When I was a child, I was a connoisseur of all breed dog books. (I am sure that shocks you all).
I often had a hard time pronouncing names. For example, I called the papillon “the pap-pillion.”
And I called the white Russian herding spitz a “Samoid.”
After all, doesn’t that sound like a more reasonable pronunciation of a word that is spell “Samoyed.”
But Samoid sounds like some kind of disease you might catch, so I always thought it was a bit strange.
I knew from the breed books that this name meant “self-eater” in Russian, but virtually every book mentioned that the name was wrong. The Samoyed was a nice dog.
However, one day, I learned that the actual pronunciation is “Samma-yed.”
I thought nothing of the name after that.
It was only when I started discussing laikas breeds with Dave that I asked a very simple question:
Where did the Samoyed come from? I thought there was some connection between the word Samoyed and the Sami people of Fenno-Scandinavia and Russia’s Kola Peninsula.
Through a little Google search, I discovered that the both Nenets and Sami spoke a Uralic language.
And that was enough for me.
However, I wondered about the Russian word “Samoyed” that meant “self-eater.”
It was only when I did a little more research that something disturbing hit me.
Samoyed is word that does apply to the Nenets.
However, it is a word that applies to the Nenets in much the same way the n-word applies to African-Americans.
The Canadian broadcaster and etymologist Bill Casselman writes about this word:
Samoyed was the Russian word for these peoples [the Nenets and their close relatives, the Selkups, the Enets, and the Nganasans] and their group of languages. It had entered Russian as a word by the 16th century, and is certainly never used by these peoples themselves or by educated Russians today, since Samoyed means self-eater or cannibal in Russian. Many English speakers forget or never knew that Slavic languages like Russian descend from the same ancient source as English, namely a language called Indo-European or sometimes Proto-Indo-European. In the word Samoyed, the Russian root samo ‘self’ is directly related to the English word same and the Russian verbal root yed- ‘eat’ is a cognate of the English verb to eat.
So all this time, we’ve been calling this dog by the racial epithet bestowed upon them by their colonizers.
The dog we call the Samoyed is, of course, entirely a Western invention.
The Nenets herding laika comes in many different colors, not just white and “biscuit” or cream-colors.
If one would like to see photos of Nenets herding laikas in their natural habitat, check out these photos by Bryan and Cherry Alexander. These photos were all taken in the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug in Siberia, the same place where the dogs that founded the Western Samoyed breed originated.
The Russian-American dog expert and zoologist Vladimir Beregovoy traveled to the Yamal Peninsula in 1961, where he encountered the Nenets and their dogs. He writes about how they were used:
In the Arctic Ural area, Yamal Peninsula and further to the east longhair aboriginal dogs similar to the Samoyed are used for herding reindeer. When herding, these dogs help to keep deer herd together on the move to better pastures. In winter, dogs help to trail and find lost reindeer. When dogs find stray reindeer far away from people they stay with them for a long time, sometimes even for few days without food guarding the deer. Dogs are barking a lot that helps their master to find where they are. Endurance, courage and determination of these dogs are amazing.
Another common form of using of aboriginal dogs of Nenets people is hunting. When hunting, these dogs act like bark pointers helping to find and tree grouse, squirrel and other small game. Despite the long coat, some of these dogs are trained and work well as duck retrievers. They do not hesitate to swim or wade in water at a subfreezing temperature. I purchased a two year old male who made an excellent hunting dog.
So these dogs are not entirely different from the other laikas of the region. They were used for a wide variety of tasks– almost all of which were life and death for their owners. (Beregovoy includes photos of a white laika named Noho. Noho’s name meant “Hunter” in Nenets, which tells you he wasn’t just rounding up the deer for his people.)
The history of the Western Samoyed breed begins with a British timber magnate named Ernest Kilburn Scott.
Scott imported the first dogs from Russia and exhibiting them at dog shows, and it was he who made the decision that the breed should be white, cream-colored, or “biscuit.” It was his wife, Clara, who essentially created the breed as we know it the West.
The founding population of these dogs was not particularly large, and this might go a long way to explaining why this breed has several issues with autoimmune disorders and a peculiar renal disorder called Samoyed Hereditary Glomerulopathy. The breed had issues with genetic diversity for most of its time as a fancy breed, but now through more science-based breeding practices, the inbreeding coefficients have been reduced.
However, it doesn’t change the fact that these dogs were founded by a finite number of founders, and the only genes in these dogs are those of their founders.
When I suggested to a Samoyed breeder on Facebook that she consider breeding her dogs to Nenets herding laikas, she was apoplectic.
She claimed that I was telling her to cross two different breeds!
Which is cardinal sin in the blood purity cult that is the modern dog fancy.
Never mind that these dogs and the Nenets breed are exactly the same breed. They are about as different as European golden retrievers that have been bred for the bench are from those that have been bred for hunting.
But of course, the Nenets dogs come in more colors besides white and cream, and therefore, they aren’t the same dog.
Never mind that the Nenets were breeding these dogs for centuries before the so-called dog fancy cult got its mitts on them. The Nenets were breeding their dogs to do things and live in much harsher conditions than you can find in the United States or Western Europe.
With aboriginal dogs, there is always the assumption that the European-based dog fancy was always superior to their “barbaric” owners in their motherlands.
Of course, in the West, most Samoyeds don’t do anything resembling what their ancestors did or what their cousins still do for the Nenets.
One could count on one hand the number of fanciers at dog shows all the dog shows in history who have ever relied upon dogs for survival.
So with this breed, we have everything that is wrong when Western cultural imperialism runs headlong into the world of dogs.
Here have a dog breed that is given a name that is a racial epithet for their original breeders and that has been selectively bred out of a much more diverse landrace based upon one European couple’s ideal of beauty is.
And as if to add poetry to all this racialism, the preferred color of this dog is white.
The Western Samoyed is really a white power dog!
I think the first thing that has to be changed about this dog is its name. The alternative name for this breed is “bjelkier.”
I’d prefer to call it the Nenets laika.
But I know now that I will NEVER use the word “Samoyed” for this breed.
In recent years, the oldsquaw duck has disappeared from bird books.
You cannot find it.
The current name is “long-tailed duck,” and the reason why the name was changed is because the word “Squaw” is offensive to Native Americans.
Now, I know that political correctness has run amok among our discourse as a society, but if you’re part of a club that is being attacked for racialism– as the Western dog fancy clearly is– you’d think you’d try to clean up names like Samoyed.
But because being a reactionary turkey brain is a very common condition among Western dog fanciers, I bet that many don’t care. I bet some of them even like that they call this dog by a racial pejorative.
That might be the reaction, but it’s not good PR.
I happen to like this breed very much, but I think as it exists in the West is a caricature of what it actually is in its homeland.
I would certainly hate if other laika breeds went this road, and this story should be a cautionary tale to anyone wanting to bring aboriginal breeds into the West.
The Western fancy isn’t designed for dogs like these.
It wants to sequester gene pools and standardize everything.
An aboriginal dog cannot exist under such a regime. Not a single one of these aboriginal dogs was founded in the way that the Western fancy founds breeds, and not a single dog is maintained the way aboriginal strains are.
So let’s hope that the West Siberian laika and the Telomian stay way from this bunch.
The Samoyed as it exists now has a sustainable gene pool now, but the breed as it exists now is a fiction.
A fiction that is easily debunked once one reads something about the Nenets and their amazing dogs.