22nd Annual Nicholas Poppe Symposium Held at UW
by Laura E. Lucht
The 22nd Annual Nicholas Poppe Symposium took place at the University of Washington on Saturday, May 8, 2010. The theme of this year’s Symposium was “Environmental Issues in Central/Inner Asia.” Attendees gathered over coffee and refreshments in Denny Hall and then moved between two adjacent rooms throughout the course of the day for eight sequential presentations. The morning speakers focused on the relationships between human, animal and spiritual beings in Central Asia’s nomadic and shamanistic cultures, while the afternoon speakers explored the logistics of specific environmental issues in particular locations within Central Asia.
Ilse Cirtautas, Professor of Near Eastern Languages and Civilization, welcomed attendees to the event. Professor Cirtautas reflected on the contributions of Nicholas Poppe to this field of study during his long career devoted to Mongolic and Altaic linguistics, including two prolific decades at the University of Washington culminating with his retirement in 1968.
Simon Wickham-Smith, distinguished scholar and translator of Mongolian literature, opened the morning with an exploration of “The Shamanic Landscape in Contemporary Mongolian Literature.” He traced the changing conceptualization of the human relationship to nature and landscape in the work of Mongol poets and writers before, during and after the Soviet period. This analysis demonstrated that the emerging literature reflects innovations in Mongolia’s environmental awareness that have been generated by the post-Soviet resurgence of shamanism and Mongol Buddhism.
Stefan Kamola next probed the interrelationship between humans and animals in his talk, “Man vs. Wild or Tuva among the Spirits? Interaction between Human Life and Wildlife in the Center of Asia.” Kamola, a PhD candidate in the Department of History, challenged the prevailing western perception of Tuvan throat singers and shamans as cultic mediums between the human and spirit worlds by offering an overview of the integration between human and animal life in nomadic culture. Kamola argued that attunement to the surrounding landscape and fauna pervades Tuvan society, rather than falling under the exclusive purview of musical or religious specialists.
Ilse Cirtautas returned to the podium to discuss “Animals in the Works of the Kyrgyz Writer Chingiz Aitmatov (1928-2008).” She argued that the animal-centered viewpoint in this author’s works derived from a veneration of nature that can be attributed to the Turkic shamanistic and totemistic heritage. Aitmatov deliberately parted with Soviet literary norms by writing animal stories from the perspective of his non-human characters. Dr. Cirtautas noted that Aitmatov’s understanding of animals as “brothers and sisters” to humans parallels a Native American worldview.
Following a buffet lunch spread in Central Asian style, symposium participants reconvened to hear the afternoon speakers. These talks probed the environmental impacts of human activity and migration patterns in specific locations within the region.
Vitaly Nishanov explored possible answers to questions he posed in his talk, “What Causes the Kyrgyz Glaciers to Melt: Global Warming or Something Else?” Dr. Nishanov, originally of Kyrgyzstan, has served as a lecturer at the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business Administration since 2006. In contrast to the prevailing view that global warming alone accounts for the substantial reduction in the surface area of the Tien Shan glaciers over the past 60 years, Dr. Nishanov proposed that the depletion of the Aral Sea has triggered this shrinkage by means of windborne dust from the empty Aral basin. The melting of Tien Shan glaciers has kept pace with the degradation of the Aral Sea that resulted from Stalin’s 1952 irrigation policy. Since 1960, dust and salt storms have risen from the bared Aral Sea bed. This layer of salt and soil has reached the Tien Shan glaciers, where the saline content and dark color of the overlay have accelerated glacial melt.
Turning to the runoff from the Tien Shan glaciers, Bret Walton, a 2009 graduate of the UW REECAS MA program, explored hydroelectric issues in the region in his presentation, “Dam it All: Hydroelectric Frustration on the Amu Darya.” He introduced the governments of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan and the World Bank as the key players in the deadlocked Rogun hydroelectric project on Tajikistan’s Vakhsh River, a tributary of the Amu Darya. Tajikistan’s government intends to complete this project that was conceived and initiated under Soviet rule in the 1970s, hoping to gain income from the sale of electricity to India and Kazakhstan. Uzbekistan, however, depends on the Vakhsh for irrigation and objects to the anticipated 65 percent reduction in downstream flow. The World Bank has volunteered a third-party environmental impact assessment in response to Tajikistan’s petition for funding. Walton noted that this particular case illustrates the central role of dams and politics in Central Asian water issues. As in this tussle between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, upstream nations use water to get both political and electrical power, while downstream nations use political and electrical power to get water. Walton offered an alternative solution for the problem of power vs. irrigation through the example of a hydroelectric project in Bhutan that diverts a river through a turbine without a large reservoir in order to maintain the protected status of forested areas.
After another break for tea served with plates of sweets, nuts and dried fruit, the Symposium concluded with the final two speakers of the day.
Brooke Pederson, an MA Candidate in Library and Information Science at the University of Washington, provided a ground-level view of Mongolia's mining industry in “Small-Scale Ninja Mining in Mongolia,” based on her direct observations during two years of Peace Corps service there. Alongside the 12,000 miners employed in Mongolia’s large-scale mining industry, an additional 100,000 informal miners rework the tailings from legal mines. This artisan mining is not officially sanctioned and therefore is considered illegal, although it is not expressly forbidden. Many of the illegal miners carry green plastic tubs on their backs for use in gold panning, lending them a resemblance to characters from the cartoon Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and thus giving rise to the term “Ninja mining.” The artisan mining movement emerged after hard winters decimated livestock in the region. While the informal mining does generate income for community development, it also creates a black market that reduces the sale price of the product. Serious environmental concerns arise as the cost-effective mercury and cyanide used for milling hard-rock ore leach into the water supply. By way of example, Pederson recounted the events in Khongor, Darkhan-Uul Aimag during 2005-2007 in which an illegal gold mill saturated nearby soil and water with mercury, precipitating widespread illness among the town’s 2,000 citizens and prompting her own abrupt evacuation from the area. In response to such concerns, a Swiss organization is promoting alternative technologies such as gravity sluices, dry washing, and metal detection that could eliminate the use of toxic chemicals in small-scale mining. These outside efforts to stabilize and legalize artisan mining have been resisted by Mongolia’s large-scale mining industry and largely ignored by the country’s government.
The final speaker of the day, Penglin Wang, Professor of Anthropology at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, WA, explored the connection of people to place in his talk, “Who Were the Yellow-Headed Siwei in Ancient Manchuria?” Chinese authors note the presence of nine “yellow-headed,” Caucasoid-featured tribes in Manchuria by the Tang period (618-906 A.D.), totaling perhaps 25,000 individuals. The population was not systematically described by historians, but rather anecdotally referenced by travelers. Dr. Wang offered several alternative explanations for the presence of these populations, but concluded that their exact origins could not be proven given that textual sources provide the only evidence for their existence. The ethnonyms attributed to these tribes suggest that some of them, including the Siwei, may have been ancestors of the Mongolians. The people were described as semi-agricultural nomadic pastoral hunters living in a fertile, moist, forested land. Their burial patterns indicate Zoroastrian influence. In response to follow-up questions, Professor Wang stated that he believes the “yellow-headed” people may have been Tokharians of Germanic origin and thus possibly related to the Caucasoid remains found in the Taklamakan desert.
These eight snapshots elegantly reflect the complex Central Asian story, wherein water, power, precious elements and populations flow across the boundaries of empires, melding the tangible and numinous. Each of these presentations raises tantalizing questions as to how Central Asia’s ancient and recent past will continue to shape its future.