Printed version = Tapani Salminen: Fighting for the future of Forest Nenets. — Lectures on Endangered Languages. 2: From Kyoto Conference 2000. Project Director: Osahito Miyaoka; Editor: Osamu Sakiyama. Endangered Languages of the Pacific Rim Publication Series C002; Kyoto. 251–256.

Tapani Salminen

Fighting for the future of Forest Nenets

This is a brief presentation of the background and conditions of language maintenance among one of the least known indigenous nations in Siberia, the Forest Nenets. The title refers to the battle the Forest Nenets themselves are fighting for their survival rather than any necessary involvement from outside their society. The conclusions will imply that indigenous communities, at least those that still possess a critical mass of native language speakers and experts on traditional culture, can remain vigorous through the independent efforts of their own members. Thinking optimistically, the way the Forest Nenets are coping with the advances of mass culture with its modern ideologies and technologies may prove exemplary to other indigenous peoples and their friends. At the same time, the Forest Nenets are facing many kinds of problems and difficulties, not least in maintaining their language.

The Forest Nenets live in the heart of the West Siberian Plain on a roughly rectangular area bounded by the 70th and the 80th meridians and the 62nd and the 65th parallels. Administratively, the northern part of the area belongs to the Yamal Nenets Autonomous District, and the southern part to the Khanty and Mansi Autonomous District, both within Tyumen’ Province in the Russian Federation.

The Forest Nenets language belongs to the Nenets subbranch of the Samoyed branch of the Uralic language family. The Nenets subbranch also includes the much better-known Tundra Nenets language (Salminen 1998a), and practically all handbooks and general introductions ignore Forest Nenets and list only one Nenets language. The differences between the two Nenets languages are, however, almost as great as those between Dutch and English, being most marked in phonology but numerous in lexicon as well. There are no intermediate varieties between Tundra Nenets and Forest Nenets but the language boundary is absolute and clear-cut.

The number of Forest Nenets people is probably well above 2,000, but nobody has ever counted them. The number of Forest Nenets speakers is smaller but not by much, presumably over 1,500. In the absence of statistics, both figures are based on wild guesses. In any case, Tundra Nenets is spoken by far more people, approximately 25,000, and the language retention rate among Tundra Nenets in the areas adjecent to the Forest Nenets territory is very high (Salminen 1991). The general pattern in north-western Siberia is that children living in more remote areas have the chance to learn the language and culture of their parents while assimilation into Russian society proceeds swiftly in the vicinity of Russian settlements (Salminen 1997).

The people who may claim Forest Nenets ethnicity but are not fluent speakers of the language are mainly younger people who have moved permanently to areas dominated by Russians. At the same time, there are a lot of children and young people who spend their pre-school years and school holidays in traditional nomadic camps with their relatives and retain full competence in the language and a high level of knowledge of and respect to oral literature and other forms of ethnic culture, and appear to be committed to continue to do so in their adult life.

Despite the inherent strength of the Forest Nenets people, the pressure from Russian-speaking mainstream society is immense, and recent incomers now constitute the vast majority of the population in Forest Nenets lands. While immigrants, mainly working on massive oil fields, tend to keep their distance from the indigenous population, their impact is felt in evolving infrastructure and environmental destruction. The Russian state forces the Forest Nenets, like all its subjects, to participate in school, army and other assimilative institutions. Almost all young and middle-aged Forest Nenets are fully fluent in Russian, while among older generations the knowledge of Russian is far from universal. Russian is both the language of wider communication as well as the only written language for most Forest Nenets.

With their indigenous neighbours, Tundra Nenets in the north, Northern Selkup in the east, Eastern Khanty in the south, and Northern Khanty in the west, the Forest Nenets are on relatively good terms, although old tensions occasionally surface and new problems, mainly caused by Russian interference, may arise. Quite a few Forest Nenets living on the periphery of their area also know the neighbouring language. There are Tundra Nenets who, aware of their privileged position, may behave paternalistically or arrogantly towards the Forest Nenets, but the Tundra Nenets language, known to be very different, is rarely forced upon the Forest Nenets.

The Forest Nenets are divided into a number of subgroups, the largest one of which inhabits the basin of the river Pur, flowing into the Ob’ Bay of the Arctic Ocean, and covers most of Pur County, with its centre Tarko-Sale, in the Yamal Nenets Autonomous District. Smaller groups live around lake Num-To and along the upper reaches of the Lyamin and Agan rivers emptying into the river Ob’, mainly on the territory of the Khanty and Mansi Autonomous District. One comes across notable dialect differences in Forest Nenets, and while they constitute no barrier to mutual intelligibility, they obviously need to be accounted for if any sort of language planning is to take place.

The history of the Forest Nenets is essentially one of isolation. The climate is harsh, and until oil excavations in the 1960s, too few natural resources were known to make outsiders interested in the area. Modern roads have been constructed only recently, and rivers are usually not suitable for larger vessels. While it was in the interest of the Soviet state to integrate the Forest Nenets into the political and economic framework of the country, their small size and remote location protected them from serious attempts to change their way of life. The ideological impact of the system was notable, but at the same time it kept competing religious influences away, so that the traditional culture with the ethnic religion as its integral part was preserved undisturbed by missionary activities.

The Forest Nenets language is unique in north-western Siberia in not being recorded in word-lists by 18th and early 19th century travellers, but the first records of it derive from brief fieldwork sessions of the pioneer ethnolinguist M. Alexander Castrén in summer 1845 (Castrén 1960). The most detailed data available to us were collected by T. Lehtisalo in 1914 and published decades later (Lehtisalo 1947, 1956). Since then, a small number of linguists have studied Forest Nenets, but almost all of them, like Castrén and Lehtisalo, have had a prior and more thorough knowledge of Tundra Nenets, which has inevitably led to somewhat biased assessments.

As one of the many consequences of their isolation, the Forest Nenets are not officially recognized. The Tundra Nenets, being so much more prominent and better-known, have been selected by authorities and other outsiders as the representatives of a single Nenets nationality, to which the Forest Nenets only belong as a marginal extension. The Forest Nenets have therefore never enjoyed even a nominal autonomy, although their relative strenght in one administrative unit, Pur County, has granted them some practical benefits within its boundaries.

Typical of the official policy, no attempt was made to get Forest Nenets included in those indigenous Siberian languages for which a literary language was created in the 1930s, despite its sufficient population basis. Still today, Forest Nenets is only rarely used in printing, but starting from the early 1990s, a school dictionary (Barmich & Vèllo 1994) and a primer (Barmich & Vèllo 1993) have been published and several competing proposals for orthographic representation of Forest Nenets have been aired (Salminen 2000). Interestingly, the presence of Forest Nenets is much stronger in Pur County’s radio and television network than in printed media.

In Soviet times, most Forest Nenets were members of state collectives engaged in reindeer herding, fishing, hunting and fur farming, while some remained independent fishermen and hunters, but in each case subsistence economy prevailed. By now the state farms have partly been transformed into so-called obshchina, a concept difficult to translate into English or Forest Nenets, but referring to a rather awkward mixture of collective land use and commercial enterprise. At the same time, the number of individuals working for Russian companies and in other recently introduced occupations is on the increase. The economic situation as a whole is highly unstable and its development unpredictable, and this is especially true in the areas with indigenous communities, where it is difficult to say whether the current economic system is based on socialism, capitalism, or feudalism.

A large part, probably the majority of the Forest Nenets continue to make their meagre living in nomadic camps. Usually they are healthier and better-balanced that those who live next to incomers, but even they may have feelings of alienation and alcohol and other related problems like domestic violence, accidents, and suicides. Forest Nenets society is therefore far from paradise but the overall sentiment among the people is nevertheless not one of utter helplessness as most people seem confident and hopeful about the future.

While the outside world has not wanted to know much about the Forest Nenets, they are themselves rather well-informed about their status and the reflections of external influences on it. There have been talks about creating special safe areas not unlike North American style reservations for the Forest Nenets, but since this kind of ethnic separation is historically alien to the Russian realm and may easily prove counterproductive, people seem not too keen on the idea, and questions of land ownership have not been clarified to the extent that it could even be tried out very soon.

The Forest Nenets are reasonably represented in the two district-wide associations for indigenous peoples, both known by their Russian names, Jamal potomkam (“Yamal for its descendants”) in the Yamal Nenets Autonomous District, and Spasenie Jugry (“Rescue of Yugra”) in the Khanty and Mansi Autonomous District. These associations are not defined by ethnic affiliations, but their personnel may well consist of newcomers and people without deeper knowledge of indigenous affairs. They work in close cooperation with the district administrations, which effectively limits their role as critics of official and commercial projects. Nevertheless, associations offer the Forest Nenets, among other indigenous nations, a channel to the corridors of power, and usually their views are heard if not always respected.

In both districts there are also research centres which invest some resources in the study and documentation of the Forest Nenets language and culture. In Tarko-Sale, a few Forest Nenets and other specialists have established a research project under the title “Ethnos and time”, with the objective of creating a databank of Forest Nenets oral literature and handicraft. In the Khanty and Mansi district, several individuals are involved in similar endeavours. One of the potential problems is that scholarly work often depends on sponsorship from oil companies, the same companies being responsible for large-scale ecological problems.

Outside north-western Siberia, there are not many people who would be paying attention to Forest Nenets issues. A small group of field ethnologists is based in Germany (Ventsel & Dudeck 1998), and a few linguists in other parts of Russia and in western Europe are interested in the language. Most of these specialists have focused on the more prominent indigenous nations in the neighbourhood of the Forest Nenets, notably the Eastern Khanty or the Tundra Nenets.

Forest Nenets children are still taken away from their families and put in residential schools, but several positive changes have recently taken place or are at least under way in the school system. Family members like parents and elder siblings are nowadays welcome to stay with younger children at school, the terms are made shorter for indigenous children so thay can spend more time at home, new schools are to open in smaller and less distant villages, and daycare in Forest Nenets is being planned for the children whose parents work in non-traditional occupations.

The questions of a literary language and language planning in general are actual among those Forest Nenets who do administrative or research work and need a written form of the language for practical purposes. Many people feel, quite justly as it seems, that emerging literary traditions can be counterproductive to the preservation of oral literature. There is no easy solution to these questions. The Forest Nenets have a right to literacy in their own language, but it is also possible to continue using Russian as the means of written communication in a stable bilingual framework. If a literary language only has a symbolic value or if it can weaken the oral basis of the language, one should carefully weigh its pros and cons.

To summarize the above discussion, the Forest Nenets are a relatively small ethnic group with a remarkably high level of native language maintenance and independently flourishing culture. There is no denying that growing oil production and other outside interference are gradually undermining the foundations of Forest Nenets society, but as long as there is room left for traditional forms of livelihood, the people seem fully committed to carry on with their lives speaking their language and following their traditions. This is in marked contrast with many other parts of the world, where negative attitudes towards ethnic characteristics have been forced on and largely adopted by the indigenous communities.

To people who want to work for the Forest Nenets or another people in a similar situation, the humble conclusion of this paper is that subtle commitment is often preferred to direct involvement (Salminen 1998b). Outsiders are not very much needed in the very language maintenance and revitalization process because the people, given the chance, can do it on their own, but they can and are asked to act in many consultative and communicative functions. The focus of linguists should be on promoting the use of the native language in its traditional domains and, with caution, expanding its role to modern means of communication or stabilizing existing bilingual patterns. All informed people should work for stopping direct crimes against the indigenous peoples such as polluting their environment, which is very much in evidence in Forest Nenets territory, or interfering with their customs and beliefs, which is expected in the future when Forest Nenets increasingly open up to outside influences.


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