FBC Teacher Explores Reindeer Rendezvous

May 15th, 2005 | By | Category: 16-4: International Indigenous Education, Tribal College News

Dr. Elizabeth McClain, an instructor at Fort Belknap College (Harlem, MT), traveled on horseback last summer to northern Mongolia, Khovsgol aimag Province, to find the Reindeer People, the Tsaatan, who live in structures similar to tepees.         Accompanied by an interpreter and two Mongolian wranglers, she and the other members of the group traveled into one of the harshest, most inaccessible regions of the world.

Tsaatan, who possess few means of outside communication, travel with the seasons — in summer by canoe on rivers. In winter when the rivers freeze, they ride their reindeer.

As a faculty member at a tribal college chartered by the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine people, McClain’s impetus for this journey was twofold. She wanted to see the Mongolian relationship between horse and human, which has never been broken. She also wanted to travel in a part of the earth only recently opened to outsiders and see the natural resources utilized by these last remaining nomadic indigenous people.

Boojum Expeditions, Bozeman, MT, organized this cross-cultural trip with their Mongolian counterpart, Mishig. McClain’s month-long trip was supported by USDA’s Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service. The group traveled to Lake Khovsgol, Mongolia’s deepest lake, which holds 2% of the world’s freshwater. Many of the indigenous people take the same route when winter hits this remote place.

“What a joy to ride 20 to 30 miles a day, crossing creeks and rivers of water so pure and uncontaminated…. with the Mongolian wranglers singing about their mountains, lakes, rivers, and land,” says McClain.

At each mountain top or pass, an Ovoo (a pyramid-shaped collection of stones, wood, and silk scarves) greeted them. At these sacred sites they dismounted and walked three times in a clockwise direction to make an offering. Mongolians hold their mountains sacred and celebrate their land often.

“This heart-centered partnership between human beings, horses, and the environment reinforced the contemporary lessons taught in our tribal college,” says McClain. The expedition has sparked curriculum development in the FBC natural resources program. The college is considering developing an equine program grounded in the culture of the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine, which might utilize the horse as a paradigm, grounding students as they learn modern technological information.

She dreams of the potential of an exchange between her students and the Mongolian people, many of whom expressed keen interest in attending a tribal college in the United States.

For more information and photos from the trip, see the college library website, www.fbcc.edu/library/mclain/mongolia.html.

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