All Photographs by Dmitry Tkachuk
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Reindeer run in the pasture after a blood test. Veterinarians took blood samples from the herd to test for brucellosis infection.
All Photographs by Dmitry Tkachuk

A Month in the Life of Reindeer Herders

About this time of year, professional reindeer herders and tourists alike get together to celebrate Reindeer Herders’ Day across the Yamal region of Russia. Lasso throwing, sled racing, and reindeer meat eating abound.

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A herder holds a lasso made of cow skin. When reindeer are killed, they are strangled with a lasso rather than shot so as not to lose blood, which the Nenets traditionally drink.

Photographer Dmitry Tkachuk, who was born and still lives in Tyumen’, Russia, wanted to do a story on the event, so he traveled to one in Nadym. While he was there he met the Nenets, who are nomadic herders in northern Arctic Russia. He wanted to know more about their lives following reindeer on the tundra, so he asked them if he could come along.

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The Nenets keep a fire going only when they’re cooking—they don’t have enough wood to burn while they sleep. At night, the inside of the chum is only a few degrees warmer than the outside. It helps that their bedding is made of deer hide, which is a great insulator because each hair shaft is hollow.

They agreed. Tkachuk traveled with the Nenets through the Gulf of Ob to the village of Yar-Sale on the Yamal Peninsula. Their way of life isn’t easily observed—the region they inhabit is extremely remote. When Tkachuk was with them, he said the nearest settlement was almost a hundred miles away.

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Nenet women take care of most jobs besides herding: They chop wood, keep the fire going, cook, sew, raise children, and build the tents.

In Nenet culture, herding is traditionally a man’s job, but Tkachuk was more impressed by the women. “They carry all the household responsibilities,” he says. “They put up tents and disassemble them, they cook, they collect wood, they split wood, they burn it, and they make all the clothes.”

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The herders’ screams and vigorous movements drive the reindeer into the corral. Once inside the reindeer run counterclockwise around the boundary.

“This is a very hard way of life,” he says. The Nenets endure temperatures as cold as minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit at nighttime, and they’re basically in a permanent state of exercise—between constantly rebuilding their chums (rawhide tents), keeping warm, and herding reindeer.

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Children often go out without the supervision of parents because they are not in danger—the traditional dress is very warm and there are no dangerous wild animals nearby.

The cold was hard on Tkachuk, but his hosts shared their deerskin clothes with him—hide is one of the only materials that can withstand the extreme temperatures. It’s so insulated that he says walking a hundred feet or so in it is enough to get warmed up. And when a short walk isn’t enough, there’s always work. At one point, he says, “I was so cold that in order to warm up I had to go catch reindeer and put harnesses on them.”

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Nenets harvest wood in the southern part of the Yamal Peninsula and carry it to the northern pastures anywhere from a hundred to 400 miles away.

His camera didn’t handle the cold as well as he did. He had to take special care that his breath didn’t create ice on the LCD screen, and when he entered a chum he had to remove the batteries and warm the camera over the wood stove to prevent condensation from forming on it.

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Herds move to the north of the Yamal Peninsula. A shepherd leads the herd, and then a caravan follows, bringing the tents and other belongings. The caravan passes ten to thirty miles over a five- to seven-hour day.

Tkachuk traveled with the Nenets for a month, learning the rhythms of their routine. “I wore their national dress, harnessed deer, roamed, didn’t bathe, and ate raw meat. I did everything as the Nenets do.” In the end, he said his favorite part of the experience was something that can’t really be pinned down. “I better understood their freedom.”

Find more of Dmitry Tkachuk’s work here.

See more photos of the reindeer herding life in the National Geographic magazine story “The People Who Walk With Reindeer.”