In 1988, Jack Weatherford published Indian Givers, How the Indians of the Americas Transformed the World. I met Jack Weatherford after reading his book and learning about the many contributions of the different indigenous cultures of the Americas to our world.
We embarked on a project called Native Roots, a television series and website designed to bring the contributions of the native people of the Americas to more people and create connections with opportunities to learn more. The idea attracted the interest and support of broadcasters, including the American Public Broadcasting System and organizations like the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa and the Institute for American Indian Arts Museum in Santa Fe.
In 2003, Jack published Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World to reveal the cultural heritage and creative contributions of the Mongolian people to the world. In 2007, I was invited to join Jack and his family when he returned to Mongolia to receive the Polar Star, Mongolia’s highest award of appreciation, for his contribution to Mongolia.
Jack and I were looking forward to catching up on our conversation while in Mongolia. On our journey, we talked about intercultural contribution and how creating connections with our native roots can contribute to cultural development throughout the world.
This is the story of our time together and what emerged from our conversations.
A Journey through Mongolia
I arrived at Chinggis Khaan International Airport in Ulaanbaatar late on Friday, June 29, 2007, and was greeted by the smiling open face of the President of Chinggis Khaan University.
Lkhagva took me to the new twelve-story, twenty-four suite Narantuul Hotel in the heart of Ulaanbaatar before returning to meet Jack’s family, who were arriving later that night. Jack and his wife Walker were on their way to the Gobi Desert with Dulmaa Enkhchuluun, the Director of Borijin Travel and one of Jack’s Mongolian students.
Enkee had made the arrangements for the travel and meetings for the visit. Jack’s family and I were to join them on Sunday. I set out to explore Ulaanbaatar the next morning with Jack’s son Roy and his wife Amanda, Jack’s daughter Walker and her husband Eddie, and Jack’s granddaughter.
Our first visit was to Gandan Monastery, the largest monastery in Mongolia. Its name means ‘the great place of complete joy’ and it is home to approximately 900 monks and the centre of Mongolian Buddhism. The 13th Dalai Lama lived in one of the temples here in 1904. In 1938, the Soviet regime suppressed religious communities in Mongolia and destroyed about 900 monasteries.
In 1990 after the Democratic Revolution and with Buddhism flourishing once more, the Gandan Monastery embarked on an ambitious restoration program around the country.
Our next visit was to the National Museum of Mongolian History. Among the many historical exhibits and displays of traditional Mongolian culture dating back to before the 12th Century is a collection of costumes, hats, and jewelry representing Mongolia’s ethnic groups that would be an inspiration to contemporary fashion designers around the world.
At the Mongolian National Modern Art Gallery nearby, we saw an extensive exhibition of contemporary Mongolian paintings and sculptures from a range of artists that evoked the Mongolian heritage and the feeling of contemporary life in Mongolia today.
In the evening, Lkhagva, his wife, and a colleague took us to dinner where I learned more about Lkhagva, the man we would travel with for much of our time in Mongolia. He is an archaeologist, cultural historian, writer, and a well-known and respected leader contributing to the development of his country.
In the last few years, he took Chinggis Khaan University from an idea to an expanding 800-student university teaching the liberal arts and bringing the history and culture of Mongolia forward.
The next morning we flew to the small community of Dalanzadgad where we were taken by two Russian vans on a ninety minute drive to Three Camel Lodge, a comfortable ger camp in the middle of the Gobi Desert where we were greeted by Jack and Walker.
About half the people of Mongolia are nomadic or semi-nomadic, living in the traditional ger that has shaped Mongolian life for centuries.
After lunch we set out on a three hour drive across the desert to the Khongoryn Els, known as the singing dunes, some of the largest and most spectacular sand dunes in Mongolia.
The views of the landscape were beautiful as we followed desert tracks that come and go with the wind, trusting our drivers to find their way. The air-cooled engines of our engines over-heated periodically forcing us to turn our vehicles into the wind from time to time so they could cool.
We returned to the camp as the wind came up in the late afternoon bringing with it the threat of a sand storm.
Dinner was a traditional khorkhog, a meal made by cooking goat or mutton with vegetables in an urn with water and hot rocks from an open fire. It is customary before eating to pass the hot greasy rocks from the pot from hand to hand, a tradition thought to be good for the health.
While we waited for dinner five of the staff, wearing traditional clothing, entertained us with a performance of folk songs, throat singing, and music played with traditional Mongolian instruments, including the Morin Khuur, the unique horse-head fiddle most identified with Mongolia music.
The Morin Khuur has two horse-hair strings with a horse’s head carved on the handle. It is played to accompany the Mongolian long songs that evoke the beauty of the country and the tales of nomadic heroes.
At the end of the day, we retired to the comfort of our beautifully decorated gers to sleep with the sights, sounds, and experiences of a culture that excited Jack’s book and is still alive in the middle of the Gobi desert.
The next day, we set out under the great blue sky of Mongolia for a ninety-minute drive across the desert to a nearby mountain range. There we rode camels into a pass to find the remains of a glacier hanging on in the cool gap between the hills until next winter.
We left the lodge that afternoon for an evening flight back to Ulaanbaatar. I travelled with Jack and Walker, stopping at a cairn where Jack had tied a khadak several years before. The khadak is the ceremonial silk scarf used by Mongolians to mark special occasions and places. Our driver was a young man named Huyagaa adopted by Jack when there was a great drought in Mongolia.
We were welcomed into Huyagaa’s family home and greeted in traditional Mongolian fashion with a bowl of fermented mare’s milk, known as airag, an offer of snuff, milk tea, and a snack of dried goat’s curd. Their ger was beautifully furnished, cool, and comfortable.
We visited Huyagaa’s ger later in Dalanzadgad where he lives with his wife and new baby before boarding our Aero Mongolia flight back to Ulaanbaatar.
The next day I met with Tserenpil Ariunna, the Executive Director of the Arts Council of Mongolia, and her colleague Tsevegjav Enkhchimeg, a cultural heritage programmer.
The Mongolian Arts Council was working with two groups in Canada, Coleman Lemieux and Compagnie, a Montreal based dance company, and Red Sky Performance, a Toronto based contemporary aboriginal performance company.
The Arts Council of Mongolia has accomplished a lot since it was founded by business, civic, and arts leaders in 2002 with the financial support of the Mongolian Foundation for Open Society. Its aim is to support the sustainable development of the arts and culture and promote the role of arts and culture in national development.
In addition to providing individual and organizational grants, it operates a number of arts-education programs and cultural heritage projects.
A significant part of the Arts Council income comes from sales commissions on paintings sold at the Red Ger Gallery. The Red Ger Gallery provides space for the exhibition and sale of modern art generating income both for the artists and the Arts Council.
The chair of the Council’s international board is Natsagiin Jantsannorov, Mongolia’s Twice State Laureate composer and General Director of the Grand Art Agency.
I introduced myself to Ariunaa as representing the interests of the Vancouver International Centre for Contemporary Asian Art. We talked about the possibility of an artistic exchange and an exhibition of contemporary Mongolian art in Vancouver.
We talked about the Winter Olympics and the Cultural Olympiad being hosted by Vancouver in 2010. We talked about creating connections for Mongolian artists and performers in Canada. And we talked about how Mongolia, reemerging as a culture after eighty years of Soviet domination, could make a unique contribution to the Cultural Olympiad.
In the afternoon we met with members of the National University at the State Library of Mongolia, where Jack presented copies of his book in several languages to Dr. Serjee, the Director of the Library.
He also gave the library an ancient Tibetan book he had acquired in Mongolia nine years earlier and had taken around the world.
In the evening we met with Javka Davaanyam, one of Jack’s Mongolian students who manages the Tourist Information Center in Ulaanbaatar.We talked about his interest in coming to Canada to become certified by a Canadian college in outdoor tourism. He wanted to return to Mongolia to teach and certify Mongolian guides at the University. We talked about how Mongolia’s unique opportunity was in creating cultural travel experiences.
The next morning Jack and I talked over tea. I told him about my conversations with the Arts Council and their interest in creating cultural exchanges between Mongolia and Canada.
We talked about the Native Roots project we started as a television series many years ago and realized, with today’s technology, it could now become an online communication centre. Native Roots could be an online marketplace where cultures could tell their stories and communicate opportunities to experience their cultural heritage, their contemporary cultural expression, and their creative contributions to the world.
The Native Roots communication centres could give people opportunities to explore their own native roots and the roots of other cultures, opportunities to create intercultural connections and cooperative enterprises around common interests, and opportunities to understand and appreciate our cultural diversity.
Native Roots as a television series was intended to tell the story of the contributions of the indigenous cultures of the Americas to a larger audience with a website to explore opportunities to learn more. The idea of the series was to excite interest in exploring our past to find our way in the future.
Native Roots as an online communication centre could be interactive, updated, maintained, available anytime to anyone with internet access, and could give everyone a media channel with webcasting ability. It could become a growing and permanent resource as stories are contributed.
The idea of creating the first Native Roots communication centre communicating opportunities to explore and experience the cultures of Mongolia occupied our conversations throughout our journey. The Native Roots centre created for Mongolia could be replicated with the indigenous cultures of Canada and with other cultures around the world.
That afternoon we left Ulaanbaatar for Mongon Mod, a ger camp located near Kharakorum. Kharakorum, the ancient capital of Mongolia, was built in 1235 by Ogodei Khan, the third son of Genghis Khan. It was the international commerce and trade centre for merchants from Asia and Europe and the centre of political and administrative life of the Mongol Empire until Khubilai Khan moved the capital to Beijing in 1264.
As we traveled over the beautiful steppes and under the big blue sky of Mongolia, we talked about the online marketplace where stories could be told, information, ideas, and opportunities could be contributed, and intercultural connections could be created
Native Roots could become the place where connections could be created across cultural barriers around common human interests rather than across national barriers around international interests. Native Roots could give people the opportunity to explore and experience the ideas, creative expression, and contribution of the different cultures of the world. It could increase our collective appreciation and understanding of our cultural differences and contribute to our cultural development.
At Mongon Mod, which means Silver Tree, we were entertained with Mongolian traditional music and a performance by a twelve-year-old contortionist, one of Mongolia’s unique performance arts.
The following day, we visited the Erdene Zuu Monastery guided by Batsaikhan Lama. Jack had come to Kharakorum to visit friends he had met over the years.
Batsaikhan was the monk who advised Jack on the date his book should be published which Jack credits with its success. The book was published in Mongolia one year before it was published in English. It sold out within three weeks of its release.
Erdene Zuu Monastery was founded by Abtai Khan in 1586, and is one of the few monasteries that survived the Soviet regime.
The monastery once housed 62 temples and 1000 monks. During the communist regime Erdene Zuu became a national museum with no religious life or monks in residence.
It re-opened in 1990 and is a popular place to visit. We toured three of the temples that remain from the destruction.
Part of the Erdene Zuu National Museum now functions as a monastery, where we were welcomed by the abbot who greeted us with the traditional offering of mare’s milk and gifted us with a blue silk khadak. We were honoured and blessed in a ceremony in the temple with prayers sung for us by the monks.
We then visited Erdene Zuu Endeavour School, a recently constructed Buddhist elementary school that Jack had contributed to building. Mongolia’s nomadic culture was based on Buddhist principles and traditions which gave meaning and purpose to life.
The imposition of Communism eroded the harmony and stability of Mongolian life and left many with a sense of alienation.
The school teaches life skills in the traditional cultural values and ethics of Mongolian culture to give Mongolians a sense of their personal lives and enable the country to flourish as a stable, caring society in the modern world.
In the evening after moving to another ger camp we visited the home of Batsaikhan lama’s sister, who were camped nearby with their horses, goats, cows, and sheep.
The family gifted Jack with a horse and the women prepared vodka from fermented yogurt cooked over the fire in the centre of the main ger and we enjoyed the traditional Mongolian khorhog of goat cooked with hot rocks.
I woke in the morning to the sound of rain on the roof of my ger thinking how Native Roots could be the centre for creating connections with cultures.
It is our experience of other cultures that excites our interest in exploring the creative expression and ideas they contribute to our appreciation and understanding, and to our cultural development.
In the morning, we visited the site of Kharakorum where Chinggis Khaan established his base camp. Kharakorum was probably the most religiously tolerant city in the world where followers of every religion could worship side by side in peace.
It was an international city where artists, philosophers, scientists, and craftsman from around the world gathered to connect and create with one another.
Not much remains of the original city but a few stone carvings near the walls of the Erdene Zuu Monastery.
The Kultigin tablets, which were erected in the early eighth century, are located nearby. These tablets were discovered, rediscovered, and deciphered between the 18th and 20th centuries. The tablets tell about the Tatars, one of the tribes that were forcibly incorporated into the Mongol armies by Chinggis Khaan when they swept through Eurasia during the 13th century.
The Turkish International Cooperation and Development Administration is preserving the Kultigin tablets and creating a cultural centre at the site.
In the afternoon, we drove to Ugii Lake, the site of a new ger camp recently built by graduates from Chinggis Khaan University.
Lkhagva and Jack camped here when they first met years ago and where their conversation led to Jack’s decision to write about Chinggis Khaan, and Lkhagva’s decision to create Chinggis Khaan University.
At Ugii Lake, we enjoyed the delights of fishing, horse riding, and archery and Jack was gifted with a sheep.
We returned to Ulaanbaatar to the Hotel Mongolia, a new hotel styled after the temples and gers that characterize the cultural landscape of Mongolia with a replica of the famed silver tree fountain of Kharakorum in the centre of the grounds.
Here we were entertained in the evening by Tumen Ekh, the national song and dance ensemble of Mongolia.
The performance by musicians, dancers, singers, and contortionists included a fashion show and was followed by an outdoor feast with the cast.
Enkee and I talked with the manager of the company about bringing the traditional music, song, and dance of Mongolia to Canada.
The next day Lkhvaga toured us through Chinggis Khaan University and described the construction underway to add a six-story expansion to the existing building complex.
The University was founded by Lkhvaga in 1999 with 20 professors and instructors and 130 students to contribute to national development and educate students and professionals in the traditions, history, and civilization of Mongolia.
The National Council granted accreditation to the Chinggis Khaan University in 2004. It now has more than 800 registered students.
The Chinggis Khaan University has become a center for researching the history of the Mongols, promoting the preservation of ancient archaeological sites, and sharing the legacy of Chinggis Khaan with other cultures.
We attended a birthday celebration for Biljun, Lkhagva’s five year old son, who was named by Jack when he was born.
The fifth birthday is an important occasion in Mongolia and the abbot from Gandan Monastery was there to provide a blessing.
Jack was scheduled for a television interview and I decided to accompany him. On the way we stopped at the offices and educational facilities of the Global Leadership Foundation where we met Otgonbat Bankhu, the President of the Foundation. He is the host of a popular weekly television show where students engage in projects over a number of months with the opportunity to win scholarships at a choice of universities in other parts of the world.
When we arrived at the studio, we discovered Jack was to be interviewed as a special guest on a live broadcast of the show awarding the grand scholarship prize. As I entered the studio to sit in the audience a few minutes before the broadcast, someone clipped a microphone on my shirt and I found myself seated on the stage with Jack, his translator Otgonbat Bankhu, and my translator Bekhbat Sodnom, who was the Director of the Museum of Victims of Political Persecution, Chairman of the Centre to Support Cooperation between Mongolian and Japanese Youth, Chairman of the Construction Technology College, and active in many other organizations. His grandfather was the Prime Minister who was executed by Stalin for speaking out against the killing of the monks. I was introduced as a colleague of Jack’s from Canada.
Over the conversation I spoke about how Jack had introduced me to the history and culture of Mongolia and how everywhere I had been in Mongolia I was struck by the friendliness, generosity, and appreciation of the Mongolian people. I was impressed and excited by what felt like a resurgence of Mongolian life and culture after eighty years of Soviet influence.
Toward the end of the program, I was asked if I planned to write a book when I returned. I said it was unlikely but recalling my conversation with the Mongolian Arts Council and feeling the need to contribute, I said it might be possible to create some connections with the Cultural Olympiad being planned for the 2010 Olympics.
The next day Jack received his award from the President of Mongolia in a private ceremony, the Mongolian tradition. After the ceremony he came out of the Parliament Buildings and was greeted by an orchestra, television cameras, and a large crowd of onlookers.
After a celebratory lunch, Jack, Lkhvaga and I met with Professor Sanjbergz Tumur-Ochir, the Vice Minister of Education, Culture, and Science for Mongolia and a former Chairman of the Mongolian Parliament.
He spoke very appreciatively of Jack’s contribution and when Jack introduced our interest in creating cultural connections with Mongolia, he offered the resources of his Department of Arts and Culture for any assistance we may need.
In the evening a celebration banquet for Jack was held in the Royal Chinggis Khaan Ger on the grounds of the Hotel Mongolia.
Jack received many congratulatory speeches and gifts from his friends and colleagues, including the gift of a camel from Professor Jambaldorj Sumya, a writer and journalist with the International Association for Mongol Studies, who wrote the book, The Camel is a Living Dinosaur, about the critically endangered Bactrian Camel.
We were entertained by musicians and performers and with a performance by Khongorzul Ganbaatar, the internationally renowned Long Song singer and Cultural Ambassador of Mongolia who performed at the birthday celebration of the Queen of the Netherlands, at the opening ceremony of the World Cup in 2002, at the Nobel Prize Award Ceremony in 2005, and at Carnegie Hall, Albert Hall, the Bolshoi, and many other concert halls around the world.
At the end of her performance, Lkhvaga, who was the Master of Ceremonies, spoke in Mongolian and I heard my name mentioned His comments created a round of applause and cheering from the audience.
A member of the head table came to where I was sitting and told me Lkhvaga had suggested I might be able to make arrangements for Khongorzul to perform as part of the Cultural Olympiad. My conversation about creating connections had escalated to unforeseen levels.
The evening continued with a performance on the open air courtyard stage of the hotel by the State Morin Khuur Orchestra, as one of the cultural events of the Naadam Festival.
The next morning Jack had breakfast with former Prime Minister Ts. Elbegdorj. He said that the people of Mongolia appreciate Jack’s work because he had dusted off the history of Mongolia and given Chinggis Khaan some much deserved good press after centuries of bad press. I thought Jack had dusted off the history of the indigenous peoples of the Americas and given them some well-deserved good press in a similar way with his earlier books. The idea of giving indigenous cultures the ability to create their own press, tell their own stories, and communicate their own contributions in the past and in the present is what the Native Roots communication centre could contribute to our future.
In the afternoon we met with Mark Minton, the American Ambassador to Mongolia. We talked about the future of Mongolia, one of the most sparsely populated and poorest countries in the world with a wealth of natural resources, as it emerges to take its place on the world stage and about the challenges it faces with its economic development, the pressure of foreign interests, and the increasing urbanization of the nomadic peoples.
A number of people told me that Mongolia looks to Canada appreciatively, feeling some kinship with another country with an economic and cultural giant as a neighbour as they have. At this time there is no Canadian Government representation in Mongolia which makes travel and connections to Canada more difficult for Mongolians.
In the evening we had dinner in the home of Professor Shagdarsuren Amarbayar, Advisor to the President, former Member of Parliament, and head of Nomin Holding, a large company in the wholesale, retail, manufacturing, finance, and insurance business. He gave us each a copy of The Horses of Chinggis Khaan, a book about the history of the Mongolian horse that he sponsored and advised on. Nomin Holding is a major sponsor of the annual Naadam Festival.
The next day we attended the opening ceremonies of the Naadam Festival featuring competitions in Mongolia’s three national sports: horse racing, wrestling, and archery. The President and Prime Minister of Mongolia and the Crown Prince of Japan were there for the opening.
On my last day in Mongolia, I visited the Fine Arts Museum and the Red Ger Gallery, where I viewed art from the thirteenth century to the present and where work by contemporary Mongolian artists was exhibited for sale.
Before leaving Jack, Enkee, and I reviewed our ideas and conversations. We had some ideas about how Native Roots could work and what it could contribute. We knew we have the technology and communication arts to make it possible.
We knew Mongolia was a great culture to work with to create the intercultural communication centre we imagined.
Native Roots could give Mongolians a place to communicate opportunities to experience their cultural heritage, contemporary arts, and creative contributions, and to create connections, conversation, and interest in exploring the knowledge and ideas they contribute to our cultural, community, and resource development.
When I returned, I began exploring ideas and opportunities that could contribute to creating the Native Roots communication centre. To the people who treated me so generously, I sent a print by Haida artist Bill Reid and copies of the book Bill Reid and Beyond: Expanding on Modern Native Art, on his legacy and contribution to the renaissance of Northwest Coast Native art. I sent a copy of Bill Reid’s short story, The Myth of the Land Bridge to everyone I met on my journey through Mongolia.
The Myth of the Land Bridge
In the world today there is a commonly held belief that, thousands of years ago as the world today counts time, Mongolian nomads crossed a land bridge to enter the western hemisphere and become the people now known as the American Indians.
The truth, of course, is that the raven found our forefathers in a clamshell on a beach at Naikun. At his bidding, they entered a world peopled by birds, beasts, and creatures of great power and stature, and, with them, gave rise to the powerful families and their way of life.
At least that is a little bit of the truth.
Another small part of it is that, after the flood, the Great Halibut was stranded near the mouth of the Nimpkish River where he shed his tail and fins and skin, and became the first man. The Thunderbird then took off his wings and beak and feathers to become the second man, and helped the Halibut build the first house in which mankind spent his infancy.
And the Sxwaixwe rose out of the Fraser River. Needing a wife, he created a woman from the hemlock on the bank, and she, in time, gave birth to the children who became the parents of all men.
There is, it can be said, some scanty evidence to support the myth of the land bridge. But there is an enormous wealth of proof to confirm that the other truths are all valid.
From Solitary Raven: Selected Writings of Bill Reid
Chinggis Kaahn, the man who created an empire that brought the world into the modern age, sits on the front steps of the Mongolian Parliament. The Mongols brought an unprecedented rise in cultural communication, expanded trade, and an explosion of civilization to the world. The revival of the Mongolian culture is creating community for the Mongolian people and can contribute to creating community for other cultures.
A Mongolian Experience – Music by Natsagiin Jantsannorov
Before leaving Mongolia Jack Weatherford and I outlined our imagination of a Mongolian Native Roots communication centre as a place to create connections and excite interest in opportunities to explore and experience the creative contributions of Mongolian culture.
Whether in their policy of religious tolerance, devising a universal alphabet, maintaining relay stations, playing games, or printing almanacs, money, or astronomy charts, the rulers of the Mongol Empire displayed a persistent universalism. Because they had no system of their own to impose upon their subjects, they were willing to adopt and combine systems from everywhere. Without deep cultural preferences in these areas, the Mongols implemented pragmatic rather than ideological solutions.
The arrival of the first Europeans in the Americas began an encounter of such momentous proportions that the effects are only now becoming fully understood. The convergence of people, plants, technology, religions, and social systems created a cultural explosion which Jack Weatherford believes could never be duplicated again unless humans encounter extraterrestrial life.
The story continues
In 2008, I returned to Mongolia to explore possibilities for intercultural encounters between Canada and Mongolia with ideas from the Vancouver Chamber Choir, Centre A, and Selkirk College and encountered even more opportunities to create connections and relationships between our different cultures and our different worlds.
Cultural Encounters with Mongolia