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China's last dance with the reindeer

Some Ewenki have already given up their nomadic life although they still farm both red deer and reindeer
Some Ewenki have already given up their nomadic life although they still farm both red deer and reindeer  

By Nick Easen
CNN Hong Kong

(CNN) -- From state television to the National People's Congress, China flaunts its ethnic diversity like an Impressionist's palette.

It is likely, however, that one less costume will appear at the NPC's annual meeting this fall when one nomadic tribe will walk out of the northern temperate forests of China for the last time.

Fears have materialized that the Ewenki of Aoluguya, which means "flourishing aspen," will loose their identity when plans take shape to move them from their homes in the mountains.

The Aoluguya Ewenki still earn a living by hunting and raising reindeer in the remote mountain forests and grasslands of Inner Mongolia.

At the end of this summer however, according to China's state news agency, the whole tribe will be relocated to a nothern city, putting an end to their rural lifestyle.

The tribe has existed for over 2,000 years, with shamanism, bear worship, and "wind burial"-- where dead ancestors are wrapped in birch bark and hung in the bows of trees -- important parts of their lives.

The Ewenki have distinctive dances and costumes that can be seen at regional summer shows in the northern areas
The Ewenki have distinctive dances and costumes that can be seen at regional summer shows in the northern areas  

"All the facts reported are consistent from what I know about the situation there," Professor Lindsay Whaley a linguist from Dartmouth College in the U.S., told CNN.

The nomads will have to trade in the their larch pole yurts for bungalows of brick and wood and the ring of the telephone will replace the sounds of the forest birds.

Authorities say that their nomadic home in the Hinggan mountains has become increasingly inhospitable for the Ewenki way of life due to frequent flooding and melting of the underground permafrost.

Logging, however, could play a bigger part in the decision to move the tribe out of the mountains.

"Hunting has become more and more difficult an occupation as logging has obliterated much of their lifestyle," Wong How Man of the China Exploration and Research Society told CNN.

This is one of the reasons why reindeer herding took on a larger economic role in the first place, says Wong.

As hunting diminished, the reindeer became a beast that could be harvested for its pilose antlers-- a prized source of Chinese medicine -- or the animals were sold to zoos.

Distinct and disappearing

The Ewenki hunters are located in primeval birch forests in the northern part of the Hinggan mountains, about 100 kilometers (62 miles) south of the Mo River, at the northernmost tip of China's territory on the Mongolian border.

It is a diverse area of Mongolians, Han Chinese, other minorities such as the Daur and the Oroqen, as well as people of Chinese and Russian descent.

Yet the Ewenki, composed of three fairly distinct groups -- Solon, Khanigan and the Aoluguya -- are quite different in terms of language and culture.

The three dialects spoken belong to the Manchu-Tungusic group of the Altai language family and are one of China's smallest minority groups.

Wong How Man led a National Geographic expedition to the Ewenki region in 1988 and videotaped an interview with the tribes' last shaman, an old lady who has since passed away.

He also photographed a birch bark canoe during his first trip in 1983, yet none were to be seen on his return five years later.

"It dawned on me that the social fabric of the culture and the lifestyle were disappearing very fast," Wong told CNN.

A culture based on reindeer milk, folk songs, birch and larch trees, as well as animal hides, critics say, is already living in the shadow of its imminent death.

Development a double-edged sword

The development of China's fragile ethnic minorities is a double-edged sword that has led, in some cases, to the disappearance of language and culture.

Authorities reach out to provide infrastructure in these remote areas including education on roads, medical care, water, electricity and telecommunications.

Advocators of development say better healthcare and education provide the Ewenki with a better chance of preserving both its numbers and the culture of a largely illiterate populace.

Yet the culture of enthic minorities is diluted in some areas, as migrants move in. Education and media dominated by the overwhelming Han Chinese majority can also easily dwarf the minority cultures.

In the space of one generation the Oroqen minority have changed from speaking predominantly their indigenous tongue to conversing in Chinese.

The growth of local tourism has preserved some aspects of indigenous cultures in China by providing economic returns for preserving a way of life. Yet activities choreographed for visitors rather than as part of daily life don't help to promote the indigenous way of life.

"The government, other NGO's from within and outside China, should together with local inhabitants work hard at preserving and documenting the last remains of this valuable heritage," Wong told CNN.

"Not only because they are unique but they are an integral part of our global heritage," he reiterated.




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