Totem Project Summer Expedition Gains International Attention for Dukha

This summer Dan Plumley, coordinator of Cultural Survival’s Totem Peoples Preservation Project in Mongolia and Siberia, led a 14-member field expedition team to northern Mongolia, where the group delivered veterinary medical supplies to the Dukja (Tsaatan) reindeer herders.

The expedition team, made possible by a grant from the Nordlys Foundation, was composed of veterinary specialists, health providers, cultural ecologists, biologists, and partners from non-governmental organizations Taiga Nature and the Itgel Foundation. Joining the team were independent radio producers Allan Couckell and Lorne Matalon, on assignment from U.S. National Public Radio to learn about the cultural survival issues facing the Dukha peoples and the work of the Totem Project. Couckell and Matalon also researched the roots, traditions, and resurgence of Native shamanism in Mongolia.

Plumley said that Couckell and Matalon will help the Totem Project make a hopefully lasting headway into the media sector in the West to promote the survival of traditionally nomadic Dukha People.

For a week in July, Dukha delegates met with several government representatives in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, including the Human Rights Commission of Mongolia, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Nature and Environment, and the president’s adviser on economic affairs. After presenting their Native rights concerns and advancing a Totem-led 2003 Dukha People’s Appeal to the president and government of Mongolia, four reindeer herders were interviewed by top radio producers at the studio of Mongolia National Radio. The 20-minute interview was to air on Mongolia’s Voice of Asia program.

During the interview, Dukha herders and leaders Ms. Oyuumbaadam, Mr. J. Bat, and Mr. Zorigt, explained border issues they have been facing and the threat to their cultural survival. They described their commitment to their life of hunting and herding reindeer in the taiga, which they said was “passed down from ancient generations of forefathers.” The interview was to be broadcast in Mongolian, Russian, English, Chinese, and Korean, reaching across Mongolia, China, parts of Southeast Asia, and Europe. The program also highlighted the agreements the herders had reached with government representatives to build international partnerships to protect and promote the rights and culture of the Dukha.

This latest expedition occurred at a critical time. In April more than 13 herders were arrested in their Native taiga homeland while hunting for downed deer antlers. The hunters had mistakenly crossed a deeply fogged highland forest border between Mongolia and the Tuva (Tyva) Republic of Russia. For 3,000 years before these arbitrary borders were drawn by governments, the Dukha had roamed freely across their traditional territory. The arrested men were taken from their homelands, reindeer herds, and families to government posts hundreds of miles away and held for two months for questioning. They were then fined.

The Totem Project is searching for funding for the implementation of the Sayan Cross Peace Park Proposal, which has gained official support from both the Russian and Mongolian governments. The park will promote transboundary recognition and open borders for the related nomadic peoples to cross with their reindeer and other livestock. It will also promote cultural identity and indigenous rights; secure much-needed partnership on ecological protection between transboundary protected areas at the local, regional, and national levels; and promote sustainable economic development, trade, and culturally sensitive ecotourism development across the Russian-Mongolian region.

Agnes Portalewska is a member of Cultural Survival’s publications team.

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