Maliya Suo is more than 90 years old, but she can still skin a squirrel. In her prime, she could shoot a pheasant in flight. She was once the greatest reindeer herder in her tribe.
In her old age, Suo is taking on an even tougher adversary: the Chinese government. A member of the nomadic Ewenki community that lives primarily in China’s Inner Mongolia region, Suo has resisted the government’s effort to resettle her in the world of buildings, money and cars.
In 2003, Suo and 2,000 fellow tribe members were forcibly relocated from their encampment to a “resettlement site” 120 miles away, on the outskirts of Genhe, a dilapidated riverside city. Government officials confiscated their hunting rifles and urged them to leave their herd of reindeer behind.
Suo, wanting no part of modern urban life, soon moved back to the woods, where she has been ever since.
“The city doesn’t smell good,” said Suo, whose deep-set eyes are cloudy and who wears an old wool vest and a pink-and-beige patterned head scarf. She doesn’t speak much, and when she does it’s in a pained warble. Yet her manner conveys a matriarchal authority.
After Suo insisted on leaving the resettlement site, several family members said they had no choice but to follow because she was too old to live alone; exactly how old, nobody seems to know.
“We go into the mountains because Maliya Suo is in the mountains,” said Zhang Dan, a 37-year-old craftsman. “Nobody is willing to move her.”
The Ewenki, about 30,000 strong in China, are among hundreds of thousands of nomadic herders from the country’s northern hinterlands who have themselves been herded into permanent settlements.
Government officials say their aim is to provide new opportunities for the nomads while protecting the environment from overgrazing and hunting. In some cases, relocations are a consequence of government-backed initiatives to excavate mines on herders’ grazing land, critics say.
Officials say they are promoting diversity by bringing nomadic minorities into mainstream society, but the relocations are strictly carried out only on the government’s terms.
According to a 2007 report by Human Rights Watch on the resettlement of Tibetan herders, such relocations “often result in greater impoverishment, and — for those forced to resettle — dislocation and marginalization in the new communities they are supposed to call home.”
“When changes happen to an ethnic group in this way, so quickly, this can be very painful,” said Bai Lan, a professor at the Inner Mongolia Academy of Social Sciences.
The encampment where Suo lives, in a patch of sparse forest in the Greater Hinggan mountain range, is an assemblage of four wedding party-style tents near a shallow stream. There are no power lines or cellphone service. Nothing lies between the encampment and the border with Siberia except a 50-mile swath of birch trees and frozen ponds.
Suo and four others live there, along with a herd of 400 reindeer, most of them owned collectively by those at the resettlement site.
The interior of Suo’s tent remains dark during even during the day and smells strongly of wood smoke. Old rags and fresh meat hang side by side in the tent from lines strung across its metal frame. Plastic trinkets mingle with animal bones on a crude wooden shelf in the corner
Suo, a last link to the traditional Ewenki language and way of life, spends her days sitting on her bed or on the ground in the tent, munching on pine nuts and tending the fire.
Day-to-day life at the encampment, which is packed up and moved every few months, is guided by simple survival. The herders spend many of their waking hours chopping firewood in preparation for the winter, when the temperature can reach 40 degrees below zero and snow piles up waist-high.
Before the Ewenki were resettled in 2003, the reindeer were used mainly to haul tepees and bedrolls on long expeditions to hunt for moose, bear and wild boar. Economic necessity has transformed them from beasts of burden into money makers: The herders now make a modest living selling their antlers for use in traditional Chinese medicine.
The herders subsist on reindeer milk, a staple of the Ewenki diet, and whatever game they can find in the woods, supplemented by garlic and cabbage from the city.
Squirrel is a special treat, and occasionally one of the hunting dogs nabs a roe deer; the herders immediately eat its liver raw and save the rest for later.
“We’ve always depended on our hunting for survival,” said Ma Lindong, 45, a herder who is married to one of Suo’s nieces. “If we don’t have that, then what else do we have?”
The resettlement site, called Aoluguya, Ewenki for “grove of poplars,” has a different set of problems.
The product of a multimillion-dollar investment by the Genhe city government, the site looks more like a theme park than a community. Road signs describe it as a “Reindeer-Herding Tribe Culture Tourism Zone.” Its perimeter is decorated with giant models of tepees, the Ewenkis’ traditional abode.
The government commissioned a Finnish consulting firm to design the site in the image of a Scandinavian hamlet. Its residents live in rows of freshly varnished lodges with frontyards and vaulted roofs.
The homes’ interiors are spartan; most contain nothing more than a few beds, a stove and a television.
“They wanted to attract foreigners, but the foreigners never come,” said Ao Rongbu, 63, a former herder who remains in the settlement because of a heart condition.
Aoluguya is plagued by poverty and alcoholism. Its residents survive by selling handicrafts during the summer, mainly knickknacks carved from reindeer antlers.
“There’s nothing interesting about Aoluguya. There are no trees. There are no reindeer,” said He Xie, Suo’s 47-year-old son, slurring his words after a day of drinking.
Suo, whose husband was a talented hunter 12 years her elder, had seven children. Only two are still alive. Her eldest daughter, the first member of the tribe to attend college, drowned while drunkenly washing clothes in a shallow stream. A son died when his bladder burst after a drinking competition. Another son was shot dead in the woods, and two died of illness.
Suo’s husband, whom she regularly accompanied on hunting trips, drank himself to death, family members said.
In the old days, her main responsibility was to strap the game her husband killed onto the backs of reindeer and guide them back to camp. Now she looks after the members of the tribe who live with her in the woods.
Much of Ewenki culture has been lost. The children are taught only Mandarin in school, and most can no longer speak their parents’ unwritten language, which is in danger of disappearing.
Many of the reindeer at the resettlement site starved to death in their first few weeks for lack of a type of lichen that grows only in the woods.
“What upsets me is that, in the future, who will take care of the deer?” said Ma Rusha, a 55-year-old herder. “Young people are afraid that they’ll run into black bears and wolves. They’re not willing to stay here.”
The nomadic herders seem to enjoy some modern comforts. A few years ago, the government provided a pair of solar panels and a television set, enabling them to watch state broadcasts. Suo does not understand Mandarin, but the rest of the herders gather each night to drink cheap liquor and watch the evening news.
In the morning, they discuss international affairs as they fetch water from the stream. The herders have opinions about figures such as Microsoft founder Bill Gates and the late Libyan ruler Moammar Kadafi. They are also huge NBA fans.
Lichen for the reindeer has been growing scarce in the area surrounding the encampment, and the group will have to move soon to feed its herd.
“Wherever there is food for the deer, that’s where we’ll go,” said Ma Lindong.
As always, he said, they will bring the TV and the solar panels with them.
Kaiman is a special correspondent.