Totem Project Research and Vitamin Program Work Toward Improving Dukha Nutrition


It may be easy to see the gaps in the Western health care needs of rural indigenous communities, but finding ways to address health concerns with traditional practices that have been lost is much more challenging. A new health program operated by Cultural Survival’s Totem Peoples Preservation Project seeks to help the Dukha reindeer herders of Mongolia meet their nutrition needs with both old ways and new.

The project began in the fall of 2003 when Sas Carey, a nurse trained in traditional Mongolian medicine, worked in conjunction with the Totem Project and with the support of the Center for Northern Studies at Sterling College, to assess the health needs of 37 Dukha herding families of the east and west taiga of Mongolia. The herders had asked Totem Project coordinator Daniel Plumley, who has been working to provide veterinary care to the community’s reindeer since 1999, for health care assistance for themselves. During the assessment, Carey met with groups of men and women separately, asking about their health concerns. The Dukha women were especially excited about the chance to speak with a woman healthcare practitioner, Plumley said. Many had never before had such an opportunity.

Two of the main health problems the Dukha reported were bleeding gums and eye problems. When Carey shared her findings with other doctors, including the medical director of the German development group GTZ and Vermont-based pediatrician Jack Mayer, it became apparent that the herders were suffering primarily from scurvy due to vitamin deficiencies.

In response to these findings, Carey developed a plan to supply the families with Vitamins A and C. With financial support from the Mongolian American Cultural Association, last summer Carey and the Totem Project delivered 84 pounds of multivitamins and almost 20 pounds of Vitamin C crystals to Mongolia. The delivery provided a one-year supply of multivitamins for all the children from the 37 families and a one-year supply of Vitamin C for all the adults. Enough multivitamins were left to provide a six-month supply for the kindergarten children of Tsaagan Nuur, the county seat where a school, hospital, and government offices are located.

The vitamins were measured into empty water bottles to ensure that every child in each family would receive a year’s supply. The bottles made it harder for children to access the vitamins unattended, and were more transportable for the nomadic families, Carey said. Some families were so eager to receive the vitamins that they delayed moving camp until after Carey and the Totem Project had made their deliveries, which also included tools for antler carving and veterinary supplies.

As an alternative to pills, Carey is researching ways the herders can get the vitamins they need from their environment. It is not known how the Dukha traditionally consumed Vitamin C, but some plants in the area may provide it. Animal livers were a traditional source of Vitamin A, but Dukha hunting practices have changed due to political and environmental conditions and a decrease in wild game.

“Bringing Vitamins A and C into the diets of the Dukha peoples sustainably is not as simple as just finding the right plants,” Carey said. “The lifestyle of the people will need to change in order to incorporate the use of these plants.”

Carey is unsure whether funding will allow her to bring vitamins to the herders in 2005. But she is working with other doctors and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control to create a survey to assess the impact of the vitamins she supplied last summer. The Totem Project also plans to advocate for the Dukha’s health care needs with the Mongolian government.

To support the work of the Totem Project contact coordinator Daniel Plumley at the Totem Peoples Preservation Project, P.O. Box 746, Keene Valley, New York 12943, or by e-mail at Information is also available at

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