In Langscape Magazine Articles

There Are No Corners in the Tundra

Khadry Okotetto (Nenets, Russian Federation), interviewed by Galya Morrell

Indigenous youth

“I was jailed in a Russian boarding school where they tried to make a Russian second-class citizen out of me — because I was a ‘primitive Nenets.’ I rebelled.” Photo: Galya Morrell, 2017

I was born in the tundra and grew up with the animals. My first language was the language of reindeer and of Arctic birds. I was raised by my grandparents, like everybody else here. I was a lucky guy. As an artist, I see my main mission in storytelling, in seeing the past and the future with an unobstructed eye.

My first language was the language of reindeer and of Arctic birds.

Indigenous youth

“In the civilized world, you have beds and walls. I miss my tundra every single second, just because the tundra does not have walls.” Photo: Galya Morrell, 2017

Khadry was born in a chum, a mobile hut made of reindeer skins, in the Yamal Peninsula tundra of northwestern Siberia. He grew up with the reindeer and moved across the vast land with his nomadic family. When he was seven, he was told that from now on he would have a different name, a Russian one. Two hours later, a helicopter landed next to the chum and took him to the residential school. There he was told to forget his native language and culture because it was too barbaric and uncivilized.

In the tundra, we didn’t have toys; instead we had little straws, patches of skin, and little rocks. When I was five, I was building little chums and little reindeer sleds and carving little wooden toys.

We imitated the voices of animals and birds. We knew how to talk to them.

Every night, after a long day, we went to bed and were telling stories.

We were never punished by our parents and grandparents and never had to stand in the “corner.” There are no corners in the tundra.

In the residential school, storytelling at night was forbidden. As a punishment, we were pulled out in the corridor and were told to stand there in our underwear, or sometimes we were stripped naked. It was very embarrassing, and we couldn’t understand what exactly we had done wrong.

In the residential school, storytelling at night was forbidden. As a punishment, we were pulled out in the corridor and were told to stand there in our underwear, or sometimes we were stripped naked. It was very embarrassing, and we couldn’t understand what exactly we had done wrong.

I missed the freedom of the tundra and continued storytelling and making art in a clandestine way.

Indigenous youth

From an orphanage in the Arctic to the heart of Moscow: Khadry Okotetto performing at the Schusev Museum of Architecture during the opening of Galya Morrell’s Icebergs exhibition, brought infrom Greenland. Photo: Galya Morrell, 2017

Today I want to tell the story of my land. I know how to imitate birds, seals, walruses, and the Arctic wind, so I really don’t need an interpreter. I want to make friends with people of Alaska, Nunavut, and Greenland because the Arctic should not have any borders. We are brothers — Arctic Without Borders!

I am a dancer, singer, sculptor, fashion designer, but most importantly, I am a storyteller.

Indigenous youth

“Reindeer dreams. I was born in the Chum in the Tundra, and the Reindeer was our God. Now I live in a big city but I still follow his way.” Photo: Galya Morrell, 2017

The name of my latest artwork is “Arctic Jailed in the Golden Frame.” It’s the story of the birth of a man into an illusory world. Today we are all born into a cage of stereotypes.

I built a nest out of broken mirrors — they represent snow, ice, and our shattered illusions, and a little tent above it.

Indigenous youth

“We live in a ‘broken life.’ We don’t remember the past and are blind to the future. I have broken the mirror into thousands of pieces to start the Circle of Life once again.” Photo: Galya Morrell, 2019

According to the Nenets, the universe consists of seven cardinal directions: North, South, East, West, up, down, and the center, which represents a human being. Each person comes to this world equipped with his or her own world, and that world forms with the birth of a person.

To be truly born, you need to sever the chains of stereotyping. And that’s the hardest part. I want to combine tradition and modernity in my art so that it may be understood not only by the members of my nomadic tribe, but also by anyone living far away from my land.

I want to combine tradition and modernity in my art so that it may be understood not only by the members of my nomadic tribe, but also by anyone living far away from my land.

 

Indigneous youth

“We are born naked. We are born with no chains, and no entitlements. We all come to the surface from underneath the drifting ice. I live as a reminder to the people who forgot why they were born.” Photo: Galya Morrell, 2019

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This story is one of four offered by Arctic Indigenous youths in the form of interviews with Arctic explorer, artist, and photographer Galya Morrell of Avannaa, an organization whose mission is to carry out “an eyewitness cultural expedition to the world’s most isolated communities affected by climate and societal change.” We are deeply grateful to Galya for making it possible for these amazing youth to share their voices with the world. And we’re all the more grateful in that Galya did so under what turned out to be unexpected difficult circumstances — a clear testimony to her passionate commitment to the younger generations of Arctic Indigenous Peoples.

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Khadry Okotetto is an Indigenous artist from Yamal Peninsula. He was born the Yamal tundra, moving across the vast land with his nomadic family. At age seven, he was taken from his family and to a residential school, where he was forced to forget his native language and culture.
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The Indigenous Youth Storytellers Circle: Share Your Story with the World!

An Invitation to Young Indigenous People

The Indigenous Youth Storytellers Circle is a year-long project (2019) linked to Terralingua’s flagship publication, Langscape Magazine. We aim to collect and publish personal stories from young Indigenous people who are involved with one or more of the following four Focus Areas:

  • reaffirming cultural identity;
  • breathing new life into their ancestral languages;
  • reconnecting with traditional knowledge and practices, values, and ways of life; and
  • reclaiming ancestral links with the land.

The Indigenous Youth Storytellers Circle is recognized as an official project of the United Nations’ International Year of Indigenous Languages, so your story has the potential to reach a global audience. Read more stories from Indigenous Youth.

If you are a young Indigenous person who would like to tell about your experiences connecting to your ancestral languages, cultures, and lands, we want to hear from you!

indigenous languages

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