Tibetan Nomads

Snuffing Out the Nomads

Imagine that your hometown has been invaded by a military force that dictates all the resources—the water, the mining, all the natural resources—will be diverted for the exclusive use of the occupying power, and the military. Key resources will be exported back to far-away cities. Rare resources like uranium and lithium. And everything will be conducted in a language you don't understand—the language of the invaders.

Sounds like fiction? It is happening today in Tibet. But not only are Tibet's resources being shifted out, the Tibetan way of life is being snuffed out. Tibetan nomads, who for centuries have been at the heart of the traditional Tibetan economy through herding of yaks and cashmere goats, are being targeted for 're-settlement'. Across the Tibetan plateau, hundreds of thousands of nomads are being shifted off their traditional grassland habitat. 'Re-settlement' is little more than a euphemism for cultural genocide—for snuffing out Tibetan nomad culture.

In October 2008, an official report issued in Sichuan Province announced that 470,000 nomads would be resettled, out of a total nomad population estimated at 530,000. The report cited 219,000 nomads as having 'no fixed residences' and 254,000 'living in shanty homes'. In 2004, a document from an official source in Qinghai Province was somewhat blunter—it said that all the nomads of Amdo were to be resettled by the year 2011.

One reason quoted in official Chinese reports justifying the resettlement of nomads is 'inconvenience'—how nomads lead a very harsh life without access to proper education or medical facilities. It is a harsh life, yes—but it is one that the nomads have chosen—a life of great freedom under vast open skies. As for the medical facilities promised: these are very shoddy at best in rural Tibet, with dismal standards, while 'education' amounts to little more than attempts at Chinese indoctrination of Tibetan youth. In fact, there is not much of anything in these villages. It is all window dressing to exclude the nomads from the grasslands.

Where the nomads end up is in a drab village of concrete hovels—a concrete ghetto where there is little chance of making a decent living. In Tibet, being a nomad is not a job you decide upon—it is a job you are born into. These are proud, very tough people who cherish their freedom. They are not used to being beggars, which is basically what they become when they shift to resettlement ghettos—they rely on government hand-outs to survive. There is no attempt at job retraining in these places.

For centuries, Tibetan nomads have worked in harmony with their environment, acting as virtual stewards of the vast grassland regions of Central Tibet, Amdo (northeast) and Kham (southeast). They look after the grasslands because they know they must use these grasslands again. Yet Chinese academic papers talk of putting a halt to grazing to 'restore' the 'degraded' grasslands. Climate change is most likely the real culprit here, but officials are trying to pin the blame the nomads and their yaks for over-grazing, saying this is destroying the grassland habitat. A Western researcher, Julia Klein (from Colorado State University), took issue with this stance, citing the fact that the Tibetan Plateau "is a system that has evolved with grazing: the removal of grazing from the system could have profound ecological consequences."

Human Rights Watch: 3-minute video about forced relocation of Tibetan farmers and herders

Blackfoot Nation

A case of cultural genocide

If what is happening to the nomads of Tibet sounds familiar, there are parallels to many other indigenous groups whose rights have been trampled on by foreign invaders. Take the case of the Blackfoot Nation, whose territory once extended from present-day Yellowstone (Montana, USA) to Edmonton (Alberta, Canada). In the US, the Blackfoot Indians went from highly self-sufficient and fiercely independent people to living like paupers within a few decades around the mid-1800s. These proud people were turned into beggars in their own lands: their traditional culture was decimated. When the bison disappeared from the prairies—hunted to the brink of extinction by European-American shooters—the Blackfoot way of life came to an end.

The bison and the yak are very similar animals—sharing the same scientific classification, Bos (or bovine). Both are large herbivores, feeding off grasslands. The Blackfoot Indians, however, did not herd bison—they hunted them. Blackfoot people were nomadic, following the wild bison herds. Up until the 1850s, bison remained plentiful in Blackfoot Nation territory. The bison provided excellent nutritional value: practically every part was edible, including the brains, liver, kidneys and bone marrow. The meat itself was either roasted or boiled. Care was taken to prepare pemmican, a preserved dried meat, in advance of the long, harsh winter. Pemmican was made by taking layers of dried meat and separating them with back fat, wild peppermint and berries. Using steel knives obtained through the fur trade, the Blackfoot made beautiful, long-wearing, waterproof clothing from bison skins. Horsegear was made from bison hides, including saddles, bridles and shoes for sore-footed horses. Arms were made from rawhide—including the strong shields constructed from the bull's neck. The Blackfoot transformed bison skins into lodging and furniture. Soft-dressed bison skins without the hair were used for lodges (tepees). The bison-hide covering for a lodge weighed about one hundred pounds. When a village moved to a new hunting ground, the lodge covering was packed up and stowed in a travois, also made of rawhide, along with the rawhide bedding.

The rapid demise of the huge bison herds is a complex story. In part, it was due to a scorched-earth policy adopted by Euro-American settlers: a deliberate tactic to deprive the Indians of their prime food source. In major part, it was due to the greed of hunters, who killed bison for the lucrative trade in bison robes and hides. In 1850, an estimated 10 million bison roamed the Great Plains. By 1890, fewer than 2,000 bison survived on these plains: the bison had become a museum piece.

During the mid-1800s, the Blackfoot in the US faced a dwindling food supply, as European-American hunters were taking too many bison, and settlers were encroaching on their territory. The Blackfoot were forced to depend on the United States government for food and other supplies. When starving Blackfoot Indians raided some settler bases, retaliation was swift. Blackfoot villages were attacked. Land was confiscated. The Indians were moved onto reservations. Their numbers were decimated by measles and smallpox—diseases introduced by American settlers and against which the Blackfoot had no immunity. In 1898, the US government dismantled tribal governments and outlawed the practice of traditional Indian religions. They required Blackfoot children to go to boarding schools, where they were forbidden to speak their native language, practise customs, or wear traditional clothing. A similar fate befell the Blackfoot Indians in Canada, though they fared better on reservations there.

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