Deep in the Mongolian snow forest, one of the world's smallest ethnic groups herds reindeer for a living. But it's more than just a job – work defines their culture and traditions.
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A nomadic existence
In northern Mongolia’s Khovsgol province, about 50km south of the Russian border, resides one of the smallest ethnic minority groups in the world. With a population of about 300, the Dukha community live as reindeer herders in the snow forest, or taiga.
In the winter, the taiga is blanketed in deep snow, its coniferous trees are stripped bare of all greenery and the biting wind chill can push temperatures down to -50C.
But life continues for the nomadic Dukha, referred to as “Tsaatan” in the Mongolian language, which translates directly as “reindeer people.” They arrange their day-to-day existence around the needs of their herds, moving between seasonal camps within the taiga. Reindeers enjoy brisk weather, and so during the summer, the community seeks out higher, windier elevations; in the winter, they set up nearer to areas where the snow is abundant.
They have traditionally resided in teepees – known as ortz – to suit their nomadic lifestyle. Held up by sturdy wooden staffs and wrapped with a cloth canvas for shelter, the ortz and everything within it can be packed away swiftly. Yet more and more, some families have chosen to build wooden cabins in their winter spots to stave off the bitter cold.
Not your average nine-to-five
During the winter, the workday starts at sunrise with a brew of hot milk tea. While waiting for the snow to melt into drinkable water, the herders emerge from their ortz to round up the reindeer, which graze, untethered, during the night. This involves cajoling younger, wilder fawn to remain in a single spot. Older reindeer stand patiently as they are tied to the taiga’s trees. Later, all reindeer have to be herded to new pastures to forage for moss and lichen.
Life isn’t easy on the taiga. There is no well or central water source, so water is fetched from clean snow or ice during the winter, or from the streams in the summer. A low-burning fire must be maintained in the stove in the centre of the ortz, so everyone in the community – from the oldest elder to the youngest child – participates in chopping firewood whenever needed to ensure that the embers in the stove are constant to stave off the winter chill.
Everything they do is geared towards being able to herd their reindeer, from living nomadically with them in harsh climates to earning tourism dollars so that they can keep rearing the reindeer. This is reflected by how they continue to choose to live in a harsh climate and terrain with minimal comforts and conveniences.
Living from the land
The Dukha do not need for much in terms of money, choosing to rely almost entirely on what the forest offers them. The government also provides them a monthly stipend, an amount that depends on the number of adults within the family. Meat is bought periodically from Tsagaannuur, a nearby town located about two hours away, though the Dukha sometimes live off reindeer meat. A single good-sized adult reindeer can last a family through a season.
The summer brings some new activities, as that is a popular time for tourists to visit their camps and learn about their lives. The Dukha rent out their ortz and horses, working as guides and wranglers, and selling handicrafts carved from their reindeers’ antlers.
All their earnings from tourism are saved to get them through the next bitter winter, says Dawaajaw. “We get tourists here and that has made our lives much easier because now we have a side income again,” he said. “It’s increasing every year. Even Mongolians come up to see us as well.”
This income enables them to live their lives focused on raising their herd, said Delger Gorshik, a Dukha living in the western part of the taiga.
“I love the reindeers and I hope they feel something for me too. There is a connection,” he said. “If I have to ever live in a city where the reindeers are not there, I just cannot bear to imagine that.”
Identity intertwined with nature
Every aspect of the Dukha’s lives conform to maintain their reindeer herds, says Todd Surovell, a professor of anthropology at the University of Wyoming in the US. He has researched the Dukha’s lives extensively since 2012.
“When I lived with them, the places where we lived in any given season was determined by where was good forage for the reindeers, where is the best place for the reindeer to be at that time of the year. The house forms they live in – those are adaptations to a mobile lifestyle,” Surovell said. “Everything about their lifestyle is really geared towards this need to maintain healthy herds of reindeer.”
Jean Hatcherson, an anthropologist and professor at the Western Connecticut State University, agrees. “The Dukha identity is very much intertwined with nature and most importantly with the reindeer. Their daily ‘work’ revolves around the needs of the reindeer – taking them out to graze, bringing them back in the evening, milking the reindeer, and moving to new pastures year-round,” she says, adding that while not all Dukha remain in the forest, many wish to return when they are older.
“It is my understanding that all Dukha feel a spiritual connection with the spirits of the taiga and of the reindeer.”
A different approach
Broadly speaking, the Dukha’s worldview values the group and cooperation over individualism and excess material wealth, says Hatcherson. They “may even choose to live or graze their reindeer, for example, away from economic opportunities, not near them, if that suits their socially constructed or perceived needs better,” she says.
Hatcherson says many people tend to see work in terms of salaried jobs, where a tasks are performed for a particular period of paid time at a particular place and must be productive. But, she says, work can be anything you do to get food, shelter and social or emotional sustenance.
Generally, what motivates the Dukha and others to work in the taiga “are the needs of their reindeer, their families and their personal desires, which often are shaped by the needs and desires of the group.”
Surovell says that while there is no blanket answer for all tribal societies, in these situations there is often an immediacy to the rewards of work and to the losses caused by a failure to work. “If you do not work, you go hungry. If you do not manage your herds carefully, they will dwindle. If you don't prepare firewood, you will be cold.”
In 2011, the Mongolian Ministry of Environment established a protected area within the taiga and created regulations to protect the area’s biodiversity and resources. The snow leopard, musk elk, and brown bear are just three of Mongolia’s many protected species living in the taiga. Meanwhile, its earth is rich with minerals like jade and gold.
Before it was enacted, the taiga was full of outsiders looking to mine its precious minerals. Hunting was also a common way to make money. Tumursukh Jal, the head of the protected area, said that species like the elk and the moose were rarely found.
Besides the miners, Tumursukh also blames the Dukha for this decline. Today, hunting is forbidden and rangers patrol the Dukha's reindeer pastures frequently in the summer to ensure that the people aren't hunting. The Dukha say that in the past, rangers have stopped them from entering pastureland within the protected area.
'All we have are our reindeers'
While many of the Dukha agree with the regulations against hunting, they say they were not properly consulted on how to preserve the taiga.
Delger Gorshik is worried about his reindeer’s pastureland being limited by the rangers. That would mean less fresh forage for his herd, which could lead to ill health and disease, he said.
“All we have are our reindeers,” Delger said. “We want to raise them but to raise them and keep them healthy, we have to move a lot for that.”
While he is agreeable to the regulations against hunting, he pleads for understanding when it comes to allowing the reindeers roam free. “We cannot be called the Tsaatan without our reindeers,” Delger said.