• April 28, 2016

At This Arctic Boarding School, Kids Dream of the Tundra

When Japanese photographer Ikuru Kuwajima was exploring the Russian village of Vorkuta, he stumbled across something unexpected: a boarding school for nomadic Nenets children. The Nenets are a reindeer-herding indigenous group who roam the arctic regions of Russia, and the school was established so that Nenets children could get acquainted with the Russian language and culture.

Picture of kids standing in a nomadic Nenets tent
Children stand inside a mini chum, the typical tent used in the tundra by the Nenets.

Kuwajima says that he was drawn to the bright colors and singular features of the school. “The interior was very unique and almost surreal—in other schools, you wouldn’t see such ornaments, children’s drawings, mini chums [smaller versions of the Nenets’ mobile tents], reindeer horns, and some handmade mini-sledges and clay-made reindeer.”

Picture of a Nenets boy with reindeer horns
A student at the boarding school holds up reindeer horns. Reindeer herding is an essential part of the Nenets culture.

But to photograph the school and its students, Kuwajima was told that he’d need a permit from the local government. He remained persistent during the drawn-out process—it took nearly ten months of negotiation to get permission.

Picture of a boarding school for Nenets children in Russia
The students’ family members park their sleds and reindeer outside when visiting the boarding school in Vorkuta, Russia.

When he finally returned, Kuwajima got to experience Nenets culture firsthand. He says that at first the children were very shy—especially the girls—but over time they warmed up to him.

Picture of a Nenets boy holding a globe
A student holds a globe in a classroom at the boarding school. The children are taught both Russian and Nenets grammar and writing.

“When a Russian teacher introduced me to all the kids, she jokingly said something like, ‘Today, we have a guest from Japan. Maybe he looks like you guys …” But they chorused, ‘No!’” he says. “Actually, some local Russians in Vorkuta occasionally thought I was a Nenets, but the Nenets kids saw the difference right away and saw me as a stranger. But overall, I think I got along with them in the end.”

Picture of a Nenets kid in traditional costume
A student wears the traditional costume of the Nenets.

According to Kuwajima, if the children remained with their families in the tundra for the entire year, it would be difficult for them to keep up with their studies, let alone learn about Russian culture.

“Their families have a nomadic lifestyle and travel with their reindeer around the tundra, so if the children are with their parents, it would be very hard to get even a primary education—their life is very isolated from the outside world,” he says. “Also, they have their own Nenets language, and otherwise they wouldn’t learn Russian, which their parents think is increasingly important for their kids to learn. That’s why there is a boarding school to host the children and give them an education.”

Picture of a Nenets family in Vorkata, Russia
Nenets children are visited by a family member at the boarding school in Vorkata.

Kuwajima says that the school is incredibly important for the Nenets. “Given that these children will form the core of the Nenets society in this region in the future, the school is the major turning point not only for the children but also the local Nenets community as a whole. This school functions as a catalyst for the integration of this region’s Nenets community into the Russian society in a globalized world.”

Instead of making traditional portraits, where the subject is isolated on a background, Kuwajima wanted to show the surrounding environment of the school. So he used a white background and lights, but he also included much of the surrounding rooms in the photographs.

Picture of two Nenets girls in traditional costumes
Two girls wear traditional Nenets costumes at the boarding school.

“The main theme of this story is the collision and mixing of two different cultures, and the backdrop and artificial light held up by the kids put an emphasis on the coexistence of two different worlds,” he says.

“Their lifestyle is changing from a nomadic one to a settled one—this is a more dynamic change than one minority group getting integrated into a majority. It’s about one minority group getting drawn into a huge globalized system.”

Picture of boy in playroom at Nenets boarding school
Two students pose in front of traditional and modern toys at the boarding school.

Kuwajima says he hopes people will see “the complexity of the Nenets today, their dilemma, and the spread of … globalization even in the northern edges of Russia” and will ask themselves what it means.

“I’m not even sure if it’s necessarily good or bad,” he says, “but I think it’s important to notice the complexity of Nenets society and the changes that globalization is bringing.”

These photographs were published in the 2015 book “Tundra Kids.” View more of Ikuru Kuwajima’s work on his website.

To get an inside look at Kuwajima’s camera bag on assignment, view this Artifacts post on Proof.

There are 6 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Barbara
    May 9, 2016

    Fascinating story – we still have so much to learn about other cultures. May the children all have a very bright future within their community and in the bigger world.

  2. Regula
    May 7, 2016

    Thank you for these pictures. From the posts it is apparent that not many realize what life in the tundra entails. -40 degree C temperatures, driving snow and winds blowing with ferocity over the planes. So severe is the weather that an old Nenet man – he was 80 years old – preferred to stay in a village for the winter because “the tundra is very brutal on you when you are old”.

    The Nenets travel with sleds in the Tundra, going south for the winter and returning north for the summer. The sleds are drawn by 5 reindeers per sled and the sleds are used on grass and snow. The reindeer need to eat and hence have to go south for the winter. Yes, the children couldn’t learn without going to a boarding school. There is very little light in the tents and traveling in a sled means many blankets and clothes are needed. RT had a very interesting reportage on the Nenets in Russia.

    Living in the Tundra is not just a way of life, it is a love of life in and for the Tundra. These people are not quite so in danger of stopping their life style, because they love it. But the kids may take some time to get used to the cold again once they return from the boarding school. But it is beautiful to see that Russia made a school that teaches them both, their own language and Russian. The Nenets do sell reindeer meat and skins. So they do get in touch sometimes with Russians. But it is nice to see that in the simplicity of this small school the children dream of the Tundra, not the cities.

  3. Tarah Miller
    May 5, 2016

    I absolutely LOVE this post. These images are fantastic. So colourful, and fun. Very artistic and I can’t wait to see more.

    Tarah Miller – http://www.primordialpresssite.com

  4. EP
    May 4, 2016

    @Ikuru Kuwajima beautiful series and the story is thoughtfully portrayed thank you

  5. Kirizar
    May 3, 2016

    I enjoyed this piece, not just for the engaging photos, but because it shows that the integration of a tribal culture does not have to be forced on a people. They can recognize the necessity of their children being comfortable with a foot in both worlds. I do wonder, though, if the assimilation signals the eventual end of the way of life for the Nenet people. History reflects poorly the outcome to any isolated group which is incorporated by a larger organism. Eventually, the smaller part is subsumed by the greater (larger) whole.

  6. Silas S
    April 28, 2016

    A colorful story which hints about what happens when extreme climatic conditions couple with extreme foregoing in the context of childhood, parenthood, literacy, anxiety, modernity, insecurity or whatever in a world collectively subdued, justified, and misinterpreted by an automated approach to life post-industrialization, obviously pummelled like all other ‘great’ civilizations portrayed in history books that vanished like vanity losing balance, coordination and purpose.

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