A chum is constructed using a variety of pole types, each separately named, and may be covered with a variety of materials, according to location and season. The quantity of poles, and way in which they are assembled, will depend on a number of factors, including weather conditions, size of group to be accommodated and, more arguably, the wealth and status of the occupants.
There are several variables, including the type of primary frame used (whether two pole or three), the angles of the pole to the ground, which determines the floor area, the direction that the tent faces, affected by the wind, and the need to accommodate a flue pipe in the structure in winter.
There are also components that have been integrated into the design in more recent history, such as the stove, floor boards, windows and synthetic materials.
We will look first at the individual components, and then look at how and why they are assembled in different ways.
Five poles have special status and are named.
Smythu, the Spirit Pole
By far the most important pole is the spirit pole or Symthu. This is the only pole to be made from larch, the sacred tree from which Labatnanga gets its name (the place of the seven larch), and it is unique in both design and position. Traditionally it may have been the last pole to be placed, although today two further poles are placed, crossing each other, behind it, in order to trap the flue pipe in position. [confirm this].
The pole is the master of the chum, it contains the good spirit Symthu, who protects the hearth and reveals the sawei line. It was reported (Vasilij) that it traditionally has a bird carved at the top, although this appeared to be broken off from his chum, and was absent on all others seen, and it has 'idols' carved into it, at a level with the hearth (photo xx). These faces were repeated along a length of approximately 1m of the pole. () says of faces in Nenet culture, that children's dolls never have distinct faces, as this could allow bad spirits to enter, and clearly the carving of so many faces into the spirit pole is significant.
The Symthu in Nadia's chum was carved by her husband's great grandfather. The previous one burned through at the top as it had been in contact with the flue pipe. As it is an image of a great spirit, as the man makes the pole, he must be connected to the spirit. A spirit pole is not to be treated lightly, and when it has finished its useful life, or if anything is wrong with it, it must be taken to the clan's sacred place and left there for the spirits, even if it must be carried for a year to get there.
[I asked the museum if they had a collection of spirit poles and they said that they had none and no information on them either!]
Door poles - Nunny
Second in importance are the two door poles, the Nunny. These are normal poles but have two rope-sockets attached to carry the horizontal drying poles. The ropes normally stay attached from one pitch to the next, but they can be moved to a new pole if needed. There is a tendency for these poles to get a little bent, particularly on the open side of the door, as the main covers are tied directly onto this pole. (photo xx). Rotating the pole helps, but it is usually swapped as soon as it becomes bent.
Horizontal poles - Tee
Between the Symthu and the Nunny two horizontal poles are attached. They are flattened at their rear end to ensure good contact with the Symthu. Curiously, they are fastened to the right of the Nunny in winter, and the left in the summer. The reason, given by Nadia, was that this allows the flue to be accommodated.
"Surely then the gap is of the same width whether they are fixed to left or right, if you need to widen the poles you would need to fix them both to the outer face of the nunny"
"No" she said "it is to the right in winter and the left in summer, this accommodates the flue",
...and this will have to suffice as explanation for the reader too!
[this can be checked - perhaps the flue is not exactly central?]
These two horizontal poles have two important functions. The first is to carry a short cross pole from which attached a long steel hook from which is hung a kettle or cooking pot. With the advent of the stove, this short pole () [get its name] is less used than if cooking takes place on an open fire, but it stops the kettle from falling over. The short pole can be slid along the longer poles, allowing positioning of the pot in relation to the heat, but there is no mechanism for raising or lowering the kettle.
The use of the suspension of a pot in this manner is a significant development over the three-stone hearth used throughout nomadic Africa to this day. In a land where the hearth has to be recreated on a daily basis, the effort to prepare and set the stones is avoided.
The Tun poles also get used for hanging clothes to dry and, more recently, to hang paraffin, or even electric lights.
Galina also used the very rear of the poles, where they are no more than a few centimetres apart, to support blocks of reindeer meet to thaw.
Ordinary poles - nu (moo)
These are all of slightly varying lengths, around five to six metres, of a uniform width of around 40-50mm and taper at the upper end with the natural taper of the tree, and they are also tapered slightly at the lower end. Most poles are formed into an octagonal section where the tree has been thinned down, but revert to circular at the tapered ends.
Both the octagonal section and the tapers have useful functions. At the upper ends, the poles must be as thin as possible, particularly where they all touch, in order to ensure that the apex is as tight as possible. As an experiment we tried to build a model with short alder sticks, and very quickly realised that it was impossible to get them thin enough at the top ends to allow a tidy junction. The tapering at the lower ends is a curious detail with a very practical advantage which can only be appreciated when trying to pull the pole free from compacted frozen snow. The octagonal section helps here too, as it is possible to grip and twist a stuck pole even with crude mowitzer mittens on.
Contrary to much literature () it appears that the use of the two-pole or three-pole system is not in fact either culturally or regionally defined. Both systems indeed exist, but they are, at least for the Nentsy, both part of the same chum. A choice can be made on any occasion of pitching which will be used, and it is the women’s choice. No woman could, however, explain the basis on which she made this decision. Partly, Nadia told me, it is down to the number of people around. The two-pole system (which I have not seen erected, but which we modelled using sticks), apparently requires more people to erect, typically four, as the two poles have to be held steady whilst the side poles are inserted until a point is reached where the structure is balanced. The poles of the three pole system could be put up using just two people.
[further research is required on the benefits of each system]
Changing from tripod to bipod requires that the three poles be unlashed at the apex, and two different poles selected. These two poles are slightly different from the third as they do not taper at either end, but are just slightly rounded. About 15cm from the upper end there are eye-holes in each, and a rope loop, some 1m long, is tied through. Once the two poles are tied together a little further down, as for the tripod, and opened out, a scissor is formed with a sling at the apex. When pitching, a further 32 poles are added, 16 being placed through the inverted apex triangle formed with the rope, which must be in a very precise order, and the remainder placed on top of the rope sling, which can be placed in any order at all.