Before They - Photography Project by Jimmy Nelson

Tsaatan

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Tsaatan
Tsaatan (reindeer people) are the last reindeer herders who survived for thousands of years inhabiting the remotest subarctic taiga, moving between 5 and 10 times a year. Presently, only 44 families remain, their existence threatened by the dwindling number of their domesticated reindeer.
“If there were no reindeer we would not exist”
The Tsaatan rely on the animal for most, if not all, of their basic needs: milk, which is also used to make cheese; antlers, which they use to make tools; and first and foremost, transport. They do not use the reindeer for meat. This makes the indigenous group  unique among reindeer-herding communities.
Artprint available

"The first few days the Tsaatan weren't interested in posing for hours on end in the bitter cold for someone they didn't know."

- Jimmy Nelson

Hatgal Village, Lake Khovsgol Nuur

February 2011

The Tsaatan (reindeer people) of northern Mongolia are a nomadic indigenous culture who depend on reindeer for nearly all aspects of their survival. Inhabiting the remotest subarctic taiga, where winter temperatures can drop to minus 50°C, the Tsaatan are Mongolia’s last surviving reindeer herders. Originally from Siberia, the Tuvan speaking Tsaatan are a Turkic people. For thousands of years, the Tsaatan have survived the harsh conditions of the forested mountains, moving their families, Ortz (tepees), animals and their few worldly possessions between five and ten times a year.

This group of ethnic people has developed a unique culture and tradition in which reindeer play a pivotal role. 

Renchinkhumbe, Khovsgol

February 2011

Shamanism, the traditional spiritual belief system based on nature worship, is still practised among the Tsaatan. To influence and extract meaning from their environment, they perform many mystical holy rituals and use many different magic charms in their daily life, for hunting, calling, preventing the rain etc.

Artprint available

- Jimmy Nelson

Bayau Bulang

February 2011

The customs and traditions of the Tsaatan people are defined by migration, governed by the needs of their reindeer. The Tsaatan rely on the animal for most, if not all, of their basic needs: the milk, which is also used to make cheese; the antlers, which they use to make tools; and first and foremost, transport. Tsaatan ride their reindeer and use them as pack animals.




Tsaatan

February 2011

The Tsaatan’s daily life is perhaps best described as bordering on subsistence living, meaning they survive only by virtue of man’s basic needs: air, water, food, clothing and shelter.

The traditional dwelling of the Tsaatan is the Ortz, a conical tent made of animal skin and wooden poles, which is easy to set up and pack. They certainly cannot be said to lead a sedentary life. Reindeer play an integral role in the day-to-day life of the  Tsaatan. They use their milk as a staple in their diet and creatively use shed antlers for a myriad of different purposes.

Khovsgol Nuur

February 2011

Khovsgol nuur is located in the northwest of Mongolia near the border to Russia, at the foot of the eastern Sayan Mountains. The town of Hatgal is at the southern end of the lake. The lake is surrounded by several mountain ranges. The surface of the lake freezes over completely in winter. The ice cover gets strong enough to carry heavy trucks, so that transport routes were installed on its surface as shortcuts to the normal roads. 

Urtyn duu

February 2011

Urtyn duu (long song) is a means of chronicling local and family history, and is even considered to be a way of communicating with animals.
In an elaborate ritual of song, the Tsaatan compose pleasing melodies to reward individual animals or ‘tell’ the herd of the needs of the young
reindeer.

The yearly Tsaatan reindeer festival highlights the traditions of the indigenous culture and its nomadic lifestyle. It features folk singing, shamanistic rituals, marching reindeer herds, reindeer riding and reindeer polo.

Artprint available

- Jimmy Nelson

Renchinkhumbe, Khovsgol

February 2011

Shamanism, the traditional spiritual belief system based on nature worship, is still practised among the Tsaatan. To influence and extract meaning from their environment, they perform many mystical holy rituals and use many different magic charms in their daily life, for hunting, calling, preventing the rain etc.

Tsaatan

February 2011

The Tsaatan do not use the reindeer for meat, preferring instead to subsist on elk, moose or boars caught in the wilderness. This makes the indigenous culture unique among reindeer-herding communities. Reindeer milk is a favourite beverage and is also used to make yoghurt,  cream, dried curds and cheeses. The milk is preserved in containers dunked into a stream or river: perfect natural refrigeration.


Darkhad Depression, Khovsgol

February 2011

This fantastically beautiful place with some 200 lakes is the lake district of Mongolia at lower altitude than Lake Khovsgol. The lakes are surrounded by steppes, along with deep taiga forests bordering Siberia - Sayan Mountains - and Tuva. 

Tsaatan daily life

February 2011

Men leave early in the morning to lead their reindeer and forage for moss in the surrounding high mountains. The women go about their daily chores and milk the reindeer when they return, while the men chop wood for cooking and warmth in the brutally cold weather. The reindeer are highly domesticated. They roam freely and even enter the ortz without being chased out (except when their antlers are too large).

- Jimmy Nelson

Chiubaa

February 2011

Not surprisingly, the Tsaatan treat their reindeer almost reverently. Their very identity and survival is linked directly to their reindeer herd. The relationship between human and animal is mutual. These indigenous peoples put a lot of effort into finding optimal pastures for the animals,
as well as protecting them from natural predators like wolves.