The Eagle Huntress: New Generations of Eagle Huntresses in Kazakhstan and Mongolia – Part II
Nomad Women Have Hunted with Eagles since Antiquity
The ancient practice of eagle hunting is carried on today by a few hundred nomadic Kazakhs in Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Xinjiang (northwest China). The majority of Kazakh eagle hunters live in Mongolia, and keep in touch with Kazakhs in other countries.
The Life of an Eagle Hunter
Both Mongolia and the Kazakh community have a long history of women's equality in education, government, medicine, and other fields. Girls and boys start riding horses at age five and help with herds and putting up gers. Women can compete in horse racing, archery, and wrestling. Eagle hunting is traditionally passed down among male relatives, but there are no religious or cultural prohibitions against a girl becoming an eagle hunter ( bürkitshi, berkutchi ). Children commonly help to care for the eagles, go along on hunts, and attend eagle festivals. Anyone strong enough to carry an eagle can begin apprenticeship with one's own eagle. The traditional test of a bürkitshi is a successful hunting trip on horseback. Not everyone continues eagle hunting: military service, education, marriage, family, and employment can intervene.
FIG 2.1. Nirgidma with her eagle. Photo by Maynard Owen Williams, National Geographic 1932 (Public Domain)
The Eagle Huntress Princess Nirgidma
The turbulent history and isolation of Central Asia makes it difficult to trace eagle hunters in the modern era. A Mongol horsewoman-eagle huntress who became a celebrity in Europe in the 1920s was Princess Nirgidma (1907-1983). A highly educated member of the Torghut/Oirat/Kalmyk nomads who ranged from the Altai to the Tarim Basin, Nirgidma was photographed with her hunting eagle in 1932 in Urumqi (where the mummified eagle huntress now resides, see Part 1 ). “We Mongols are emancipated,” Nirgidma declared in a National Geographic interview, “a good horse and a wide plain, that's our desire.”
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During the Soviet era, eagle hunting waned but began to reemerge in the late 20th century, with annual eagle contests, like the Sayat festival at Nura, Kazakhstan. Kyrgyzstan's Salburun festival began in 1997; Mongolia's festival began in Ulgii in 1999.
FIG 2.2. Makpal and her eagle, 2010, Kazakhstan. (Photo courtesy Dennis Keen)
The Eagle Huntress Makpal Abdrazakova
In 2009, Reuters released a video of the young eagle huntress Makpal Abdrazakova competing in an eagle festival in Kazakhstan. In 2010, falconry historian Dennis Keen photographed Makpal with her eagle. By 2011, many photos, interviews, and videos in international media presented Makpal as the sole female bürkitshi in Kazakhstan. As a child she helped her father with his eagle and at 13 Makpal began training her own eagle Ak Zhelke (“White Neck”). Makpal says Kazakh elders (with one exception) gave their blessing because they “remembered that women used to hunt with horses, dogs, and eagles.”
Makpal, now a lawyer, continues to win eagle contests and encourages other young women. By 2012, her father Murat Abdrazakov was training three new girls aged 8, 12, and 15 in Kazakhstan. That year, a young horsewoman with an eagle appeared at the festival in Ulgii, Mongolia; in 2013, a young eagle huntress attended the festival in Nura, Kazakhstan. Meanwhile, in 2009-2013, the eagle hunter Kukan taught a young American woman, Lauren McGough, to be a bürkitshi.
FIG 2.3. Eagle huntress at Nura Eagle Festival, Kazakhstan, 2013 (Ruta Production/Shutterstock)
FIG 2.4. Lauren McGough, American eagle huntress in Mongolia, 2009-2013
Aisholpan Carries on Family Legacy of Eagle Hunting
In 2013, Asher Svidensky photographed Kazakh bürkitshi in Mongolia and with the help of his guide “discovered” Aisholpan Nurgaiv, the 13-year-old daughter of an eagle hunter. Her older brother had joined the army and Aisholpan was helping to carry on the family legacy. Svidensky's photo essay of Aisholpan posing with her father's eagle went viral in 2014. Apparently unaware of Makpal and other girls learning skills, Svidensky cited extreme cold and difficult terrain as the reason eagle hunting was reserved for males, and portrayed Aisholpan as the only girl. But since antiquity, the challenging conditions on the steppes have meant that men and women engaged in strenuous riding and other activities together.
FIG 2.5. Aisholpan and her father Agalai, Eagle Festival, Ulgii, Mongolia, 2014. (Photo courtesy of Meghan Fitz-James)
In early 2014, inspired by Svidensky's photos, film maker Otto Bell flew to Mongolia to secure the rights to Aisholpan's story, stating that he “felt a sense of responsibility to carefully bring her story to life through film.” Svidensky and Bell returned later in 2014 to film Aisholpan capturing a fledgling eagle (Ak Kanat, “White Wings”) and competing in the festival in Ulgii, where she won her first eagle hunting contest.