People of the Taiga, the Reindeer People, the People../ Polska Sztuka Ludowa - Konteksty 2014 Special Issue

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People of the Taiga, the Reindeer People, the People../ Polska Sztuka Ludowa - Konteksty 2014 Special Issue


Syberia - tożsamosć etniczna i kulturowa


Polska Sztuka Ludowa - Konteksty 2014 Special Issue s.168-176


Wasilewski, Jerzy S.


Instytut Sztuki PAN




Licencja PIA









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J E R Z Y S. W A S I L E W S K I

People of the Taiga,
the Reindeer People,
the People...

... Darkness pervades the shamanic yurt. A huddled fig­
ure - perhaps the shaman’s wife or his young helper —holds a
massive drum above the dying flames of the fire. The shaman
sits slightly further, with the figurines of the deities of the home
altar behind him. His eyes are shut (...) the quiet murmur of
a prayer is heard. Suddenly, he stands up, takes hold of the
drum, and testing it strikes it; the sound is still insufficiently
loud —it has been raining the whole day and the leather on the
rim is moist and must be dried for a long time. Those sitting on
both sides observe him tensely....". 1
When more than a quarter of century ago I began my
book on shamanism with the above quotation I never
even hoped that I should ever see such a scene myself.
Much has changed since the time of Feliks Kon and other
authors from the turn of the nineteenth century on whose
accounts I based my descriptions. In the Siberian and
Mongolian stretch of taiga and tundra there appeared a
system that obliterated or modified the archaic ways of
existence, changed tents, teepees and yurts into wooden
barracks and cottages, transformed the shepherds into
kolkhoz tractor drivers, and eliminated all shamans. And
yet, I am witnessing today a recurrence of an ancient im­
age: a shamanic séance in a cramped teepee, held for a
few shepherds. The shaman looks just the same as his
counterpart did years ago: he wears an identical costume,
rocks back and forth, and murmurs in an unchanged
manner, his daughter dries the drum above the fire just
like it was done years ago because today it rained as it did
then, not surprisingly since the Eastern Sayan Mts. are a
range where it always rains.
The Tuva/Tukha/Tsaatan people of northern Mongo­
lia had completed a full circle - they returned to reindeer
grazing, living in yurts and teepees, and to shamanism.
We are on the edges of the Darkhad Valley, known as
the land of the shamans. Here flows the Shishged River,
further down known as the Yenisei. This is almost the
end of the world and we shall travel on horseback even
further, north of the last permanent settlement: Tsagaannuur, towards the frontier with Russia, or, more precisely,
with South Siberian Tuva. This territory, once known as
Uriankhai, has been the domain of rivalry between Russia

and China, embroiled in a competition for hegemony in
Asia intent on transferring Mongolia from the Asian axis
to the European one. Here, boundaries were never clearcut - hence the multiplicity of misleading names given
to the inhabitants of the forest-steppe borderline by the
Mongols, the Russians, and the Chinese: the Uriankhai,
the Soyot, the Uyghur, the Tuva (pronounced by the lo­
cals as Tukha and for some reasons transcribed in current
Western literature as Dukha), and the Tsaatan. Today,
the latter, Mongolian name signifying “people of the rein­
deer” is best known, although unwillingly accepted by
those concerned. The Tsaatan are not a Mongolian peo­
ple but of Turkic origin: native Tuvinians, who fled from
their homeland to Mongolia only half a century ago.
Not many remember that until 1944 there existed a
state known as the Republic of Tuva - a pseudo-inde­
pendent buffer between the USSR and Mongolia, a re­
gion of interests pursued by two other Far Eastern rivals:
China and Japan. Its symbolic independence came down
to post stamps (triangles and rhombi featuring shepherds
and milkmaids with sheep, cows, and camels). When at
the end of the war Stalin ultimately incorporated Tuva
into the Soviet Union, famine and enforced army recruit­
ment followed. The post-stamp shepherds started to flee
across the frontier - a feat accomplished the easiest by
breeders of small reindeer herds, who had earlier pen­
etrated the mountainous borderland.
After several years of compulsory returns and repeat­
ed attempts at escape, several hundred Tuvinians were
permitted to stay in Mongolia, where in 1956 they were
granted citizenship, while an ensuing adaptation policy
assumed the form of acculturation or outright assimila­
tion. The nomadic shepherds were settled down and
some became fishermen and employees of a fish process­
ing plant; it is worth recalling that neither they nor the
Mongols fished or ate fish ever before.
Forest culture was an embarrassment to the progres­
sive authorities, which regarded local shamanism as a par­
ticular disgrace. This is why foreign researchers were so
rarely permitted to tour these regions, as we experienced
personally a quarter of century ago while arriving with an
expedition organised by the Polish Academy of Sciences.
We were driven out after being accused of acting as In­
telligence agents working for the Japanese; a suspicious
janitor saw us using candles at night - evidently, we had
been developing espionage film negatives.
The events of the 1990s changed the mentality of
the local decision makers and transformed it beyond
recognition. This borderland region opened up not only
for researchers and tourists but also for all the more and
less fortunate consequences of a systemic transforma­
tion. The fish processing plant finally went bankrupt
(since no one ate the fish) and the reindeer kolkhoz was
disbanded, its members somehow managed to slaughter
more than half of the herd just in time before privatisation.and all funds for additionally financing animal hus­

Jerzy S. Wasilewski


bandry vanished as did those for constructing houses and
farm buildings, veterinary assistance, and schools.
Such were the conditions of an onset of inevitable re­
gress towards tradition as the sole possible form of surviv­
al. Once again teepees covered with torn tarpaulin had
to suffice together with small - 20-40 animals per family
- herds of reindeer and scarce products of the taiga as
an additional source of sustenance. Preserved remnants
of indigenous culture included tradition, spirituality, and

We await the beginning of the séance in a dark tee­
pee, just before midnight. The not quite fifty years-old
Gandzorig is the youngest but the most active of four
Tsaatan shamans. He slowly arranges his costume, roomy
calf boots, and a black-feather headband. All resemble
items shown in old engravings, although they had been
made only three years ago and are kept inside a large
and capacious drum (a researcher cannot help noticing
with satisfaction that this is a proper “south Sayan” drum
according to the Prokofieva classification). The front
part of the costume imitates armour (a breastplate with
horizontal bands) and the back is embellished with long
ribbons, including one in the distinct shape of a snake.
The shaman’s daughter, assisting in the séance, still has
to sew on the last iron tags, which for reasons unknown
have to be placed anew before each séance. opposite the
entrance there hangs in the place of honour a half-metre
long sash displaying pieces of fabric and figurines made
of fabric and leather. These are the shaman’s holy ob­
jects - ongons prepared by his older brother, Gost, who
until recently was also a regular shaman. Later I shall de­
scribe the encounter with this celebrated figure of local
It is nearly midnight. The daughter lights a candle
and places it behind a bed sheet screen, producing an
excellent stage design effect. Silence falls and everyone
succumbs to solemn concentration. We are accompa­
nied by a young married couple quietly explaining in
the Tuvinian language the reason for their presence
- apparently, they are childless. Now it is my turn to
present our wishes - I ask for successful work, and a
happy return home. I feel like yet another member of a
long sequence of European researchers studying Siberia
- travellers and exiles who resorted to the same motiva­
tion to mask their curiosity that led them to the site of
a shamanic rite.


We set off across the land of the Tsaatan on eight
horses: the four of us (two Polish and two Mongol re­
searchers), two guides, and two pack horses, carrying pro­
visions for us and our hosts so as to prevent them from
killing reindeer for meat. Apart from flour, rice, canned
goods, and pressed tea our supplies include flashlights,
candles, and ropes for tying reindeer; we could do with

more medicines, shoes for children, tarpaulin for covering
the teepees.....
It is October, the 3 000 meters-high peaks of the Say­
an Mts. on the horizon are already capped with snow, and
temperatures - especially at night - are well below zero.
The horses take fright while carefully stepping over the
ice-covered streams, but at least they do not sink in “black
water”, which in the summer hampers all movement in
the taiga. The laboriously traversed passes offer views of
a frozen, still landscape. Not a single trace of man - kil­
ometers of yellowed larch taiga covering the dome shaped
summits and the sprawling grassy valleys. Even the Tungus meteorite would not make an impression here.
The taiga displays yet another colour, i.e. black. This
is not solely the effect of the natural process of the larches
turning dark - larch is aptly called “the black tree”. In
many places one can see traces of local forest fires caused
by lightning. o u r guides secure the remnants of a bon­
fire, carefully covering it with sheets of ice from a frozen
stream. This does not come as a surprise - there is only a
single method of combatting fire: the intervention of an
owner of a magic stone known as dzada, whose exposure
to wind immediately brings rain. This special item comes
from the bowels of a stag and is an ossified fur ball just like
bezoar, the magic stone in mediaeval European tradition.
The magic anti-fire campaign is, by the way, financed by
the local authorities.
Only rarely do we encounter traces of human pres­
ence: an ovoo - a pile of branches with strands of hair
obtained from a horse or reindeer mane, and traces of
small sacrifices for the spirits of those sites, a khadag a blue sash hanging on a branch as a sign that nearby
a human corpse had been placed on the ground, or a
horse skull nailed onto a tree to guarantee the birth of
good stallions.
Here and there we can see that shamanic practices
and beliefs live on. We pass shaman’s trees full of ribbons,
the destination of those wishing to make a sacrifice on
this spot and whose relatives included a shaman. We see
reindeer with colourful ribbons around their necks -these
are blessed animals excused from hard labour; women
are forbidden to mount them. The ribbons - the same
as those hanging in the place of honor in a teepee as holy
objects - are the seat of the guardian spirits of the family,
and the reindeer are their carriers.
During our journey we encounter a lone rider trans­
porting a small load. He looks strange, as if he was car­
rying only part of his belongings. The mystery was ex­
plained once we arrived at the camp from which he had
Everyone is preparing for tomorrow’s joint transfer­
ence to a new site near the winter grazing land. Such a
day has to be astronomically providential for all - and it is
by no means easy to establish it for more than ten fami­
lies in the camp. The feat is almost accomplished, but for
one family this is still an unlucky day. The only solution is

Jerzy S. Wasilewski


magic: the departure has to be staged on another day by
dispatching a single family member; then the others will
follow with the rest.
This is where we shall spend the night. As always
when staying in someone’s teepee we are not allowed to
throw even the smallest piece of paper into the fire - this
would be an offence against the household fire, causing a
rash on the faces of all the residents. We can only help­
lessly watch our hostess putting outside our clean paper
wrappings, which could have been burnt without leaving
a single trace. Even more the pity considering that in this
environment they will litter the taiga for years to come.
This is a case of an insoluble conflict of the attitudes,
reasons, and values of the East and the West, perhaps
equally justified but also mutually exclusive.
When we finally go to sleep our host removes from
the wall all ongons —ribbons, small pieces of fur, iron em­
bellishments, and figurines so that, he explains, the spirits
would not torment us at night and bring bad dreams.

Gandzorig puts on his costume, treating each part
with the smoke of a burning juniper branch and deeply
inhaling the smoke. He tries out the drum, first quietly
and calmly, facing the fire in the centre, and then with
his back turned to us and looking at the ongons. Standing
predominantly in this position he dances for several hours
during the séance.
After the first six-eight minutes the drum is beaten
regularly. Now, two rhythms will resound uninterrupt­
edly, interchangeably, and in long sequences: rapid series
of 166-180 beats a minute - a typical trance-inducing
shamanic rhythm, and double beats imitating the noise
of a galloping horse. This goes on tirelessly for over two
hours - when his hand gets tired of producing one of the
rhythms Gandzorig chooses the second tempo. He hums
something quietly, in a changed and unnaturally whin­
ing voice. The words are illegible and on the next day
he is unable to, or does not want to explain anything to
us. Sometimes he cries out, huddle, and using his hands
gathers something into the drum open on one side. He
wheezes and snorts, as if he were a bird soaring in the
air or a steed. This otherworldly flight is also rendered by
running on the spot, dynamic motions of the body, and
jumping on both feet. A quarter of an hour after falling
into the trance he sits down for less then a minute and
his daughter hands him a pipe. During successive brief
intervals he sips tea or puffs on a cigarette.
More than half an hour of the unflagging dance has
passed and the shaman is clearly losing control over his
motions; he is prevented from falling on his back by the
men sitting nearby who catch him and protect him from
hurting himself against an iron stove. Now, we have to
pay attention so while whirling rapidly he does not get one
of the ribbons entangled on the stove pipe. He no longer
controls his movements because he is being entered by

the supreme ongon; the only thing we know about it is
that it is a female.
One of the spectators ties to the shaman’s back a
white sash - the khadag, a gift that is supposed to win over
the ongon. Perhaps now the conversation with the spirit
will take place and produce divination for those gathered?
No, Gandzorig rarely resorts to this method and usually
the fortune telling involves interpreting the location of a
drum rattle thrown to each of the participants twice: the
first time one has to catch it with one’s hand and give it
back while saying: “divination!” (torog!), with the handle
turned towards the ; the second time it should be caught
without touching the object, into one’s lap, and the sha­
man, having looked at the position of the rattle, makes a
longer statement assuring about its conducive effect.
The ongon leaves the shaman’s body; at the same
time, the flight of his soul comes to an end. Those present
comment that now the shaman “is descending to earth”.
He slowly grows calm and takes off the attire without
help, although he staggers. One of the men gives him a
brief massage, and the son leads the shaman - undressed
and hot - outside; in a few minutes he returns refreshed.
He adds that he did not wish to exhaust us, the foreign­
ers, with an overly long séance, which could last for five
hours. When we leave for our tent it is almost three in
the morning.

A day in the teepee always begins with making tea.
Today too we are awakened by a familiar sound - our
hostess uses a steel chisel to scrape the tea leafs pressed
into a hard brick and kept in a leather pouch, and then
pounds them into powder in a wooden mortar. We warm
up, chilled despite the warm sleeping bags, and listen
to what our hosts are saying: that the children found it
so hot at night that they went to sleep outside, on the
ground, and that the adults too would be unable to sleep
in a bed in a room in some town. In addition, it is high
time to begin the slaughter.
Slaughtering a reindeer starts with tying down the
dogs. The barely five year-old Budzen’ with a constantly
surprised expression on her face and her older brother
secure the two shaggy creatures, still covered with hoar
frost, to trees so that that they would not disturb us. Our
host has already separated the chosen animal from the
rest of the herd. He carries an axe and a long home made
bayonet - an irregularly shaped piece of iron in a wood­
en sheath. Now, he sends his little daughter to fetch his
knife, the one with a clasp made of a boar fang, which
he always wears tied to his belt and today has supposedly
forgotten and left behind in the teepee. By the time the
girl returns the whole operation has been completed: the
reindeer, stunned by the axe on the head, has fallen to
the ground and his heart has been stabbed with the bayo­
net deeply piercing the neck. Lying on its side, the animal

Jerzy S. Wasilewski


kicks and is pressed by the boy from the rear so that dark
thick blood flows into a bowl.
The little girl watches while the two men skin the
reindeer starting with the pasterns, slashing through the
belly, extracting the full stomach, cutting off the liver
and serving everyone a slice of warm, sweetish, meat.
The dogs calmly wait for their portion of inferior en­
trails. In not quite half an hour the pantry beams are full
of pieces of the meat of a whole reindeer, while the ribs
and the heart are being cooked for immediate consump­
It was not easy to make the decision to kill the animal.
The whole herd is not even thirty strong, but our host’s
wife is very weak, she recently miscarried, and the meat
should give her strength. Asked when he had last slaugh­
tered a reindeer our host becomes angry. He is well aware
that reducing the size of the paltry herd leads to nowhere
but the family has to eat something.
This is the prime problem faced by these people - the
dilemma: to slay the reindeer or not. The animals con­
stitute the foundation of their sustenance and not by ac­
cident are recorded in the Mongolian name of the ethnic
group. The several hundred strong Tsaatan community
and its specific culture will survive under the condition
that it does not kill off the reindeer. The number of the
animals is falling and today totals about 700, and the lack
of fresh blood means inbreeding together with all its nega­
tive consequences.
In addition, the herds are weakened by the proce­
dure of cutting off the antlers. In the spring, the antlers,
which grow back each year, are still soft because they are
richly supplied with blood and in this state - similarly to
the famous Siberian stag horns - they have been used for
centuries by traditional Chinese medicine and, more re­
cently, European medicine. A t the beginning of the sum­
mer Chinese merchants appear in the region, willing to
trade in bearskins and other products of the taiga, such as
mushrooms; in turn, they offer money, quickly exchanged
for vodka. In those conditions it becomes tempting to
once again cut off the antlers when they are growing back
before autumn, a procedure that exceptionally weakens
the animals and leads to infections and a degeneration
of the antlers. Consequently, the herds include a growing
number of deteriorated animals - our Father Christmas
would be ashamed to use them for his sleigh.
Everyone is supposedly aware of this, but it just so hap­
pened that in each cluster of the teepees we came across
fresh meat and the heads of the reindeer displayed bloody
wounds in place of the antlers.

Does the reader recall the titular character of the Sibe­
rian hunter from a film by Akira Kurosawa, a man called
Dersu Uzala? This part was played by Maxim Bulduk, an
actor from Tuva - the land of shepherds located some
3 000 kms to the west from the site of the plot. Now, I

am no longer astonished at the extraordinary ease with
which he performed the role of a man of the taiga.
The Tsaatan are masters of the hunt. A young man
with a gun, who quietly whistling rides a reindeer next
to us, manages to shoot in the blink of an eye an edible
dormouse in a tree, and still on horseback skins its glis­
tening black fur. He laughs with glee because it is worth
5 000 tugriks (almost five dollars) and is the source of ad­
ditional meat. When the newly fallen snow is so deep that
even reindeer sink to their bellies he will put on primitive
home-made skis - long, wide, heavy larch beams fastened
with leather straps and with the hide of freshly skinned
reindeer attached to the bottom.
These are the natural born people of the taiga, a name
- taigynkhyn —that the Tsaatan use most often to describe
Before leaving, the residents of the campsite say fare­
well to the holy mountain, thanking it for a well-spent
autumn. We are not permitted to take part in this rite
but upon return they show us the strange pebbles they
brought back. Smooth, regularly shaped, and with light
brown swirls, they supposedly lie scattered as if in stone
bowls. It pleases the mountain that they are taken in re­
turn for something that has to be left behind, even if it
is only apiece of white fabric. The mountain grudgingly
gives bad people only the smallest pebbles.
We set off on our way. Mounting the steep approach­
es we reach the passes only to laboriously guide the easily
frightened horses down. We cross couloirs covered with
rock scree, places that are so wild and devoid of people
that if almas - the local version of the yeti - were to live
somewhere in Mongolia this would be the location. Our
hosts, although recounting legends about the almas, do
not believe in its existence. They are most of all afraid
of bears, which can be fatally dangerous especially if the
summer season did not provide abundant berries and
ants and the hungry animal cannot fall asleep for the
We listen to the story of a man whose whole family
was killed by such a famished bear. Having returned to­
gether with his wife to the teepee where they left a small
child in the care of its granny, they found the mauled
remnants of the corpses cast together with household
utensils into the fireplace in the centre of the building, as
if the bear wished to set all afire and obliterate the traces
of the attack. The wife suffered a heart attack, which she
survived, but never managed to eliminate the depression
that after two years of suffering resulted in suicide. At the
end of the meeting the man, who since that time lives
alone, asked us to sign our names in a notebook in which
he collects the names of all his visitors.
only after a longer stay we were told in secret that
universal belief has it that the calamity must have been
brought about by a black shaman from Tuva, who for
reasons unknown sent the bear. After all, there could be
no other explanation for the fact that the animal passed

1. Departing for wood. Photo
Lech Mróz
2. Atarma, Delgermagnay's
wife. Photo lech Mróz
3. Batzayaa leaving for the
hunt. Photo lech Mróz
4. The herd is back in the
camp. Photo lech Mróz
5. old lady in front of her
tepee. Photo lech Mróz

6. Suyaan and her old shamanic drum. Photo Lech Mróz
7. Half-blind Tsend fortune-telling with 41 pebbles. Photo
lech Mróz
8. Ganzorig with his newly made paraphernalia. Photo lech

Jerzy S. Wasilewski


tume and the drum with incense smoke and sprinkled the
ongons using a juniper branch dipped in sacrificial milk.
From a wooden box she took out a drymba (Jew’s harp) an iron instrument, which played with the lips produces a
sincerely admire the researchers of yore capable ofquiet vibrating sound, allowing the spirits to travel great
gathering so much material about esoteric shamanism.
distances. The arrival of the main spirit, the "lord of onThey managed to overcome barriers and distances creat­ gons”, made it possible to decipher the prediction. Twice
in a row the instrument hurled on the ground fell with the
ed by distrust and alienness, decipher enigmatic symbols,
reconstruct the whole pantheon, and outline a model of tongue upward. This was a good sign.
The shaman got up, reached for a large drum made
the world.
was unable to attain this objective among the Tsaa-for her when she was still a young woman (it cost one
tans and local shamanism still remains a mystery. I was
reindeer), and started to lightly strike it with a wand and
even incapable of resolving the question concerning the
quietly hum. She skipped, turned around once and twice,
extent to which the shamans, declining to answer, con­ and rhythmically shook her head so that the braids cov­
ceal that, which must remain taboo or are concerned with
ering her face trembled. Old age, however, takes its toll:
preserving the aura of mystery required from the commer­ Suyaan did not complete the whole ritual, rapidly finished
cial point of view while additionally masking their incom­ it by sprinkling tea in front of the teepee and through its
upper opening - an offering for the local spirits.
plete knowledge of tradition.
Gandzorig forbids taking photographs in the course of
Her daughter, the kind-hearted, blind Tsend, arranges
the séance (and limits the number of photographs that
a genuine shamanic séance only once every three months,
we are permitted to take the next day to four). He also
but readily tells our fortune to see whether our return trip
refuses to speak about any details of his art - initiation,
will succeed. In the manner of all fortune-tellers in Central
training or the chanted texts, claiming that songs appear
Asia she uses 41 pebbles arranged in piles. Subsequently,
during the séance and that otherwise he is completely
she picks them up and in a gesture of prayer holds them
unfamiliar with them. He seems to be somewhat afraid
next to her face, rearranges them over and over again in
of the anger of the spirits and even more so of his older
three rows (each composed of three piles), brings them
together and once again arranges them. Your legs are light,
brother, Gost.
nothing bad will occur along your way, the personal fate of
Gost ceased being a shaman quite recently - I suspect
that he simply lost faith while observing the manner in
each of you is auspicious, but at the end she adds that while
which this art is becoming crude. He is stern and reti­ returning we should avoid a solitary yurt, otherwise we
shall encounter a “’slight obstacle”. Her son, watching the
cent - several years ago he had the reputation of a “black
shaman”, the sort that could harm his foes and be com­ course of the fortune telling and the configuration of the
pebbles, confirms the warning.
missioned to cast a fatal spell. The ongon no longer comes
Heedless of the divination, on our way back we ate
to him - reveals his sister. He refuses to speak about this
and condemns the commercialisation of shamanism in its
dinner in a lone yurt. Several hours later, just before en­
popular version, a process spreading among the Mongols.
tering the town, our jeep was stopped by the militia: it
After years of illegally practicing shamanism, for which
turned out that the driver did not have a license; if we
he was imprisoned, he still has too much respect for the
had arrived just a few hour earlier we could have saved
spirits to reach for a drum since he no longer believes in
ourselves a lot of trouble.
the effectiveness of such activity.
Predictions can be more or less down to earth, but de­
spite appearances a shaman séance is not merely rendered
The doyenne of the Tsaatan shamans is the 98 yearservice. To my astonishment, this rule is observed by the
old Su-yaan. Although she still threads a needle without
using spectacles, she is not longer able - as she did only a
praxis of old Tsaatan shamans. None had ever been com­
missioned to tell fortune, and the ritual is performed only
few years ago- to conduct hours long séances that demand
on certain days several times a year. Even the sick, arriv­
a constant beating of a drum and dancing, ecstatic leaps,
and the singing and recitation of texts. My head no longer ing for a cure, were expected to wait for that particular
remembers a single thing, I have forgotten all the prayers.
day - a séance in their intention could take place solely
during their absence. Gandzorig’s daughter explains, in
Two years ago, however, the sight of aged Suyaan
wearing a costume almost as old as she, and getting ready secret from her father, that when spirits come to him they
for a shaman séance signified a meeting with an entirely ask why they had been summoned and could punish him
different world. The cap-plume, the long tunic with jan­ for having beckoned them for petty reasons.
This information is at odds with my heretofore image
gling accessories, the high boots with sewn-on likenesses
of bird’s claws, and the large drum with a blurred image of of shamanism as an intervention praxis focused on ad hoc
either a human figure or a tree must have survived con­ assistance rendered to a person suffering from spiritual,
cealed somewhere. With the help of her daughter-in-law psychic or physical disability. I am incapable of sufficient­
the old woman reverently treated all the parts of the cos­ ly verifying it and coming to terms with the conclusion
by all the other teepees and carried out such a carefully
planned attack.


Jerzy S. Wasilewski


that in the case of intense research conducted in a small
community where the number of interlocutors is slight
and each person presents his own, complicated history
it is difficult to achieve tested, infallible generalisations.
There are no effective theses and diagnoses concerning
trends and no facile sweeping statements. Tsend, Gost,
Sandzhin, Bayaraa, Ganbat and others are concrete per­
sons representing individual experiences, knowledge, and
opinions as well as ignorance, forgetfulness, and doubts
that only multiply my questions and uncertainties.

The people of the taiga are scarce: only forty families
breed reindeer in the mountains and over ten are gradu­
ally adopting Mongolian-style husbandry: they descend
to the dells where instead of the sickly reindeer they keep
more resilient cattle and sheep and move from the tee­
pees to warm felt yurts. Young men marry Mongolian
girls. This influx of new blood pleases the parents, but
the young brides anxiously await the moment when they
will be able to return, together with the husbands, to their
We look at photographs of a recent wedding of such
a mixed couple, and at the same time conduct an eth­
nographic interview. The event took place in a teepee
newly erected for the young couple, but the ceremonies
originate in a Mongolian yurt and are borrowed from
Mongolian culture. The girl arrives on horseback, riding
on white felt placed in front of the entrance, where the
husband’s mother welcomes her by sprinkling milk. The
basic dish of the feast is mutton, and carefully measured
out portions are served according to a ceremonial code
describing how each guest is to be treated. The symbolic
test of the young wife involves making “the bride’s tea”:
to light a fire, grind the tea, add the milk, butter, and salt,
and serve it to all the guests. A t the culmination of the
ceremony she receives a piece of rope guaranteeing the
good fortune of the household and symbolising the “reins
of the yurt”, here artificially attached to the teepee. In this
manner, step-by-step, the Tsaatans gradually not only
start speaking Mongolian but also assume the Mongolian
language of symbols.
This is the second great problem facing the Tsaatan
people - the preservation of linguistic distinctness and
ethnic identity. Deprived of contact with Tuva they
slowly begin using Mongolian, the language of schools
and official communication, even within the family. They
have no elite, authorities or leaders concerned with the
retention of the remnants of tradition and self-identifi­
cation. The awareness of ethnic distinction is declining.
The Tsaatans know that they are Tuva but the genuine
Tuva people live abroad; this is why they call themselves
“the people of the taiga” and without using ethnic names
distinguish themselves from the “people of the river”, the
golynkhyn dweling in the Valley.


Ties with relatives in Tuva have been severed. For
decades there have been no local contacts and the fron­
tier remains firmly closed. The exchange of reindeer has
ceased and the influx of new blood has come to a halt, af­
fecting both people and animals. The unpopulated moun­
tainous borderland is a dangerous terrain. Expeditions of
robbers from beyond the border take place - desperate
shepherds, former kolkhoz workers, now left to their own
devices, are forced to obtain horses and cattle in some
way. A few years ago it was even rumored (those in the
know referred to reports of the US State Department)
that Tuva was involved in smuggling Russian weapons
for the Moslem Uyghurs in Chinese Sinkiang.
Despite the fact that reindeer require mountain pas­
tures and become ill in the valleys, where they also fall
prey to wolves, local strategies of survival force the people
of the taiga to descend. The impact of the presence of
Western tourists arriving thanks to travel agencies from
Ulan Bator is growing, and not everyone has the time to
go all the way into the mountains. Sometimes a foreign
charity organization delivers food supplies. The world is
starting to appreciate the need for help, however hum­
ble, in order to enable this small ethnic group to contin­
ue adding the bright colours of their distinctness to the
global palette. Not much is needed - some flour, so that
they would not slaughter the reindeer, tarpaulin for the
teepees, so that they would not seek shelter in yurts and
wooden cottages in settlements, and veterinary assistance
in recreating the herds.
Paradoxically, it could be the incomers - research­
ers, travellers, and tourists - who might provide the last
chance for the people of the taiga to preserve their cul­
ture. Who else will convince the Tsaatan that it is worth­
while to maintain certain elements of their lifestyle - the
teepees, the reindeer, and the shamans and their art?
And who will inform the West that if it is our caprice to
observe a people traversing a path of culture so arduous
and different from ours then we should all support them.

1 J. S. Wasilewski, Podróże do piekieł. Rzecz o szamańskich miste­
riach, Warszawa 1979, p. 5.

Fig. 1. Althoughthis illustration does not come from Rgkopis znaleziony w Saragossie by Jan Potocki I would like; to add the
opening words of the novel: 'The first day Count d’Olavidez had. not: yet established foreign settlements in the 'Sierra Morena—
that lofty chain of mountains that separates Andalusia from La Mancha - which was at that time inhabited solely by smugglers,
bandits and a few gypsies. (...) The traveler who ventured into that wild re f on was assailed by a thousand, terrors that would freeze
the blood of the boldest man. (...) and invisible hands pushed him towards the edge of bottomless precipices.


Wasilewski, Jerzy S., “People of the Taiga, the Reindeer People, the People../ Polska Sztuka Ludowa - Konteksty 2014 Special Issue,” Cyfrowa Etnografia, Dostęp 6 października 2022,

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