Nomad News and Comments

Drokpa Still

American Museum of Natural History, New York, October 14, 2016

Drokpa - A Tribute to the Last of the Tibetan Nomads

World Premiere of a documentary by Han Yun Su

Set in the high plateau of eastern Tibet, Drokpa is an intimate portrait of the lives and struggles of Tibetan nomads whose life is on the cusp of irreversible change.

The grasslands of the Tibetan plateau are home to the source of Asia's major rivers. Nearly half of humanity depends on this water for survival. Tibetan nomads, known as DROKPA have roamed on this land for thousands of years. In recent decades, these once lush grasslands are rapidly turning into deserts.

With rare access to an extended nomadic family living at the center stage of this drastic and historical change, Drokpa reveals the unprecedented environmental and sociopolitical forces that are pushing the Tibetan nomads to the edge of their existence.

Richly observed daily lives and family relationships, especially those of Tamku, a teenage single mother, Dhongya, a senior nomad and Yithan, a mother of two boys are at once deeply personal and illustrative of the universal issues of gender, freedom, adaptation to a changing climate and the resilience of human spirits.

Current screenings of Drokpa - A Tribute to the Last of the Tibetan Nomads are listed at drokpafilm.com

Winter Onset

Sikkim NOW!, February 7, 2015

Borders versus Border People

By Pema Wangchuk, Editor Sikkim NOW!, Gangtok

Geopolitical realities have no respect for traditional linkages, but people should

The news report about how the Dokpas of Muguthang in North Sikkim have been snowed in this winter is about much more than just a seasonal hardship. Read about their situation and it becomes clear that they are being imperiled not so much by the snow, as by the march of time which is fast pushing their lifestyles to extinction and by changed political situations which have conspired to deny them survival practices which had evolved over centuries of living in the cold desert. The Dokpas themselves give their traditional lifestyles just another decade. A unique way of life is in the final flickers of being extinguished, and while even the Dokpas will not want artificial life support, it is important for Sikkim, and in fact the world at large, to understand what conditions are playing the villains in conspiracy here.

Borders are inconsiderate towards the people who live along it; contemporary geopolitical realities, unfortunately, having no respect for traditional linkages. Where earlier, borders were porous enough to accommodate the lifestyles of border people, the situation has changed now. The conditions and denials are similar across countries and along all borders, nowhere more so than in the story of the Dokpas of North Sikkim. Dokpas, the yak herders of the Trans-Himalayan corridor, part of which also marks Sikkim's northern border with Tibet, have traditionally followed a semi-nomadic lifestyle, freely roaming three treeless high valleys of Cho Lhamu, Lhonak and Lashar in North Sikkim bordering Tibet during spring and most of them moving to Tibet in winters since the snow was always much heavier in the Sikkim valleys. This movement also allowed the pastures in Sikkim to get replenished. The Chinese takeover of Tibet and the Sino-Indian war of 1962, however, changed everything even for them. Although no battles were fought on the Sikkim-Tibet border in 1962, Sikkim, because it was still a protectorate of India at the time, saw the shutting down of its borders with Tibet as well. The more famous of this heightened Sino-Indian hostility was the closure of the Tibet Trade over Nathula and Jelepla, but the unnoticed and definitely more damaging human cost was exacted in extreme North Sikkim. The Dokpas would spend six months in Sikkim and move into Tibet during the snowbound harshness of North Sikkim winters. But that was the scenario at one time; conditions imposed by our need to secure our borders have forced a cruel situation on them, constricting their nomadic travels to a very limited, impractical area within Sikkim. The six month sojourns on either side of the international border was important, because as much as it allowed the grasslands on the Sikkim side to recuperate while the Dokpas were away, it also allowed the Dokpas access to founts they drew their culture and traditions from, allowed their yaks to acquire fresh genes from the wild yaks of Tibet and played an important social role - Dokpas got their wives and made their prayers in Tibet. It was a tough life, but one they had chosen for themselves.

Geopolitical situations of very recent make have however hardened the international border that runs right through the heart of Dokpa land, cutting them away from traditional linkages and land use patterns. The older Dokpas have not changed much, but everything around them has. They know they are last of their kind in Sikkim. What the creation of a hard border along a watershed that has traditionally sustained the semi-nomadic pastoral lifestyle of the Dokpas has done is that it has given them army detachments for neighbours and forced them into impractical compromises which have convinced most of them to give up and move away. The border was closed in 1962 after centuries of free access, and within months, a lifestyle evolved over centuries ended. And with this started the process which brings us to the present unfortunate times when four decades of a patrolled border which has barbwired their traditional haunts, has eased in extinction of a people and of a lifestyle that is so organic to the hostile land that the cost of this loss will probably not be realised until it is too late. There is still time though to build wider consensus on how the Dokpas should be provided what they desire and hopefully of powering through political will at the national level which allows them to relive their traditional practices even if only for the very few years that are left for such pursuits ...

Kathmandu Post, October 29, 2014

We're no Tibetans

By Tashi Tewa Dolpo, Research Assistant, Nepa School of Social Sciences, Kathmandu

Dolpo people are commonly perceived as Tibetans, when they're in fact a facet of Nepal's diversity

There are a number of instances when foreigners, including missionaries, have ignored local indigenous cultural histories, contexts and settings. These practices demonstrate how colonisation and imperialism began historically, sometimes leading to massacres or even genocide, and shaping people's ideas, including all writing on tribal peoples. Conversely, customs, values, beliefs and practices are the backbone of any native culture.

In this article, I will take a closer look at the Dolpo people, who are living in the seven village development committees of Dolpa district and have their own culture, which cannot be generalised as Tibetan, as is frequently done by most foreigners as well as their own Nepali state. This common misconception can also be linked to the June violence in Dolpo, which left two locals dead.

Common Misconception

With regard to those deaths, locals in Dolpo were told by the 'dutiful' police: "Bhote haru lai ek ek gari mar dinchu" ("will kill those Bhotes one by one"). Moreover, security officials stated that the country does not belong to the Dolpo people as they are 'Tibetans'. Clearly, Dolpo locals were not perceived as citizens of Nepal.

This misconception is also common among educated foreigners. Personal conversations have revealed that they consider Dolpo communities to be Tibetan and have clearly ignored the fact that the Dolpo people are one of the 59 listed indigenous peoples, both under the Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities (NEFIN) and the National Foundation for Development of Indigenous Nationalities (NFDIN). When asked why they called us Tibetan, these foreigners stated that the Dolpo people had migrated from 'Tibet' and that Dolpo culture was similar to Tibetan culture. However, these statements only take into account a partial historical dimension of local peoples and ignore the contemporary context of where the locals have lived for generations and developed unique cultural identities. Following this logic, it would be correct to tag all white Americans, Australians, Canadians and South Africans as Europeans, which is clearly not acceptable.

The youth of Dolpo have clearly stated the fact that they are not Tibetan but Dolpo. Some complain that they are called Tibetan even by their own countrypeople. According to one Dorje Tsering, "Dolpo is our identity and the rights of ethnic groups are our rights." In addition, Tsering argues, "We are deprived of almost all rights that people enjoy as citizens of Nepal. We are ignored by all sectors of development, starting with education. All the officials are fooling us in the name of nationalism and patriotism."

Additionally, the 'original' Dolpo cultures are changing slowly due to globalisation and migration, and this transformative process further distinguishes our culture from Tibetan culture. When we examine, for instance, the way the same religion is practised locally in Tibet and Dolpo, many differences become apparent.

Nevertheless, according to a teacher from Dolpo, some Dolpo youths are 'misused' for 'Tibetan' causes. Unfortunately, most students who leave for education in the northern parts of India show little concern about their own communities once they return to their villages. This phenomenon, if not managed properly, may be harmful to the local people who reside close to the Chinese border.

Historical Projections

In his seminal work, Orientalism, the Palestinian-American intellectual Edward Said clearly demonstrates how colonisers perceive local cultures, including local texts, through the gaze of Western power and progress. Critically investigating the ideational relation between the East and West during different periods, mainly the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, Said argues that the 'West' has set a one-way image of an inferior 'East' and dominates the East. According to Said, it is "a relationship of power, of domination, of varying degrees of a complex hegemony." The Orient has been a place where Westerners have projected their lust, their dreams, and their nightmares.

In an interview with The Believer magazine, Indian essayist Pankaj Mishra indicates that most Westerners still have the illusion of a spiritual and sacred Tibet. Mishra claims that the entire Hollywood perception of Tibet as a peaceloving country denies the complex humanity of the Tibetan people: "The Dalai Lama himself would say that he has to fight the impulses of violence and corruption on a daily basis. There's no fixed state that he's arrived at where holiness is guaranteed no matter what you do." Mishra further emphasises that monks were corrupted by power in the early twentieth century in Tibet. Therefore, when China is displayed as horribly cruel against the innocent Tibetan Buddhists, this is a projection of western thinking, while the reality is infinitely more complex.

A new Nepal

The urgency to recognise local cultures as distinct rather than foreign, both by the state and other so-called 'Nepalis', clearly shows where the country is heading, even after sacrificing more than 18,000 people in the decade-long insurgency. When local indigenous peoples are arrested by security officials in broad daylight because of the latter's narrow presumption that the former are not 'Pahadi' but 'Bhote' and Tibetan, the state exercises excessive marginalisation and discrimination. Sherpa, Topkeygola, Lhopa, Hyolmo, Baragaunle, Nyeshyang, Nubri, Chumpa, Mugal, Dolpo, Bhote, Mugum and other communities residing in the Upper Hills and mountains are not Tibetan. Their dependence on the Sambotta script and their facial features do not make them Tibetan. Or would anybody call us British or American when we speak, read, and write in English?

This is also a plea for all of us to recognise the humanity of the other - of the Dolpo, in this case. It is not an attempt to glorify Dolpo culture, which is changing due to several socio-cultural, economic and political reasons. It is instead an attempt to accept plurality and diversity, which is a founding feature of 'new Nepal'.