Some thoughts about Nenets Syadeis from the Scott Polar Research Institute Museum

Last week on the Internet was published a short video about two very old Nenets Syadei with the following text:

  • Cambridge University Museums have been running a project called ‘Museum Remix – Unheard’ during lockdown. It’s an invitation to re-interpret the stories museums tell. Each month they have released a challenge – this month’s is ‘Video’. Curators present a selection of objects from Cambridge collections using short videos; viewers are invited to respond by making a 3-minute video in any format by September 30. The information is here: https://www.museums.cam.ac.uk/museumremix Absolutely anyone over the age of 16 is very welcome to participate.The selection of objects includes two Syadei (sacred wooden figures) made by members of the Siberian Nenets community, held at the Scott Polar Research Institute Museum. Here’s the video about them, which I made over the summer: https://www.museums.cam.ac.uk/magic/syadei-sacred-objects You’ll find a Russian version there too.The SPRI museum team would love to get some feedback from Russia, and especially from the Nenets community; this feedback doesn’t necessarily have to fall within the Museum Remix project. We are also hoping simply to let members of the Nenets community know that we hold these objects. I would be very grateful if you could circulate these links to people who might be interested – and/or let me know if there’s anyone in particular I should contact. Thanks!
Syadei from the collection of the Scott Polar Research Institute Museum

After this publication, I asked my daughter´s opinion about these Nenets Syadeis and their story which is now published on the Internet. It was interesting to know this young Nenets opinion about using Nenets religious items for the public performance. What surprised me was that my daughter reacted quite emotionally to this video and said that she does not agree that this Syadei on the video is undressed. She said that according to Nenets customs and ethics it is not allowed to show a naked body to anybody, therefore even Nenets wooden idols, like Syadei and other domestic family religious items, should have own clothes. Also, the Nenets researcher Galina Kharuchi said, that it is quite common to give to Nenets idols sometimes presents. It can be new clothes or coins from white metal, even if they are in a museum. So, maybe it is a good advice for museum curators how they can thank these idols for their work. However, I do not think that these Syadeis are an example of the exploitation of the indigenous religious heritage since they are now museum objects.

One thought on “Some thoughts about Nenets Syadeis from the Scott Polar Research Institute Museum

  1. fstammle

    Thank you Roza for sharing this here. I was planning to do the same, and I am happy that you were faster:).
    The comment by your daughter about the clothes, and the presents to the Syadeis reminds me of the “Ojizo Sama” statues in Japanese religion. They almost always wear read clothes, and people bring them presents. You see them in temples, shrines even on roadsides in Japan. To me this shows once again the power of animism not only among indigenous peoples in the Arctic but on our planet in general. The belief in the soul of non-human beings must have been pretty universal before head-centred philosophy and monotheist religions argued against it.
    Fortunately, in places such as Japan all of this is very alive and real right now. And your daughter’s comment shows that it is alive also among the Nenets. I hope it will always be!

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