Sas Carey, author of Reindeer Herders in My Heart — Stories of Healing Journeys in Mongolia, speaks about one of the last remaining nomadic societies on Earth: their way of life, history, religious practices, strengths, and their determination to keep the way of their ancestors alive in the modern era.
Carey: Dukha is the word in Mongolian for Tyvan, so it’s actually the same word. It represents the people who come from the autonomous region of Russia, which is Tyva.
In the 1940s, during the Soviet period, Tyvans who were in Mongolia were not allowed to go back home because the border closed. This border between Tyva and Mongolia is still closed. Nomadic herders who used to move from one side of the border to the other are forbidden from doing that; they’re forbidden even from hunting on the other side. Sometimes people come from Tyva to steal horses or vice versa; and so the border is not a peaceful place.
SJ: On your second journey to the nomadic reindeer camp [which you recount in your book], you risked traveling eight hours on horseback with a broken foot to reach the herders. Your commitment to these people is clear, and mirrors the commitment your company, Nomadicare, has in bringing Western medical supplies to the people of this region. Can you give a general overview of their lives and what they encounter on a daily basis?
Carey: It’s very important to understand that the herders really love their land, they love their reindeer, and they have chosen this type of life. They are often bilingual, speaking Tyvan and Mongolian, and infrequently Russian. They use satellite dishes and solar panels and sometimes use chainsaws.
They are not adverse to modern life – they simply choose to live the way they live. They live in canvas Siberian urts – like tipis – and sometimes the temperature is 55 below Fahrenheit, but this also is their choice. They have been to school. They have seen other ways of life. 96% of Mongolians are literate, mostly due to the Soviets building schools in each county of Mongolia. Many Dukhas have a television. I have been there two different years when the herders were watching the World Cup. They know politics and vote in Mongolia.
They have chosen this life – which mostly is provided by their reindeer and the land – because it is the land and life of their ancestors, and they believe that is right for them. So in their lifestyle, they carry water from the river and obtain power from the sun. They trade for rice and flour. They cook with wood that they carry long distances on the reindeer and they are very social, going from one urts to the other, visiting their friends and family. They herd the reindeer to pastures where the reindeer can be fed. They bring the reindeer in at night. During the spring season they help with the births. The women milk the reindeer until October.
It is a hard life, on the edge, yes: but it is a beautiful life.
SJ: “Footprints carry a person’s individual vibration, recognized by the spirits.” (Page 27) Can you elaborate on what this means in the context of the Mongolian belief system?
Carey: Footprints, according to Sanjaa [in my book], carry the vibration of the person. This means that we each have an individual energy that is separate and different from every other soul. It is our own personal signature that can be recognized by our footprints. We are unique people with unique energy in each of us.
SJ: You have spent a good amount of time speaking with shamans of the taiga area [such as Sanjaa] about their practices, their beliefs, and how they interact with the workers of modern medicine. What have you taken back with you from your visits with them? How do your Quaker views, your views as a modern woman of medicine, and the views of the shamans interact together on a personal level for you?
Carey: It’s good to know that there are other ways of looking at life and other ways of understanding life. When you live 100% with nature and animals you understand that every single thing has energy to it – that is alive. You have more respect for living things and for each person. Knowing this helps me honor and respect all nature and to understand my place where I am grounded and live in Vermont.
As for modern medicine, I am extremely grateful that I have the option of using modern Western medicine when I need it and of using traditional Mongolian medicine or spiritual medicine when I need that. This is a gift that I wish the whole world could have. I truly believe that everyone in the world could benefit from harmonizing traditional and modern medicines. Traditional medicine brings the concept of balance and health; there are many ways for each of us to reach balance. On the other hand, when there’s a crisis or acute illness I am happy to be able to use Western medicine.
While I have done energy healing in the operating room in our local hospital, I really am grateful to be able to bring Western medicine to reindeer herders so that they have more options. It’s not that I think just Mongolia should harmonize traditional and modern medicine. It’s that Mongolian nomadic herders are a small group to impact. We can demonstrate the benefits of both kinds of healthcare, or shall I say three kinds of healthcare, to more communities through this example.
SJ: What would you share with travelers, or those looking to make a difference in the lives of others, who would like to know more about the reindeer herders of Mongolia? Are there opportunities within Nomadicare to contribute financially or with physical time and energy?
Carey: I’ve been an energy practitioner for 40 years. I believe that this world is very scientific: that everything can be explained by science, but that we don’t have the tools to explain it or test it yet. I feel this way about traditional Mongolian medicine. I feel this way about the work the shamans do. I believe that someday we will have very sensitive tools and very sensitive research that will show exactly, on an atomic level, what shifts when energy is used to heal a person.
I would say that the shaman’s drum is a very powerful example of the traditional Mongolian medicinal work. There are many ways to get into the energy of the spirit and the drum is one way. I have the drum here in my house. I have the costume of the shaman. Once, with a shaman friend, I put it on and beat the drum a couple times. With the vibration of the drum, I could feel my energy shift and that I could connect to the spirit world through that doorway, but I stopped. Without a teacher and without the culture around me, I’m very cautious about using an unfamiliar entryway.
At first, when I went to visit the reindeer herders in 2003, I felt at home right away. I felt that I wanted to understand their lives and get to know them better as people. I bring a connection with the people across the world in my heart and knowing them and their lifestyle dictates my life. I downsized my house. I got rid of a lot of possessions. I simplified my life, so that it wouldn’t seem so very different from theirs. I still appreciate the things that I have here—running water – even hot running water – central heating, a car, and a stove that turns on.
I’m working right now on a film about shamans and the lifestyle of the community of reindeer herders. This will be available for people to learn more about reindeer herders’ lives. Because, as I said in the book, I don’t feel it’s helpful for lots and lots of people to go and visit there, so that there may actually end up being more tourists than there are herders.
Nomadicare is a nonprofit under the auspices of Ecologia, and as a nonprofit we can always use donations – which we gratefully accept. From helping with taking hygiene to kids and reindeer herders to training and supplying local clinics for Nomadic herders around the country of Mongolia – where both Western and traditional supplies are greatly needed – we can use donations to improve healthcare. In the past, we have taken with us a dentist, a doctor and a medical technician. Mostly we work in the area of healthcare to improve the conditions locally for the nomadic herders of Mongolia. Nomadicare’s training model, successfully used in two provinces, could be instated to upgrade the rural clinics in the other 19 provinces of Mongolia. A donation in any amount is certainly useful in improving the healthcare of the nomadic herders. We have a movie on South Gobi herders that you can also purchase, called Gobi Women’s Song, and that’s available through Nomadicare’s website or Amazon.
It would be lovely if the whole country of Mongolia decided to use Nomadicare’s model of harmonizing traditional and modern medicine in each of the county clinics, so that nomadic herders throughout Mongolia could obtain improved healthcare. So far, through training doctors and nurses, Nomadicare impacts the health care of 175,000 herders.
The biggest thing I have brought home with me from the taiga is the gratitude and appreciation for my lifestyle. That I am able to live through a strong thunder-and-lightning storm with a house surrounding me. That I have healthcare available to me and I don’t have to go long distances to get it. I don’t have to make all my food from scratch, although I do make my own food with ingredients from the health food store. As far as spiritually, it really helps me keep things in perspective. I can feel a little of what the shamans feel, and respect that their way is another way of connecting with the spirit. As a Quaker, my way is a much less glamorous and quieter way of connecting.
To visit the Nomadicare website and learn more about Sas Carey, her new book Reindeer Herders in My Heart, the Dukha herders, and how you can help support these amazing people, go to http://www.nomadicare.org.