In March 2013, Santis Productions
President Ed Nef approached The Center for Circumpolar Studies in hopes of generating interest and academic support for establishing a culture and language program around the summer grazing grounds traditionally used by Mongolia’s small population of Tuvan reindeer herders, or the Dukha, as they call themselves. Having worked with Nef previously, CCS Trustees were familiar with his extensive experience in Mongolia (formerly with language instruction and more recently with the award-winning documentary Mongolia: Mining Challenges a Civilization
), his obvious love of the country and its people, and his natural enthusiasm for tackling large projects. We were both delighted and honored to become involved in such an exciting endeavor, and have recently accepted a contribution to help fund CCS participation in establishing the program this summer.
CCS Trustee Victoria Hust will soon be traveling to Mongolia to participate, first, in the international task force gathering in Ulaanbaatar for education conferences and, then, in the summer fieldwork and language instruction to be conducted on the taiga in the Khovsgol Province, in northwestern Mongolia, near the Siberian border.
During the days of Ghingis Khan, a Tuva nation straddled what is now the Mongolian/Russian border. Disapproving of this nation within two nations, the Soviets established a border, which was strictly enforced, separating the Tuvan speakers inhabiting Mongolian territory from those remaining in Russia. The small groups trapped in Mongolia, suddenly isolated from their more numerous Russian kin, were reluctantly accepted as Mongolian citizens. Despite attempts to cling to their traditions and customs, their demise seemed inevitable as they were left without the possibility of contact with the larger Tuvan community remaining in Russia.
Over the next fifty years, until the fall of communism, Tuvan culture slowly diminished in Mongolia, but it also managed to achieve a character of its own, apart from the Russian relatives, becoming known to Mongolians as Tsaatan, or reindeer people. Tuvans comprise the smallest ethnic minority within Mongolia. Estimates indicate that there are between 44 and 56 Dukha households in the Khovsgol Province, with the total population estimated to be in the range of 200 to 300 people. With few of the younger generation conversant in Tuvan, many of the elders are fearful that their language and culture will soon be completely forgotten.
CCS will be collaborating with Oyunbadam, a native Tuvan speaker who is also a trained teacher, in her efforts to establish a language program in the traditional summer camps on the taiga, where the nomadic reindeer herders gather in extended family groups for the brief summer period. The language program will encourage rich and meaningful use of the native language within an authentic cultural setting and assist in transmission of culturally relevant information from elders to the younger generation.
In this first summer, the language program will serve approximately 60-65 students, aged 8-15 years. The students will be taught vocabulary and grammar and will be encouraged to use the Tuvan language in writing and in their daily communications within the camp. By enlisting the participation of elders, the program will encourage traditional activities, customs and games, thus strengthening ethnic values and identity, which will also be reinforced by introducing the students to various genres of Tuvan literature. Basic Oral language Documentation (BOLD) techniques will be used to record portions of the language training as well as to document summer camp activities with significant cultural relevance. A documentary film crew from Santis Productions will also be present to record and document aspects of this innovative program.
International academic interest in this proposed language program has encouraged additional support within Mongolia, where the President recently issued a proclamation announcing governmental support for saving the Tuvan language and culture in Mongolia, focusing especially on the Dukha’s rights to receive education and committing his government to keep ancient cultures and traditions alive. The Mongolian Ministry of Education has also committed to provide assistance after the program has been established this summer.
CCS will take the lead in assembling academic focus on the Tuvan culture and language. Building on Mongolian experience over at least a decade, and drawing on experience from this fieldwork, CCS proposes to develop courses to integrate this program into the development of curriculum broadly focused on the Circumpolar North, where reindeer and reindeer-herding cultures are significant areas of interest. The stature and credibility brought to the program through collaboration with international organizations, such as CCS and Santis Productions, will encourage continued interest from the Mongolian government, and the documentary film will publicize the program in Mongolia and internationally. It is our hope that integration of this program into the broader curriculum at CCS will assist in recruiting scholars interested in the Tuvan culture and language, and CCS will encourage and nurture participation of native Tuvans as opportunities are developed.