Indigenous People of Arctic Russia

Arctic Russia

Although the Indigenous people of Northern Siberia in Russia are a nomadic people, they are very spiritually attached to their surrounding landscape.  The four clans of indigenous people living in Northwestern Siberia include the Nenets, the Sel’kup, the Khanty, and the Mansi.  These peoples are typically reindeer herders, hunters, and fishers.  They practice religious traditions that incorporate the spiritual aspects of the natural and animal worlds.  Like other indigenous people, their leaders are spiritual mediators as well, in their case called Shamans.  Shamans are spiritual leaders in their tradition and posses sacred powers that other natives do not.  The Northern Siberian natives place spiritual importance on their environment through the designation of certain sacred sites that are usually related to the natives’ needs for particular resources.  The natives’ attachment to these sites have conflicted throughout history, first with the nationalistic claim of capital by the Soviets, and later by the nation’s endeavors in utilizing the land for natural resources in order to create industry.  The natives’ spiritual attachment to the land has resulted in many uprisings as well as religious reactions within their communities towards their oppressors.  The issues that surround the situation in northern Siberia can be seen throughout many other indigenous communities all over the world, which reveals much about the importance of land within the structure of many religions.





Oppression of Indigenous peoples of Northern Siberia started to reach its first high point in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  It was during this time that the indigenous leaders began to loose their power and become puppets of the Russian nation.  These leaders became intermediaries between the natives and the Russian state.  Because attention at this time was moving towards religious affairs within the tribal communities, many of these new intermediary leaders were shamans.  By the nineteenth century, a statute was enforced combining local law and Russian civil law into a single system.  The Russians were able to enforce this by giving power to, and legitimizing indigenous leaders within the law system of the state.  This made it possible for the Russians to monitor and control those leaders actions, and therefore manipulate the entire native community into operating under the state law.  This time of colonization is characterized by three stages, which Andrei Golovnev and Sergei Kan state in their article Indigenous Leadership in Northwestern Siberia: “(1) the military invasion, (2) the persecution of pre-Christian rituals and shamans and the promotion of secular elders and chiefs, and (3) co-opting of the indigenous leaders”(150).  Some of the most brutal revolts against these regulations by the state were the last ones, which broke out in the 1930s and 40s under the Stalinist regime and were characterized by their intense violence, which included scalping and human sacrifice.

Within what is called the Okrug region there is a piece of land that sticks out into the Kara Sea called the Yamal Peninsula.  Nenets and Khanty make up 30,000 in a population of one half million.  This peninsula is abundant in fish and reindeer and is also home to Russia’s largest gas reserves.  In the 1930s the soviet government established collective reindeer farms under the socialist agenda in the Yamal region and in other parts of Siberia.  They also put nomadic children in boarding schools to attempt to assimilate them.

Over the next few decades, the natives began to loose touch with their traditions and ethnic pride.  This was largely due to the settlement of many non-natives in their territory, the increase in exploitation of their land for resources, and the fact that the community leaders were Russian outsiders.  In present-day northern Siberia, the problems continue and are mainly characterized by exploitation of land for oil and other resources as well as “the use of legal fictions created to deprive the indigenous people of traditional lands and rights”(Golovnev and Kan, 162).

The damage to northern Siberian native culture and their land rights is largely due to the industry of capitalist economies and their exploitation of the land.  These capitalist economies (American and European) invest in the use of this land “Under the hallmark of ‘industrial progress,’…”(Chance and Andreeva, 220).  Much of the recent damage done to Arctic Russia has been caused by petroleum and hydroelectric mining.  The Arctic has also fallen victim to pollution of heavy metals among others things.  This is leading to the demise both in terms of health and in terms of the economy of the natives who live there.  “As for the nonrenewable  resources contained in their land, by far the largest portion has been appropriated by regional and federal governments to be used by these entities [North America and Europe]…with relatively little if any of its wealth being directly returned to improve the economic and social well-being of the people from whence it came”(Chance and Andreeva, 219).

Today, much has been done to try to revitalize the native’s culture and heal some of the damage that has been done over the indigenous people’s centuries of oppression.  In 2000 an organization called RAIPON (Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North) collaborated with CAFF (Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna) to try to locate sacred sites and begin measures to conserve them.  In order to figure out these locations, RAIPON created a questionnaire for the indigenous peoples that asked a series of questions about where the sacred sites were and what they meant to them.  “The project was designed to support the integrated conservation of Arctic biodiversity and the cultural heritage of northern indigenous peoples by documenting the biological and cultural significance and status of indigenous sacred sites and sanctuaries”(Yefimenko, 160).

Conservation of the environment often goes hand in hand with the preservation of indigenous sacred land the maintaining of their religious and property rights.  The creation of Tunka National Park in Siberia is an example of such an alliance between ecologists and indigenous people.  The formation of the park was backed up by the rethinking of preservation in a way that actually gave peoples their cultural rights rather than only giving them freedom within new social structures.  As Katherine Metzo states in her article, “ …the park is embedded in a wider movement by indigenous elites in Buriatiia to rethink their relationship to the state…Within the discourse of the parks formation, protecting nature is intertwined with conserving Buriat cultural heritage and protecting people’s livelihoods”(51).  This kind of relationship between environmentalists and indigenous people gives hope to the future conservation of indigenous people’s land rights.

Religious freedom is only possible if the people who practice a particular religion have access and rights to the sacred sites and environment that hold the power of their beliefs.  Throughout most cultures and religions throughout history, space, both natural and constructed, has played a big role in defining the beliefs of those religions.  In his book The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion, Mircea Eliade talks about the cultures and their religious connection to space.  He explains that founding a territory is equivalent to consecrating it, which in turn is equivalent to “cosmicizing” it (making it a cosmos).  He states, “When the Scandinavian colonists took possession of Iceland and cleared it, …their labor was only repetition of a primordial act, the transformation of chaos into cosmos by the divine act of creation.  When they tilled the desert soil, they were in fact repeating the act of the gods who had organized chaos by giving it a structure, forms, and norms”(31).  He goes on to discuss further the act of establishing cosmos in the founding of many other territories and the connection between landscape and belief.  He talks about rituals that incorporate landscape in agricultural societies and the universal or archetypal idea of the female fertility goddess.  Through his tracing of cultures and religions throughout time, Eliade reveals the common human necessity to attach meaning to land.  Environments are very clearly manifestations of the identities of many cultures and without them much of those culture’s identities would die out.  By looking at the work of scholars like Eliade and others who study comparative religion, those who have the task of making moral decisions involved in assigning land to certain peoples can benefit greatly as they would be able to understand the innate importance and sacredness of land to culture.

Because religion is so much apart of a culture’s identity, the practice of rituals and ceremonies become even more present when it comes to attempting to revitalize their traditions and reclaim their rights.  In the case of the indigenous people of northern Siberia, reactions to oppressors throughout their history were often characterized by intensification of religious practices.  The most obvious example of this in their history is their reaction to the Soviet collectivism project.  The idea of collectivism is fundamentally rooted in a capitalist agenda in that the Soviets were ultimately concerned with gaining the land from the indigenous people underneath the fabrication “collectivism.”  In order to make a strong statement against collectivization, which went against their world-view, they began to perform huge sacrificial ceremonies where they would kill large numbers of horses and reindeer at a time.  In the 1930s and 40s shamans began to exercise their power against the will of the soviets who thought of them as “exploiters of small people of the North”(Leete, 235).  One very powerful shaman declared a “holy war,” which was not carried out but nevertheless probably helped the natives to strengthen their unity.  “Sacrifices and other shamanic rituals were performed and actions against the Soviets were believed to be in accordance with the will of the gods”(Leete, 236).  These instances of religious practice being used as a force against oppression in the history of these natives reveal the strength of the tie between the possession of land and belief systems.  The use of ceremony to reestablish culture and defend tradition also shows the extent to which group identity is tied up in spirituality, which in turn, as Eliade has shown us, is also tied to that group’s space or environment.

The Indigenous peoples of northern Siberia are just one example of natives who have been continually oppressed and denied their rights to sacred land.  Natives all over the world have to go through so much conflict and negotiation to keep their land preserved.  Because of this threat to many native’s right to land ownership, the mere existence of their traditions and religions remain unstable.


-Eve Aaron





Works Cited


Andrei V. Golovnev and Sergei Kan.  “ Indigenous Leadership in Northwestern Siberia: Traditional Patterns and Their Contemporary Manifestations.”  Arctic Anthropology. Vol. 34(1).  University of Wisconsin Press, 1997.  Print.


Eliade, Mircea.  The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion.  New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1987. Print.



Leete, Art.  “Religious Revival as Reaction to the Hegemonization of Power in Siberia in the 1920s to 1940s.”  Asian Folklore Studies.  Vol. 64(2).  Nanzan University. 2005. Print.


Metzo, Katherine.  “The Formation of Tunka National Park: Revitalization and Autonomy in Late Socialism.”  Slavic Review. Vol. 68(1).  Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies.  2009.  Print.


Norman A. Chance and Elena N. Andreeva.  “Sustainability, Equity, and Natural Resource Development in Northwest Siberia and Arctic Alaska.”  Human Ecology. Vol. 23(2). Springer, 1995. Print.


Polidor, Amberly. “Sacred Land Film Project.” Sacred Land Film Project. Sacred Land Film Project, 1 Feb. 2004. Web. 21 Nov. 2012. <>.



Yefimenko, Alona.  “Sacred Sites and Sanctuaries in Northern Russia.”  Properties of Culture—Culture as property.  Pathways to Reform in Post-Soviet Siberia.  Berlin: Dietrich Reimer Verlag, 2004. Print.

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