Tsaatan people are reindeer herders and live in northern Khövsgöl Aimag of Mongolia. Originally from across the border in what is now the Tuva Republic of Russia, the Tsaatan are one of the last groups of nomadic reindeer herders in the world. They survived for thousands of years inhabiting the remotest subarctic Ulaan taïga, moving between 5 and 10 times a year.
The reindeer and the Tsaatan people are dependent on one another. Some Tsaatan say that if the reindeers disappear, so too will their culture. Reindeers provide them with milk, cheese, meat, and transportation. They also sew their clothes with reindeer hair, reindeer dung fuels their stoves and antlers are used to make tools. They do not use their animals for meat. This makes their group unique among reindeer-herding communities.
As the reindeer populations shrink, only about 40 families continue the tradition today. Their existence is threatened by the dwindling number of their domesticated reindeers. Many have swapped their nomadic life for urban areas. In June 2014, after days spent horse-riding across the Ulaan taïga from the village of Tsagaan-Nuur, near Khövsgöl lake, we had the chance to meet them.
A residential group consisting of several families is called “olal-lal” (meaning “them” in the Tsaatan language). They usually refer to a specific group by the name of a representative member.
Reindeer pelts are used for making winter coats. Bags, mats for travelling, 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.
The reindeer are domesticated and belong to the household. The community’s chores and activities are centred around the care and feeding of their reindeer. Herding tasks are shared amongst the camp with children at a young age learning to care for the reindeer and keeping them safe.