Skip to main content

The Troubled Taiga

The reindeer-herding peoples who make up the South Siberian and Mongolian Reindeer-Herding Complex include the Dukha of northwestern Mongolia, the Tozhu of the Republic of Tyva, the Tofa of Irkutsk Province, the Soyot of the Buryat Republic, and the Evenki, who range throughout south Siberia and into the northern tip of China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. Inhabiting a fragile transition belt of taiga and alpine tundra between the Siberian boreal forest and the Inner Asian steppes, these peoples represent the southernmost extreme of reindeer pastoralism in the world.

While each of these peoples is ethnically and culturally distinct, they all have in common a form of reindeer husbandry that is unique in its history, methods, functions, ecology, and cultural expressions. The south-Siberian and Mongolian reindeer-herding peoples confound the neat anthropological categories of nomadic pastoralist and hunter-gatherer. Indeed, they breed and raise livestock, but unlike large-scale reindeer “ranchers” of northern Siberia, European Russia, and Scandinavia, who live in tundra areas and raise large herds of reindeer principally for meat, the south-Siberian and northern Mongolian groups raise small herds of deer in the taiga. They use the deer predominantly as pack and riding animals (to facilitate their hunting), and as a source of milk products, while fish and wild game are the principal sources of animal protein. This mode of production and the herders’ close ties to their natural surroundings have given rise to rich cultures widely celebrated in the history, folklore, and music of these areas. Yet these groups and their cultures remain virtually unknown relative to the reindeer-herding groups of northern Siberia and Scandinavia, especially in non-Russian-language literature.

The groups making up this southern contingent of reindeer-herding cultures have another feature in common—they are all, to varying degrees, confronting similar threats to their cultural survival, including transitions to market-based economies, land privatization, mineral extraction, tourism, global warming, language endangerment and loss, and assimilation into the dominant Russian, Mongolian, and Chinese cultures. These peoples have a combined population of approximately 10,000, which represents only a small fraction of the total population in the regions they inhabit. Of these 10,000, however, fewer than 1,000 are still actively involved in reindeer husbandry. This disparity is due in large part to the drastic decline in the numbers of domesticated reindeer. About 3,500 domesticated reindeer remain in the region, down from 15,000 just a decade ago.

The disappearance of reindeer and the demise of these cultures would mean a decline in biological and cultural diversity and the loss of unique and valuable cultural knowledge. The need for documentation and assistance for community-based revitalization efforts is urgent. As Susan Crate observes in her article on the demise of reindeer herding in the Viliui River region of the Sakha Republic, “Given the contemporary evidence of the centralityof cultural and ecological diversity to the maintenance of global ecosystems, it remains imperative to find ways to facilitate the survival of these vital south-Siberian reindeer-herding cultures.” The articles in this issue of Cultural Survival Quarterly focus long-overdue attention on these groups and their current plights by exploring a wide range of issues related to their struggles for cultural survival.

In addition, the focus on these southernmost reindeer-herding groups with their transboundary distribution provides a unique opportunity for comparative analysis of the impacts of different state systems and administrative and institutional arrangements on reindeer herding and on the livelihoods of indigenous peoples. For example, the reindeer-herding Evenki in China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region enjoy a privileged minority status and until recently benefited from a state policy of active support that allowed them to adapt their reindeer-herding activities to modern economic demands.

On the other hand, the Dukha, most of whom fled to Mongolia from the Soviet Union in the 1930s and 1940s to escape forced collectivization and sedentarization, have only the most limited recognition as minority peoples. They face such extreme marginalization in Mongolia that they are forced to fall back onto the only support system they have—their own people and culture. Hence, somewhat paradoxically, the Dukhas’ lack of protected status has served to encourage maintenance of their language, livelihood, and traditions.

Reindeer-herding peoples in Russia are officially designated among the Indigenous Small-Numbered Peoples of the Russian Federation (Korennye Malochislennye Narody Rossiiskoi Federatsii),1 which entitles them to rights and privileges intended to protect their “traditional ways of life.” However, these protections are unevenly implemented and have come only recently, after generations of superimposed social engineering projects such as collectivization and forced sedentarization almost completely eradicated any vestiges of traditional structures.

The first section of this issue of Cultural Survival Quarterly is devoted to the Evenki, the most populous and widespread of Russia’s officially designated Indigenous Small-Numbered Peoples of the Russian Federation. N.V. Ermolova opens this section with a general introduction to the Evenki people and their particular type of reindeer herding. Susan Crate follows with a historical explanation for the complete demise of reindeer herding among one group of Evenki living in the Viliui River region of the Sakha Republic (Yakutia). Crate’s contribution illustrates the cultural devastation that can occur when industrial development, in this case diamond mining, takes priority over the rights of indigenous minorities.

Gail Fondahl then offers a case study of another Evenki group, farther south in the Sakha Republic, who are taking advantage of the rights granted by their status as Indigenous Small-Numbered Peoples of the Russian Federation to establish relatively autonomous and self-governing structures known as obshchinas. This alternative was made possible by the 1996 law On the Fundamentals of State Regulation of Socioeconomic Development of the North of the Russian Federation, and strengthened by the passage of the 1999 law On Guarantees of the Rights of the Indigenous Small-Numbered Peoples of the Russian Federation and the 2000 law On the General Principles of Organization of Clan Communes (obshchinas) of the Indigenous Small-Numbered Peoples of the North, Siberia, and the Far East of the Russian Federation. The establishment of obshchinas has been heralded as the most culturally appropriate way to give Indigenous Small-Numbered Peoples of the Russian Federation more control over resources and their future, and as the best way to save them from the fate of the Viliui Evenki. The obshchina concept, however, has had only limited success in Russia; it has, for example, collapsed completely among the Tozhu reindeer herders of the Republic of Tyva. Fondahl’s analysis suggests reasons for this limited success.

In a related sidebar, Fondahl discusses the Evenkis’ resistance to the establishment of a protected nature preserve. Official ideology regarding protected areas still assumes that people, rather than being part of the ecological balance, disrupt it and must be excluded to effectively protect nature. Thus the establishment of protected areas, while seemingly benign and even environmentally beneficial, in fact represents yet another threat to the south-Siberian reindeer-herding peoples because it has the effect of denying indigenous peoples access to resources necessary for their subsistence lifestyles.

Just such a development appears poised to turn what is perhaps the most promising case study in this issue into the most depressing. According to recent news reports, the Chinese state has unilaterally decided to relocate the reindeer-herding Evenki of Inner Mongolia, ostensibly to “preserve the ecological balance of the mountains.”2 This branch of Evenki, discussed by Ingo Nentwig and Hugh Beach, are the only reindeer-herding people in China. Nentwig’s very personal reminiscences of two visits to the Evenki frame an up-and-down history characterized by cultural persistence in the face of adversity. Based on his impressions from his last visit in 1993, Nentwig concluded that the reindeer-herding Evenki of China were at that time riding off into their “final sunset.”

Yet Beach’s article, based on fieldwork in 1997, offers a more optimistic assessment of the situation. Beach observed a cooperative arrangement of shared ownership of reindeer resources between the Chinese state and the reindeer herders, which Beach labels a “dual-ownership system.” This arrangement, while not without its drawbacks, led to considerable economic development and improvements in the living standards of the Evenki, without destroying their cultural base. As this magazine was compiled, this system seemed to suggest possible solutions to the problems confronting south-Siberian reindeer herders in Russia and Mongolia.

But forced relocation of the reindeer-herding Evenki of China will almost certainly prove to be the final assault on their way of life, and will subsequently threaten the core of their ethnic identity. Taken together, these stories are a poignant reminder of the fragility and precariousness of reindeer-herding peoples’ existence, and their powerlessness against the whims of the state.

The second section of this issue discusses the four south-Siberian reindeer-herding groups that comprise what co-guest editor Daniel Plumley has dubbed the Sayan Cross of reindeer-herding cultures. These four groups—the Tofa, Tozhu, Dukha, and Soyot—all live in adjacent quadrants of the Eastern Sayan mountain range, but under different administrative regimes. The groups have shared histories and overlapping ethnic origins, but geopolitical forces have set them on different historical trajectories. As a result, they constitute a sort of a continuum, from the Tozhu and the Dukha, who have managed to maintain to varying degrees their reindeer-herding traditions and Native languages, to the Tofa and Soyot, who have almost completely lost both reindeer herding and their languages.

Larisa Pavlinskaya’s contribution focuses on the Soyot people of the Okinsky District of Buryatia (Russian Federation), but serves well as an introduction to ethnic processes and the history of reindeer herding practiced by all four groups in this area. Likewise, her detailed historical analysis of the pressures that have led to the decline of reindeer herding among the Soyot—from collectivization through forced assimilation to government-mandated “reforms”—could be applied with equal validity to many of the groups discussed in this issue. Pavlinskaya offers a fascinating case study of the processes of the fading and revival of an ethnic identity closely associated with a particular lifestyle.

Brian Donahoe’s and David Harrison’s contributions each concentrate on a single specific domain important to ethnic identity and cultural survival. Noting that hunting is at least as important culturally and economically as reindeer herding to the Tozhu people of the Republic of Tyva, Donahoe observes that the wild animal resource base upon which the Tozhu depend—as both their main source of animal protein and principal source of income from the fur trade—is being depleted, principally by poaching to meet the demands of a black market in contraband animal parts. Other threats to the wild animal resources include degraded habitat due to extractive industries (in the Tozhu case, gold mining and timber operations), and the lure of lucrative hunting tourism from foreigners.

Harrison discusses factors leading to the death of the Tofa language and the devastating impact that it has had on the Tofa culture. Like Crate’s study of the Viliui River Evenki, Harrison hopes that his bleak assessment of the Tofa language situation will prove instructive “by illustrating precisely what is in danger of being lost when a language (and associated way of life) goes extinct.”

The Dukha people of northwestern Mongolia are introduced by Batulag Solnoi, an ethnic Dukha, Purev Tsogtsaikhan, of the Mongolian Ministry of Nature and Environment, and Plumley, who has worked intimately with the Dukha since 1996. After presenting a brief history of the Dukha, the authors outline the Dukhas’ current situation and give voice to the Dukhas’ immediate concerns, gleaned from numerous meetings with representatives of the Dukha in 2002.

Despite efforts to highlight success stories and the future viability of these endangered cultures, this issue has a despairing tenor. The complete demise of the Viliui River reindeer-herding culture, the imminent death of the Tofa language, and the recently mandated forced relocation of the Evenki of China could all be seen as portending the inevitable fate of the rest of the reindeer-herding cultures discussed in this issue. But we have included these bleak portraits because we choose to see in them lessons to be learned for the future survival of the remaining cultures.

Rays of hope shine amidst this dark picture. The Tozhu are tenaciously hanging on to their language and way of life despite numerous pressures, and more than enough Tozhu youth say they plan to carry on the reindeer-herding tradition. Reindeer herding among the Dukha is still viable, despite (or perhaps because of) government neglect. The Soyot have recently been recognized as one of Russia’s Indigenous Small-Numbered Peoples of the North, which entitles them to certain privileges and government support. In addition, the official recognition by the Buryat government of the Soyot National Aimag (see Pavlinskaya this issue) promises the Soyot a greater degree of control over decisions regarding access to natural resources.

New federal laws enacted since 1996 promise to establish a legal framework through which the indigenous peoples of Russia can assert their rights to their traditional lands and access the resources on those lands. In addition to the three laws mentioned above, the 2001 law On Territories of Traditional Natural Resource Use of the Indigenous Small-Numbered Peoples of the North, Siberia, and the Far East of the Russian Federation, might be used as a mechanism to have indigenous peoples’ land declared specially protected natural territories, giving indigenous communities the exclusive, inalienable use of their land.3 Another federal law specifically concerning protection of the rights of reindeer-herding peoples is in the draft stage.

The work of Plumley’s Totem Peoples’ Preservation Project (a Special Project of Cultural Survival), is an example of the positive strides that can be made when governmental agencies, non-governmental organizations, and indigenous peoples cooperate and collaborate. The Totem Project’s successes and current work is featured in both the Solnoi-Purev-Plumley and the Dampilon-Plumley articles, while in the final and most uplifting contribution to this special issue, Plumley himself outlines his expansive and ambitious vision of future international cooperation between Russia and Mongolia. Plumley dubs this concept the “transboundary Lake Baikal-Sayans-Lake Hovsgol Peace Park.” It would include creative initiatives such as relaxing international border restrictions to allow cross-border cooperation among the various reindeer-herding groups. Underlying the diverse approaches taken by the authors in this special issue is a common interest in suggesting culturally appropriate responses to the factors threatening the lands, languages, and livelihoods of these indigenous minorities, thereby guaranteeing them some degree of control over their futures. Paramount to this effort will be the recognition that the cultural survival of these endangered reindeer-herding peoples, in an area that modern geopolitics has made a transboundary region, will require transboundary solutions and international cooperation.

This issue of Cultural Survival Quarterly represents a collaborative effort among Russian, Western, and indigenous experts to give much-needed exposure to these endangered cultures and to initiate discussion about some possible solutions. Toward this end, to extend the impact of this issue beyond the English-language audience, and to make this issue a useful tool for activists in the Russian-speaking world, this issue includes, on the following six pages, a Russian translation of this introduction and Russian abstracts of each article. Funding from the Totem Peoples’ Preservation Project and the Nordlys Foundation will allow Cultural Survival to distribute copies of this issue among the indigenous groups discussed, as well as to interested activists and relevant authorities in Moscow and the Russian regional capitals.
1. Article 1, paragraph 1 of the law On Guarantees of the Rights of the Indigenous Small-Numbered Peoples of the Russian Federation defines the Indigenous Small-Numbered Peoples of the Russian Federation as “peoples living in the areas of traditional inhabitance of their ancestors; preserving traditional ways of life, economic activities, and trades; numbering within Russia fewer than 50,000 people; and recognizing themselves as independent ethnic communities.” (From the federal law O garantiyakh prav korennykh malochislennykh narodov Rossijskoj Federatsii, 30 April, 1999).
2. ChinaOnline. (2002, March 15). Last Hunting Tribe to Move out of Mountains. See page 32 this issue.
3. See Fondahl and Poelzer, 2003; Novikova and Tishkov, 1999a, 1999b; Kryazhkov, 1999; Osherenko, 2001 for detailed discussions of these laws and their potential impact.
Brian Donahoe is a doctoral candidate in anthropology at Indiana University. In Tyva, he is affiliated with the Institute for Humanitarian Studies (Institut gumanitarnykh issledovanij Respubliki Tyva) in Kyzyl.
References and further reading
Fondahl, G., & Poelzer , G. (2003). Aboriginal Land Rights at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century. Submitted to Polar Record. To be published April 2003.
Kryazhkov, V.A., compiler. (1999). Status Malochislennykh Narodov Rossii: Pravovye Akty (The Status of the Small-Numbered Peoples of Russia: Legal Acts). Moscow: Tikhomirova M.Yu.
Novikova, N.I. and Tishkov, V.A., eds. (1999a). Chelovek i Pravo (Man and Law), Moscow: ID Strategiya.
Novikova, N.I. and Tishkov, V.A., eds. (1999b). Obychnoe Pravo i Pravovoj Plyuralizm (Customary Law and Legal Pluralism). Moscow: Institut Etnologii i Antropologii RAN.
Obychnoe Pravo i Pravovoj Plyuralizm (Customary Law and Legal Pluralism). (1999b). Moscow: Institut Etnologii i Antropologii RAN.
Osherenko, G. (2001). Indigenous Rights in Russia: Is Title to Land Essential for Cultural Survival? In Georgetown International Environmental Law Review 13, pp 695-734.

Glossary of Terms
Alternate Group & Place Names
All groups and places mentioned in this issue of Cultural Survival Quarterly are identified by names and spellings that most closely represent their peoples’ own references. Below is a list of names used in this issue, followed by more common—and often incorrect— names.
Tozhu Toja


Reindeer-Herding Evenki of China
Yakut Evenki
Republic of Tyva
Republic of Tuva
a legally recognized entity bounding families, lands, and livestock in an administrative, economic, and culturally distinct business entity for Small-Numbered Peoples of the North of Russia.
Indigenous Small-Numbered Peoples of the Russian Federation
official Russian designation of a group of indigenous people as a minority group
Soviet-era administrative and economic agricultural structure; state farm
high mountain boreal forest
the strictest form of nature protection in Russia; it excludes human habitation and restricts human activities to nature protection and limited scientific research

Our website houses close to five decades of content and publishing. Any content older than 10 years is archival and Cultural Survival does not necessarily agree with the content and word choice today.