Imperiled Reindeer Herders:
The Tsaatan People
Mongolia consists of two predominant ethnic groups : Khalkh and Kazak, and many smaller groups, such as the Buryat, Uriankhai, Torguud, Uzemchin, and Tsaatan peoples, who are differentiated, in part, by their locales, cultures, languages and economies. Currently, as globalisation threatens to conquer the world, the question of how to keep ethnic identities alive has become a significant query that has attracted the attention of not only governing bodies, but of mankind at large.
The Tsaatan ethnic group is now on the edge of extinction, so to speak, warn both domestic and foreign researchers. The Tsaatan is one of the minority ethnic groups in Mongolia. According to the 2000 census, there are approximately 400 Tsaatan people in the nation. Officially, they belong mostly to Tsagaan Nuur and Ulaan-Uul soums of Khovsgol aimag, which border Tuva and Russia. Their economy is based mostly on reindeer breeding. (Tsaa means ‘reindeer’; -tan, a possessive suffix, means they have ‘tsaa’). Tsaatan traditional lifestyle and culture are not separable from reindeer breeding; but according to researchers and veterinarians, the reindeer herds have diminished. Only one-third of the total reindeer population is female, a poor statistic.
Magali Schneider, a French researcher, states that three groups – Tsaatan, Todza and Tofalar – were the first people in history to domesticate reindeer. “This is the reason why they will be placed on the ‘human heritage’ list. Not because they are poor, but because they have culture and knowledge,” she emphasises.
S. Battulga, a zoologist and one of the founders of the Mongolian Reindeer Fund, said that in 1989, the Tsaatan of Ulaan-Uul and Tsaagan Nuur held a ceremony involving the celebration of 1000 reindeer. But now there remains less than 500 reindeer in Tsaagan Nuur soum. The Mongolian Reindeer Fund believes that the main reason for the decrease in reindeer numbers is the adoption of a privatized economic system, carried out at the beginning of the 1990s. As a result, reindeer farms were moved into private hands, and government support of the Tsaatan was lost.
Currently, 32 families, comprised of approximately 170 people, spread to two places in Baruum and Zuun Taiga, and are breeding the 500 remaining reindeer. These families are 70-80km from the soum centre, and move 7-8 times a year. Taiga is the only place where the reindeer are bred.
According to anthropologist O. Sukhbaatar, another founder of the Mongolian Reindeer Fund, 14-15 reindeer are allotted to a Mongolia reindeer-herding family, while 150-160 reindeer are allotted to such a family in other parts of the world.
Nansalmaa, a veterinarian at the Central Veterinary Laboratory, was first to research the disease Brucellosis in the reindeer of Mongolia. She says that there are around ten types of contagious and non-contagious diseases for the Mongolian reindeer. Currently, reindeer in Zuun Taiga do not have this disease, but reindeer in Baruun Taiga have been infected. “Recently, I went on a group trip of vets to Taiga. We received information that the reindeer had suffered from an unfamiliar disease from which more than 40 reindeer had died in September. We brought samples of blood from the reindeer for analyses. We were too late: we could not reach the place in time. The intense period of the disease was over. In general, information is always late there – 10-20 days due to the remoteness. Veterinary service has become so difficult for the Tsaatan because the vets are in private hands that lack financial assistance and a professional staff.”
There is no definitive research on the Mongolian reindeer.
Battula emphasised: “For the purpose of improving the herd’s structure, under a Canadian government investment of over $5000, the Mongolian Reindeer Fund has already signed a contract for important 50 reindeer from Tuva.”
“The genetic heritage of the reindeer is not strong enough to survive without medicine,” Magali notes. She also stressed that illnesses due to inbreeding have greatly influenced the decrease of reindeer numbers. In order to strengthen the reindeer population, she is of the opinion that reindeer should be brought in from other countries to breed with the Mongolian reindeer.
“It was hard for our group to stay longer than one or two days in the reindeer camp; however, they tried to serve the guests with their best food. They live from hand to mouth,” Nansalmaa notes. Antlers of the reindeer are considered useful for medical treatment and sold at a high price. This practice presents a danger for the herd. “I’m against removing the antlers from the reindeer. In my opinion, it’s a big cause of infection and disease,” Battulga explains. Even though they use the reindeer for riding and loading, and use their meat, milk and skins, the families do not gain enough income from the small numbers of animals. Hunting and fishing are beneficial, but requires too much effort for too little reward. Some Tsaatan practice wood carving, though the market for such sculptures is limited if not nil.
Animal diseases, low numbers of herds, and limited assistance, portend the death of the traditional livelihood of the Tsaatan people.
The Mongolian Reindeer Fund, Central P.O. Box #8, UB-13, Mongolia,
Tel.: 310248 (o) 343536 (h), e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
The Many Ethnic Traditions of
the Mongolian New Year
There are numerous ethnic groups in Mongolians that celebrate Tsagaan Sar (‘White Month’, the Lunar New Year) differently. Today, over twenty groups, including the Baarin, Bayad, Dariganga, Dorvod, Kazak, Khalkh, Khorchin, Myangad, Uzemchin, and Zakhchin live in Mongolia. Most groups live in Western Mongolia, in aimags such as Bayan-Olgii, Khovd, Uvs, and Zavkhan. Khalkh people (Mongols) are the largest ethnic group, and are widely distributed throughout the country.
Zakhchin families have the tradition of putting a sheep’s back and breastbone in front of their shrine on New Year’s Eve, or Bituun, as it is known in Mongolian. Three days before Bituun, they build a cairn on a hill in front of their ger, placing a forked branch on top. They cut hair from the head of a ram, a male camel, and a stallion, and tie them with ribbons of five colours to the crowning branch. Early the next day, or the first day of the New Year, three men from the community go with food to the cairn and place it in front of the stones. They circle the cairn three times clockwise; the eldest among them is greeted first and sits at the north side of the pile of stones. The next oldest member of the family then greets him or her, carrying a hadag – a scarf of blue silk – across their palms. A cup filled with milk is placed in the right hand on the silk. The normal greeting is, “Are you happily celebrating the New Year?”
Some ethnic groups erect a cairn with soil and rocks brought from a far-off place. This shows that they respect God and that they dedicate their strength and efforts to Him.
Khorchin and Uzemchin boil a sheep’s head on New Year’s Eve of which the whole family partakes.
Almost all ethnic groups have one interesting tradition in common: husband and wife do not greet each other during Tsagaan Sar because they are considered as one person through marriage.
The Kazaks of Bayan-Olgii celebrate the holiday at a different time altogether. They are Islamic, and their Nauriz festival (New Year) is celebrated in March, rather than February.
All of Mongolia’s ethnic groups dress in new, traditional garments on Tsagaan Sar. Their clothes, including the ubiquitous del and cap, vary from region to region.