Culture on the Line

In the mountainous region around the border between Siberia and Mongolia, time, politics, and boundaries have mixed to give indigenous peoples a new lease on life and new threats to their traditions.

Up there,” said Dan Plumley, coordinator of Cultural Survival’s Totem Project, “is where Siberia ends and Mongolia begins.” He was pointing to the sharp, forested ridge that formed the left-hand wall of the canyon up which we were driving. We were traveling between the districts of Tunkinsky and Okinsky in the Russian Republic of Buryatia, along a dirt track that runs alongside the roaring Irkut River.

As I looked at the ridge that divided Russia from Mongolia, I found myself thinking how artificial borders are. Here, particularly, the arbitrariness of the border’s location stood out. There is, in fact, no physical border at all—just a dashed line on a map and a marker pole somewhere up in the woods. The spruce forest and reindeer moss on the other side of that ridge were identical to the trees and moss on this side. The climate was the same combination of long, brutal winters and short, hot summers. And, more to the point for us, the indigenous people on the other side of the ridge were the same as the ones on this side—or rather, they would be the same except for that border and the vagaries of politics over time.

You cannot travel through Buryatia without thinking about time and the detritus of history. On our way from the republic’s capital, Ulan Ude, we passed dozens of old collective farm buildings. Only 15 years ago they were humming with activity. Now they are crumbling ruins where cows shelter from the sun. In the main town of Tunkinsky District there is a 15-foot-high hammer and sickle and, across the street, a statue of Lenin, left standing out of indifference rather than devotion. The ghost of communism haunts this land, in ways that are not always as obvious as abandoned farm buildings and bad sculpture. The reindeer-herding cultures of this region—the focus of the Totem Project—were once all cut from the same cloth: fully nomadic hunters using their reindeer for transport and milk. Eighty miles south of Dan’s ridge, the Dukha of Mongolia still live that way, but here in Russia the doyens in Moscow decided that ideology trumped thousands of years of cultural history. In 1947 they ordered the Soyot and other nomadic reindeer-herding peoples to settle in villages and put their animals in collective herds. As Dan put it, “They were forced to become reindeer farmers.” But reindeer can’t be farmed in this area without being nomadic, and the system strongly favored cattle and other conventional livestock. After two generations, the Soyot forgot how to manage their herds in the traditional nomadic way. Today only two Soyot families keep reindeer, and neither pursues a fully nomadic life. Ironically, they were already living the quintessential communal life when the Soviets decided they needed to be converted.

The Dukha in Mongolia were once Siberians, closely related to the Tyvan people (one of the four reindeer-herding cultures that the Totem Project works with), but they chose to move across the border rather than deal with collectivization. In 1947 the border was closed altogether, and the Dukha were cut off from their relatives in Russia. But even in the remote taiga the Dukha were caught in collectivization, with most young people working in fish factories rather than herding. And even though elders continued to work with reindeer, the animals were declared state property. Now they’ve regained ownership of their animals, and 37 family groups, totaling more than 200 people, are herding reindeer nomadically. The Totem Project has been working with them to help increase the health of their animals, claim their rights, and improve cross-border interaction with their relatives in Russia. Last year, the project brought the Dukha to a world conference of reindeer herding peoples, where they were able to meet with the Tyvans and Tojas (the other reindeer herders in this area), and discuss cross breeding and other transboundary opportunities that haven’t been available since the Soviets closed the border 60 years ago.

The largest impact of communism on the country is the vacuum created by its sudden and unplanned departure. People who used to have everything provided for them are stranded in a world where they are must figure it all out for themselves. That includes the government, which is, in many respects, making things up as it goes along. It’s a situation that’s ripe for abuse either by amoral entrepreneurs or revenue-strapped policy makers who are willing to turn a blind eye to the social and environmental effects of development.

A prime example is the 2,600-mile-long oil pipeline that was planned to run along the route we had just followed, around the southern shore of Lake Baikal and through Tunkinsky National Park. The project was initially launched by Yukos, the gigantic Russian oil company whose billionaire president is now serving a prison sentence, and Transneft, the state-owned pipeline company, which is now in charge of the project. The original path for the project was scuttled in April by President Vladimir Putin because of wide public concern over the fate of Lake Baikal, the world’s largest lake and a uniquely valuable biological site—not to mention a major sacred site for indigenous peoples of Siberia. The pipeline will now pass well north of Baikal, where any spill will be carried away from the lake by north-flowing rivers. The part of the original plan that would have brought the pipeline through Tunkinsky National Park received less notice, but it was equally troubling.

The park occupies all of Tunkinsky district and protects one of the most spectacular landscapes on Earth. The Sayan Mountains rise like a wall 11,000 feet above the broad Irkut valley, their jagged peaks and sheer faces reminiscent of the Grand Tetons. The park also protects a wide range of rare plants and animals, including snow leopards and ibex, and it features many mineral springs, including the one at Arshan, which has been developed as a major tourist resort. In all these regards, the park is typical of the ones you might find in the United States or Canada. But Tunkinsky is unique in that it also protects traditional Buryat communities along with the scenery and wildlife. There are about 30 small Buryat villages in Tunkinsky.

The Buryats are a Mongolian people native to the Lake Baikal region but now found in China and Mongolia, too. There are about 300,000 in Buryatia, making up 30 percent of the population. The Buryats were once nomadic, moving with their herds of cattle, horses, sheep, goats, and camels—referred to collectively as “the five animals”—and living in yurts (circular, felt-walled tents). But with the advent of Russian hegemony the Buryats settled into villages and now live in typical Siberian log houses. There usually are several buildings in a family’s fenced compound: the main house, a shed for cattle and winter hay, an outhouse, and a banya (the bathhouse, with a wood-fired wet sauna). The main house usually has a kitchen and a large main room, and sometimes a small third room. There is electricity in these villages, with some houses sporting an incongruous-seeming satellite dish. Most of the cooking is done on a brick stove heated by a wood fire, and washing is done in a bucket or tub with water hauled from the village well.

The Soviet period was a decidedly mixed bag for the Buryats and other indigenous peoples in Russia. The Soviets provided health care for even the most remote regions, provided a stable (if miserly) source of income, and provided major support for the arts—a particular boon for the Buryats, who have an extraordinary gift for music, dance, and theater. At the same time, the government restricted many indigenous cultural aspects, particularly during the Stalin years. Indigenous religion was forced underground, and traditional herding was replaced by collective farms. Since the fall of the Soviet system, however, Buryats have been reviving their culture aggressively. Buryats hold many government positions, and all of the officials with whom we met at the republic and district level described structural and legislative support for both Buryat and Soyot indigenous cultures.

We encountered one striking example of traditional Buryat culture in Tunkinsky, when we visited an elderly farmer named Maxim. During the Soviet period he was an administrator of a 1,000-person collective farm, but he returned to his rural roots after the fall of communism. As we arrived at his farm, his wife greeted us in the traditional way, offering in her outstretched hands a bowl sitting on a white silk hadag, or prayer scarf. In the bowl was “the white food,” in this case milk, which symbolizes the purity of the host’s intentions. After a meal produced entirely on the farm (with the essential formal speeches), the farmer showed us his operation. Everything on the farm is done by hand, which is all the more impressive given Maxim’s age of 84. “When I worked on the collective farm,” he told us, “I took 12 pills a day for my health. Since I moved here, I don’t take any pills, and I’ve never been healthier.” He also gets help from his extended family, including six children and 12 grandchildren, all of whom live on the farm with him. As part of his tour he demonstrated the hand-turned millstone on which he grinds his grain, and the wheeled log on which be bends birch saplings to make runners for his winter sleighs. Then he showed us the wooden rig to stretch leather and the native species of pine he planted to serve as a windbreak. He also showed us some of his animals. He lamented not yet having all five animals, and he told us he planned to by some fat-tailed sheep from Buryats in China.

There are about 20,000 Buryats in the Shinehen region of China’s Inner Mongolia. Most of those people fled across the border to escape the chaos after the Russian Revolution and did not suffer the cultural repression of Buryats in Russia, so they still have their traditions intact. They wear traditional clothing, pursue an undiluted form of shamanism, and, as Maxim indicated, they keep the native animals. As a result, Russian Buryats now eager to revive their culture travel to China to study with shamans, learn rituals and ceremonies, and buy traditional livestock. Maxim’s interest in the fat-tailed sheep is not merely nostalgic. These sheep are native to the region and far more winter-hardy than the French breeds introduced by the one-size-fits-all Soviet system. In this case, a border separating indigenous populations is clearly a good thing.

One of the most obvious elements of traditional Buryat culture being revived in Russia is religion. As we drove from the capital to Tunkinsky, we stopped at least half-a-dozen times so our Buryat hosts and driver could offer prayers and libations at sacred sites associated with Siberian shamanism. The first one we stopped at was a sacred tree with hundreds of blue and white prayer scarves tied to its branches and a pile of vodka bottles strewn around its base. (Part of the tradition here is to make an offering of something you value, most often vodka, and to leave whatever you bring.) In the shamanistic tradition, certain trees are believed to be the repository of spirits, and sacred sites almost always involve trees and prayer scarves. But this region also has a long and strong history of Tibetan Buddhism, and many sacred sites will feature a Buddhist stupa or prayer wheel alongside the shaman elements.

Buddhism first arrived in Russia from Mongolia in the 1600s and was officially recognized in 1741. Almost from the beginning, Tibetan Buddhist traditions were melded with those of shamanism, such as offerings to the water spirits or offerings made on oboos—the ubiquitous mountain cairns where shaman rituals are often carried out. During the Soviet period Buddhism was repressed, along with other religions, and most of the temples were burned down. But now Buryat Buddhism is enjoying a tremendous revival, with old temples rebuilt and new ones added, young people enlisting for training as lamas, and large crowds of followers. And they have reinstituted their ties with Tibet: Immediately after the fall of communism the Dalai Lama visited Buryatia.

But the single greatest spiritual presence in this part of Buryatia is Geser. The Geser story is an immense epic that takes several days to recite or sing. It involves a vast and diverse cast of gods, demons, and monsters. It is also one of the most widely dispersed epics, being part of most cultures across central Asia and into China. Each region has its own variation, but Buryatia is the center of it, as Geser is believed to have come down from the sky near Ulan Ude. Geser came to earth to fight the enemies of men and restore peace and happiness to a world troubled by evil spirits. Much of the epic is taken up with Geser’s many battles with monsters and evil gods, many of whom change shape. And the story of his battles describes the origin of many of the features of the landscape: a canyon where Geser’s arrow pierced the mountains, a lava flow where he battled the god of fire, and so forth. In Buryatia Geser is seen as both a hero and a god; above all he’s seen as the embodiment of Buryat identity.

Buryats are clearly doing well in comparison to many indigenous groups, but they still face challenges. One challenge is the survival of the Buryat language: Though about 20 percent of Buryats still speak their language, most young people do not want to learn it, and it is taught only a few hours a week in most local schools.

A much bigger issue is the state of Russian law. “Unfortunately, in Russia we have many laws that aren’t implemented,” says Pavel Sulyandziga, the head of the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON) and a member of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. “To make the law work, we need regulations, and the government hasn’t worked on regulations.” As a result, says Sulyandziga, developers and others are taking advantage of the gap between legislation and implementation to take indigenous land. “There was an area,” he says, “where oil companies wanted to set up drilling operations. The first time I went there, they were telling indigenous peoples that they [the oil company] owned the land. We came back with a lawyer, and then they said indigenous peoples could use the land, but they would have to meet a long list of qualifications, which no one could fulfill. And if they didn’t meet the qualifications, they would lose all rights forever.”

This sort of situation is precisely what’s happened in Khuzier, the last settlement on Okinsky’s only road. The word “road” in this case is used in its most liberal sense—the town is only accessible by Wazik, an indestructible four-wheel-drive vehicle built for the Russian military. The town, which is home to about 400 people, sits in a grassy valley, with Herchin Gorba Sari Mountain rising immediately behind it. We went to Khuzier to meet with the villagers and hear their concerns. About 50 people gathered in the community hall and told us how they wanted to improve the road and have better access to health care. The bulk of the meeting, however, was given over to talking about the gold mine. This is an operation taking place on Herchin Gorba Sari, one of the region’s 13 sacred mountains and an important site in the Geser story. “This is our sacred Buryat mountain,” said one elderly man, standing erect with his workcoat buttoned up and his hat in his hands. “The mine will destroy our nature and make our chidren sick. The mine near Sorok [a village on the eastern edge of Okinsky] gives villagers a share of the money, but here they give us nothing.”

Another man complained that the blasting from the mine had caused two of their springs to go dry, and a third man said, “Last year in the summer camps one boy got sick, and the doctors said it was radiation.” People told us that the mining company would eventually employ 6,000 workers and was planning to build a settlement for them on a plateau east of Khuzier called Mongolzhan. The plateau is a wide grassy plain ringed by several of the snow-capped sacred peaks. There are ancient Hun burial sites there and a new Buryat sacred site. The day we traveled there, a herd of yak grazed on one side and a pair of demoiselle cranes searched for seeds amid wildflowers on the other side. The thought of buildings in this breathtaking landscape seemed obscene. But it is the only practical place to build a large mining settlement.

It’s hard to know how much of what people told us about the mine is true, because they actually don’t know much about it. They could not say which company owned the mine or what, other than gold, they were mining, or what stage the development had reached, because neither the mine operators nor the government came to the people to talk about the mine before it was started. The idea of “free, prior, informed consent” never entered into it. The government simply handed out a lease and the mining company set up its operation as though there were no people in the region at all.

Again, the problem is one of borders and law. Russian law recognizes and protects indigenous lands, but those lands must meet the definition of “territories of traditional nature use.” For indigenous people to obtain legal rights to land, they must prove that they use it for hunting, fishing, or other traditional uses. Unfortunately, there is no firm definition of traditional use in the law, and, to make matters worse, the onus is on indigenous people to initiate their claim and establish that use. In other words, mining companies and other development interests can begin and continue their operations until the local indigenous people figure out their rights, set up a study to establish their claim, and pursue that claim with the government. Moreover, the traditional-nature-use provision of the law applies only to “small-numbered peoples of the north,” a category that requires a population under 50,000. The Buryats don’t qualify as a small-number people, so even if they could show that they use the mountain in traditional ways, it would do them no good. This whole area, including the 13 peaks and Mongolzhan, has been designated by the Okinsky District as being of special importance because of its relation to the Geser story, and shows up on the map with it’s own border. But that designation is more honorary than prohibitive, and it cannot be used to stop the mine. Land that is merely sacred doesn’t count.

The problem is even worse across the border in Mongolia. There the Dukha reindeer herders do not even have the benefit of a traditional-nature-use law. The Mongolian government does not recognize their traditional lands. It doesn’t even recognize the Dukha as a unique people. All that protects them now is their remoteness, and even that is insufficient: They, too, have a gold mine in their territory, this one established without even a government license.

One ray of hope in all this is a concept called the Sayan Cross Peace Park, a cross-border plan being developed by the Totem Project and its Russian indigenous partners. The park would encompass a large area of the Baikal region, including the mountains of northern Mongolia. Like Tunkinsky National Park, it would apply not only to the landscape and wildlife, but also to the unique reindeer herding cultures and the traditional Buryat villages of the region. It would not be a park in the conventional Western sense, though. Because it would cross international boundaries, there is no practical model for having a single governing body, so it could not have hard boundaries and one set of protective rules for the whole area. Instead it would be a conceptual park, an area mutually recognized as important with a process through which governments on either side of the border could understand and address common interests and problems for that region. It would not, on its own, prevent the mine above Khuzier or on the Dukha’s land, but it would provide a framework for addressing it. And, far more important, it would provide a tentative first step for countries learning to see past their borders.

Mark Cherrington is the editor of Cultural Survival Quarterly

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