In the northernmost region of the Sayan Mountains, located on the edge of the Siberian Frontier lives a small band of nomadic reindeer herders known as the Dukha. Dukha people practice shamanism. Their traditional practices represent the oldest variant of shamanism found in Mongolia. In this band of 100 nomads lives Saintsetseg, their shaman. Her mother had been a very famous shaman known as Bobo. Her grandfather was also a shaman, as was her uncle.
When Saintsetseg was about seven years old she became ill. Her knees were very painful and she couldn't move. She had unexplained fevers, dizziness, and headaches. She developed a mysterious heart problem and her legs became paralyzed. When she was 37 years old, still suffering from poor health, she received a message from heaven that she had been chosen to become a shaman. When she agreed to take on this responsibility, all the sickness left her.
Most of the people who turn to Saintsetseg for help come because of soul loss. As she explains it, "the person looks like they are alive, they can speak and talk, they seem alive, but that person's soul can be lost." Saintsetseg communicates with the spirits and performs a shamanic ceremony to get the person's soul back into their body.
When making contact with the spirits she dresses in a special ceremonial dress and uses her drum. Her drum is covered in reindeer hide. The reindeer is her spirit's transportation to carry her to her Ongat spirit guides. She says the drum helps her to go to other worlds. When she starts the ceremony she holds the drum in her hand as it helps her to leave this earth. She says "It is like passing through the mountain to get there, for my journey."
Saintsetseg doing ceremony and healing (©2013 Lawrence & Grimaldi).
For extraction healing she uses a tool she calls, Manjig. It is made of twelve, long, narrow, colorful cloths that are stuffed with wool. They are seen as snakes, having a red cloth head with eyes and a forked tongue. When removing intrusive energy she lightly whips the person across their back and flicks off what is being taken away.
Before a ceremony one of her assistants burns a branch of juniper, making smoke to cleanse her costume and drum. Her attendant dresses her and places her headdress on her head. The headdress has eyes and a mouth stitched across her forehead with a fringe across the front edge to cover her eyes. Reindeer milk is flicked from a bowl onto the shaman. The energy escalates as Saintsetseg moves faster and the drumming grows more intense. Swinging from side to side while chanting, shaking her head and bowing, she is guided in her healing.
About the Dukha. The Dukha live in small family groups and migrate over an area of approximately 25,000 square kilometers (6 million acres). Life for the people is simple and hard. They live year around in un-insulated canvas tipis, with no running water or plumbing. The temperature in winter can drop to -50°C (-58°F).
Historically, the ancestors of these nomadic reindeer herders were known as Tannu Uriankhai, or Tuvan, and they lived in Tuva, a neighboring part of Siberia, now part of Russia. During the beginning of the Soviet Era, Stalin ordered the execution of all shamans and their families, including those of the reindeer herders, who were living in Tuva. Seeking safety, many families fled Tuva and headed southeast, crossing the Mongolian border with their reindeer herds. Saintsetseg's band descended from these Tuvans.
Today, their very existence, lifestyle, and traditions are in imminent danger of extinction.
Thanks to Susan Ross Grimaldi, M.Ed., FSS Field Associate (audio-visual documentation) for recommending Saintsetseg as a Living Treasure and for providing information about her shamanic practice. To watch Saintsetseg and two other shamans performing shamanic rituals and healings, view the documentary film Shamans of the Reindeer Herders of the Northern Mongolia Taiga (©2013, by John R. Lawrence and Susan Ross Grimaldi). Video clip of Saintsetseg from the film, above.