by GREG SIERING
The closest most of us will ever come to a reindeer is seeing one in a petting zoo. But reindeer were an integral part of everyday life for Indiana University graduate student Jessica Vinson when she lived with the nomadic Dukha people in northern Mongolia.
Vinson’s adventures began when she was in the Peace Corps from 2015–17, supervising volunteer English teachers spread across 21 villages in the Gobi region of southern Mongolia. While there, she got the chance to travel to northern Mongolia, near the Siberian border, a four-day journey into the mountains and the taiga, an ecosystem where the tundra and boreal forest meet—a place Vinson describes as “vast and open and breathtakingly beautiful.” There she met the Dukha, a nomadic people whose way of life is inextricably linked to their reindeer herds, and whose connection to the land and traditional culture fascinated Vinson.
This initial experience with the Dukha was short, but in 2018, Vinson, 28, had an opportunity to revisit the Dukha as part of her graduate studies in anthropology. Living among these nomadic reindeer herders for a month challenged Vinson’s conception of daily life.
“Life in a Mongolian ger (yurt) is very hard,” she says. She learned to chop wood, haul coal and water, and make a fire that would keep her warm on nights that could get as cold as 50 degrees below zero. Most mornings, she got up with the other women at 5 a.m. to milk reindeer, then spent the rest of the day making handicrafts or producing cheese or yogurt from reindeer milk. “Their entire livelihood relies on these reindeer,” she says. The reindeer provide everything from milk to meat to transportation. “They’ve done this for centuries.”
Vinson’s experience taught her how the Dukha identity is shaped by their relationship with the reindeer and the taiga, but she also saw how external influences are challenging a centuries-old way of life.
While tourism brings money to the Dukha, tourists degrade the reindeer habitat, leaving behind trash that cannot be burned because the Dukha consider fire sacred. Tourists bathe in rivers that are just as sacred. Additionally, as more Dukha children are educated in the dominant Mongolian culture, the Dukha language is disappearing and younger generations are leaving for opportunities in urban centers.
Vinson says she hopes to visit other areas of Mongolia to study the connections between environment, culture, and identity. “There is a great deal of importance in protecting these natural environments,” she says. And in understanding these ancient ways of life before they disappear forever.