Photos by Andrew Califf
There is a small section of taiga [boreal forest] surrounding the Darkhad Depression in northern Mongolia that is home to a niche community of Tuvan reindeer herders. The border cuts them off from the Russian Tuvan Republic, which has exponentially better herding conditions, less hunting restrictions and more land for larger migratory patterns. The Mongolian Tuvan reindeer herders find that climate change increasingly impacts their subsistence strategies and traditions.
NOMAD Science recently organized an archeological expedition into the western taiga with an international team of multi-disciplinary archaeologists led by Dr. Julia Clark. An additional goal was to show digital copies of old photographs of Siberian reindeer herders from the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme to the Mongolian Tuvan community and to conduct ethnographical interviews. The goal of these interviews was to determine how this unique group’s material culture has changed over the years. The team interviewed five families across three camps.
Oyunaa and Mandah are both in their sixties and camp alongside their grown son’s family, watching their young grandchildren wrestle in the grass and herd the reindeer. Mandah vividly remembers when winters were colder and longer during his childhood. He says each summer is warmer than the last and the average reindeer herd size grows smaller each year. The animals themselves are also on average smaller with each ice patch-melting summer. They aren’t adapted to thrive in these current conditions.
Mandah also blames the diminishing of the herds on localized hunting restrictions which allow wolves to flourish. Many herders attested there has been a drastic increase in wolf activity. One reindeer was even taken by a wolf during the length of our expedition’s stay with this family.
One finding of the NOMAD Science expedition was how much the absence of snow has impacted the Mongolian Tuvan’s material culture.
Otgon and his wife are jealous that Siberian herders can use sleds. The taiga reindeer herders are surrounded by mountains, and nowadays the snow never accumulates to the extent which would make sleds feasible. They also do not ice fish like their neighboring herders in Siberia, as according to Otgon, the rivers don’t have enough fish. Due to the increasing temperatures, there is also only one small area left in the region where wild reindeer live.
Because large sections of the Darkhad Depression and the taiga are considered protected areas by the Mongolian government, hunting is prohibited. But it seems every family has a firearm to protect themselves and their herds from bears and wolves. Shots rang out through the valley during the expedition’s last day in the taiga. They originated from the woods Otgon was camping in, and we were later told that the herders were trying to scare wolves away from the reindeer. According to the herders, the wolves are boldest right before and right after winter.
Amgalan is 58 and slowly sips milk tea from his Frozen mug while his grandchildren jump all over him. His family originates from the Tuvan Republic and has shamanistic roots. Their ancestral guardian, who the shaman contacts for ceremonies, is the goose spirit, which is considered a protector of women and a symbol of fertility.
Due to the modern border between Russian and Mongolia, Amgalan cannot return to areas sacred to his family and their goose guardian. A buffer zone around the border also prevents reindeer herders from visiting sacred mountains in Mongolia, as well as a legendary, pristine valley flanked by a jagged mountain. This sacred ceremonial place is filled with serrated, razor sharp rocks, and should be left alone by everyone, including any buffer zone military presence, Amgalan explains.
Tuvan reindeer herders in this region have uniquely developed due to their proximity to Mongolian pastoralists. They adopted the deel, which is an incredibly functional piece of clothing used by Mongolians in the countryside. The garment can be worn in multiple different ways depending on the weather, the belt offers support while riding for long distances, and the material helps cushion riders using traditional Mongolian wooden saddles. Even though the deel predates Chinggis Khan, no other group in Siberia has adopted the fashion.
This stretch of upraised land surrounded by bog lies near the edge of a mountain pass that acts as a gateway into the taiga. Its name translates from Mongolian into “Muddy Ladle.” It is where one of the western taiga’s few shamans, Galaa, sets up his ortz [teepee-like tent] for the summer.
Shamans are consulted on a variety of topics across Mongolia and Siberia. They supposedly can read the past better than the future, but people go to them for help with bad spirits as well as future predictions. Galaa is what the Mongolian herders in the steppes would call a “dark” shaman, because he doesn’t amalgamate his shamanistic tradition with Buddhism (light shamanism). All Tuvan shamans are purely shamanistic and in turn dark, but the term doesn’t have any negative connotations. Dark shamans can also perform curses and they are generally considered to be more powerful.
Galaa and his daughter huddle around the pictures brought by the NOMAD Science team, reacting with excitement to most of the images. He was especially impressed by how the documented Siberian shamans wore extremely authentic and traditional garb for ceremonies. “I’m so jealous of these people – they can go anywhere and we are restricted,” he said. “The younger generation should learn Tuvan and traditions – we are losing it and it’s sad.”
As August rolls into September, the reindeer herding families migrate down to Tsagaannuur in the Darkhad Depression to enroll their children in school. The parents will return until winter grows too harsh, and then it will just be rotating shifts of men staying in the taiga with the reindeer herds until spring thaws out the bogs.