A Dolgan chum


29 July 2013

Between 2 blocks of buildings in Dudinka, a chum has been set up. The chum is a tent made of reindeer skins and wooden poles, a kind of teepee from the far north of Siberia. Despite the heat, Vaciliy has donned a traditional Dolgan coat. This surreal scene, organized in our honor, brought smiles to our faces. We were both touched and intrigued. What kind of folklore did the cultural center of Dudinka arrange for us? It was enough to cross the threshold of the chum to forget the concrete, and move into another world – the world of the Dolgans, an indigenous people of Siberia.

One by one, we slip inside the chum. Benches arranged in a circle invite us to sit down. Despite the small space, about 20 of us gather inside the tent made of animal skins, with an opening in the top to let in sunlight. Many dishes were set out on the tables: fish, bread, biscuits. With her colorful, flowery dress, Olga starts by serving us tea. With a large ladle, Kseniya stirs the fish soup she had prepared especially for us. As a welcome, Evgeniya sings a Dolgan song, accompanied by Vaciliy on the mouth harp. The first sound is enough to carry us from  Dudinka to the tundra, from the city to the snowy plains. Just close your eyes and you see the hordes of wild reindeer, musk oxen, and all those images of the Siberian far north that make us dream.

The Dolgan are among the “small people of the North,” a name which includes 26 ethnic groups in the northernmost part of the former USSR. Formerly, these natives of Siberia moved constantly across the tundra following the migration of reindeer, hunting and fishing. Nomadism in extreme conditions, with temperatures falling in winter to minus 60 degrees.

But these days, as a result of the settlement policy in place since the 1930s, “the last ice nomads”* are rare. Fewer than 10 percent of the aboriginal population of Russia has resisted the call of the city. Like Vaciliy, children are often obliged to come to the cities to attend school, to learn Russian. “When I first came to school, I couldn’t communicate with others because I didn’t speak Russian. At first it was difficult, and then little by little I learned the language,” says Vaciliy.

Since 1982, dialects are also taught at school. For nearly 9 months, with the exception of the Christmas-New Year holidays, the children of nomads are separated from their families. They return home to the tundra during the long summer vacation and can once again participate in berry picking, mushroom hunting, and ‘fishing’ for wood floating in the rivers.

Songs continue inside the chum, their lyrics evoking Dolgan culture, but also stories of love and   broken hearts. Then it’s our turn to sing and share a bit of our culture. Samuel, the captain takes out his accordion and the melody of “My Love in Saint-Jean” fills the air.  Our lives suddenly seem much less distant from each other than they look! After telling us legends of the Taimyr Peninsula, and showing us the Dolgan language teaching manuals, our hosts introduce us to “games of the tundra.” Wooden sticks that you throw and catch, pebbles also, and numbers you have to recite without breathing. Despite the language barrier, we manage to understand each other, with the help of gestures, mimicry, smiles. And like love, laughter is universal!


Anna Deniaud Garcia

Bibliography: Dolgans, Last Nomads of the Ice by Francis Latreille – Indigenous peoples – Siberian issues.