Following the White Stag:The Dukha and Their Struggle for Survival
The Dukha are a distinct tribe of Tyvan-lineage reindeer herders who have resided in northern Mongolia's Hovsgol Province since the borders between Russia and Mongolia were officially closed in 1947, at the start of the Cold War. But the true heritage of Dukha ancestry has been deeply etched all across this border region over the course of millennia. Called Tsataan (reindeer herders) by their Mongolian neighbors, the Dukha, like other nomadic hunter-gatherers of Inner Asia, face an uncertain future and a continuing struggle for the existence of their people, lifeways, and traditional culture.
According to the Mongolian ethnographer S. Badamkhatan, the Dukha culture was known in early historical records as Soyot Uriankhai, taigyn irged (citizens of the taiga), and oin irged (citizens of the forest). They are most likely the peoples that a 13th-century explorer recorded as living in the mountains and breeding "mountain cows," which they used for meat, milk, and transportation. The Uriankhai ancestors of today's Dukha were one of the first peoples subjugated by Jochu, son of Ghengis Khan, whose earliest exploit was to bring the "peoples of the forest" under the Mongol yoke. This conquest, more than 800 years ago, was likely bloodless and amounted to no more than a demand for tributes in the form of furs to the great Khan of the Mongols.
The Dukha are closely related to the Tozhu reindeer herders in the neighboring Republic of Tyva. In fact, many Dukha elders came from nomadic reindeer-herding families who escaped Tyva—then part of the Soviet Union—in 1947 to avoid having to surrender their reindeer to the Soviet state as part of the project of collectivization. For decades—and likely millennia—before they fled, these reindeer-herding families had passed back and forth with their reindeer across the unmarked high-mountain border between Russia and Mongolia. Traditionally they would select a white male reindeer from among their herd, ritually sanctify it, and allow the sacred animal to lead their reindeer and families to the next grazing lands. The Dukhas' traditional lifestyle could only be bounded by the extent of high forest and mountain tundra that fostered the grasses, forbes, lichens, and wild game that were the basis of their ancient sustainable lifestyle. But the Soviet Union closed the border in 1947, splitting families and once and for all severing relations between the Dukha and their relatives on the Soviet side of the border.
Political and Economic Changes
Collectivization and other Soviet agricultural reforms would eventually catch up to the Dukha, even in the high recesses of northern Mongolia. Between the 1950s and 1980s, reindeer breeding became an occupation of older herders and pensioners, as young and working-age adults were forced to "come down from the taiga" to work in fish factories at the region's large Tsagan Nuur (White Lake) and practice a new, settled lifestyle. Small-scale reindeer breeding continued as a separate branch of animal husbandry for certain products—meat, hides, and panty (antlers used for medicinal purposes, to be sold to southeast Asian and Chinese markets). The Dukhas' hunting and gathering territories were declared state property, and their rights to both land and game resources were co-opted by the state.
In addition to forced collectivization, the Dukha faced pressures to assimilate to the Mongolian lifestyle. Traditional shamanistic and animistic practices and ceremonies were forbidden and repressed under state law. Two generations of communist rule distanced the Dukha from their traditional ways and taiga lifestyle. Only since the 1980s, as the Mongolian state mirrored the Soviet Union's policies of glasnost' (openness) and perestroika (restructuring), has the traditional lifestyle of the Dukha gained a degree of recognition and respect in the eyes of government officials. However, with economic pressures leading to the complete breakdown of the state agricultural economy, Dukha herders and settled workers alike lost their state salaries and were left, like many agriculturists in the former Soviet Union, destitute and penniless.
With the democratic reforms of the early 1990s, the Dukha regained ownership over their reindeer herds but found themselves forced to barter, trade, sell, or slaughter many of their reindeer as their only remaining medium of exchange. This change, along with wolf and bear predation and the complete withdrawal of veterinary care formerly provided by the state, resulted in major reductions in the numbers of domestic reindeer among the Dukha. Whereas in 1977 the Dukha herded upwards of 2,275 head of reindeer, by 1998 that number had dwindled to fewer than 500. Dukha elders recognized that further losses in the number and health of their reindeer would keep them from continuing a taiga lifestyle and cause the loss of their culture. International aid and support from Italian, Canadian, and American-led efforts such as Cultural Survival's Totem Peoples’ Preservation Project (begun in 1999), have temporarily halted the devastating decline in reindeer numbers (see page 59 this issue). Today, the Dukha herd some 650 head of reindeer. But survival of the Dukha as a nomadic taiga culture raising domesticated reindeer is by no means assured as the group faces even greater and more global threats.
The Dukha Today
Despite the odds, about 200 Dukha in approximately 37 family groups continue to live nomadically with reindeer in the high mountains that surround the Darhad depression in the northwestern section of Hovsgol Province of Mongolia. The Dukha are divided into two major territorial groups—the Western Forest group and the Zun (Eastern Forest) group. The Western group tends to herd and migrate more traditionally, in smaller groups of two to three families (called otugs), with between 20 and 180 head of reindeer per family.1 The Western Forest Dukha tend to migrate almost every five weeks, or about 10 migrations per year, from their high-elevation summer camps to low-elevation winter camps, with spring and fall camps in between.
The Zun (Eastern Forest) grouping practices a less traditional form of nomadism. They live in larger groupings of 11 to 19 tipis in relatively close proximity, and move only four to six times per year. Fewer reindeer range here than in the more productive Western Forest, but their grazing is more intensive as a result of their closer proximity and lack of frequent migrations. The two groupings present interesting comparisons in terms of nomadic decision making and adaptation in the face of outside influences such as interaction with tourists.
A Chance to Speak Out
During field work in the spring and summer of 2002, the authors continued collaboration among the State Veterinary Laboratory in Ulanbator, the Ministry of Nature and the Environment, Taiga Nature (a Mongolia-based non-governmental organization), and the Totem Peoples' Preservation Project. In addition to delivering veterinary medicines, treating sick and diseased reindeer, and performing blood testing for brucellosis and tuberculosis, the group held meetings with herders in both the east and west taiga regions and the local center of Tsagan Nuur to assess the problems regarding their cultural survival. Dukha reindeer herders and their representatives in the local administrative, or sum, center identified the following challenges:
Reindeer herders in both the east and west taiga expressed concerns about the challenges of educating their children. Herders felt that their children receive harsh and biased treatment from Mongolian teachers and students in the regional internat (boarding school), where they live for months at a time away from their families and the taiga.
Reindeer herders recognized serious erosion in the ability of youth to speak Tyvan, their Native tongue. With the lack of Tyvan language training at the regional internat school and the assimilative influence of the Mongolian language, children are less likely to know or use the Native Tyvan language. Herders recognized that while they can speak to their children in Tyvan, the children typically speak only Mongolian.
Reindeer herders were concerned that nature protection laws and regional nature protection officials are making demands that exclude or limit their subsistence lifestyle in the taiga. Herders expressed animosity over the fact that authorities threaten them with fines or arrest if they gather dropped antlers from the forest. They said they felt the government officials accuse them poaching when they are simply conducting activities directly related to their traditional subsistence lifestyle.
Mineral prospecting and extraction continues unabated, without any effort to assess land and resource rights for the Dukha.
For the first time in four years of work with the Dukha, the increasing number of tourists and other interaction with foreigners were recognized as problematic. While herders recognized benefits from tourism, they also recognized major problems. They said tourists visited more often, stayed longer in some cases, or stayed with Dukha families during wet or snow periods when the families must focus on survival, gathering, hunting, and taking care of the reindeer. One of the most successful and traditional herders of the Western Forest explained that he had demanded a helicopter of tourists to leave his otug and grazing territory immediately when they landed unannounced and were disruptive. Clearly, organized and unorganized tourism still fails to be culturally respectful or sustainable, but there is little regulation and virtually no effort to make tourism a collaborative partnership that would benefit the Dukha herders. During the summer of 2002 alone, 160 tourists, researchers, and photographers visited the taiga reindeer herders—an increase of more than one third over 2001's tourism estimates. Only 200 Dukha live in the taiga. Soon tourists may outnumber the Dukha themselves.
Herders complained about the lack of collaboration or even regular communication with government officials, nature protection officials, and the government education ministry. Local sum center officials found tourism, as well as research and aid programs, uncoordinated. International college study programs bring college students into the taiga without coordinating in advance with the regional sum governor or herders. In one case, a student untrained in veterinary science performed skin testing on reindeer without any government coordination or expectation of sharing results.
Herders expressed concern that Western influence is having a negative impact, mostly with regard to the "wants" of their youth. Herders in both the east and west taiga noted that their school children are typically poorer than other students and increasingly feel left behind as Mongolian students wear nicer, newer clothes, and carry special book bags or backpacks. Their children, once satisfied with what they were provided with to meet their needs, now desire newer, more costly items.
During 2003, collaborative efforts of the Totem Peoples' Preservation Project, Taiga Nature, the State Veterinary Laboratory of Mongolia, and other national and regional government institutions will seek to address some of these challenges. With the support and participation of both the Eastern and Western taiga Dukha groups, funds have been raised to allow the first delegation of Dukha leaders to travel to Ulanbator, Mongolia's capital, to present their concerns to government officials. Planned for June, the delegation will participate in a two-week session that will give selected reindeer herders advanced training in veterinary care, as well as equipment and medicines to improve immediate care for sick or injured reindeer in the herd. The research on tourism conducted in 2002 will be used to help formulate sustainable policies for tourism firms, reindeer herders, and regional and national government entities. Finally, improvement of crafts made from carved antler and other trade goods will be fostered to provide needed supplementary income to reindeer herders. Using specialized carving tools provided by the Totem Peoples' Preservation Project, herders have already crafted and sold antler carvings, animal figurines, and reindeer-skin bags to tourists and Mongolian visitors.
As important as these actions are, the cultural sustainability of the Dukha of northwestern Mongolia remains contingent on a three-fold strategy that should be recognized and adopted by all parties—the reindeer herders, their regional and national governments, and all outsiders, including tourists, researchers, and aid groups. First and foremost, efforts begun in 1999 to secure united representation by the Dukha under a reindeer-herding cooperative to foster their own concerns, rights, and economic resources must be advanced. Second, the Dukhas' legal rights to their ancestral lands must be confirmed and recognized, and positive collaboration and partnering should be enhanced with government ministries, tourism operators, and nature protection officials. Finally, efforts to realize advanced cooperation between Mongolia and Russia for transborder interaction among related reindeer-herding peoples remains a continuing priority for the Dukha people and organizations seeking to support their cultural sustainability.
1. Each family ranges an average of 40 head of reindeer.
Batulag Solnoi is one of three Dukha who have earned a college degree. He represents the Dukha as a program associate for Taiga Nature and the Totem Peoples’ Preservation Project. Purev Tsogtsaikhan works in ecological and rare species protection for the Mongolian Ministry of Nature and Environment and is head of Taiga Nature. Daniel Plumley is director and founder of the Totem Peoples’ Preservation Project.
References and further reading
Plumley, D.R. (2002, July). Field Notes of the Totem Project Expedition to Russia, Tyva and Mongolia. Unpublished.
Tsogtsaikhan, P. & Solnoi, B. (2001). Current Status of Reindeer of Mongolia and their Future Conservation and Breeding Management. Presentation of the 2nd Congress of World Reindeer Husbandry Association, Inari, Finland.
Wheeler, A.W. (2000). Lords of the Mountain Taiga - An Ethnohistory of the Dukha Reindeer Herders. Master’s Thesis. Indian University.