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Native Children in Siberia At Home on the Range

Reindeer herds help preserve Eveny culture

The school year is just beginning in Sebyan-Kyuyel, a village of 700 in northern Siberia just outside the Arctic Circle. Schoolchildren have already begun to filter back into the village after spending the summer with the reindeer herds that live in the surrounding mountains.

Most of their fathers will stay behind. A visit requires a three-day trip by horse or reindeer back through one of Russia's most remote wildernesses.

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The village itself is almost entirely cut off from the outside world. Yakutsk, the nearest major city, is a two-hour flight by small plane or helicopter.

The children, who belong to the Eveny tribes native to the Sakha Republic, live between two worlds. They are maintaining ties to their people's traditional roots as nomadic reindeer herders, while trying to prepare for life in the 21st century.

None of the children seem to see any contradiction in this effort. Zoya, an eighth-grader who wants to be a lawyer, vows she will keep her ties with the reindeer herds. But can she do that and be a lawyer at the same time? "I think so," she says with a casual shrug.

In fact, most of the children will ultimately leave the village and their herds if they have the opportunity, according to Shauna McLarnon, a Canadian political scientist who is doing research on the Eveny.

"If young people are successful at finding work in the city, they usually leave," she says. "The only new people who come are people that marry somebody that lives in the village."

Sebyan-Kyuyel was created by the Soviet government, which was determined to see all of its citizens living in conditions conducive to the teaching of Marxist-Leninist ideology, whether in central Moscow or northern Siberia.

The village, like many other artificial Soviet creations, is not economically viable in Russia's new capitalist society. But even now, after the Russian government has essentially abandoned Sebyan-Kyuyel to its fate, few seem ready to cut ties with it entirely.

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In many cases it is the deep poverty here, rather than a desire for cultural renewal, that prompts families to send their children into the mountains to follow the reindeer herds during the summer. And the journey has added benefits: providing an escape from the boredom and chronic alcoholism in the village, and fostering in students a greater desire to learn.

Taisiya Keimstinova, the school's vice principal, says, "The schoolchildren that have lived with the herds are a lot stronger and have a more practical view of things," she says. "They already know a lot about real life."

Even so, it is hard to see how the teachers here can prepare their students for the future. The crumbling wooden schoolhouse lacks basic necessities, let alone the high-tech learning tools that more privileged children elsewhere take for granted.

"Having some computers here would be nice," says eighth-grader Olya.

Even having some new teachers would be nice, other students say. Ever since the Soviet practice of conscripting new teachers to work in rural areas was abolished, finding people willing to work in the village has become nearly impossible.

The gradual elimination of state subsidies for higher education and preferential entrance policies for indigenous peoples means that fewer ambitious students like Zoya and Olya can expect to enter universities and institutes after finishing school.

The regional government in Yakutsk has not made the problems of indigenous peoples a priority. A modern university complex in Yakutsk was recently completed, but no money was found to refurbish the schoolhouse, which can barely contain the village's 200 schoolchildren.

By default, if nothing else, their future will almost certainly remain tied to that of the reindeer herds.

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