Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Working from the Heart with Reindeer Herders in Mongolia

Video introducing, Reindeer Herders in My Heart, by Sas Carey.

I've been on many humanitarian trips around the world in the last 40 years and my present visit to Mongolia to visit the Dukha reindeer herders brings together all aspects of these experiences and more, including work in the health field, tourism and as an anthropology lecturer. The Dukha, known as the Tsaatan, or reindeer herders (though they themselves prefer Dukha), are nomadic and live in the East and West taiga in the north of Mongolia near the border with Russia. In 2012, the United Nations Environmental Protection issued a report entitled, Changing Taiga:

The Indigenous Peoples of the taiga – who live in the fragile belt of coniferous forest of northern Mongolia – are in trouble. Reindeer herding, which since ancient times has provided a sustainable way of managing the environment and is the foundation of their unique cultures, is in real danger of disappearing. . . Only 200 Dukha reindeer herders remain, many of whom are struggling to ensure a future for reindeer herding in their taiga homeland – a hotspot for biodiversity and rich in natural resources. 

...   The difficulties of integrating into a market economy, combined with new hunting regulations and increasing numbers of tourists visiting the taiga, are posing additional socio-economic challenges. Climate change is, in many cases, adding additional stress. This situation calls for urgent national and international attention and action to strengthen the traditional livelihood of reindeer herders and restore ecosystems.

The report notes that there is "an urgent need to engage with the herders to record and promote their traditional knowledge, as well as to monitor biodiversity and land useage changes that are occurring in the taiga." That is in part what we plan to do over the next few weeks.
I am traveling with Sas Carey of Nomadicare, an organization she founded that "supports the sustainability and cultural survival of nomadic peoples in Mongolia by harmonizing traditional and modern medicine and documenting nomadic life ways, lore, and heart songs." As Sas says on her web site, " "I have a heart connection with the nomadic herders of Mongolia and work to improve health options so they will have every opportunity to succeed at their lifestyle." The work of Nomadicare also involves recording life stories, geneology, and cultural identities, including shamanism. Funded by a grant from the American Center for Mongolian Studies, I will be conducting qualitative interviews with the herders. The emphasis will be on the impacts of globalization and tourism on their cultural identity and everyday lives. Great importance will be placed on listening to the reindeer herders perspective and letting the world hear their voice.

We arrived in Ulaanbaatar on Saturday and have already purchased supplies for the herders at Narantuul Zakh Market that will go into hygiene kits for each herding family. Included will be toothbrushes and toothpaste, vitamin C, sunscreen, matches, soap, candles, hand lotion, and fly paper.  Other items we will take are sewing needles, pencils, and twill. We will also provide some medical and dental equipment. An additional translator for my interviews and a camera person to record interviews have been hired. Various permissions we need for travel have been filed. Sas' assistant Chimedee has been very busy seeing to all of the official documents necessary for our trip to the taiga. Our all female "Team Nomadicare" is ready to work! Here are some photos from our preparation, with more to come.

Sas and Chimedee with traditional medicine.

Getting supplies for the hygiene kits.

Tallying the final cost.

Sas purchases twill for reindeer harnesses and everyday use..

Purchasing pencils. These are used by herders to make drawings before carve the reindeer antlers. These items are often sold to tourists.

Sas cutting the twill for each kit.


  1. Great, thank you!

  2. One of your former students linked me to your site. Very glad she did as this looks like an interesting project. I do hope you will share more on it here.