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"If these dominos are beginning to fall, said Dan Plumley at a meeting of the Union of Young Scholars held in a gallery of the Buryatia History Museum in Ulan Ude, "your role is very critical. Your leadership, your standing your ground is very critical. Buryatia is one of the largest, if not the largest, ethnic minority in Siberia. If these smaller groups are losing their autonomy, imagine the impact if you do."
"Dan, it is twenty-six below (C. = -20F.). It's the first of December. What are you doing in Siberia? Why are you here?" I said to Dan Plumley of Keene, NY and director of the Totem People's Project, a program of Cultural Survival. Dan had arrived at 6:00 A.M. on the Trans Siberian Railway from Irkutsk the previous Sunday. Now in his sixth day in Ulan Ude, having participated in a wide series of meetings with leading poets, writers, environmentalists, cultural specialists, museum directors and religious leaders, we were talking as he was packing for his next leg to Ulaanbaatar, capital of Mongolia.
"I am here because I am continuing what I hope is critical work that has a dozen years behind it. This is a work in progress. Twelve years of helping to protect the environment and helping unique and endangered indigenous cultures survive. I'm not new here. That's the important thing. I've been coming here since 1993. One of the world's greatest watersheds, the watershed of Lake Baikal, brought me here. It's the people who kept me here."
Testimony to his love and commitment to the people of this region, most especially the deer herders, were the stacks of X-Acto Standard Hobby Tool Sets containing a Precision No. 1 Knife, Medium Weight Precision No. 2 knife, Heavy-Duty No. 5 knife, single level adjustable block plane, wooden block sander, wood stripper, spokeshave and eighteen very sharp carving gouges, routers, and carving and chiseling blades representing several thousand dollars in direct aid to enable these people to develop their traditional antler, wood and leather carving skills, generate additional cash income and, in so doing, protect and continue crafts handed down for centuries.
"What's the connection with the Adirondacks?" I said.
"The Adirondacks and this region represent two mountain eco-regions that comprise tremendously important watersheds. It may seem a hard one to make when comparing the scale of Baikal, containing 20% of the world's fresh water, but each are recognized as critical resources; the Adirondacks to the Eastern United States and Baikal to Eastern Siberia and indeed the world; and both contain wild lands and a deep cultural history. The partnerships between our region and Baikal really began in 1990 with a UNESCO study team that came here to look at Baikal in regards to world heritage status. Two Adirondackers, George Davis, the first ecologist at the Adirondack Park Agency, and Karen Roy, a limnologist, were a part of that team. I came back with George in 1993 to work on land use planning within the Baikal watershed that stretches into Mongolia."
"Why are you here now?"
"I'm here on behalf of Cultural Survival (www.cs.org) to assess how the indigenous peoples are doing; how they are fairing, seeking to get an update on their socio-economic viability, access to basic human services like healthcare and education, to determine what are the issues, what are the current threats and new threats since 1991. A rubric would be, what are the impacts under globalization and the new market economy?"
"Has the growth of concerns about terrorism had an impact?"
"Yes. The borders have not opened up, indeed they have become more strict hampering the ability of the nomadic peoples to live their traditional lives and connect with their peoples living on both sides of the border. Indigenous people may have been granted more rights, but the reality is they can't afford it, they haven't got the resources to travel by cars and trains, thus in effect the borders are still closed for the smallest groups in particular - the smaller tribes."
"What are the big issues?"
"The big issues are true recognition and respect for native rights, effective self-representation, land and resources, and a fair response from government.
"What would you like to see happen?"
"First I'd like to see a marked improvement in a recognition for the cultural wealth of the native peoples of Siberia. I'd like them to fully be a part of Russia. They offer a great deal of knowledge, culture and wisdom. I'd like to see more widespread awareness throughout Russia of their importance and contributions, including as keepers of traditional ways of life and traditional cultures. Second I'd like to see a very clear and response action by the government to implement existing laws that to a fair degree represent protection of these people's resource rights. Unfortunately this is not happening. Instead many are being exploited. For many the only choice they have is assimilation and thereby losing their identity, lands and way of life. That's not realistic for many small tribes.
I'm working with the natives to help them determine alternative strategies. What's different from North American history is that most native Siberians live on their traditional motherland. They represent an opportunity to not see the demise of native cultures uprooted from their native lands as was the case in the United States."
"How does it feel to be back after two years absence?"
"It's wonderful reconnecting, seeing old friends and colleagues. We were doing cutting edge work together. We faced many great challenges and surpassed them. Now there are all new challenges coupled with trying to preserve the gains made. I don't feel like I've left. We are a common brotherhood; people who are not exploiting the earth for our own personal gain or at the expense of others or nature itself. I am very pleased by the important meetings we had with the Academy of Culture, the Buryat History Museum and with various individuals."
"How long are you here?"
"I'll have spent a total of two weeks in Russia, in Moscow, Irkutsk and Ulan Ude, and two weeks in Mongolia. I hope to come back at least twice next year."
"So Ayuna, how did you like translating for Dan?" I said to his translator for his stay in Ulan Ude.
"He is very dedicated you know. I met so many wonderful and important people in such a short time. They hold him in high regard. Many have known and worked with him for years. They are all very interesting and the work is very important. So many good meals and I was paid. I would have done it for the honor and to help in some small way. He is very nice and very generous. He treats people with such respect."
2005 North Country Public Radio, St. Lawrence University, Canton, New York 13617-1475