Requiem or Recovery

The 21st Century Fate of the Reindeer-Herding Peoples of Geographical Central Asia

Introduction and Premise:

It is the purpose of this paper to present a report on the history,  problems and current status, as well as the potential fate of the reindeer-herding nomads of Central Asia.  The report was first submitted to the International Conference on the Problems of History and Culture of Central Asian Nomads, held during June 2000 in Ulan Ude, Republic of Buryatia, Russia under the leadership of the Institute of Mongolian, Buddhist and Tibetan Studies.

The over-arching premise of this report is two-fold:  first, the record of mankind will record the reindeer-herding peoples of Central-Asia as one of the oldest, and most directly related cultures to unique mountain habitats and the “totem” animal - northern reindeer (Rangifer tarandus, sp.).

Second, but not least important, is that under current circumstances and ongoing trends – unless appropriate leadership interventions occur immediately and effectively on many levels – the once and current traditionally reindeer-herding cultures of Central Asia will be lost entirely to cultural assimilation, to entirely sedentary lifestyles without reindeer – to mere analogous cultures of interest primarily to anthropologists, ethnographers and other researchers who, albeit honorably, study the many past diffused, assimilated or even “extinct” races or ethnicities of mankind.

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Ancient and Historical Recognition of the Reindeer and Related Reindeer Cultures

The northern reindeer (Rangifer tarandus, sp.)  has been recognized by the global archeological and paleological record as an ungulate species unique to the northern climatic regions of taiga and tundras.  In its relationship to man it is also unique in that the reindeer represent one of the first large livestock species to come under forms of domestication – perhaps proceeded only by the canines or dog family.  The dates vary, of course, according to the views of different specialists, but certainly go back as far as 3,000 – 5,000 years or more.  Perhaps the historical record as perceived in the legend of stone petroglyphs and pictographs of iron and bronze age man may indicate to some degree the transition between wild reindeer as a hunted game animal to the use of domesticated reindeer over time by indigenous and nomadic peoples.

Evidence seems to corroborate – as well as current day activities of cultures still associated with reindeer - that historically in the Alaskan and northern Canadian Provinces reindeer was then and remains today an animal to be hunted.  The hunting of reindeer has long been undertaken during periodic seasons of mass migrations (south to north and north to south, and interchangeably from highlands to lowlands) by semi-nomadic and settled northern peoples whose lifestyle was principally as hunter-gatherer populations.

In Northern Europe, the Scandinavian countries, across the sub-arctic tundra regions of Russia from the farthest point north west (Kola Peninsula) to the Far East, Chukotka and Kamchatka Peninsula as well as the high mountain taiga regions of the more southern locales of Eastern Siberia and northern Mongolia historical and latter day use of reindeer indicates a different scenario.  Across these vast territories, native peoples were successful both at adapting to the harsh climatic conditions, as well as being successful in domesticating the reindeer for use in transportation, meat, milk products from the female deers, hides, medicines and other uses.

Within Eastern Siberia of Russia and Northern Mongolia – centering on the Eastern Sayans of the latter-day Okinsky Region of Buryatia, the Tofilar Region of Irkutsk Oblast, and Todja Regions of Tuva Republic in Russia and the Hovsgol Aimag in Mongolia, turkic speaking peoples have herded reindeer for perhaps several thousand years.  It appears true, though new research may prove otherwise,that these areas and their cultures represent the last remaining core region of the southernmost domestication and man-led herding of reindeer in the world.

Ancient cultures apparently made the transition from hunting reindeer to domestication and a nomadic lifestyle moving their reindeer to new high mountain taiga and tundra pastures or grazing lands leading a primarily hunter-gatherer lifestyle.  The past perspective that these cultures were primarily pastoralists has now been corrected after closer scrutiny – and I believe appropriately.  The present day actions – as well as the past record makes more clear – that these peoples have been for centuries nomadic hunter-gatherers – rather than strict livestock pastoralists.  These cultures were successful at adapting the northern reindeer to their needs, while accepting the range requirements of an animal that could carry heavy loads and people to new, and replenished grazing, hunting and gathering ranges in regional habitats of high elevation, limited terrestrial plant productivity and periodic game resource cyclical variations.  The transition made, then, is one of distinct cultural determinations from viewing reindeer singularly as a source of meat, to the adaptation within the context of a relatively narrow defined ecological habitat to the mode of transportation, milk products, hide and other uses.

Folk culture and ancient mythology focusing on reindeer from the earliest petroglyphs of the hunted animal to the domestic reindeer depict an animal imbued with the spirit power of the north.  Reindeer exhibit in mythology from Europe, Scandinavian countries and around the globe as animals that have unique power or abilities to reach the high gods, the “upper worlds” of the shamans and such.  Moreover, as the reindeer represent the only ungulate species in which the female deer actually grows annual antlers, the animal has become a source of feminine strength as a power “totem,” as well.

Irrespective of the cult image and totemic qualities, reindeer have always been animals unique to certain taiga and tundra terrain within the Sayan-Hovsgol transboundary region of Russia and Mongolia, in particular.  Thus, as a matter of fact, the cultures which developed in concord with the domestication of the reindeer themselves represent cultures of habitat – peoples related directly to the higher elevation mountain habitats living over time with the natural ebb and flow of the ecology of their region, the taiga, high mountain tundra and goltsy habitats, game population surges and declines and their reindeer.

As such, today’s geographically Central Asian representative “cultures of reindeer-habitat” or peoples of the reindeer are still represented to a greater and lesser degree by four cultures or peoples – the Soyot of Buryatia’s Okinsky Region, the Tofilar of Irkutsk Oblast, the Todja-Tuvans of the Republic of Tuva in Russia, as well as the Dukha of Mongolia’s Hovsgol Province.  Native Tuvans in the vicinity in the area of Kungertuk have also long herded reindeer and for the purposes of this report shall be discussed in the context of the Tuvan group.

Though linguists may disagree on the nature of the differences between these peoples, the facts remain that their linguistic backgrounds are turkic in origin, that their ecological habitats and the reindeer they raised nomadically are essentially the same.  As the breadth of this region of the Sayans and into Hovsgol of Mongolia covers a distance of less than 800 kilometers – and the annual range territory of reindeer herds can be as much as several hundred kilometers in and of themselves – it is very possible that these people have traded, inter-married and related across the breadth and width of the Sayans – and that their languages and ancestry are all closely related to the old Tuvan language and possibly original heritage.

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Post-1917 Revolution and Soviet Era Impacts and Assimilation Influences:

Following the 1917 revolution and into the 1920’s and 1930’s, the state policy of the promotion of the communist citizen as an assimilating ideal for the “development” of the native, “backwards” peoples all over Russia led to wholesale changes in the prospectives for indigenous reindeer-herding peoples.  The religious and leadership repressions of the 1930’s furthermore eliminated or removed hundreds, perhaps thousands of the most profitable, skilled reindeer herders and leaders, as well as their shamanist religious leaders.  The era of collectivization of agriculture, emphasizing centralization and command and control of the economy and peoples within bounded communities and locales eventually reduced or eliminated altogether the ability for these cultures to range their reindeer livestock nomadically, if at all.  These impacts were similar across the transboundary Sayans from Tuva (where over 800 shamans alone were repressed) to Irkutsk, Buryatia and in northern Mongolia, if only delayed somewhat.

Among the Buryat and Soyot of Okinksy, reindeer were viewed by the Communist Party’s agricultural apparatus as problematic to centralized Soviet agriculture goals due to the nature of its wide-ranging and nomadic lifestyles requirements as well as in a rather simplified assessment of its meat productivity.  Under the Soviet system, reindeer were compared quite statically to other livestock for productivity on a per weight meat basis with other animals such as cow, horse and yak.  Ironically, though the reindeer are far better suited to the ecological habitat and require no imported fodder as other introduced species required under the 5 year agricultural planning programs, productivity was based on live weight or processed weight of meat alone, and thus reindeer breeding became less promoted and thus less important.

Across the border in Mongolia, between the 1950’s and 1980’s,  reindeer breeding became the occupation of older herders and pensioneers to a large degree, as young and worker-age adults were under circumstances forced to “come down from the taiga”  to work in fish factories, and practice a new, settled form of lifestyle.  Such settling down of peoples was already common place in Russia among the Soyot and Tofilar.  The emphasis where reindeer breeding was continued was in relatively static locales as herding and reindeer farming as opposed to fully nomadic reindeer breeding under the traditional regime of the hunter-gather lifestyle. Where the command economy of the Soviet Era up to the mid-1980’s maintained reindeer herding, the focus thus changed directly to reindeer not as a pivotal species important to cultural identity and habitat, but as a product for minor meat production, hide materials,  “panta” or antler-products and medicines for sale to the southeast Asian and Chinese markets.

As important, the hunting territories and game resources became state-owned and both land rights for traditional use and game resources were adopted as resources belonging solely to the state to be administered under central government authorization alone.

All of these factors combined with the general and dominant Russian and Mongolian majority assimilation – and assimilation in neighboring majority sub-cultures of Russia – as in the assimilation into Buryat of the Soyot – with its ultimate deterioration in native language and cultural traditions.  These factors and other influences have led to an immense constraint on traditional cultural practices, and over time (50 to 70 years at least) to a tremendous multi-generational loss of traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) surrounding the hunter-gather reindeer-breeding lifestyle of their ancestors – and an overwhelming cultural diffusion in most cases.

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Glasnost, Post Perestroika and Transition Phase Influences on Reindeer Nomadism:

The “openess” or Glasnost and Perestroika Era of the former Soviet Union in the mid 1980’s brought about a renewed recognition in native cultures across Russia.  In Buryatia and Tuva, for example, this time period saw the resurgence of native interest in traditional culture, sustainable past lifestyles and economic directions, and the religious and spiritual practices linked to native cultures of Shamanism and Buddhism.

On the national level, the new policies permitted a spate of legislation devoted to the protection of traditional native peoples.  These efforts offered the opportunity for recognition that the native peoples  traditional lifestyles deserved assistance and that issues of native rights, land use, appropriate direct involvement in decision-making and representation all were important worthy goals for realization.

Unfortunately for the reindeer-herding cultures of Central Asia, the concurrent breakdown of the state and collective farm economy which occurred during the late 1980’s and into the 1990’s permeated their interests and made realization of high goals based on their native status and rights practically impossible.  Perestroika and the implementation of democratic process has certainly had some benefits for native peoples including regionalization of certain control over lands, development planning to some degree and the new openess with both national and international interests in native cultures.  Overall, however, the period between 1985 and 1995 saw great declines in the economic status for the native reindeer herders, management problems and financing difficulties for care of their herds, and a degraded socio-economic status and cultural outlook in many cases.

With the loss of regular salary payments for many of the reindeer herders, as well as the early 1990’s economic depression nationwide amidst very real inflationary pressures for market goods competing – and often being displaced with – foreign products, the ability to maintain even a sub-standard cost of living became untenable.  Products of survival, foodstuffs such as flour, clothing,  canvass tents or canvass for teepee shelters, shoes for children, medicines, etc. all have become much harder to obtain by the reindeer herders and their families during the slow progression to the market economy.

This time period also saw a return – in most but not all cases – of reindeer livestock to private ownership.  But it also saw the effect of the circumstances of a severely degraded economy with limited or total elimination of sovkhos and kovhos salary payments to herders, reduced or eliminated ability for veterinary aid and medicines, and the end of state bounty controls on predator populations such as wolves.  These, and other factors, have led to a wholesale contagion of decline in reindeer numbers across the Hovsgol-Sayan transboundary region of Mongolia and Russia.

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Current Status of Central Asian Reindeer-Herding Nomads on Cultural, Economic and Social Spheres:

At present – and almost in concert – all of the four Central Asian reindeer-herding cultures have experienced a decade-long, exponential decline in their reindeer herding and in the numbers of remaining livestock.  The Todja-Tuvans, for example, herded over 8,100 head of reindeer in 1990, but as of May 2000, only 950-1050 head of deer remain.  In similar fashion, both the Dukha People of Mongolia and the Tofilar Peoples of Irkutsk Oblast saw their combined herds drop in numbers from several thousand to less than 900 head of northern reindeer today.

At present July 2000), the Dukha herd about 794 reindeer, while the Tofilar may have only 50 animals left – down from several thousand head at the beginning of the 1990’s - the Tofilar perhaps experiencing the most extreme of the overall economic and socio-cultural degradation over the past decade.

The Soyot of the Okinsky Region of the Republic of Buryatia present a slightly different case.  Having lost all of their reindeer in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, they began a project of revitalization of reindeer herding in 1994.  That year, the Soyots purchased with US Agency for International Development (USAID) support and the leadership of the Buryat-led Okinsky Administration, 63 head of northern reindeer from the then viable herd of the neighboring Tofilar Peoples of Irkutsk Oblast.  During four years the herd acclimatized quite well to their new surroundings and increased in number to over 100 head with the aid of herder-training provided by two paid Tofilar herders.  The reindeer revitalization effort went into sharp decline, however, when promised state and federal follow-on funding to the international aid was reduced or never materialized.  This led to a 3 year decline in the number of herders and consequently in the protection, and management of the herd and today, the Soyot have probably less than 30 – 50 head of northern reindeer.

By conservative estimates, the entire transboundary Hovsgol-Sayan region of Mongolia and Russia may have seen the loss of between 12,000 and 15,000 domesticated northern reindeer between the period between 1988 and 2000 – a 12-year loss of traditional, sustainable livestock of exponential proportions.  Some of the causes of the decline have been stated previously, but it is well to outline them in a more detailed scope to appreciate the full extent of the crisis facing the Central Asian reindeer-herding cultures and reindeer herders across Siberia and the Far East, as well.

Figure 1.  Current Status of Hovsgol- Sayan Reindeer Peoples in Brief*


Dukha– Mongolia


Tuva, Russia


Irkutsk, Russia


Buryatia, Russia

Population involved in semi or fully nomadic reindeer breeding









No. of northern reindeer as of July 2000


794 head


900 head


50 head


30-50 head

Problems in herd husbandry and herder lifestyles

Lack of medicines, veterinary care, desire for new genestock,  increased slaughter rates, need for neo-traditional economic strengthening, hunting game resources in decline

Lack of medicines, veterinary care, desire for new genestock, interest in small business training, distance to markets problems, alcoholism a problem

Extreme economic and socio-cultural breakdown of traditional reindeer husbandry, high alcoholism rates, reindeer extirpation likely

Inter-generational loss of traditional reindeer herding lifestyle, fully settled, loss of traditional native Soyot language and cultural identity

 Status of Reindeer-Herding Cultures

Guarded and threatened -  loss of traditional ecological knowledge unless compiled and transferred


Positive demonstrations of aid support over last 2 years leading to end of reindeer decline and 2- year herd growth by over 200 head


Potential recognition of traditional lands as cultural resource of World Heritage value

Guarded and threatened - loss of youth restoration to taiga herding and hunting processes, probable language declines


10 plus years of exponential decline in reindeer stocks (1990 – 8,100 head, at present, 900 head)


Minority of Northern Peoples status

Severe Crisis Likely - Possible imminent extirpation of reindeer and loss of all cultural ties with traditional reindeer culture, lifestyle and language


10 plus years of exponential decline in reindeer stocks


Minority of Northern Peoples status

Multi-Generational Assimilation - Loss of native language, fully settled, possible imminent extirpation of reindeer and increased, inter-generational loss of linkage to traditional reindeer culture and lifestyle


Complete decline and loss of reindeer stocks


Deer Restoration project 1994 facing difficulty,

Minority of Northern Peoples Status gained year 2000

*  Figures are best approximations based on interviews with government officials, reindeer herders.

The multiple factors impacting upon the reindeer cultures and the management viability of their reindeer across Russia and Mongolia are all the same varying only in degrees between the different tribes or peoples.  They include:

  • Economic Transition and Decline – reducing or eliminating herder salaries on the whole, resulting in less-effective management of the reindeer herd and the wholesale sell-off or barter of animals for basic survival needs, food, medicines, family care, etc.

  • Degradation of Veterinary Care – major reductions in finances available – if at all – for needed veterinary medicines, specialized care and treatment or veterinary training for herders for over 10 years enabling common – easily treated ailments to have a far greater impact on the herd’s productivity – and resultant negative influences of more serious diseases such as brucelosis.

  • Geographical Isolation and Market Constraints – with the degraded economic situation, fuel availability has deteriorated and the remote reindeer-herding territories have become even more remote – isolating herders, herder families and communities from bringing both reindeer and non-timber forest products to market.

  • National Border Geo-Political Isolation – in the case of the geographical Central Asian reindeer Peoples, the strictly closed international borders between Russia and Mongolia bi-sects and closes off traditional grazing lands and reindeer herding Peoples which once related, traded, shared hunting territories and inter-married.

  • Increase in Predation on Reindeer Herds – with the ending of state bounty payments on wolf or predator populations for several years, all herders complain that with outdated rifles and no money for bullets, that the number of wolves in reindeer-herding territories has increased considerably and that annual wolf predation is a major constraint in maintaining reindeer production.

  • New pressures of Industrialization and Natural Resource Exploitation - in the regions of the native reindeer-herding peoples including mineral prospecting and development, gold mining and river-scouring for gold, and timber cutting that destroys or bars native people from former reindeer habitat and grazing lands.

  • Unemployment and Health Concerns – the economic decline has seen reductions in health of the populations related in large part to unemployment and economic problems, distance to health care, increasing alcoholism (in the Russia territories), as well as higher rates of early, suicidal or even violent death and overall reduced lifespans.

  • Disturbance in Family and Community – during periods of extreme economic degradation, family health declines and often family, clan and community relations break down or are severed.

  • Globalization and Youth – youth have witnessed an increasing deterioration for the most part in reindeer herding and – with greater influences of the west and globalization – look towards work in the urban areas or other lifestyles other than reindeer-herding.

  • It is important to note that the above factors are seen as impacting in differing degrees many of the traditional, native reindeer-herding peoples of Russia.  Among the four Central Asian reindeer-herding cultures, all of these factors can be found, as well, but also in differing degrees.  The nomadic reindeer-herding Dukha People of Mongolia, for example, do not suffer tremendous problems from alcoholism – as is the case among many reindeer-herding cultures in Russia .  On the other hand, the Dukha do perceive problems currently from hunting restrictions and a decrease in wild game species due to increased international and national hunting.

    Joachim Otto Habeck researching reindeer husbandry problems in the European North of Russia for the Scott Polar Research Institute has identified additional problems which relate well to the circumstances facing the reindeer herders of Central Asia.  He notes that, due to the decline in agriculture and agriculture supports from the state level over the past decade, “herdsmen and their families cannot obtain the most elementary devices for their work (such as canvas and radio transmitters).”  This is certainly the case which we have found in working with the Dukha of Mongolia, and other tribes of herders in Central Asia.

    Habeck also identified the inadequacies of regional and local governments to support reindeer herding.  He found, specifically, that “the heads of the enterprises engaged in reindeer husbandry have realized that they cannot expect support from the authorities, but must tackle the problems on their own…local officials do not see the profitability of reindeer husbandry but rather think it is a quaint traditional activity for ethnic minorities.”   Without any firm financial foundation to initiate the restoration of reindeer husbandry adequately, and recognizing that both local, regional and federal authorities either are unaware or uninterested in their problems – or powerless in the face of current circumstances to help – many of the reindeer-herding peoples I have interviewed feel left on their own – very much forgotten peoples in crisis.

    Factually, few of the reindeer peoples are directly involved in seeking changes or advancements at any level of government.   Day to day survival has, for the most part, replaced previous involvement in governmental matters that might benefit their lifestyle and circumstances.  Governments, on the other hand, in Mongolia, and in Buryatia and Tuva, Russia that I am aware of, have enacted various statutes which recognize the decline and crisis circumstances in reindeer and reindeer-husbandry.  Though these actions bring regional or even national attention to the problem – apart from periodic aid as in donations of foodstuffs, medicines, etc. which are important – few, if any, long term programs exist to reorient and stabilize reindeer husbandry and the traditional nomadic lifestyles and cultures of the Central Asian reindeer-herding peoples.

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    Potential Fate of the Reindeer Herding Peoples of Central Asia:

    By all measure, the trends and difficult factors facing the traditionally reindeer-herding peoples of Central Asia are extreme and represent crisis conditions.  The potential fate of the Central Asian reindeer herders of the Hovsgol-Sayan transboundary regions of Mongolia and Russia is that they are in grave danger - along with their reindeer – of complete cultural diffusion or loss within the next 5 to 10 years.  The propensity at present is that they will become further marginalized by these interdependent degrading factors, increasing the likelihood that reindeer husbandry and its semi-nomadic or nomadic traditional lifestyle  - as well as the northern reindeer of the region – will die out.  If this occurs, then the world will lose the true cultures of these reindeer-herding nomads of the high mountain taiga and tundra, altogether.

    “The reindeer represent our past and current lifestyle.  If we continue to lose our reindeer, we will be forced to move to the settlements or the city to make a living.  We will lose our very culture in the process,”  states Mr. Ovogdorj, a traditional, fully nomadic reindeer herder of Dukha heritage in northern Mongolia’s Hovsgol Aimag or region.

    At present, there are approximately 5,300 people among the Soyot, Tofilar, Todja-Tuvan and Dukha cultures of Russia and Mongolia – cultures once solely involved in traditionally nomadic lifestyles comprising a life in the taiga habitat based on reindeer-breeding, hunting and gathering.  Today, only approximately 820 people within these four cultures are directly or indirectly involved in semi-nomadic or nomadic reindeer breeding and a hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

    Among the four cultures, both the Dukha and the Todja-Tuvan still carry out fully nomadic and semi-nomadic lifestyles of living in the taiga with their reindeer and subsisting almost entirely on hunting,  gathering and in part, fishing.  Perhaps as many as 40 – 60 percent of their ethnic populations in both countries of Mongolia and Russia are now settled peoples and separated substantially from life in the taiga.  The subsistence life, it is important to note, has itself had to be supplanted with periodic survival-level aid programs of limited government, private and international non-profit origin.  Based on my experience, the Dukha of Mongolia have seen more of such aid efforts over the past three to five years, rather than the reindeer-peoples on the Russian side of the Hovsgol-Sayan border.  All but very few of the Tofilar and practically all of the Soyot have left the taiga – in many cases long ago (over the past 1-3 decades) during the Soviet Era, although new forms of livestock herding and seasonal hunting certainly remain important to these peoples.

    Interestingly, both the Dukha of Mongolia and the Todja-Tuvan have maintained their native language and speak it as their primary language – although threats to the continuation of their native tongue do certainly exist and impact primarily the youth.  Both the Soyot and the Tofilar have either fully or nearly so lost their native language and use primarily Russian, or in the case of the Soyot, Buryat reflecting their assimilation into the majority culture group of their Eastern Sayan region of Buryatia.

    Nevertheless, despite their ability to maintain their language, the Dukha and the Todja-Tuvans also face the same decline in reindeer herding and cultural integrity that has been experienced by the Soyot and the Tofilar.  It may be only a matter of 5 to 10 years when the last of the Central Asian reindeer – totem animals and self-sufficient unique cultures of habitat which have been part of the Hovsgol-Sayan landscape for many thousands of years – will be lost altogether.

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    Appeal for Government and Global Action:

    The loss of the reindeer-herding cultures of the Central Asian territories of northern Mongolia’s Lake Hovsgol Aimag and the Sayans of Russia can be averted only by an immediate and collaborative effort to save the taiga’s northern reindeer, and to aid in the promotion and sustainability, economically and socio-culturally of the Dukha, Soyot, Todja-Tuvan and Tofilar Peoples.  The four related peoples must be supported by national and international efforts and financing to work cooperatively in the face of their common herd of only 1,800 northern reindeer.  Moreover, local, regional and national government authorities must recognize the plight of the reindeer-herding cultures and take decisive and effective action on many levels to enable their continued survival, and neo-traditional advancement.

    The author, as director of a non-profit effort, the Totem Peoples Preservation Project – A Special Project of Cultural Survival, Inc. Of Cambridge, Massachusetts USA, has worked with members of each of the four reindeer-herding cultures of the Hovsgol-Sayan region since 1993.  Therefore, I appeal to the governments of Russia and Mongolia and the international community at large to take action to help insure that the reindeer herders and their families are protected, aided and enabled to continue.  Further, I urge that their traditional lifestyle as semi-and fully nomadic reindeer herders and hunter gatherers gain new respect, and that these cultures and small peoples be able to advance their own development goals within the context of full, inalienable rights as unique cultures of these countries.  These are in fact principles which have found support from many Russian and Mongolian leaders on the local, regional or national levels, but it is clear that practical realization has not, as yet, been effected.

    In the report entitled, “Competing for Resources: First Nation Rights and Economic Development in the Russian Far East,”  Debra L. Schindler notes a common agenda shared by all Russia’s First Nation Peoples.  I believe it serves well as a starting point in the actions needed to preserve the reindeer-herding nomads and cultures of the Hovsgol-Sayan region.  In principle, by adopting many of the recommendations posed by Schindler and those I have added based on my research with the reindeer people themselves, a clear common agenda for the protection of the reindeer-herding cultures of Hovsgol-Sayan region must include:

    1. The native reindeer-herding peoples of the Dukha, Soyot, Todja-Tuvan and Tofilar must have control of their traditional lands and new economies including their hunting, reindeer-herding and breeding, fishing and gathering activities.  Furthermore, indigenous land use for hunting and herding must have priority over industrial activities among the reindeer-herders of Central Asia.  They must be involved and consulted on all industrial projects within their traditional and historical territories, and be able to authorize, amend or prohibit certain actions that would harm traditional landscapes and reindeer or hunting and fishing habitat important to their livelihood.

    2. The Dukha, Soyot, Todja-Tuvan and the Tofilar must have fair and adequate representation on the local, regional and national levels of their governments.  While the Soyot, Tofilar and Todja-Tuvans are now recognized in Russia as Small Numbered Minorities of the North, this designation alone does not provide sufficient representation on all government matters – local regional or national – that may affect their lifestyles, economy and future.  The Dukha of Mongolia, as far as we know, have no unique status for their minority culture, and representation on all levels for these peoples is very limited.

    3. The religious life and native spirituality of the reindeer-herders must be respected and assured adequate protection on all levels.  Furthermore, the cultural heritage and integrity of the reindeer-herding peoples should be fostered and preserved through collaborative projects that promote native language, herder training and traditional ecological and cultural knowledge.

    4. Programs supporting and aiding in the enhancement of the health, family and community strengthening of the reindeer-herding peoples of the Hovsgol-Sayan transboundary region is of utmost importance.  Advancing economic investment and state policies that actually promotes, rather than degrades, the viability of reindeer-herding and hunter-gatherer products and markets, for example, can do much to aid in this arena.

    5. Government actions, development or industrial developments, as well as potential aid programs must work on the ecosystem level and implement those actions only that respect the cultural-ecology of the regions and the reindeer cultures.  Here, as recommended by the author (Plumley, D. R. under Traditional Integrated Development “TID” Programs for Soyots, 1998) and others (Keith 1994) in regard to ecosystem compatibility, the concepts (1) making use of all knowledge – including traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) in addition to scientific understanding, and (2)  using the precautionary principle – thus avoiding negative impacts which might threaten the restorative capacity of either the ecosystem or the cultures involved, and (3) reverse onus of proof – require proponents of change, development or industrial initiatives, as well as aid programs and scientific research efforts to demonstrate via valid proof that their actions will not harm either the ecosystems, native reindeer cultures and their rights and resources.

    Even where rights are recognized, and authorities are sympathetic or even active in reindeer-herder issues, the overwhelming circumstances of the ongoing economic transition in Russia and Mongolia demand international collaboration for the solution to many of these problems and the realization of much of the above goals.  With globalization pressures, it should be understood that the world community (and western countries in particular) must recognize  - and is in part responsible for - increasing negative influences on these small cultures through unbalanced market pressures, international corporate trade and exploitation of natural resources, impacts due to global warming on reindeer habitat and even, culturally inept and exploitive “eco-tourism” and other influences on the reindeer peoples.  Thus equitable responsibility for addressing the problems must take the form of international collaboration.

    The need for collaboration on all fronts is great.  Efforts begun in 1997 to protect the Dukha culture and reindeer-husbandry working with the Mongolian Ministries of Agriculture and Ecology should be continued and expanded.  Leadership in Buryatia’s Okinsky Region in gaining minority recognition for the Soyot and initial programs in reindeer and yak production need to be revitalized with similar efforts important to both the Todja of Tuva Republic and the Tofilar of Irkutsk Oblast, Russia.  As critical, is the need to strengthen local capacity for sustainability and decision-making among the reindeer-herding peoples, and their representative organizations where they exist, themselves.

    Presently, through the combined efforts of Russian, Mongolian, American, Canadian, Italian and New Zealand specialists and non-government organizations, a small international team has come together in less than two years to help stave off the further destruction of the taiga’s northern reindeer and the reindeer cultures.  The efforts led by the Totem Peoples Preservation Project and the Mongolian Reindeer Fund (MRF) have been successful at providing aid to improve the health of the Dukha herd of reindeer.  These joint programs have focused specialist attention for the first time on issues of cultural, ecological and economic aspects related to reindeer herding and have also led to important agreements on the need to protect transboundary, traditional native cultures such as the Todja-Tuvans, the Dukha, the Soyot and the Tofilar.

    The Totem Peoples Preservation Project is now in the process of continuing this support and facilitating discussion on the creation of an Inter-Tribal Transboundary Hovsgol-Sayan Reindeer Peoples Council.  Such a council may, for the first time, foster collaboration among the Russian and Mongolian reindeer-herding peoples and appropriate authorities on issues affecting their longevity in their traditional, reindeer-herding lifestyle and cultures.  We would welcome any help from the governments of these regions and Russia and Mongolia in our cooperative, international effort.

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    Conclusion – Requiem or Recovery for Reindeer Cultures

    The ancient reindeer-herding cultures of the transboundary regions of Hovsgol and Sayan territories of Mongolia and Russia are, today, facing their most extreme crisis and risk continued marginalization, even cultural extinction.  These peoples, including the Dukha of Mongolia, the Soyot, Tofilar and Todja-Tuvan of Russia numbering only 5,200 people at most with only 820 actively engaged in reindeer-husbandry and their traditional forms of hunter-gatherer lifestyle, have suffered immense economic decline and its effects over the past decade.

    Their reindeer herds have been severely depleted, and today number less than 1,800 animals, in varying degrees suffering from poor management, lack of veterinary care and medicines and excessive wolf predation.  Despite this, the true factor in the decline of reindeer is the forced slaughter, sell-off or barter of reindeer for survival needs of the reindeer herders and their families, themselves.  In the wake of the crisis, unemployment, alcoholism, diseases (some of which are contracted from their sick reindeers) and the breakdown of community, clan and family relations pose even greater threats to the continuation of the reindeer-herding, nomadic or semi-nomadic peoples.

    Paramount first is recognition of these peoples, their challenges, as well as their rights and the obligations of authorities, governments and the international community in addressing their survival.  Aid programs can be directed to bring needed international financing to re-build the sustainability of the past reindeer-herding cultures.  In doing so, the world community can ensure that the Hovsgol-Sayan region remains always the homeland of the unique cultures that have, since ancient times, followed a path of ecological sustainability based on the relationship between humankind and the northern reindeer.

    Daniel R. Plumley
    Consultant on Cultural Ecology
    Director, Totem Peoples Preservation Project
    A Special Project of Cultural Survival Inc.

    Recommended References and Citations Noted in the Text:

    Dowdeswell, E.  1998.“Lessons Learned in Sustainable Development.”The Northern Review.  ©  DIAND and the Northern Review, 1998. #18, pages 57-63.  From the world wide web site:

    Habeck, J. O. 1997 with update 31 January 2000.  “Reindeer Husbandry in the European North of Russia:  Its Current Situation and Propects.  Scott Polar Research Institute:  Social Sciences and Russian Studies Group.  From the world wide web site of the Scott Polar Research Institute –

    Keith, R. O. 1994.  The Ecosystem Approach:  Implications for the North.  CARC – Northern Perspectives, Volume 22, Number 1, Spring 1994.  From the CARC website found at:

    Kofinas, G., Osherenko, G., Klein, D., and Forbes, B.  “Research Planning in the Face of Change:  A Report on the Human Role in Reindeer/Caribou Systems.”  A workshop held in Rovaniemi, Finland, February, 1999.  From the world wide web site - of the Institute of Arctic Studies at Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH USA – which can be found at:

    Mongolia’s Tentative List of Cultural and Natural Heritage.  1998.  “Khovsgol Lake Tsaatan Shamanistic Landscape.”  Compiled by the Mongolian Ministry of Enlightenment and the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).  Pages 34-38.  Published by the China National Radio International Music Program.

    Ovogdorj, Mr.  1998.  Personal communication with the Dukha Herders of the East Taiga Grouping.  Tsagan Nuur Sum, Hovsgol Aimag, Mongolia.

    Plumley, D. R. and staff of Cultural Survival Quarterly. 1999.  “Reindeer Sighting.” Winter 1999.  Volume 23 Issue 4.  Cambridge, Ma.  USA.

    Plumley, D. R., et. al. 1998.  Traditional Integrated Development (TID) Planning for the Buryat and Soyot Peoples of the Okinsky Region, Republic of Buryatia, Russia.  Cultural Survival Quarterly – World Report on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and Ethnic Minorities.  October 1998.  Volume 22.  Cambridge, Ma.  USA.

    Poore, Duncan (Ed.). 1992. Guidelines for Mountain Protected Areas.  International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN).  Section VIII – “The Owners or Users of Land Within Mountain Protected Areas.”  Pages 18-21.  IUCN.  Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK.  56 pages.


    1. The author is indebted to the respected Soyot, Tofilar, Dukha and Todja-Tuvan reindeer-herders and their representatives in both non-government and state authorities for their leadership and actions to protect the reindeer cultures.  The author also wishes to express appreciation for collaborative work on programs of cultural and ecological protection in Sorok, Okinsky Region (1993-1997), Tsagan Nuur, Hovsgol Aimag, Mongolia (1996-1999), and Toora Kem, Todja Region, Republic of Tuva, Russia (2000).

    2. Respected advisors to the author on reindeer cultures include Mr. Gombo,  Mr. Bat and Mr. Bayeraa, Dukha Reindeer Herders and Solnoi Batulag, Reindeer Biologist, Totem Project and the Mongolian Reindeer Fund (MRF), Dukha or Tsaatan Heritage, Ulanbator, Mongolia;  Natalia Samaev, Chairman of the National Association of Soyot Peoples, Sorok, Okinsky Raion, Nicolei Papaev and Klim Tuluev, Orlik, Republic of Buryatia, Russia;   Kyzyl-ol Sangi-badiraa, Chairman of the Association of Todja Small Numbered Peoples of the North, Toora Kem, Todja Region, Republic of Tuva, Russia.

    3. This paper was prepared on site in the Republic of Tuva during June 2000 during collaborative work with Todja-Tuvan, Tuvan, Russian, Mongolian and Dukha colleagues in the effort to build transborder cooperation between the reindeer peoples of Mongolia and Russia.  As the author was unable to access his personal library for needed reference materials, and other sources not available in the taiga or Tuva, all mistakes are the responsibility of the author and we regret any errors while appreciating all comments.

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