A Culture on the Edge: Luca Bracali Documents the Disappearing “Reindeer Men” of Mongolia

When photojournalist and conservationist Luca Bracali first told me of his recent return trip to document the nomadic Tsaatan people of Mongolia, I didn’t fully understand the scale or scope of his journey. Now, via his reportage in National Geographic Italia, it is possible to peer inside this incredible and shrinking world. See the full image set via the article here and an English translation below.

Gli ultimi uomini renna della Mongolia

Sono gli ultimi testimoni di un tempo. Oggi di questa grande etnia millenaria e di origine turca si contano solamente 50 famiglie. Conosciuti anche come Tsaatan o uomini-renna, i Dukha sono “il popolo della taiga” oppure, come loro stessi amano definirsi, “i cavalieri delle r

*Translated for context from the original text in Italian by Luca Bracali

They are the last witnesses of an era. Today in the new millennium, only about 50 families, originally of Turkish origin, remain. Also known as Tsaatan or reindeer men, the Dukha are “the people of the taiga” or, as they themselves like to define themselves, “the reindeer men.”

We are on the border between Mongolia and Siberia, in a remote and isolated area covered with fir trees and larches, in a portion of that which is the largest forest in the Northern Hemisphere.

Here one survives the bounds of the impossible and, to do so, you are forced to migrate up to eleven times a year with stormy winters, where temperatures often drop below 50 degrees.

They are nomads and hunters, but, unlike the Sami of Lapland, the Tsaatan ride and milk their reindeer.

They respect them but do not kill them, as do the Nenet people of Siberia, not even when they are old and unable to work. The Tsataan tame the reindeer and get them used to carrying weight early on, starting with a weight of about 20 pounds the first year, 40 pounds the second year, and so on. By the time they reach five-years-old, they are ready to ride.

The Tsaatan of Mongolia are divided into two groups, those of the “east” and the “west” taiga, separated by a hundred kilometers and perhaps by an infinite expanse of conifers.

There are many similarities of these Central Asian tribal culture with American Indians, including their teepees, the traditional tents, with fires inside, as well as shamanism as a religious practice.

The Dhuka do not get “married” in the traditional sense, but they do choose one and only one person with whom to share their life. It lasts forever.

The Tsaatans live together in large families and this is their strength, this great unity and the sharing of their social network and material goods, food above all. But if family or personal problems arise, the shaman speaks to them.

Among the 20 families and the 600 reindeer of the east Taiga there are two shamans – a woman and a man. Shamans use their healer powers, invoking the spirits, only on the seventh and the ninth day of the full moon.

In July and August in the taiga is rainy season and thunderstorms often bring violent lightning strikes against trees causing fires. But even the some reindeer are killed by lightning and this, in addition to the constant threat of wolves, is one of the most common problems the people deal with.

While milking the the reindeer, to avoid static energy problems, the women cover their hair. According to their ancient beliefs, the lightning is nature’s way of rebelling against man, because it is in the summer that the farmers harvest the hay by pulling it from the ground, perhaps disturbing nature in some way.

But something is now changing, even in the taiga. The nearby village of Tsagan Nuur, built by the Mongolian government to provide logistical support to the people of the taiga, located just one hour’s drive away from the winter camp and 8 hours by horse from the summer camp, is radically changing things.

On the banks of the lake, in this small and remote village of 600 migratory families, there are now wooden houses, a small medical center, a restaurant and a school. All of the taiga families with children leave their camp in September in order to return in June.

There are now few people living the taiga all year long, staying in winter and spring camps, participating in hunting groups. Their dialect is also destined to disappear and with it the long history of a great ethnic group, the Tsaatan, the Dhuka, the taiga people, the reindeer knights.

Photo description: The summer thunderstorms, and especially the lightning strikes, are greatly feared by the Tsaatan. Lightning strikes and resulting fires often destroy the forest and kill reindeer. The women cover their hair to protect themselves against the static electricity in the air.

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