Requiem or Recovery: The 21st Century Fate of the Reindeer-Herding Peoples of Inner Asia

Reindeer herding as a way of life in the Eastern Sayan Mountain region along the Russian-Mongolian border faces the threat of imminent extinction as a result of the collapse of communist-era institutions and a variety of related crisis factors.

These unique and endangered reindeer-herding cultures of Inner Asia, which include the Soyot of Buryatia's Okinsky Region, the Tofalar of Irkutsk Oblast, the Tozhu-Tuvans of the Republic of Tuva in Russia, and the Dukha of Mongolia's Hovsgol Province, are among the oldest cultures related to the northern reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) as a totem animal. They represent the southernmost extreme of reindeer pastoralism. Unlike the large-scale reindeer (caribou) ranchers of Scandinavia, northern Siberia, Alaska, and Canada, who live in tundra areas and raise large herds of reindeer for meat, these cultures practice a peculiar form of reindeer husbandry, raising small herds of deer in mountainous forest areas (taiga) predominantly as pack and riding animals and for their milk products, while wild game is the principal source of food.

The reindeer is an ungulate species uniquely adapted to the taiga and tundra regions of the far north and of the high mountain areas of Inner Asia. The four representative cultures -- the Soyot, the Tofalar, the Tozhu-Tuvans, and the Dukha -- developed in concord with the domestication of the reindeer in this remote, fragile, and ecologically diverse transition belt between the Siberian boreal forest and the Inner Asian steppes. As such, they can be considered "cultures of reindeerhabitat" -- peoples related directly to the high mountain reindeer habitats, living over time with the natural ebb and flow of the ecology of their region.

If current trends continue without immediate and effective intervention, the nomadic and semi-nomadic reindeer-herding cultures of Inner Asia will be lost entirely to cultural assimilation and sedentary lifestyles. They will be reduced to mere analogic cultures, of interest primarily to anthropologists, ethnographers, and other researchers who study diffused, assimilated, and "extinct" cultures.

The Reindeer in Antiquity

The domestication of northern reindeer in Inner Asia has a long and rich cultural history. Turkic-speaking peoples living in what is now the Sayan-Hovsgol transboundary region of Russia and Mongolia have herded reindeer for several thousand years. The archeological record as represented in petroglyphs and pictographs from the iron and bronze ages indicates that the inhabitants of this region made the transition from hunting wild reindeer to the domestication of reindeer some 3,000-5,000 years ago; reindeer in this region were one of the first large livestock species to be domesticated anywhere in the world.

Folk culture and ancient mythology focusing on reindeer depict an animal imbued with the spirit power of the north. Reindeer feature in the mythology of Scandinavia and other circumpolar regions as animals that have the unique ability to reach the high gods and the "upper worlds" of the shamans. As the reindeer is the only ungulate species in which females grow antlers, the animal has become a "totem" representing feminine strength as well.

Earlier assumptions that these cultures were and are primarily pastoralists have proven false. Recent research into past and present activities reveals that these peoples continue to lead nomadic and semi-nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyles. Domestication of reindeer for use as a means of transport and for their milk products proved to be one of the most successful survival strategies, allowing native peoples to adapt to the harsh conditions -- high elevation, extreme climate, limited terrestrial plant productivity, and periodic fluctuations in game and other natural resources -- throughout these regional habitats.

Soviet Era Impacts

Following the 1917 revolution and into the 1920s and 1930s, the state policy geared toward the promotion of the "communist citizen" as an assimilating ideal included the "development" of native, "backward" peoples throughout the USSR. These efforts, which included attempts to forcibly sedentarize and collectivize the herding populations, led to wholesale changes in the prospects for indigenous reindeer-herding peoples. The Stalinist repressions of the 1930s eliminated or removed hundreds -- perhaps thousands -- of the most skilled reindeer herders, community leaders, and shamans. The era of collectivization of agriculture, emphasizing a centralized command economy and insisting on keeping people within bounded communities and locales, gradually impinged on the ability of these peoples to range nomadically with their livestock. These impacts were similar across the transboundary Sayan Mountains from Tuva (where more than 800 shamans were repressed) to Irkutsk, Buryatia, and northern Mongolia.

Throughout the Soviet Union, reindeer husbandry was viewed by the Communist Party's agricultural apparatus as problematic to centralized Soviet agricultural goals because of its range requirements and associated nomadic lifestyle. A 1957 law that made infrastructural development and social services contingent upon the "complete `liquidation' of the reindeer herders' way of life" further exacerbated the problem, according to Piers Vitebsky, anthropologist and Director of the Scott Polar Research Institute. To move this process along, the Soviets made an administrative distinction between "production nomadism" and "nomadism as a way of life," and did all they could to discourage the latter. "Production nomadism" was an effort to rationalize and industrialize herding practices. It included only the able-bodied men who were directly involved in reindeer herding and excluded all others who had formerly been integral to "nomadism as a way of life." Herders' children were forced to attend full-time boarding schools in village centers, while herders' wives were also settled in village centers and assigned to secondary economic activities such as sewing and fur processing. As Vitebsky notes, such policies had a negative impact on prodution. "Once again, we see the inappropriate transfer to herding of industrial models of the organization of labor," wrote Vitebsky in a 1992 article. "It is precisely because herding is much more than a productive process that this attack on the family was inevitably destructive of production as well."

What's more, the Soviet system's five-year agricultural planning programs approached meat productivity in a rather simplified manner that completely ignored cultural attitudes toward reindeer. Reindeer were compared to cows, horses, and yaks for productivity on the basis of live weight or processed weight of meat, despite the fact that reindeer are far better suited to the ecological conditions and require no imported fodder. Low productivity reindeer breeding was devalued, and efforts aimed at increasing meat production were implemented. This approach ignored the deer's historical use-value as a means of transportation and its cultural value as a totem animal; the Inner Asian reindeer peoples never raised deer for meat and avoided the slaughter of deer unless absolutely necessary.

Across the border in Mongolia, reindeer breeding became the occupation largely of older herders and pensioners, as young and working-age adults were forced to "come down from the taiga" to work in fish factories and practice a settled way of life. Where reindeer breeding was continued, it was a form of reindeer farming in relatively static locales, as opposed to the traditional nomadic reindeer breeding and hunter-gatherer lifestyle. The reindeer thus became less important as a pivotal species vital to cultural identity, and more important as a minor source of meat, hides, and panty (the young antlers used to make medicines for sale to the southeast Asian and Chinese markets). At the same time, hunting territories and game resources were appropriated by the state, to be administered solely by the central government.

These factors combined with pressures to assimilate into the dominant Russian and Mongolian majorities (or in the case of the Soyat, into the dominant Buryat majority), ultimately leading to deterioration of native languages and cultural traditions. Over the course of three or four generations, these factors have caused a tremendous multi-generational loss of traditional ecological knowledge associated with the hunter-gatherer reindeer-breeding lifestyle.

Glasnost', Perestroika, and Economic Transition

The Glasnost' (openness) and Perestroika (restructuring) era of the former Soviet Union in the mid 1980s brought about a renewed appreciation for native cultures across Russia. In Buryatia and Tuva, for example, this period saw the resurgence of native interest in traditional culture, sustainable lifestyles of the past, and the religious and spiritual practices linked to native shamanic and Buddhist belief systems.

On the national level, the new policies permitted a spate of legislation devoted to the protection of indigenous minorities. These efforts recognized that native peoples' traditional lifestyles deserved assistance, and that indigenous rights to land use, direct involvement in decision-making, and legitimate political representation were all worthy goals.

Unfortunately for the reindeer-herding cultures of Inner Asia, the concurrent breakdown of the state and collective farm economy, which occurred in the late 1980s and into the 1990s, made realization of such goals impossible. With the loss of regular salary payments for many of the reindeer herders, the nationwide economic depression of the early 1990s, and very real inflationary pressures, maintaining even a sub-standard living became infeasible. Basic necessities such as flour, clothing, canvas tents or canvas for teepee shelters, shoes for children, and medicines became much harder to obtain during the slow progression to the market economy.

Perestroika and the implementation of democratic processes have had some benefit for native peoples, including more localized control over certain territories and development planning, and a new tolerance for the expression of ethnic identity and for demands for indigenous rights at both the national and international levels. This period also saw (in many cases) a return of reindeer to private ownership. Overall, however, the period between 1985 and 1995 saw great declines in the economic status of the native reindeer herders, including problems of herd management, marketing, and distribution of goods, as well as a degraded cultural outlook.

Current Status of Inner Asian Reindeer-Herding Peoples

By conservative estimates, the four Inner Asian reindeer-herding cultures have experienced a loss of between 12,000 and 15,000 domesticated northern reindeer between 1988 and 2000. The Tozhu-Tuvans, for example, herded more than 8,100 head of reindeer in 1990, but as of May, 2000, only 950-1050 head of deer remain. In similar fashion, both the Dukha of Mongolia and the Tofalar of Irkutsk Oblast have seen their combined herds drop from several thousand head to less than 900 head today.

The Soyot present a slightly different case. Having lost all of their reindeer in the 1960s and early 1970s, they began a project of revitalization of reindeer herding in 1994. That year, the Soyots purchased, with U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) support and the leadership of the Okinsky Administration, 63 head of northern reindeer from the then viable herd of the neighboring Tofalar. Over four years the herd acclimatized quite well and increased to more than 100 head with the aid of herder training provided by two paid Tofalar herders. The reindeer revitalization effort went into sharp decline, however, when promised state and federal funding -- meant to follow international aid -- was reduced or never materialized. Today, the Soyot have between 30 and 50 head of northern reindeer.

The number of herders has declined along with the number of reindeer. At present, there are approximately 5,300 people among the Soyot, Tofalar, Tozhu-Tuvan, and Dukha peoples. Approximately 300 people within these four cultures are directly or indirectly involved in semi-nomadic or nomadic reindeer breeding and a huntergatherer lifestyle.

Most of the Tofalar and virtually all of the Soyot have left the taiga and the nomadic lifestyle over the past three decades and settled in villages or towns, although new forms of livestock herding and seasonal hunting remain important to these peoples. Both of these groups have almost completely lost their native languages and use primarily Russian (Russian and Buryat in the case of the Soyot), reflecting their assimilation into the dominant culture.

The Dukha and the Tozhu-Tuvan, on the other hand, still carry out fully nomadic and semi-nomadic lifestyles in the taiga with their reindeer, subsisting almost entirely on hunting, gathering, and fishing. Both the Dukha and the Tozhu-Tuvan have maintained their native languages. Nevertheless, they face the same decline in reindeer herding and cultural integrity experienced by the Soyot and the Tofalar. It may be only a matter of 5 to 10 years before the last of the Inner Asian reindeer, and the unique cultures that have been part of the Hovsgol-Sayan landscape for many thousands of years, will be lost altogether.

The factors impacting the reindeer cultures across Russia and Mongolia include:

- Economic transition and decline. The reduction or elimination of herders' salaries has resulted in far fewer reindeer herders and, for those who have decided to continue, less effective management of their herds as well as the wholesale sell-off, barter, or slaughter of animals to meet basic survival needs.

- Lack of veterinary care. Major reductions in state-provided funding for veterinary care, medicines, and veterinary training for herders over the past 10 years have enabled common and easily treated ailments to have a far more devastating impact on the herds' productivity than in the past.

- Geographic isolation and market constraints. With the degraded economic situation and the lack of fuel, the remote reindeer-herding territories have become even more remote, thus preventing herders from bringing both reindeer and nontimber forest products to market.

- Geo-political separation. The strictly closed international border between Russia and Mongolia bisects traditional grazing lands and separates related reindeer herding peoples who once traded, shared hunting territories, and inter-married.

- Increase in predation. All herders complain that with outdated rifles, no money for bullets, and the ending of state bounty payments on wolves and other predators, the number of predators in reindeer-herding territories has increased considerably and is a major constraint in maintaining and increasing herds.

- Industrialization and natural resource extraction. Mineral prospecting, gold mining, and timber cutting destroy reindeer habitat and bar native people from former grazing lands.

- Unemployment and health concerns. The economic decline has seen reductions in the health of these populations related to unemployment; inaccessibility of health care; increasing alcoholism; higher rates of early death due to suicide, violence, and alcohol-related accidents; and overall reduced lifespans.

- Breakdown of family and community. During periods of extreme economic degradation, family health declines, and family, clan, and community relations break down or are severed.

- Globalization and its impact on youth. With the effects of globalization, the youth of these reindeer herding cultures are orienting themselves toward urban areas and a more Western lifestyle.

The governments in Mongolia and Russia have enacted various statutes that recognize the crisis in reindeer husbandry. Though these actions bring regional or even national attention to the problem, no effective long-term programs exist to reorient and stabilize reindeer husbandry and the traditional nomadic lifestyles and cultures of the Inner Asian reindeer-herding peoples.

Joachim Otto Habeck of the Scott Polar Research Institute noted that those engaged in reindeer husbandry "have realized that they cannot expect support from the authorities, but must tackle the problems on their own.... Local officials do not see the profitability of reindeer husbandry but rather think it is a quaint traditional activity for ethnic minorities." Unfortunately, concer ns with day-to-day survival preoccupy the herders and prevent them from active involvement in governmental matters that might benefit their lifestyle and circumstances. Without any firm financial foundation to adequately initiate the restoration of reindeer husbandry, and recognizing the indifference or inability of local, regional, and federal authorities to help, many of the reindeer-herding peoples feel very much abandoned -- forgotten peoples in a time of crisis.

"The reindeer represent our past and current lifestyle," states Mr. Ovogdorj, a fully nomadic reindeer herder of Dukha heritage in northern Mongolia's Hovsgol province. "If we continue to lose our reindeer, we will be forced to move to the settlements or the city to make a living. We will lose our culture in the process."

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

CSQ Issue: