IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 26 | Regions | Central Asia


Reindeer People

Ancient Roots of Mongolian Traditions


•IIASN26-P17-01Every society needs to have a connection with its past and understand the roots of its traditions. The Mongolian cultural traditions guide and educate members of society to live in harmony with nature and to appreciate its blessing. Having stood the test of time for centuries, this traditional wisdom is now drawing the attention of both Mongolians and the outside world. For hundreds of years, the grasslands, mountains, meadows, forests, wildlife, and humans have co-existed in harmony. The introduction of a planned economy at the beginning of the last century and the transition to a market economy two decades ago have resulted in unrealistic production targets, overgrazing, over-felling of forests, over-hunting, and other unsuitable and unsustainable pursuits. These economic policies deny the important role of the Mongolian tradition in sustaining that Mongolian way of life based on harmony between nature and man.


Indeed, in times like these it is virtually impossible to catch a glimpse of the unique Mongolian traditions and the many different tribes and ethnic minorities by whom they are practised. However, in a few cases, we can still see how Mongolian tribes live and observe their nomadic customs. The nomads in Khuvsgul province, for example, still keep their traditional customs today. Studies related to discovering the roots of Mongolian culture are essential if a better understanding of the Mongolian nomadic tradition is to be gained. In my opinion, one place to begin in this endeavour is with the Tsaatan people of Khuvsgul province, some of whom I visited in the summer of 2000.
The Tsaatan people
Along with the Darkhad and Uriankhai, the Tsaatan, or 'reindeer people', live in Khuvsgul province, located in the northwestern part of Mongolia. Scholarly discussions about Tsaatan civilization usually confine themselves to two areas: the ancient lifestyle of mankind and the ancient practises of nomadism. Attempts to deny the unique Tsaatan nomadic traditions are echoed in the sentiment that there is no nomadic tradition related to Tsaatan, and that they are a people in decline.
The customs and traditions of the Tsaatan people distinguish them not only from the Darkhad and Uriankhai, for example, but also from other Mongolian nationalities. The main difference is that the lifestyle of Tsaatan nomads is defined by migration governed by the need of their reindeer. In contrast, traditional Mongolian animal husbandry is based on and determined by five kinds of domestic animals: goats, sheep, horses, camels, and cattle. The Tsataan make use of the reindeer in a number of ways; in their permanent cycle of migration, for example, they use reindeer as pack animals. Furthermore, they process reindeer milk into a variety of forms for consumption, but they do not slaughter reindeer for food. It is unknown if this is a customary restriction or whether it is the result of the reduction of the number of reindeer.
In the past, horse's flesh was not used as a food source because Mongolians believed that the horse brought luck and, hence, horses were worshipped as valuable assets. Eating horse flesh was considered tantamount to eating one's luck and inviting disaster; therefore, it would be a logical assumption that, for the Tsaatan people, the tsaa, or reindeer, have a comparable value to that of horses in for Mongolians. If this is so, it would follow that there must be several interesting customs and rules related to the tsaa, not unlike the numerous customs and traditional rules regarding horses. There •IIASN26-P19-03are probably also special customs regulating the slaughter of animals for food, the processing of slaughtered animals' hides, and the use of these hides, since Mongolians have particular ways to accomplish this, as well. Some research on these practices has been done.1 Some scholars are of the opinion that this technology resulted from the specific natural and ecological conditions in Central Asia that, even today, determine the quotidian life and seasonal migration customs of nomadic people. That said, there has scholarly examination of the differences which make the Tsaatan unique among Mongolian nomads and, specifically, of the technology the Tsaatan employ for reindeer products.
Tsaatan and shamanism
The Tsaatan people practise Shamanism, religion that is based on nature worship (Pieter Germeraad & Z. Enebish: 1999). Shamanistic religion, as such, has been the subject of numerous studies, but •IIASN26-P19-02 the way Shaman worship is practised among the Tsaatan people differs from other Shamanistic religions in the region; its special regimes It would be easy to draw the conclusion that Shaman worship among the Tsaatan people represents the oldest variant of Shamanism practised by Mongolian nomads. Not only do they worship their Shaman, called 'Boo', but they have knowledge of many mystical holy readings, as well, and use many different treatises in their daily life, such as those for hunting, for calling or averting the rain, and the like. They also use a special reading, or treatise, specifically for hunting bears.
A man whom I visited in the summer of last year had hunted so many bears in his life that he couldn't remember the exact number he had killed. This man used a special reading for bear hunting. During the winter time, he tracks bear imprints in the snow and finds the bear's den. Then, when standing close to the den, he recites a special reading aloud in order to call the bear out of its den, shooting it when it emerges. In another example, I had an experience during my stay in a Tsaatan hut that allowed me the chance to see how Tsaatan people avert the rain by reading a special treatise. On this particular occasion, it was raining very heavily and I had remarked that, were it to continue, it would spell disaster for me since I only had a small tent, which was unlikely to protect me from the rain for very long. One of the Tsaatan proceeded to read a prayer treatise and the rain, which was coming from the west, stopped.
At times, the Shamans, or 'Boos', are invited to the capital city, Ulaanbaatar. Since the Tsaatan are not the only Mongolian people who still believe in Shamanism, others hope to be inspired by seeing Shaman dance. A better understanding of the Shamanistic phenomena of the Tsaatan requires extensive research that should focus on describing the Tsaatan social and cultural development processes, including those of its past. Such research will also contribute to the development of new concepts for solving the social and economic problems of nomadic people in Mongolia.
Social & economic problems
According to L. Bat-Ochir Bold (Academy of Science of Mongolia), there are approximately 500 Tsaatan people living in Mongolia. For some of them, the influence of modern urban culture has rendered them unrecognizable as Tsaatan. They do not introduce themselves as Tsaatan, especially not to Darkhad and Uriankhai, who, almost as a rule, consider the Tsataan a very strange and uncultured people. About 150 Tsaatan are presently living in the Taiga of the Khuvsgul region. The word 'Taiga' can be translated as 'Mongolian cold jungle'. The main difference with a tropical jungle is that the Taiga is covered by thick layers of snow for the greater part of the year. The Tsaatan are somewhat familiar with the Mongolian language, but they have managed to preserve their unique 'Tsaatan' language among themselves. According to Bold, the Tsaatan language shares strong linguistic ties with the ancient 'Uigur' language. Their lifestyle is also considered a surviving example of the nomadic lifestyle of the ancient Tureg and Manchus, as the Tsataan are the only people who maintain ancient Tureg and Manchu traditions and customs. Again, there is virtually no ethnographic or linguistic research being carried out in order to record this knowledge.
Today, the Tsataan, like many other nomadic peoples, are on the verge of losing their traditional social structures and are suffering from unrelenting poverty. During my stay, I encountered two Tsaatan families camping in a small valley between the mountains, which made them relatively accessible to visit. This was a rare opportunity, since Tsaatan people generally live high up in the mountains. Living in such virtually remote and unreachable locations makes it difficult for their children to attend schools. Moreover, they lack the financial means to support a formal education and have no opportunity to study their own language at school, since it is not included in the curriculum. Obstacles are many, and it is clear that the Tsataan are faced with crucial challenges to their current existence, to their future survival, and, especially, to their cultural identity.
I have raised a series of issues which indicate that, for a thorough overall understanding of Mongolian culture, a deeper insight into the lifestyle of the Tsaatan, their religion, and their language is indispensable. In this way, another stone can be laid on the path towards comprehensive and broad research on the unique Mongolian cultures. Such research, in my opinion, would be the foundation for a meaningful development of the entire country and its people. *
a) Typical Tsaatan hut and Tsaatan girl playing with a small reindeer. b) A Young Woman milking a reindeer.
1. A. Tumurjav, 'National Technology of Mongolian Nomads for the Utilisation of Animal Products', Nomadic, IISNC,issue 5,(1999).
­ Germeraad P.W. and Z. Enebish, 'The Mongolian Landscape Tradition: A Key to Progress', in Nomadic Traditions and their Contemporary Role in Landscape Planning and Management in MongoliaRhoon: Germeraad, 2nd edition (1999), ISBN 90-9009231-5.


IIASN26-P19-01Dr Zandan Enebish is a researcher of linguistics at the Language and Literature Institute of the Mongolian Academy of Science. Her research interest concerns traditional culture of Mongolian ethnic minorities and language systems.

   IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 26 | Regions | Central Asia