The Last Hunting Tribe
By staff reporter XING WEN
IN the primeval forests of northeastern China live the Evenkis, an ethnic minority of about 30,000 people. Most of them inhabit Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region and the northwestern part of Heilongjiang Province, where winter is long and punishing.
Evenkis are believed to be descendents of the Tungus people, who originated from lands to the east of Lake Baikal thousands of years ago. Later, some of them made their way to the Hulun Buir Grasslands and areas along the Heilong-jiang River in China. Once known as "forest people" and "deer riders," today few Evenkis continue to follow the traditional way of life, supporting themselves in remote mountain forests by hunting and breeding reindeer. Most of them have moved to farming areas and raise horses and cattle, but the Aoluguya Evenki, a branch with fewer than 300 people, are the few still clinging on to the nomadic lifestyle of their ancestors.
The Aoluguya Evenki hunters can be found in the northern part of the Greater Hinggan Range, about 100 kilometers south of the Mohe River, at the northernmost tip of China's territory. It is one of the coldest parts of China, with winter temperatures between -30oC and -40oC. Deep in densely forested mountains, the Aoluguya Evenki's isolation does not prevent the people from being widely known for their honesty, courage, and hospitality. Visitors to their remote home are treated generously with milk tea and venison, as the Evenkis believe that other people won't decently receive them if they cannot be good hosts.
Reindeer play an important part in Aolukua Evenki life, and make ideal companions for this nomadic people in icy forest areas. Over the generations, the Aolukuya Evenkis have developed a method of taming reindeers, which are mostly used for transport. An adult reindeer can carry a load of 35 kg and pull up to twice its own weight. It's light body and large hooves enable it to travel swiftly through dense woods as well as on snowy and boggy ground. Reindeer are well adapted to living in cold regions and rugged conditions, and are capable of smelling out food buried deep under snow. No wonder they are called the "ship in the forest" by the Evenkis.
The Aolukuya Evenkis have a genuine affection for reindeer and regard the animal as part of their own family. Reindeer images are often found on ornaments and everyday objects. Almost every part of the animal is useful to the Evenki's daily life. They eat with reindeer bone chopsticks, drink out of cups made of antlers, and wear clothes of deerskin.
Birch also plays an important role in Evenki life. Birch grows in abundance in the forests of Northeast China and the Evenkis have access to a rich supply. In summer, they replace their yurt's winter covering of deerskin with birch bark. They excel in designing and producing tools using materials from their immediate surroundings, and many of their household utensils and hunting equipment are made of birch bark, ranging from tableware to shoes and toys.
Evenki women start to learn birch craftsmanship as early as seven years old. They harvest the bark without damaging the birch trees and soften it to make it easy to fold by soaking or boiling. The Evenkis then use threads of animal tendons and hair to sew the bark into different products, and then carve or paint decorative patterns on them.
Birch bark products are light, durable and waterproof, qualities valuable to people who have to struggle with a harsh natural environment and are always on the move. Lakeside communities use birch wood to build canoe frames and cover them with bark. Sealed with resin, birch bark canoes provide swift and easy water travel.
Today, these canoes and other birch bark creations play a minor role in Evenki life as modern conveniences have become popular among the community. The appreciation of this centerpiece of Evenki heritage by tourists, however, has ensured the preservation of this old craft. Most tribe women now are employed in creating birch bark souvenirs, which sell briskly in local gift shops.
It is not easy to live as a nomad hunter, which explains the Aoluguya Evenki's small population. It wasn't until the last few decades that the group gained access to medical care and regular schooling. In modern times, forest area and its animal populations are decreasing sharply, threatening the survival of the group's traditional way of life. The Aoluguya Evenkis have passed their fables, ballads and subsistence skills from generation to generation for many centuries by mouth, and have no written language. All these factors have pushed Aoluguya culture to the brink of extinction.
To improve the livelihood of Aoluguya Evenkis, local governments have built infrastructure, such as roads, schools, electricity and telecommunications networks and clinics, in the remote areas where they are settled. A project to build them permanent housing began in 2003, encouraging the country's last hunting tribe and their domesticated reindeer to move out of the woods. They still hunt, but have begun to engage in livestock breeding and small-scale industries, which supplement their incomes outside of the hunting season.
Although life has been greatly improved in the new settlement at the foot of the mountain, some elderly Evenkis remain loyal to the old lifestyle and refuse to leave their mountain homes. Eighty-year-old Maliya Suo is the most revered elder in Aoluguya tribe. For her, the forest is her only home and reindeer are her closest friends. Interaction with the hundreds of reindeer she keeps is the most enjoyable part of Maliya's daily life. In her opinion, reindeer are a gift to the tribe from the Aoluguya ancestors and only in deep mountains can they find their favorite mosses and mushrooms.
This is not a choice popular among the younger generations, whose attachment to the group's past is not as strong and who are more attracted to the modern temptations of the wider world. The younger generations of Maliya's family love the modern life in the new settlement, with its conveniences and amenities, and show no interest in moving back to higher altitudes. This feeling is widely shared by their peers, who believe that life on the move is difficult and outdated.
To save Aoluguya's culture from dying out in modern times, museums have been built to preserve and display Evenki customs. Courses about the Evenkis are offered in schools to stir up children's interest in their own culture. Reindeer breeding and birch bark craftsmanship have been listed as national intangible cultural heritage. Tourism development in recent years has not only boosted the local economy, but has also aroused society's concern about the future of this last hunting tribe. People come to visit the tribe and share their stories, realizing it is not only a unique culture of China, but also an integral part of the heritage of all mankind.
|VOL.59 NO.12 December 2010||Advertise on Site||Contact Us|
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