EWENKI REINDEER HERDERS & OROQEN NOMADIC HUNTERS OF MANCHURIA

In the frozen winter of 1983, How Man embarked on a National Geographic Expedition to Manchuria. The aim of this expedition was to study two little-known ethnic groups, the Ewenki and Oroqen, who lived along the Sino-Soviet border.

Braving winter snow and sub-zero weather, at times lower than -30º C without accounting for the wind-chill factor, the expedition succeeded in documenting these two minority groups, which were on the verge of cultural eclipse. The traditional cultures of both groups were fast disintegrating with the onslaught of the logging industry. Young men of both groups were recruited as workers in the forestry sector. The loss of habitat and the decimation of game animals by modern rifles and traps also made hunting, which was once the mainstay of their livelihoods, more and more difficult to sustain.

For the Ewenki, interviews were conducted with key members of the tribe about their recent history, their migration pattern, and the state of the last and only herd of domesticated reindeer in China, totaling about 1,000 animals. The reindeers were traditionally used as pack animals when the Ewenki went about the forest in search of new hunting grounds.

With the gradual passing of hunting as a main vocation, the Ewenki began to lead a more sedentary life, further motivated by a new government policy. A new village was built for them to which to relocate, in the name of providing better civic services like education and health care. Soon, the conical birch-covered lodging, a look-alike of the Native American tee pee, could hardly be seen anymore. Only one last specimen of the birch-bark canoe remained. How Man managed to salvage many Ewenki artifacts and utilitarian items, some from the trash pile. This initial collecting effort ushered in a later major ethnographic collection effort by CERS, which included focus on many of China’s minority groups.

The fate of the neighboring Oroqen people (also spelled Oronqen and Oroquen) was not much better, and the documentation and collecting effort was extended to cover this unique Tungus group, known as one of the best hunters on horseback.

In the winter of 1988, following the founding of CERS, we launched another expedition to film Nuina, the last woman Shaman of the Ewenki. Traveling with packed reindeer through deep snow, we followed Lajimi, the Ewenki’s most experienced and capable hunter, on a mainly fruitless hunting trip. This trip may have provided the last records of the religious and hunting culture of the Ewenki. More artifacts were collected, which today may comprise one of the most complete collections of the Ewenki’s material past.

Two more winter trips were made in 2005 and 2012, both with the objective of filming to compare the past to the present. To date, CERS has produced two edited films on the Ewenki reindeer herders, one from 1988 and another from 2012.

The recent history of both the Ewenki and Oroqen people have a very important message for us all - cultural heritage, once vanished, can never be brought back.