The Siberian Nenets are reindeer herders. They know a lot about reindeer. They know a lot more than Santa. They know each reindeer in a large herd. Hard to believe, huh?
Nenets know their reindeer. They know the many different types of reindeer and can instantly recognize them in a herd of thousands. For each type, the Nenets have a separate word. One is for the sacred reindeer which must never be killed until too old to walk. When a sacred reindeer is finally killed, they find a similar-looking one to take its place and smear the dead reindeer’s blood on it.
The Ancestor Reindeer
Another type is the ancestor reindeer. These reindeer belong to the idols of particularly powerful and important ancestors that the Nenets keep in their chums. These idols are dressed in Nenets clothing and the family makes new sets of clothing for them each year. There are also a number of idols which are kept on a sacred sledge. When moving camp, no one must ever sit on this sledge. When a sacred sledge becomes old and breaks down, it must be left at the nearest sacred site.
Another type is hand-raised reindeer that were orphans. The Nenets take these reindeer into their chums and bring them up until they are old enough to fend for themselves. These reindeer will never be killed. Instead, the Nenets give them away to other families when they are too old to walk. That family will kill it and will return the gesture by giving one of its own hand-raised reindeer in exchange. Throughout their lives, hand-raised reindeer live with the people in the chum and sometimes eat human food like bread.
Naming Each Reindeer?
Nenets can recognize particular reindeer among a herd of thousands. When rounding them up, every person in the camp, instantly knows which ones are hand-raised or sacred and must be treated differently. A 6-year old girl can identify one of their family’s hand-raised reindeer among the large herd and might started waving, jumping up and down and shouting greetings to the favored creature.