At Sixth Tone, Matthew Walsh offers a fascinating profile of the Evenki, one of 55 recognized minority groups in China. Once a semi-nomadic tribe who raised and herded reindeer in closely-knit communities connected via the male bloodline, today’s Evenki (who have been relocated closer to urban centers by the Chinese government three times since 1949) still herd reindeer and harvest coveted and pricey antlers, but they’re doing it as a performance to profit from tourism.
The meddling is not without its cost; the habitat the government allows the reindeer to occupy does not produce enough natural food for them and they’re surviving on feed that herders buy, which may lead to extinction. Serial relocation and government subsidies are destroying the traditional Evenki way of life, as well as their culture and language.
Our encounter with He Xie showed us that there’s a fine line between authentic Evenki culture and tourism-inspired performance.
When we meet him, the slightly stooped 56-year-old is in effervescent form, reminiscing about his past life as a hunter and wheezing out a few songs on his harmonica. We’ve heard that He Xie plans to saw off some antlers this year — reindeer antlers grow back annually — and ask if he’s heading into the mountains soon so we can film him. “I can take you tomorrow,” he replies.
Then follows the bloody episode in the forest — a rare and visceral sight, one that, as journalists, we feel privileged to witness. But on the way back to the truck, He Xie’s friend takes one of us aside. “That’ll cost you 1,000 yuan,” he says, going on to imply that without the payment (equivalent to about $150), He Xie will become angry and unstable.
Naturally, we protest. We tell him that He Xie understood we were journalists before we left, and that it is unethical for us to pay for interviews. But the man is unmoved. “That’s the price. You’ve brought him all the way out here; you’ve taken up his time and expertise,” he says, naming other, more prominent media outlets who he alleges paid more for a formal interview. “He wouldn’t have done it otherwise.” Feeling like we have no other option, we pay up.
On the way home, He Xie slumps in the sunlit passenger seat of the truck that brought us into the forest. He slurps a can of warm beer — his sixth or seventh of the day — as he turns his lined face in our direction, dozily telling us stories of his upbringing spent tending reindeer in the wilderness, decades before he got rich selling his culture to tourists, journalists, and filmmakers. It feels a little like he’s throwing in an extra service.
But He Lei has never known that way of life. Since the 1950s, three government-sponsored resettlement campaigns — most recently in 2003 — have put Evenki reindeer herders into permanent accommodation in increasingly urban areas, cutting them off from their former herding grounds and straining their strong spiritual ties to both their reindeer and the forest. The social systems that underpinned their former lives have been superseded by modern housing, modern economies (first planned, then market-driven), modern education, and modern health care.
He Lei grew up in the original Aoluguya — the second government-built Evenki settlement around 250 kilometers from Genhe — and moved to New Aoluguya as a teenager. The government termed this 2003 resettlement “ecological migration,” claiming that the policy was essential to protect both the Greater Hinggan Mountains and Evenki cultural heritage.
The state argued that the move would allow a remote, impoverished group of herders to easily access the market economy, earn higher incomes through tourism, and preserve the unique traits of their ethnic minority. But to some Evenki people, it pushed an already-ailing culture into terminal decline.
“What ethnic minority?” asks He Lei. “There’s nothing left. People still talk about protecting our ethnic stuff, our ethnic distinctions. Protection my ass. There’s nothing left. We don’t raise deer; we don’t use them for anything. It’s gone.