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About the Tribe
Originating in Russia, the Dukha (or Tsaatan in the Mongol language) are more similar to the Sami — the reindeer herders who live in the Scandinavian peninsula — than to the Mongolians of the steppe. The nomadic shepherds move with the ‘ortz’, inverted cone-shaped tents, similar to the tepees of the ancient Native Americans, following the reindeer cycles.
These animals cannot live in the steppe or along the valleys due to the high temperatures. The Tsaatan live like this throughout the year with temperatures that reach between – 40 ° and -50 °. Milk is a precious food source to compliment their hunting; this milk is used for the production of cheese and for suutei chai, or milk mixed with black tea. The harsh environment means these people can not practice agriculture. They largely eat meat. They don’t practice agriculture because of the unfavorable environment, limiting themselves to eating only meat.
They tame the reindeer and break them to be ridden when they are very young, loading them with a weight of at least 20 kilos in the first year, moving to about 40 kilos in the second year, able to be ridden by age five.
Few Tsaatan remain. Their population today numbers only 44 families (about 200 – 400 people). They moved from Russia to Mongolian territory toward the end of World War II and tell of how they created positive ties with the Mongol state.
Never moving from the taiga, they remained a separate group, compared to the inhabitants at the bottom of the valley or in the steppe, and are distinguished by their great knowledge of the territory. Their faces are marked by harsh winters and working in the sun gives them darker skin and a weathered physique.
One of the most anticipated moments of the nomads is the meeting in front of the fire. In fact, it is usual to make a circle around the fire inside the tepee and share a hot meal, always accompanied by airag. With sheepskin and warm blankets to shelter from the cold, we close our eyes.
What remains of the Tsaatan pass on their beliefs, from generation to generation, invoking with songs their deceased ancestors.
Importance of Animal Products
Dukhas live differently from most other people in the world. The Dukha's sense of community is structured around the reindeer. The reindeer and the Dukha are dependent on one another. Some Dukha say that if the reindeer disappear, so too will their culture. The reindeer are domesticated and belong to the household. In many ways they are treated like family members and shown respect. The community's chores and activities are centered around the care and feeding of their reindeer. Dukha communities on the taiga are usually a group of tents of two to seven households that move camp to find optimum grazing for the reindeer. Herding tasks are shared amongst the camp with children at a young age learning to care for the reindeer and keeping them safe. The girls and younger women do the milking and make yogurt, cheese, and milk tea. Young men and women and elders help with herding. A few of the men stay with the reindeer in the winter months, living in the open air with their herds to protect them from wolves and other predators. The men also make and repair their hunting tools and reindeer saddles and carts. Since they rarely kill a reindeer, they supplement their diet of reindeer milk products by hunting wild animals from the forest.
The use and management of reindeer
Dukha raise their reindeer primarily for milk. Reindeer milk, reindeer yoghurt and reindeer cheese are the staples of the Dukha diet. Only a few reindeer are slaughtered during the year for meat and pelts. The reindeer also provide transportation. Because the taiga area is typically hilly and covered with forest, reindeer are not used for pulling sledges, but for riding and as pack animals. They take the Dukha for daily grazing, hunting, the collection of firewood, seasonal migrations, visiting relatives and friends, and traveling to the sum for shopping and trade. A 1.5 m long thin stick in the right hand is used as a whip. A rider gets on a tree stump and jumps onto the reindeer from the left side with the stick in the left hand, then transfers the stick to the right hand once the rider is mounted. The Dukha begin training reindeer for riding when the reindeer (called dongor at this age) are two years old. Adults are too heavy for dongor, so it is usually the children’s job to train them. Adults ride on hoodai (three-year-old reindeer) or older ones. They regularly ride on zari (castrated males). Special training is not necessary to train the reindeer as pack animals. The male reindeer usually carry loads weighing about 40 kg (88 lbs.), while females carry up to 30 kg (66.1387 lbs.).
Reindeer pelts are used for making winter coats. Bags, mats for traveling, and shoes are also made from the skin. Material for shoes is taken from the skin on the reindeer's shin. Reindeer antlers are ingredients in traditional Chinese medicine and have been supplied to China since 1975. During the summer, the antlers are cut off. The reindeer’s two front legs are tied to one hind leg to make the animal fall. The Dukha cut the antlers with a small saw. Because reindeer cannot properly regulate their body temperature when they lose their antlers and easily become exhausted, pregnant female reindeer never have their antlers removed.
Importance of Plants
Hunguun is one of the traditional meals that Dukha people consume as part of their everyday diet and the dish has been passed down from generation to generation. The dish is favored for its health benefits, pure ingredients, and its portability during hunting and migration. Ingredients: Reindeer milk, flour, salt, and water. Preparation: Mix all the ingredients into a firm dough, forming it into a round shape with a hole in the middle, not unlike a large bagel. Method: Make a large fire, with lots of wood, in order to create a good supply of ash. Place the round shaped dough into the ash and let it lie there, cooking for 30 minutes. Then turn it over and repeat on the other side for another 30 minutes. Remove from the ash and it is ready to eat immediately.
THE WILD YELLOW POTATO
The wild yellow potato grows in the forest and taiga regions with flower blossoms of a white or purple color. It starts growing in spring, and matures in autumn in mountainous areas and/ or mountain slopes and is characterized by its bright crimson flowers. The wild potato is collected in autumn and is used in winter, spring and summer. Before rice and flour, it was an especially important source of carbohydrates. The wild yellow potato is divided into male and female potatoes. The male potato has a ball on the top of the stalk. It also has widely spread leaves on the top of the stalk, which can be used in a meal either dried or not. The wild yellow potato is said to prevent fatigue and help those who consume them live a longer life. Preparation 1. Gather the wild yellow potato and clean. 2. Separate them from one another and boil them with water. If you decide to use it in winter, you will dry them in the sun for 3-5 days. Wild yellow potatoes can be used with the following meals: Soups, fried vegetables, dumplings and mashed with milk