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TOPIC: traditional culture


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.

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