My colleague Evan Sparling and I recently traveled to Altai to touch base with our partners in the field, meet with regional stakeholders, and participate in a conference on sacred sites organized by one of our partners – the Foundation for Sustainable Development of Altai. As I have now fully transitioned into my new position as Program Associate for Community-Based Initiatives for Pacific Environment, the trip provided me with an opportunity to fully immerse myself into program work and issues faced by indigenous communities in Russia, especially in the current economic and political climate. This was my second trip to Altai since I started working for Pacific Environment, and I was very excited to visit the sacred land and meet with our partners once again.
Sacred mountain in Chui Oozy Nature Park, Altai Republic, Russia
For centuries sacred sites served people as places where they could come to pray, cleanse themselves, and recover from the hardships of life. For some nations, sacred places are Catholic monasteries, Orthodox cathedrals, Muslim mosques, and Buddhist temples. For indigenous cultures, and specifically shamanists, these are places or objects created by nature: mountains, healing springs, mountain passes, plants and animals.
Altai has also always been the heart of Shamanism in Siberia. During Soviet times the communists extinguished shamanism and many of the shamans who lived during those days were either killed or sent to gulags. For many years shaman clans had to hide their identity and it was only after perestroika and democracy that shamanism experienced its revival. Nowadays it is not as rare to find a shaman in the remote villages of Altai. Luckily, the traditional knowledge was kept and passed onto new generations.
One of the trip’s most memorable moments was meeting a local shaman by the name of Slava Cheltuev in Kosh-Agach, a region bordering Mongolia, China, and Kazakhstan.
Kurai Village, 60 km from the Russian-Mongolia border
Upon our arrival, Slava greeted us at his home with traditional tea with milk, salt, butter, and cracked wheat. It has been only three years since Slava was chosen by his community to be a shaman and a keeper of traditional knowledge. As a relatively young shaman at the age of 41, he feels responsible to learn from elders about his land, sacred places, and traditions so that he can pass this knowledge on to younger generations. As Russian is not his first language, most of his words were translated from indigenous Altayan into Russian by our partner Chagat. (Today, there are only 70,000 speakers of Altayan in the world).
Cows in Kosh-Agach region, Altai Republic, Russia
Although some of what Slava said was revealed in a very simple language, his words carried a very deep knowledge and understanding of his roots and his role within his community. He talked about being close to the land and local sacred places, talking to spirits – guardians of their lands – and the meaning of dreams.