In the center of Asia, the Dukha People of northern Mongolia coexist with their totem animal and their culture's central connecting aspect: the northern reindeer (sp. Rangifer tarandus). In an interdependent cultural and ecological habitat, reindeer illustrate the full range of Dukha experience: cows provide milk important to the Dukha's health, while the bulls make for excellent transportation in the boreal taiga forests. Meat and hides are used, preferably sparingly, for the Dukha are in fact hunter-gathering pastoralists. When a deer is culled, no part, save the bile, is wasted. Thanks is offered in the Dukha way, continued from the days of forefathers and shamans.
Decades of communist rule have wrought many changes in Dukha society. Over 400 people of Dukha heritage live in northern Mongolia with less than half seeking to continue the old ways of reindeer herding.
Approximately 37 families (180 people) still herd, ranging nomadically throughout the entire year to bring their reindeer to new, high mountain pastures, just as their ancestors did for thousands of years. Dukha who continue their nomadic pastoral lifestyle are proud of their heritage -- a life in the open air with their deer. "Without the reindeer we are not Dukha," says Batulga, a Dukha specialist on reindeer.
Fellow turkic-speaking people, the Todji-Tuvin, Soyot, and Tofilar, also have reindeer and once ranged, traded and periodically inter-married across what is now a strictly controlled border across the Sayan Mountains dividing Mongolia from Russia. Only 15 years ago, all four groups ranged perhaps as many as 15,000 reindeer, but due to the fall of the Soviet economic system and the difficult, unguided path toward a market economy, the reindeer peoples of Mongolia and Russia are facing their greatest challenges. Only 2,200 reindeer remain, and most herds have been without veterinary care for over a decade. The Dukha and their relations in Siberia face continuing challenges of industrial mining, gold and mineral exploration and the newer demands of ecotourism and timber exploitation, with little if any financial support or actual recognition for indigenous rights or status as minority peoples.
"We have had success in our difficult work, but we have only just begun," says Batulga. "We give our deepest thanks to all who can help us, the Dukha, to continue the proud way of our people."
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