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Russia's Real Reindeer Culture

For a lot of folks, reindeer are magical sled-pulling creatures that make a common appearance on sweaters and coffee mugs this time of year. For others, reindeer are a way of life. In the Sakha Republic of eastern Siberia, for example, there are five groups who still make a living as reindeer herders, according to photographer Evgenia Arbugaeva.

"All of them are smaller populations," she writes, "for instance the total number of Yukagir in the world at this moment is only 1509 people." Over the course of a year, Arbugaeva traveled with herders in the Sakha Republic, documenting a tradition that has remained largely unchanged for centuries — until recently.

Arbugaeva grew up in a small village on the shore of the Arctic Ocean, surrounded a vast tundra. When she was born in 1985, she says, Tiksi had 25,000 inhabitants. Today, only 2,500 people live there.

When the Soviet Union fell in 1991, she explains in an email, government funding was cut for schools up north. Her parents, being teachers, lost their jobs. "So my family, like many others, boarded windows of our house and left for a bigger town called Yakutsk."

Arbugaeva is apologetic for her English — says she has a hard time expressing herself in words. Actually, her English is great. Via email she explains how she ended up in New York City; she gives background on five nationalities indigenous to the Sakha Republic: the Evens, Evenks, Yukagirs, Chukchies and Dolgans — and how times are changing for them all, for all the obvious reasons; she also recalls magical childhood memories in vivid detail:

Every year, Even reindeer herders have a celebration called "Meeting of the Sun." It happens in the end of February. ... When the first bright orange disc of the sun starts to show itself after a long polar night, they gather in a village for celebration. This is one of the rare opportunities for nomads to meet friends and relatives, as they migrate all year long far away from each other.

Imagine one day the village is filled with reindeer sleds and people in native Even clothing. They sing, dance, put their tipis on the lake, constructing a magical tipi town. Men organize reindeer racing, women show their best embroidery and sewing. These kinds of memories I have from that time.

Really, Arbugaeva doesn't need words. Her photos alone express the mystery and beauty of a traditional way of life. In her photos, the magic is real and exists year-round.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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