Washoe and Buryats: Two cultures connected
October 26, 2006
Just as the Washoe were the first humans to occupy the Lake Tahoe Basin, the Buryats lived near Lake Baikal in Siberia long before political prisoners were exiled there.The Buryats are of Mongolian descent and live near Lake Baikal in the autonomous region of Buryatia in Russia, near the Mongolian border. Most Buryats are Buddhists or practice shamanism, which influences the way they interact with their surroundings.Ulan-Ude, which is the capital of the Republic of Buryatia, is home to the Center for Eastern Medicine the only state-run center of its kind in Siberia. During the Soviet era, traditional medicine was outlawed because it was closely tied to Buddhism, said Dr. Dambi Leonidovich Matypove, director of medicine at the Center. Buryats freely practice their religion today, with brightly-colored datsans (Buddhist temples) springing up in villages in Buryatia. The largest of those datsans the Ivolginsky datsan was the only one not destroyed by the Soviets in the 1930s and 40s. That datsan also serves as the only Buddhist university in Russia and currently enrolls 150 students.
The Buryats believe Baikal is a sacred and holy place that should be respected, which is influencing changing attitudes toward environmental protection in Ulan-Ude.Matypove said it is believed that whatever affects one area is spread to the rest of the world.Everything is interrelated, he said. When perestroika happened here, it affected America.So when an oil pipeline was proposed to run close to the shores of the worlds largest and deepest lake, shamans and Buddhists spoke out against the effort. Shamans in the Irkutsk region, which lies just north of Buryatia, say it is forbidden to ruin or disturb sacred places, which Lake Baikal is considered.The parallels to the Washoe are similar, as the Native American tribe protected the Tahoe Basin by managing the forests and living off the land for thousands of years before they were pushed out. Cave Rock, located on the East Shore, is considered sacred by the Washoe, as is Olkhon Island on Baikal by the Buryats.There is also some evidence that the Buryats and Native Americans may be connected.Stone points and blades from 8,000 to 15,000 years ago belong to the microblade tradition, a technology which was carried by some ancient inhabitants of Buryatia in their migrations all the way to North America, according to a Web site on Buryat history. This is evidence that at least some Native Americans may share a common ancestry with the Buryat Mongols.The Buryats and Washoe have also participated in exchanges to each others home lands thanks to the South Shore-based Tahoe Baikal Institute, which spearheads exchanges between the two regions. A group of Buryat scientists came to Tahoe earlier this month to learn about watershed management and Washoe culture.Jennifer Smith, program coordinator for the Tahoe Baikal Institute, said the exchange was significant because it gave the Buryats a different perspective and outlook from what they were accustomed to seeing.They said they were surprised to see Americans care about the environment so much, Smith noted. I feel that, especially with environmental policy, there is something both sides can learn from each other.Editors note: This is the final installment in a five-part series to look at the comparative environmental and social situations at Lake Tahoe and Lake Baikal in Russia.