Vanishing Nomadic and Indigenous Traditions

Kendra Cui ’18

This year at the Sundance film festival, The Eagle Huntress—a documentary about the central Asian tradition of eagle hunting—was premiered. The film follows the coming-of-age of 13 year old Aisholpan, one of the Kazakh people who inhabit the Altai mountain range of western MongoliaFOOTNOTE: Footnote. Remarkably, Aisholpan is the first female eagle hunter in the 2000 year old Kazakh tradition—however, she may also be the last: today, there are only 250 eagle hunters actively practicing the tradition. This tradition, like many other nomadic and indigenous traditions across the Asian continent, are slowly disappearing in the wake of increasingly prevalent modern technology and government resettlement schemes. These schemes aim to compel nomadic peoples to adopt a sedentary or “modern” way of life, and are occurring all over the Asian continent, as evidenced by a few of the traditions explored here.

Yupik of Eastern Russia

Yupik Inuit have traditionally settled in the Siberia of East Russia (among other Arctic regions). While the Canadian and Scandinavian Inuit have seen improved ties with their respective governments over issues such as protecting indigenous lands and cultures, the Yupik Inuit of Siberia have been suffering through a period of cultural erasure since the Soviet era. During the latter part of the 20th century, the Soviet government sent many Inuit children to state boarding schools, where they were prevented from studying Inuit culture and traditional practices. Additionally in the 1960s, over 800 people—amounting to 70% of the Chukchi Peninsula population of Inuit people—were forcibly relocated by the Soviet government.FOOTNOTE: Footnote For many Inuit, relocation from fertile hunting and fishing grounds signaled an inevitable decline of the Inuit culture, as many Inuit customs are connected to the hunting of land- and sea-dwelling animals.

Animal herders in Mongolia

For centuries, following horse, cow and sheep herds as they continually travel new grazing pastures has been an established way of life in the Southern Mongolian steppe. However, recent government and economic initiatives have been increasingly displacing these nomads from their traditional way of life. The Oyu Tolgoi and Tayan Nuur mines, funded by the World Bank and European Bank for Reconstruction and DevelopmentFOOTNOTE: Footnote respectively (amongst other organizations), have been particularly destructive for nomadic herders. While some herders have adjusted to these developments by seeking new pastures after their traditional water sources and grazing grounds have become contaminated due the mines, others have been fully displaced and have switched to a sedentary lifestyle. For many who have chosen to make the lifestyle switch, it has been a difficult adjustment: 74% of those displaced by the Tayan Nuur mine did not receive compensation for lost livestock. Meanwhile, the government does not consider these herders indigenous peoples, meaning that the cultural and religious significance of the land around these mines were not accounted for during the development of these mining projectsFOOTNOTE: Footnote.

Boat dwellers of Southern China

The boat dwelling people of Southern China (more commonly known as Tanka) are their own ethnic group, and have traditionally lived off the coasts of Guangdong, Zhejiang, Guangxi, Fujian, Hainan and Hong Kong in small boat-houses or junks. The term “Tanka” can carry negative connotations and boat dwellers themselves do not use this term. As small-scale fishing off the South China coast slowly becomes obsolete in the wake of overfishing by large industrial trawlers, increasing proportions of the younger generation of boat dwellers have chosen to settle in urbanized areas populated by ethnic Han (the largest ethnic group in China).FOOTNOTE: Footnote FOOTNOTE: Footnote The erosion of the boat dwelling way of life has occurred slowly over the last century, augmented by various factors. For instance, reclamation of land outside Shanghai in the 1960s forced boat dwellers to relocate to surrounding islands; and even today in the wake of the Chinese economic boom, offshore reclamation remains a major force in displacing boat dwellers.FOOTNOTE: Footnote

Bedouins of Iraq

An Arabic-speaking nomadic people, the Bedouins—who have inhabited West Asia and the Middle East—have recently seen their traditional way of existence threatened in countries such as Iraq. Over the last 30 years, the Iraqi government has made various attempts at settling the Bedouin—goat and camel herders who traditionally travelled across the region with no regard for political borders. Schemes in the 1990s included providing land for Bedouin people to settle permanently on at no cost. Those who have chosen to resettle in agricultural societies retain many of their Bedouin traditions: houses are sometimes still crafted from sheepskin, tribe members live in close proximity and share a policy of openness and hospitality.FOOTNOTE: Footnote


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