“If there were no reindeer we would not exist”: Tsaatan reindeer herders

In the “Red Forest” of Outer Mongolia’s subartic taiga where winter temperatures drop to -50°C and hail can match the size of tennis balls the Tsaatan (reindeer herders) struggle for survival against an extreme natural environment, bandits and government authorities.

Photo courtesy of Jimmy Nelson
Photo courtesy of Jimmy Nelson

Nomadic, Tsaatan tribes depend on reindeer for their survival in the harsh conditions of the forested mountains, providing most of their basic needs: milk, cheese, antlers and transportation. Many of the customs of the Tsaatan people are governed by the needs of their reindeer, moving their families, Ortz (tepees) and animals between five and ten times a year. Reindeer with their wide, splayed hooves can travel with ease across area of mire and unstable boggy ground where horses would struggle.

Photo courtesy of Jimmy Nelson
Photo courtesy of Jimmy Nelson

“If there were no reindeer we would not exist”

Photo courtesy of Jimmy Nelson
Photo courtesy of Jimmy Nelson

Unique among reindeer herding communities, and reminiscent of my own people and our relationship with horses, the Tsaatan do not use the reindeer for meat preferring instead to subsist on fish, freshly hunted elk, moose or boars with reindeer milk a favourite beverage.

Ortz Interior Photo courtesy of Jimmy Nelson
Ortz Interior
Photo courtesy of Jimmy Nelson

Presently, only 44 families remain, Originally from Siberia, Tsaatan are a Tuva people who crossed freely between the two independent nations however when Tuva was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1944 the Tsaatan fled to settle in Mongolia with the border remaining closed to this day and the region declared off-limits except by special permit.

Today the Tsaatan’s ancestral homeland is a perilous no-man’s-land where shootouts between mounted rangers and criminal gangs crossing the border from Tuvan occur regularly.

West Taiga Hovsgol
West Taiga Hovsgol Photo courtesy of Hamid Sardar-Afkhami
Tsuyanqua Tsaatan Shaman Bor Haik Hovsgol 2000  Photo courtesy of: Hamid Sardar-Afkhami
Tsuyanqua Tsaatan Shaman
Bor Haik Hovsgol 2000
Photo courtesy of: Hamid Sardar-Afkhami
West Taiga Hovsgol 2006 Photo courtesy of: Hamid Sardar-Afkhami
West Taiga Hovsgol 2006
Photo courtesy of: Hamid Sardar-Afkhami
West Taiga Hovsgol 2006 Photo courtesy of: Hamid Sardar-Afkhami
West Taiga Hovsgol 2006
Photo courtesy of: Hamid Sardar-Afkhami
Shamanic Trance West Taiga Hovsgol 2007 Photo courtesy of: Hamid Sardar-Afkhami
Shamanic Trance
West Taiga Hovsgol 2007
Photo courtesy of: Hamid Sardar-Afkhami
Tsaatan Hunting Party  Shashpektug Hovsgol 2004 Photo courtesy of: Hamid Sardar-Afkhami
Tsaatan Hunting Party
Shashpektug Hovsgol 2004
Photo courtesy of: Hamid Sardar-Afkhami
Tsaatan Ortz Hureen, Hovsgol 2003 Photo courtesy of: Hamid Sardar-Afkhami
Tsaatan Ortz
Hureen, Hovsgol 2003
Photo courtesy of: Hamid Sardar-Afkhami
Wild Bull   Agghi Mountains, Hovsgol 2007 Photo courtesy of: Hamid Sardar-Afkhami
Wild Bull
Agghi Mountains, Hovsgol 2007
Photo courtesy of: Hamid Sardar-Afkhami

JIMMY NELSON, a photographer commissioned between 2010 to 2013 document indigenous culture, ‘Before they pass away’ is intended to be a controversial catalyst for further discussion of these disappearing cultures. For more information click

HAMID SARDAR-AFKHAMI, a documentary filmmaker and ethnographic photographer with a Ph.D. from Harvard University in the field of Inner Asian languages and cultures is a true expert in the field, living in Mongolia and running a cultural-immersion program for American college students alongside a lifetime of exploration in the region has allowed him to develop an intimate relationship members of the Tsaatan. For more photographs click

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