The Last Reindeer Herder: One Woman’s Fight To Save A Mongolian Tradition
Her museum houses relics of a disappearing culture in the frozen taiga. Will cash payments and new language classes be enough to help her save the Dukha way of life?
TSAGAANNUUR — In the forested, snowy mountains of Tsaatan, a herdsman and his family tie his reindeer herd to trees to let them graze. Uvugdorj Delger, 70, is Dukha, but he speaks to the children in the Mongolian language. When asked why he doesn’t speak the Dukha language, he sighs and says only elders like him speak it now.
The Dukha are the last reindeer herders of Mongolia. Many live deep in the taiga of north Mongolia, where temperatures can drop to minus 53 degrees Celsius in the winter and rarely rise above 23 in the summer (a swing in Fahrenheit from 63 below zero to 73 degrees). Although historically related to the ethnic Tuva people, who live in parts of Mongolia, Russia and China, the 427 Dukha of Tsagaannuur soum have their own traditions and speak a distinct variety of the Tuva language.
The pristine nature of the taiga and the rareness of reindeer husbandry persuade a few tourists to endure the bumpy roads — passable only by horse during the summer — to come here, where they can ride reindeer, sleep in traditional Dukha tents, called urts in Mongolian (not to be confused with the Mongolian yurt), and buy handicrafts made from reindeer antlers.
Whatever memorable travel stories they take with them, however, overlooks a difficult reality for the Dukha — one of land, culture and language loss.
With environmental protections encroaching on their traditional territory, and many Dukha increasingly leaving the taiga and assimilating into Mongolian society, Dukha culture could be lost forever in a few generations. “All we have left is our reindeer and our urts,” says Uvugdorj.
However, one Dukha woman is determined to see her culture alive and vibrant again. With no government support, Ulziisaikhan Sodov runs Mongolia’s only museum, and one of the country’s only formal initiatives, dedicated to celebrating Dukha history, language and tradition.
That's not garbage
The Dukha Culture and Development Center, a two-story log house built on Ulziisaikhan’s own property in 2016, is in Tsagaannuur soum, the main village near the taiga in Khuvsgul province. Surrounded by snow-capped peaks, the center houses a specialized library and artifacts inherited by her family or donated by the community at her request — traditional deels, antlers, leather handicrafts and tools, birch and wooden bowls — all carefully displayed in glass cases.
“When the building for the center was about to finish … I told people that we need things to put in the museum,” says Ulziisaikhan. “Elders brought things they found in their barns that they decided not to throw out as garbage.”
She was the last person who cherished her history and culture.
Her enthusiasm and vitality, typical of those who have led a nomadic life, is palpable. Ulziisaikhan speaks proudly of her grandmother, her greatest inspiration. “[She] was the last person who cherished her history and culture, cooked on a traditional open-fire stove, and never spoke Mongolian language.”
Ulziisaikhan’s next big project is to set up an FM radio station to air content in the Dukha language, but she needs to raise more funds before that can happen. The only government aid she has ever received was from the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency, which went to the museum’s construction. Donations from tourists are the center’s only source of income, which now is hardly enough to pay for basic maintenance such as heating — there’s no insulation in the building, which is why it remains closed during winter. A fireplace would be too dangerous to the precious objects preserved inside.
When visitors disappeared during the coronavirus pandemic, Ulziisaikhan’s income suffered. She decided to run for local elections in the hopes of securing a salary. (She won, and is now leader of her bagh, the smallest administrative unit in Mongolia.) Still, making money off the objects she collected isn’t her goal. “I don’t feel comfortable showing these items to people like goods in a shop without being able to elevate people’s understanding of what Dukha people were like,” she says.
Ulziisaikhan Sodov, founder of the Dukha Culture and Development Center in 2016 in Tsagaannuur soum, in Khuvsgul province.
Dolgormaa Sandagdorj, GPJ MONGOLIA
Ulziisaikhan and some older Dukha point to the transition from socialism in the early 1990s as the point when things began deteriorating drastically.
During the socialist era, the Dukha worked in state farms and fisheries for a fixed salary, while all reindeer belonged to the state. After 1990, that salary vanished, forcing many to return to the taiga to hunt. Some had to slaughter their own reindeer for food and sell their antlers, while many animals died of diseases.
“It was very hard during the market economy,” says Uvugdorj, who at that time would spend the day looking for deer antlers to trade for a bowl of flour. “Sometimes, I would come back home empty-handed.”
While the worst is probably behind them, things aren’t necessarily easy now, especially for the elderly. Young Dukha families continue to leave the taiga for urban areas once their children reach school age, leaving grandparents behind. As a result, taiga-dwelling Dukha are progressively declining.
There’s also some tension with the environmental authorities over the taiga’s protected area status — 90% of the ancestral territory of the Dukha located in Mongolia is now under strict laws protecting the area’s glaciers, plants and animals, many of them endangered. While 288,000 hectares of land (over 711,600 acres) were vacated for the Dukha, many say there isn’t any game to be found there, nor is it enough to move reindeer every two weeks, as the custom dictates.
“Everything is renewed, and our traditions keep being lost,” says Ulziisaikhan. “Now [with the] special protection, the reindeer herders don’t eat much meat,” she adds. “We only eat three, four pieces of meat, or soup with a lot of flour, and the consumption of white flour is very high.”
For Tumursukh Jal, head of protection administration for the Ulaan Taiga Strictly Protected Area, the new status has curbed such illegal activities as mining and poaching. He says herders resent the special protection status because it limits their ability to poach. “This is a land big enough for perhaps a nation in Europe, let alone for 2,000 reindeer and 300 people to live on,” he says.
A real museum
In 2013, one year after the then-president of Mongolia visited the area for the first time, the government established a monthly allowance for all adults who live in the taiga and herd reindeer; children up to age 18 receive half of the allowance. Currently, the allowance is set at 240,400 Mongolian togrogs (70 United States dollars), and 382 Dukha receive it.
More welcome changes came in 2022, when a Dukha-language program was introduced for the first time in Tsagaannuur soum’s school. Classes are available as an optional course once a week to children in grades four and up. Out of the school’s 560 students, 200 are Dukha, says Sanjaa Myagmar, who was the school principal at the time of the interview. Last year, 98 students enrolled in the language class, including Dukha and Darkhad, a Mongolian subgroup living in Khuvsgul province.
It would have been better if the government developed tourism.
But teachers struggle with a lack of appropriate textbooks — materials come from nearby Bayan-Ulgii province and Russia’s Republic of Tuva, where different varieties of the language are spoken.
“The Dukha used to speak their native language fluently until the early 1990s. Now less than 10% speak it,” Ulziisaikhan says. She laments how little support the government lends to preserving Dukha traditions, and says, for example, that the cash allowance for those living in the taiga should come with an obligation to speak the Dukha language. “It would have been better if the government developed tourism … by effectively introducing what the main culture, food and values of Dukha people were like.”
While that doesn’t happen, she’ll keep fighting to turn her center “into a real museum,” Ulziisaikhan says, modestly. “I want to show the amazing history of how the ancient Dukha people lived in the past and how they do now.”
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