By Brandon Gillet
Reindeer are important to Santa at this time of year, but one nomadic society in Mongolia relies on them all year long. Anthropology graduate student Nicolas Rasiulis spent four months living with them last year. Instead of egg nog, he drank reindeer milk tea.
From August to December 2014, Rasiulis went to Tsagaannuur, in Khuvsgul province, Mongolia, to live with a reindeer-herding nomadic people called the Dukha community.
The experience, which was sparked by his research into an extreme canoe-camping trip in Mongolia as an undergraduate, has today become the basis of his master’s thesis.
“I just thought of going canoeing in Mongolia as a complete shift in my way of doing research,” said Rasiulis. “So I started watching documentaries on Mongolia to do some ‘productive procrastination’ and I saw these reindeer herders.”
When he saw a family of herders in a snippet of a documentary, he fell in love with the idea of people living in natural harmony with reindeer in the wilderness. He had been curious about nomadic lifestyles, and he decided that living with and observing the Dukha would be a great way to experience this.
“Not only do they live this life, but they do it with animals like dogs and horses as well as reindeer, which adds so much to their deep relationship with the environment,” he said.
At first, he intended to examine the symbiotic human-animal relationship, but his research grew to include a study of how the Dhuka community move and perform their daily, life-sustaining tasks.
“It’s like a nexus of conditions that are never the same; even familiar challenges are always new,” he said.
The main goals of the Dukha are to raise and keep enough animals to sustain their families. The reindeer are used primarily for milk, which is made into tea. According to Rasiulis, the tea serves as water to them, and is also used for religious and spiritual rituals. They eat the reindeer meat, although sparingly, and use the antlers for hooks, art and other trinkets. They even use reindeer to move their camps by either riding or packing them with belongings.
Rasiulis made himself useful to the Dhuka by repairing boots.
“I was the boot repairman, but that was just because I had great glue,” he joked. “And experience in applying it.”
Going forward, Rasiulis is currently crafting a precise thesis that will expand upon his research into the Dukha reindeer herders, and possibly be the subject of a PhD within the Faculty of Social Sciences.
“I want to thank my supervisor Julie Laplante: she gives so much of herself to her students and allows them the freedom to improvise,” said Rasiulis.