primary placement, children’s birth and other special occasions. I. Lissner stated that “Nenets depend on the reindeer for food, clothing and shelter” (1961)4
The main life element of Siberian indigenous people is the house – chum, which is constructed not without materials provided by deer. As it was previously stated, it has conical structure with an inlet for the smoke ([Sona]; Nenet language), being 8.3 meters round in plan. Dwelling`s frame consists of approximately 30 sloping poles ([Seran]; Nenet language), covered with deer skins sewed together in winter; and covered with boiled bark, canvas, burlap in summer. (Fig.1, Fig.2)
Moreover, special arrangement of the elements in accordance with shamanic order can tell about hierarchy in the clan. The hearth is the center of the chum, called “togo” in Nenet language and meaning fire; place for sleeping is on the two sides from the entrance, bark floor was normally covered with willow twigs and dry grass mats, reindeer skins on top. The size of the chum may vary according to the family or clan size (8 meters’ diameter chum may fit up to 20 people). (Image 3. and Image 5. depict the installation of the chum and the dwelling`s structure;Image 4. Plan of interior) Because Nenets spend most of their lives in chums, dwellings are understood as the world itself: opening symbolizes the Sun or the Moon, depending on the daytime, while poles covered with animals’ skin – the air, which covers the land. The only vertical pole ([simzi]; Nenet language) is considered sacred and handles seven ancestral spirits’ heads. Shaman has also had the image of the Minley bird5 spirit. The most sacred place ([si]; Nenet language) is behind the middle pole and is allowed to be touched just by men. In front of it there is place for women ([ni]; Nenet language). The only interior elements used are small table and chest. Today electric lighting system is in use, but before handmade cups filled with fish fat and a wick inside were used as lights. All space of the house and its maintenance, except the entrance part is completely subordinated to women. They have to collect and prepare wood, keep the fire, and can tell prophecies expressed by cod wood smoke, strength, and color of the flame using shamanic6 methods. Moreover, women have to construct and deconstruct the chum itself every time the clan travels. Men’s duties include hunting, fishing and deer keeping.
Vernacular architecture is always the result of people trying to adapt their lives to the local climate using materials of the region. It also reflects main aspects and small details of their lives. Speaking about Nenets people, vernacular architecture has its own very special place. Because of geographical position and very cold harsh climate chum is the only thing that can absorb, conserve and afterwards mirror traditions and mindset of Samoyeds – Siberia inhabitants and nomadic nations in general. Therefore, it has to be preserved in its turn and be enlightened by more detailed researches. Moreover, a lot of aspects, for instance, dwellings connection with Shamanic practices in 21st century; or genetic connection with American Indians and tiipii dwellings in terms of architecture are still not fully explored but are of great interest.
© by Almira Khafizou
Interior Designer & Photographer
1.The Obskaya-Bovanenkovo Railway Line is the northernmost railway in the world, built by Gazprom as a start of Yamal project. It was built to export the gas fields in Bovanenkovo and deliver supplies. This railway is disrupting Nenets migration routes, using up natural resources and changing the land.
2.Baikal Archaeology Project (BAP) team members – http://bhap.artsrn.ualberta.ca/team
3. Boyarsky P. (V.), Stolyarov V. (P.). (2000) Arctic exploration history. Island Vaigach. Natural and cultural heritage. 1. Moscow: Russian Research Institute of Cultural and Natural Heritage. 30
4. Lissner I. (1961) Man, God and Magic. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons
5.Minley is the holy bird- wind patron for Nenets. Samoyeds understand lightening as the sparkle of her eyes and thunder as the sound of her wings.
6. Religion of Nenets is Shamanism – faith in spirits-hosts of the sky, earth, fire, rivers and natural phenomena.