Image Credit: Nicolas Rasiulis

From late August to mid-December 2014, I lived among Dukha reindeer herders as they moved along seasonal paths of migration through the rugged forests and alpine tundras that populate the mountainous borderland between Northernmost Mongolia and the Russian Republic of Tuva. Because these remarkably skilled, creative people allowed me to enter their lives, this was a profound experience for me. But it also helped me grow as an anthropologist—to better grasp phenomena of livelihood, resilience, community, symbiosis and conservation in a real-world, rapidly changing socio-ecological multispecies context.


Image Credit: Nicolas Rasiulis

The Dukhas: Living Authors

For thousands of years, the Dukha and their reindeer moved throughout the Sayan mountain range within the borders of both contemporary Russia and Mongolia. They subsisted by complementing hunting and gathering with domestic reindeer milk and meat harvesting, and with trade (Purev and Plumley, 2003). Through their nomadic movement, Dukhas discovered the taiga, viewing it as an interactive ‘neighbourhood’ in which they should not disturb other animals and spirits (Kristensen, 2004).

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Image Credit: Nicolas Rasiulis

While the Dukha’s nomadic movement was restricted in the 1920s when they fled Soviet sedentarization and herd collectivization, in 1947 it became almost completely limited when the Mongolian border with the USSR closed in response to five successive expulsions by the Mongolian government. The border closing isolated most Dukhas from their homeland, kin and community in two regions (Баруун and Зүүн Taigas), which spanned approximately 8,000 square kilometers of Mongolian territory. They were also now subject to Soviet-style livelihood reformations— many Dukhas were forced out of the taiga and into Tsagaan Nuur village where they lived and worked at a state-run fishery, which eventually closed after almost decimating the lake’s fish populations. Those who were allowed to continue migrating across the taiga with their reindeer were forced to cede the ownership of their animals to the state. At times, the state and its local administrative representatives supported reindeer husbandry, even offering veterinary services. At other times, officials ordered the mass slaughter of reindeer, which made it difficult for the reindeer population to survive. And yet, somehow, the Dukha kept on surviving and migrating through the taiga with their reindeer.

Today, in a world of increasing global mobility and dissolving borders, Dukha people can now only live in a fraction of their ancestral homeland. They also face a vacuum of urban exodus that sucks people out their community and its unique way of life. Nonetheless, there are Dukhas who transcend the vacuum effect of urbanity and move back to the taiga and/or freely from taiga to city and back. The Dukha are a displaced people, but as they continue to demonstrate, they should not be perceived as samples of humanity’s primitive past, but rather as living authors of a dynamic, resilient way of life.

Gaining Trust

In their daily lives, Dukhas apply knowledge that is developed through direct engagement with their materials and environment and that is simultaneously rooted in ancestral wisdom and emergent through the unique improvisational expressions of these clever, dextrous people.


Image Credit: Nicolas Rasiulis

In order to learn how the Dukhas, relatively undocumented in academic literature, still live so resiliently with other beings in a harsh climate and ruggedly rocky, swampy, muddy alpine habitat, I had to live among them and actively participate in their daily lives. I saw my 4 months among Dukhas as an apprenticeship in which I learned how to be a Dukha through my own physical and social performance of their lifestyle.

From ‘gataad’ to ‘manai gataad’

By initially living close to Dukha families through the means usual tourists use, inhabiting a ‘tipi-hotel,’ I managed to befriend many members of the community. Most friendships formed through my sustained contribution of physical labour to community members. In exchange for chopping wood and fetching water for Mama, a well-respected 55-year-old woman, I was frequently invited into her tipi to drink reindeer-milk tea (suutei tsai) and eat home-made flour products such as fried flatbreads (gambir) and donuts (bortsuk) as well as breads made on stovetops (talx) or buried in stove embers (hungung).


Image Credit: Nicolas Rasiulis


Image Credit: Nicolas Rasiulis

These exchanges allowed us to get to know each other better and allowed the Dukha to learn more about my research. What followed was my quick development from assisting in subsistence activities (including being entrusted with 32 reindeer and collecting 5 lost reindeer during a 3 hour trip through pasture without Dukhas along assisting me), to living with families in their own tipis, to being socially vocalized as Mama’s fifth son, and older brother of her keen-spirited 2-year-old granddaughter. The Dukhas taught me to castrate reindeer, saw off antlers, find and collect reindeer, harvest wood with axes, saws and pack-deer, and herd reindeer into pen. In October, I even had the pleasure and honour of migrating with three household units for three days from a fall camp to a winter camp through deep snow, over mountains and frozen and semi-frozen rivers. One night in November, I asked Mama’s son and daughter if they perceived me as a tourist or not. They told me: “You are not a tourist anymore. You are still a ‘gataad’ (outsider), but now you’re ‘manai gadaad’ (our outsider).”


Image Credit: Owgenxoo

At that point, I decided to delay my departure from these people and their extended family in order to help the daughter’s husband finish their log-house. Because my food supply had dwindled to little more food than two cans of condensed milk, precious remainders of a bar of dark chocolate purchased in Canada, and about 20kg of flour I had already given to Mama, I had to start eating exclusively like a Dukha. My hosts thought it was a fair deal to feed me in exchange for my dedicated labour but, as Mama often noticed, Dukhas have smaller appetites than I do. What resulted was a drastic reduction in the amount food I ate on a daily basis. I admire Dukhas’ abilities to exert so much physically in their daily tasks without consuming large amounts of food.

I also admire their dexterity in warding off the bitter cold of the taiga winter. One very cold day, when it was around -20̊ C, I helped kill, skin and butcher a horse for the first time. After Bataa wrapped the standing horse’s legs in a specific way, he and Tuule pulled on each end of the rope. This tightened the rope’s hold on the horse’s legs until he had to fall over onto his side. I lay over the horse’s back and ribs as Baata held the rope firmly and Tuule held the reins. Gosta lay his hat over his horse’s upwards glancing eye and then hit him strongly on the forehead with the butt of an axe. As the axe contacted the head, the entire body seized with an immense surge of electricity that transferred into my body through his back and ribs. I still feel echoes of this surge when I think of the horse dying, like chills along my spine, head and arms. It was cold and windy, but the men removed their coats and rolled up their sleeves to keep them clean of blood. Over the next two hours, we knelt and squatted around the carcass and worked finely sharpened blades along the lines of least resistance in the flesh. My hands grew unbearably cold, and I was amazed to watch the coatless men laughing and rolling cigarettes with bloody hands and arms, seemingly unaffected by the cold. I also watched the women with wet hands warding off the cold with ease as they cleaned the guts with warm water and as they knotted and filled intestines with blood.

Near the end of the butchering, I helped Tuule section the spine—I held it while he sliced through with the 69-year-old knife that had belonged to Gosta’s father. After that, my hands were so cold, I buried my fingers into the flesh and felt a trace of warmth. I suddenly grew aware that my hands had never been colder in my life, and I grabbed at the spine for more warmth, but my hands just grew colder. All I could do was tell myself: “I’ll be okay. Somehow these men are comfortable right now. Somehow, I’ll be okay.”

I was also granted the opportunity to live as a Dukha householder while two friends within the community were on a ten day trip to Mongolia’s capital city Ulaanbaatar. I looked over their cabin and cared for their dog and her week-old pups.


Image Credit: Nicolas Rasiulis

I cooked as a Dukha (including my own bread on the stovetop), made tea, served tea and food to anyone visiting me, cleaned the floor with a broom made of bush branches, kept the hearth fire going, and burned my own juniper incense at an altar in order to satisfy the spirit that looks over the wellbeing of my friends and their home. This experience as householder was a great way of directly experiencing an important aspect of Dukha life, and integrating what it is to be Dukha into my being.

Freestyle Life

All throughout my apprenticeship, I kept having the thought that freestyle is a quality that pervades Dukha life. What I mean by this is that Dukha enskillment come from direct engagement of their habitat’s constituent materials and their relational movements through space. Such an engagement in-the-world is intrinsically qualified by that very world. In his book Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description, anthropologist Tim Ingold, having done extensive fieldwork among Saami reindeer herders in Finland, describes this world as an immanently transforming manifestation of life along relationally binding movements of people and materials (70-71). If we see Duhka life through this lens, it’s clear that Dukha lifestyle is fluidly anticipative and responsive to the materials and movements of the world in a way that uniquely resounds with the essence of their taiga homeland. Dukha people autonomously apply traditional knowledge, learned with community members through both practical and leisurely engagement with their environment in ever-calibrating, personally unique ways that appropriately engage the livelihood tasks at hand. Such a free-flowing embodiment of traditional knowledge affords it with the flexibility and creativity necessary to engage rapidly changing livelihood contexts.


Image Credit: Nicolas Rasiulis

‘Special Environmental Protected Area’: Conflict Between Land Conservation Systems

For two years now, the slice of Dukha ancestral homeland that is sequestered in Mongolia has been labelled as a ‘National Special Environmental Protected Area’ by the country’s national government. The government’s environmental protection strategy aims to ‘seal’ off specific segments of land from human contact. As Tim Ingold writes in his book The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill, such a system implies a notion of ‘scientific conservation’ as limiting as much as possible a humanity perceived as infectious upon an imagined wilderness, a land free of human artifices and pollution (68). Under the rules and regulations that accompany the label, it is illegal for Dukhas to hunt and fish—fundamental cultural activities and important staples of both ancestral and contemporary subsistence. Furthermore, the government now restricts Dukha migration to one third of their Mongolian homeland. In addition to isolating Dukhas from many of their sacred sites, such restriction of movement affords Dukhas much less pasture land for their reindeer and horses. If this is not rectified, the coming years will see deterioration of the technically protected legally inhabitable zone’s ecosystem health, and thus animals’ pasture quality.

The Dukhas are confronted with these new limitations under the guise of environmental protection even though they have stewarded a profoundly rich homeland ecosystem for uncountable generations. The Mongolian imposition of a system that dualistically opposes humanity and nature in a conflictual struggle simply ignores both the Dukhas’ land conservation abilities, steeped in traditional knowledge and empowered by a freedom to innovate in skilled form. It also ignores their rights to inhabit their land and practice their self-determined land-conservation system—a right the UN Declaration On Indigenous People’s Rights protects, especially since Mongolia signed the Declaration in 2008.


Image Credit: Nicolas Rasiulis

The Dukha land-conservation system is one that acknowledges and engages the relationality of ecosystem communities. Dukhas entertain relations with ezen, spirits that possess and protectively watch over lands (usually mountains and their surroundings), through which the vitality of their homeland ecosystem is continually ensured. Dukhas refrain from hunting and collecting other resources in ezen-territories, travelling there only to performance ritual offerings like juniper incense, cotton ribbons, and prayers offered through the ribboons, to the ezen’s owoo (stone cairn). These offerings are done in reverence of the ezen and the human ancestors it mediates prayers to. Offerings are given without expectations of return interest, but Dukhas know that protecting the wellbeing of their families and homeland are ways ezens reciprocate. They also know that if offerings are not given, both family and homeland will somehow suffer.


Image Credit: Nicolas Rasiulis

The Dukha have thus performed localized environmental conservation practices prior to the introduction of ‘scientific conservationism.’ The pertinence of introducing a new conservation system is thus questionable. In fact, by isolating Dukhas from many ezen-mountain ritual offering cairns (and subsequently reducing the efficacy of their offerings that are intended to support the ezen in its land-protection activities), the new system impedes on the functioning of the previous system that it is being imposed upon. For example, An elder and a younger man told me extraordinary stories of some of their pilgrimages to Aagi Mountain over the years. Sleeping near Aagi’s owoo over the years, they had witnessed actions of Aagi ezen in the forms of overnight transformations such as reindeer milk turning dark blue, antler shapes shifting, and fur turning greenish near the neck. Both the elder and the younger man were saddened by the fact that, due to the new movement restrictions included in the regulations of the special environmental protected area, they are no longer able to make pilgrimages to Aagi mountain. Dukhas now often conduct offerings to ezen spirits from afar, making gestures towards the locality specific to the ezen.

Livelihood Recalibrations

Facing these new regulations, as well as increased mobility between taiga and the local Mongolian administrative center, Dukhas are fine-tuning their livelihood to a continually changing socio-economic context. If hunting and fishing activities continue, they are pursued discreetly. In addition to this source of food, Dukhas also integrate store-bought food to their diet. Some Dukhas even set up their own ‘convenience store’ in steppe-land areas bordering the taiga, or bring food staples into the taiga for sale. Dukhas also acquire finances through the sale of livestock and their products. Many Dukhas herd cows, goats and sheep in the steppe-land neighbouring the taiga in order to obtain loans from banks that do not acknowledge reindeer as capital.

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Image Credit: Nicolas Rasiulis

Another important source of financial income is the tourism industry. Tourists pay accommodation fees to families, and occasionally buy handcrafts made by Dukhas using animal and other local materials. In a nearby village, Dukhas also sell the berries and medicinal or religious plants that they gather from the taiga. Finally, since 2013, Dukhas receive a monthly allocation from the national government that is intended to encourage the survival of Dukha reindeer husbandry. This useful stipend is contested by some members of the community who believe it allows for laziness within the community, and it increases the difficulty of reclaiming their traditional land-use rights of fishing and hunting. The same improvisatorial freedom that lies at the root of Dukha resilience also blesses anthropology with important opportunities.

Anthropology Can be Freestyle, Too

An important lesson I learned from my time with the Dukha is the importance of letting the subject shape how fieldwork is conducted. Before this time, I spent years studying the idea of proper fieldworka conceptual ideal pre-existing the actual fieldwork itself. In the juicy reality of fieldwork, I thought of how I was always trying to be a ‘good anthropologist’ without really knowing what that means. Then it dawned on me that every moment of my research is uniquely transforming along a continual movement of growth within the world—freestyle. This realization allowed me to do whatever I needed to actively participate in Dukha lives with genuine curiosity and kindness, an approach that resulted in precious friendships and events through which I learned as much about both myself as I did the Dukhas. That being said, the friendships and happenings were often catalyzed by my own mistakes. For instance, when I left my ‘adoptive mother’ and her camp for the first time, I offered her and her daughter blue sacred cloths. The mother and daughter— and all the others present— laughed wholeheartedly, knowing I did this because it is a Mongolian custom of showing respect and appreciation, but also seeing the humour in this custom’s resonance with one of their own: offering these cloths as display of intent to marry! I laughed along with them.

Through mistakes, and our reactions to them, research-participants can see us as normal humans with flaws and personalities of our own beyond our role as researchers. In my case, opening my beyond-the-researcher self to Dukhas allowed us to form the honest relationships through which truthful and mutually-negotiated research can happen. Some may object to such a subjective and methodologically unstructured engagement in what is being researched, but I passionately believe that wholehearted, free-flowing participation in the world is the most direct way of experiencing and thus of knowing it. In the case of the Dukha and I, had I not given myself to Dukhas through practical service and genuinely personal behaviour, we would not have formed the relations that afforded me with the knowledge of Dukha life.


Image Credit: Sascha Horvath.

Affording acknowledgment of the validity of such an ontological framework, and having its scope of inquiry include the entirety of humanity and everything relating to it, anthropology affords practitioners of the field with outstanding freedom and creativity. If they are able to in practice, anthropologists can study whatever they deem fit through any ethically sound means that arise as congruous with the phenomena being explored. Such an anthropology can see important developments in practitioners’ self-understanding, character and worldview. For instance, my fieldwork helped me find more meaning in life, develop practical skills, and better understand both the human necessity for comfort and the diverse ways they are experienced and fulfilled among different communities. Such an anthropology, due especially in part to the intimate relations it affords as well as to its methodological freedom in both conducting fieldwork and communicating subsequent results, can be wielded as an instrument of socially beneficial research. For instance, I am beginning to participate with Dukhas in reclaiming their traditional land use rights, and I apply video as a way of engaging the public in a way through which they can learn and care about the Dukhas and other people like them.

The participatory nature of anthropology can be found beyond the field, too. My thesis is a testament to teamwork between students and faculty who acknowledge the liberating potentials of contemporary anthropology. My thesis supervisor Julie Laplante has introduced me to theoretical currents as well as helped me navigate the specifics and generalities of academic research, while always allowing me (and encouraging me to own up to) complete autonomy. Both Julie and other members of my thesis committee, have become friends and mentors that have helped craft a sound research project. This project complements other autonomous projects crafted by other students as Julie relates with her students as a cohesive team, encouraging us to participate in each others’ meetings with her concerning our respective projects. We learn about other burgeoning examples of creative anthropology and share a feeling of mutual belonging. By becoming friends, sharing literature and offering feedback on each others’ ideas and writings, students in our team help one another realize our full potential both as people and as anthropologists. Drawing on my experience as a student of Anthropology, I encourage more professors and Anthropology departments should encourage students to participate in crafting an anthropology that is personally fulfilling, socially beneficial, and developed in-the-world.


Image Credit: Nicolas Rasiulis

*Names of individual Dukha people have been changed.

Further Reading

About The Author

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University of Ottawa, MA Candidate, Anthropology

I have been breathing, eating, sensing, and enacting many other basic but endearing physiological processes since I was born in the Spring of 1991. In the Summer of 2003 I was introduced to canoe-camping by my brother in the Goutte d’Eau region of the Outaouais Valley in Québec, Canada. Years of teenage adventures in this diversely forested, lake-filled, rocky land afforded me with a direct engagement with nature through which I developed passion for nomadic life deeply enmeshed within local ecosystems. At the age of 18, I became a camp counsellor specialized in canoe expeditions. During the last two of my five years guiding canoe adventures, I began teaching and practicing anthropology to and with teenage clients. These experiences helped me dip my paddle in the stream of anthropology, preparing myself for the challenging rapids and falls of a master’s thesis fieldwork expedition among Dukha reindeer herders in their Taiga homeland of northernmost Mongolia. Participating in the life of endearing, resilient Dukha people I was drawn into the roots of what it is and means to be alive. I now live the wild and character-forming experience of writing a thesis about a people who changed my life for the better. Every day I thank the World for Everything, and smile.