WCSU Professor Researches Tourist Gift Giving and its Effects on Mongolian Reindeer Herders

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When you think of reindeer, perhaps you think of Christmas or Santa – maybe even Rudolph – or a sleigh. But do you think of Mongolia?

Dr. Jean Hatcherson does.

During the summer of 2016, the WCSU Social Sciences professor dedicated her time to conducting a qualitative research study of the Dukha, better known by some as a traditionally nomadic group of reindeer herders located in the taiga, or forest area, of Mongolia. Dr. Hatcherson’s research, funded by the American Center of Mongolian Studies, focused on the effects of tourism on the Dukha. Specifically, her study focused on the trend of tourist gift giving and its impact on the Dukha community.

Every year, tourists flock to the taiga to witness the Dukha people and their interactions with reindeer. A unique culture, the Dukha’s nomadic lifestyle is defined by their reindeer, which serve as a traditional part of their heritage and collective identity. The Dukha live in close camaraderie with the reindeer, which are domesticated and belong to the community, and they do not harm their companions. The reindeer can be ridden and petted by the Dukha, who subsist off of the milk and associated dairy staples provided by the animals. In turn, the reindeer require forest vegetation, found at varying elevations throughout the year, to survive. These needs of the reindeer drive the movement of the Dukha community. During the winter months, they occupy the taiga at a lower elevation, but when summer comes, the group moves to a higher elevation and cooler temperatures. It is here, in the taiga, that tourists can observe the Dukha way of life.

Interested in the Dukha for many years, Professor Hatcherson was finally able to make the trek to the taiga to conduct her research. The professor’s studies prior to the trip revealed a trend that involves tourists bringing material gifts to the Dukha. What these gifts may be depends on what information each tourist reads on travel guides or blogs, and can range anywhere from coloring books and candy for children to alcohol and cigarettes for shamans. Though the thought is appreciated and the custom of gift giving is a cultural norm in the lives of the Dukha, the WCSU professor has found that the act of giving a material gift might be more complicated than it seems.

The idea that the Dukha are a “tribal” group is perpetuated among many travel circles, which Professor Hatcherson believes is linked to the trend of material gift giving. This idea prepares tourists to expect a group of almost child-like people wearing reindeer skin clothing upon arrival to the taiga. Dr. Hatcherson has seen many pictures like these online, but these pictures don’t seem to represent the reality of the Dukha. “The Dukha are often presented as a primitive, disappearing tribe instead of a group that includes veterinarians, botanists, factory managers, horse wranglers, tourist guides – people with an education,” the professor stated. It seems that a general lack of knowledge guides most tourists’ expectations and influences their interactions with the Dukha. As Professor Hatcherson explained, “on the one hand [gift giving] is good because the Dukha are out there, and if they haven’t been able to make it to town, which is a long way from a paved road – twelve hours – you appreciate people bringing things up. Useful things. But while that’s welcome, and it is expected to give gifts when visiting somebody, it appears the main thing the Dukha would like is to be paid for services.”

You might wonder what that means or why it’s better, but it makes sense when approached from a cultural anthropology standpoint. Said the professor: “I think tourists often don’t realize that the Dukha can be hired as guides and wranglers and in some cases translators; that some Dukha do not herd reindeer but work as medical doctors and teachers. So, the gift giving is good, but actually employing the Dukha who are in the tourist industry is even better. They can then represent themselves to tourists as well.” Whereas usually others represent the Dukha, in this case the Dukha would be better able to represent their own people, and with a higher degree of accuracy.

Most tourists, either traveling on their own or with a large touring agency, often can’t verify a contribution to the community. Solo travelers aren’t required to and often don’t pay the herders for anything, despite achieving their goal to observe the Dukha culture. While to some this is an innocent action, it often leads to isolation and some cultural faux pas. “For example, the water is very sacred,” the professor explained. “If you’re getting water, you have to bring it to your urts or your tent, so you put it into a pail. You get the dipping cup, put the water into your container and carry it back. People were washing their hair, their clothes in the water source, which is a violation – a cultural violation if you will – in the community.”

Though well intended, most tourists likely have a culturally incomplete picture of the Dukha, in which material gift giving is only a small part. When considering the impact of tourism on the Dukha, the issue becomes less about material gifts and more about cultural awareness. “Even if the Dukha are seen as ‘tribal,’ then bringing gifts is what? Enough?” the professor hypothetically posed. Utilizing services from the Dukha and paying them directly not only offers more cultural interaction and knowledge, but also provides verifiable and direct contribution to the community and a more consistent means of economic stimulus. For the Dukha, this would be a true gift.

For people like Dr. Hatcherson, the ideal situation would be that everyone works together to improve tourism and its impact. What she would like to see happen for the Dukha is the development of a regulated tourist program that is capable of consistently giving back to the community. In 2009, a program of this nature began in the nearby town of Tsagaan Nuur with the Tsataan Visitors and Community Center. “The idea was that tourists would go there first – there’s some lodging there that is maintained by a Dukha community member. There’s a lot of interesting material there about how to be culturally sensitive and mindful of the people. It’s a wonderful idea. However, it’s not being maintained.” The original idea was that all of the Dukha who earned income through the center would put a portion of the proceeds toward a communal fund. Although initially successful, the money disappeared, so the financial aspect of the program is defunct. Badly neglected as a result, the program now only consists of an on-staff Dukha facility caretaker, whose income comes from tourists who arrange lodging and transport horses through the center.

If a regulated program were established, it would make a tangible difference in the lives of the Dukha. “Everybody loves a gift of course – but I guess it seems like the whole reason for going and making this very long trip is to see the Dukha with their reindeer. But ostensibly, you could see them and leave, and they would get nothing from you. It’s just not organized very well,” Professor Hatcherson stated. Some complete their trek to the taiga and give or buy nothing because in their minds they have already paid a tourist organization. It isn’t understood that in some cases the Dukha have received no compensation. While some organizations do everything properly, the process is inconsistent due to the lack of official guidelines regarding visits to the Dukha community.

It’s a situation that most in the area would like to see improve. Remarkably however, Professor Hatcherson has observed that the Dukha are a wonderfully positive people who remain optimistic about tourism. “The Dukha really like learning about other people’s cultures, and they like telling people about their own. One woman told me she wished people would bring pictures and tell her about where they’re from, because they’d like to learn. But really it’s all about being respectful.”

Despite being represented by others as a “lost tribe” or “disappearing people,” Professor Hatcherson has found that in most respects the Dukha are quite the opposite. Tourists are often surprised to find that the Dukha carry mobile phones, and that their homes in town are equipped with television sets, solar panels, or satellite dishes. Some Dukha even own motorcycles. Evidently, the Dukha don’t seem to be lost or disappearing. In fact, it seems that they feel very settled into their place in the world. Daily life goes on with their reindeer, herding them from place to place. Mothers and children move back and forth between the town and the taiga year-round. From August to June, and on some holidays, families stay in the town nearby. Young children attend school and their mothers look after them. As children age, many board at their schools, and several go on to study at universities away from home. Meanwhile, a community schedule allows families to share reindeer care responsibilities like herding, grazing, milking, and making the yogurt, cheese, and milk tea. In the summer, the children look forward to returning to the taiga to enjoy the time when everyone can just be together.

So as we experience the holiday season and our minds turn to reindeer and gifts, perhaps now – thanks to Dr. Hatcherson’s research – we may think of the Dukha people and remember that although material gifts are wonderful, maybe all any person wants for the holidays is a little understanding. Maybe it’s the influence of the reindeer, but the Dukha seem to know exactly what the holidays are all about.

 

Dr. Jean Hatcherson is a Sr. Adjunct at Western Connecticut State University, lecturing for both Sociology and Anthropology courses. Her studies and travels have taken her to 84 countries scattered across territories on 6 continents. She currently acts as faculty advisor for Rotaract and the Humanitarian Travel Club at WCSU. In 2008, she founded Humanitarian Travel Abroad, an organization that makes trips available to volunteers of all ages. In 2012, she established Corawill, Inc., a charitable organization dedicated to support programs aiding underserved children worldwide.

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