Samoyede; The People and Their Dogs
(Sahm – uh – yed means living off themselves, implying self sufficiency, not cannibalism as once thought)

The Samoyede people are an Asiatic group of nomadic origins. They traditionally spoke a Uralic – Samoyedic language which is related to the Finno – Ugric – languages. The Samoyede are probably of Mongoloid descent. They probably started migrating Northwest during the late Pleistocene when so many other Mongoloid nomadic hunter gathers were moving in all the directions of the compass. Some of these Mongoloid nomads crossing Berangea, became the first North American inhabitants and later migrations brought the Eskimos (Inuit) to Alaska, Canada and Greenland.

The Samoyede are physically characterized by short stature, yellowish white skin, high cheek bones and straight or concave noses. There are now, less than 50,000 Samoyede left. Most now speak Russian or Turkish. The two principle groups are the Nentsy and the Entsy The Samoyede migrated to their current location shortly after the time of Christ in the first millennium. This is on the Taimyr Peninsula, between the Yenisei and Olenek rivers. This peninsulais in Northwestern Siberia north of the Arctic Circle jutting into the Arctic Ocean. It is the Northernmost part of the continent. The Laplanders are further West of the Urals to Northern Finland, Norway and Sweden and the Eskimo (Inuit) and Yakuts are in Northeastern Siberia.

Early in the Samoyede’s history, they had subsisted mainly on nomadic reindeer (caribou) hunting, following the great herds as they migrated. Reindeer (caribou) must move frequently on the tundra for their main food source, Reindeer Moss (a lichen). The Samoyede gradually switched from hunter-gatherers to herdsmen be cause they managed a form of domestication of the Reindeer, over many generations of selected breeding of the Reindeer, they removed males from the population that wanted to take their cows and move off. They selected passive males that would stay with their cows and were docile toward the herdsman. It is now believed there are no longer any natural Reindeer. Despite domestication, the Samoyede along with their Reindeer still moved in the traditional migration routes from tundra to forest lands. The Reindeer consume large quantities of Reindeer moss (a lichen) and have to move frequently to areas where the Reindeer moss is found. Reindeer moss takes years to grow to a harvestable size for the Reindeer to eat.

The Samoyede merely switched from hunting the Reindeer to herding the Reindeer. The Reindeer had become a symbol of wealth and status. The Samoyede were a Reindeer culture. As well as a food source, they used collapsible tents made of saplings and Reindeer hide fashioned into a dome. They used Reindeer to haul these tents and their other possessions. Their clothes consisted of long hooded parkas with the fur turned inward. This was usually Reindeer hide, clothing with highly developed fur applique being made to the outer clothing. Reindeer hair is hollow and makes excellent insulated clothing for Arctic use. The traditional religion was animistic (worship of animal spirits) and included shamanistic practices. The word shaman comes from these cultures in Siberia where classic shamanism is found. Samanism is found not only in Central Asia, but also in North American and Pacific Island cultures. Generally a shaman is a man of great religious status and a mouthpiece to the spirits. He can divine where the herds will appear, how to increase and store food supplies and practice healing. Shamans undergo fasting, seclusion and other ordeals that lead to visions that guide the shaman in the performance of their duties.

The Samoyede people were known for their Bjelkiers (white dog that breeds white). In Russian, the dogs are called Voinaika which means lead or direction dog or guard, hunting and war dog. The Laplanders preferred an all black dog because it contrasted against the snow and made them easier to see. We now know this dog as the Lapphund. The Inuit had their own derivative now known as the Siberian Husky. In North America this became the Alaskan Malamute (named for the Inuit tribe). In contrast to the assimilation into the family the Samoyede extended to the Bjelkier, the Eskimo (Inuit) treated their dogs quite differently. They used their dogs when needed (usually summer for hauling sledges) and the dogs had to fend for themselves when not used.

The Bjelkier dogs (like some other Northern breeds) are relatively untouched by human breeding practices and are the easiest to duplicate. Although, an aggressive or improperly socialized Bjelkier might soon adorn the owner’s clothing after the hide cured. Bjelkiers are very close to their wild wolf-like dog ancestors that man in the post-glacial age first took to live with them. The first wolf-like canines (Canis familiaris palustris) came on the scene 12,000 to 14,000 years ago from the Southern strain of the Grey Wolf in South Central Asia. Originally, early hunter gatherers felt a special kinship to wolves and wolf-like canines because of their common social structure` and hunting prowess. They took puppies and gave them a special place in their lodgings (chooms). This relationship went from worship (like the early Egyptian worship of the cat) to partnership. It was found that these primitive canines adapted well to the similar social structure of the human hunter gatherers. Both the hunter gatherer and the wolf- like canine had many aspects of their clan or pack behaviour that were identical.

The Bjelkier began to haul loads and pull sledges (they were used to haul from 60 to 90 pounds) that reindeer had carried. Later, it was found that herding the domesticated Reindeer was another useful service that came naturally to the Bjelkier The natural attribute of a wolf-like canine to go after an animal (prey drive) that breaks from the herd made it easy to use that behaviour to herd the Reindeer. The Bjelkier could hunt, haul and herd and it enjoyed doing it. The Bjelkiers had earned a place of special reverence in the culture and in the lodgings of the Samoyede. Although in some tribes that were Reindeer cultures, their dogs were also readily used for food and clothing.

Inside a Samoyede lodging or choom the Bjefkier was allowed complete freedom of movement. The Bjefkier was gentle and likable. It could be trusted to baby-sit Samoyede offspring. Yet when necessary, a pack of several Bjelkiers (weighing on average 60 pounds) could drive off Polar Bears weighing over 1,500 pounds.

By the 17th and 18th centuries, the Russians began exploring Siberia and recognized the attributes of the Bjelkier. It’s beauty won it stature with the Czar’s family and occasionally the Bj2lkier was given as a very special gift to other European nobility. It had attained Royal status and was protected from outsiders. The Russians quickly saw the value of using it for pulling the sleds of tax collectors and explorers in Siberia. The reputation among explorers would soon get around. A Russian named Alexander Trontheim had been the agent to procure the Bjelkiers for the Russian Government.

A Norwegian by the name of Fridtjof Nansen heard of the Bjelkiers and hired Trontheim to procure a number of them for him. Nansen was a Professor in seven departments at the University of Norway. He designed and built a ship called The Fram to explore the Arctic. It was so well built that he used it during his 5 expeditions over 35 years. Nansen had been very methodical and had extensively researched the best method for Arctic exploration and what would be the best dog for the job. He rightfully surmised the Bjelkier was the dog of choice. Nansen had spent considerable time and effort exploring the Arctic and even attempted an ill fated attempt to kayak with his 28 Bjelkiers to the North Pole. The attempt failed and none of the dogs returned. Nansen’s work spanned many decades and influenced all the great Arctic and Antarctic explorers of the late 19″‘ century.

The brother of the King of Italy, the Duke of Abruzzi, Luigi Amadeo was also influential. He wrote detailed comments of special interest that were received almost as gospel. He had sought the advice of Nansen and was given a Bjelkier by Nansen as an example of the optimal sled dog. He used 120 Bjelkiers procured from Trontherim during his expedition. It should be made clear that these early expeditions were brutal for the Bjelkiers. Many died needlessly because the explorers did not understand anatomy and physiology and did things to the dogs that put them in jeopardy (tail bobbing that caused pneumonia and shearing their coats allowing them to freeze). Cannibalism was often employed to feed the dogs. Nansen fed the weaker dogs to the strong rather than take food for them or hunt seal.

On a more pleasant note, the reason Bjelkiers were preferred over the Huskies or Greenland dogs, was their disposition. They were quite amiable to the explorers and without exception, positive comments for the Bjelkiers made them the preferred sled dog for explorers.

Roald Amundsen another Norwegian, in 1911 made a 1,860 mile round trip in 99 days to the South Pole. He used 52 of an original 97 dogs he acquired to pull 4 sledges. The first animal over the South Pole was Amundens’s Bjelkier lead dog. After returning from expeditions these dogs were being given to other explorers for use and some were making their way to England. All the Antarctic exploration was done with Bjelkiers except the Captain Robert Scott expedition that used horses as the principle means of locomotion. Although Scott did take 33 Bjelkiers, someone bobbed their tails. In the absence of the tail as a filter to cover the nose when sleeping, the dogs died of pneumonia in three weeks. After all his animals perished, 6 members of Scott’s team pulled the remaining equipment to the South Pole. He wrote in his diary before he died, that when he arrived at the Pole, he found paw prints and a Norwegian flag. Amundsen had beaten him by a month. Amundsen left him a note elaborating his success. Beaten physically and emotionally, Scott died on the way back.

Nearly every Samoyed dog in the West today has ancestors that were used to explore the Arctic and Antarctic. In England, Mr Ernest Kilburn-Scott of the Royal Zoological Society became a significant influencing factor in the breed outside of Siberia. He acquired dogs from the explorers as well as some directly from Siberia. In his position with the Royal Zoological Society, he had the opportunity to accompany an expedition to Archangel in the 1880’s where a very cute plump puppy caught his attention. When he arrived home, the puppy attracted considerable attention. He then seized other opportunities to acquire more of these white dogs. He expanded the breed in England and showed the dog in several expositions.

The English liked the pure white coat over the cream or biscuit colour. Any black and white or other combinations were not acceptable. The dog began as something of an oddity from Siberia, but it’s beauty and amiability fast made it popular among the well to do and the influential. The Kennel Club initially allowed them to be shown in the foreign dog class. Kilburn-Scott founded the Samoyede Club and in 1909, Samoyede became the official name of the Bjelkier outside of Siberia. Kilburn-Scott conferred with explorers of Siberia and agreed on the pronunciation and a spelling of the people who were responsible for the dog. The dog was then named for the people.

In 1912, the Kennel Club decided that the dog could be shown in an accepted classification. The Bjelkier was now officially named and recognized as a distinct breed in the West. In 1923, the English Kennel Club dropped the “e” from the name and in 1947 the American Kennel Club dropped the “e” from the name. Shortly thereafter, the name began to be mispronounced. Instead of Sahm-uh-yed (the native pronunciation) the name became anglicized to Sahm-oid.

Physically, the Samoyed dog is the most efficient design of the Northern breeds. It has a much more pronounced double layer coat than its cousins. The coat can be the pure white, white and biscuit, cream or all biscuit. The long silver white guard hair is tough and it is soil and water repellent. Snow cannot accumulate on this coat and the dog can easily shake it off. The guard hair’s length remains constant and should stand straight out. The inner coat is woolly and during the winter is so thick that you can’t push your finger to the flesh. !n spring, the Samoyed dog sheds so much of this warm woolly hair that the Samoyede people (and others still today) spun and wove it like sheep wool. It was then and is still used to make clothing. The coat has no “doggie” odour. The only scent the Samoyed has is the musk exuded between the pads for scent marking. The deep brown eyes are set behind almond shaped black eyelids to reduce glare from snow. The feet are designed so the toes spread out (like a built-in snowshoe) and there is a very dense, long hair between the toe pads to prevent ice from accumulating. This hair also serves to provide traction on slippery surfaces. The curved tail is used to cover the nose during extreme cold weather where it acts as pre-filter to warm and humidify the air that is inhaled. The chest is a pronounced V-shape in order to support stronger musculature.The skeleton is much heavier than would be expected for a dog its size in order to support the muscles that give it the strength to haul huge loads. Yet it is not so massive that it is not nimble and agile. It has the speed to run down a large member of the deer family, the Reindeer.

By Gregory Alan Newell, Xerox Palo Alto Research Center.

The New Complete Samoyed by Robert and Dolly Ward.
The Samoyed by Anna Katherine Nicholas.
The Grolier’s Encyclopedia
The Fun k and Wagnell’s Encyclopedia
Ultimate Dog Book by David Taylor
Snow Travel and Transport by Walter Lorch.