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.
FIG 2.6. Aisholpan, National Geographic 2014, and Otto Bell's “The Eagle Huntress” Sundance poster 2016
The Truth Behind The Eagle Huntress
Bell's breathtaking documentary "The Eagle Huntress" previewed at Sundance in January 2016 to international acclaim. In interviews, press releases, and publicity for the film--despite widespread knowledge in 2014 of Makpal Adrazakova's prior eagle hunting--Aisholpan is presented as the only girl in history to become an eagle hunter, defying Kazakh elders' belief that women are "too fragile and weak." Bell characterizes Mongolia as backwards and claims that because the Kazakhs live in such isolation they “are ignorant about what women can do.” Interviewed in Mongolia's leading newspaper in 2016, however, Aisholpan's mother Alma stated that there are no restrictions on girls deciding to be eagle hunters. This fact is confirmed by several well-known Kazakh eagle hunters such as Agii Makhsum in Mongolia, and by other female bürkitshi in Kazakhstan and Mongolia. Kazakh families are deeply committed to preserving their ancient legacy.
Aisholpan's younger sister intends to carry on the family's heritage when Aisholpan leaves for college. An extraordinary young woman, Aisholpan has become an empowering example for girls around the world. Her achievements are impressive. But they are made possible not only by her own grit and skill but by her nomadic culture, in which women can be men's equals and girls can train eagles.
Documentary photography and films are expected to be ethnographically sensitive and factual, so it is surprising that the creators of Aisholpan's story for Western audiences fail to acknowledge Makpal's eagle hunting prowess. They also misrepresent the historical independence of women in Kazkah and Mongolian culture. Strong women have always been part of the venerable Kazakh nomad heritage and girls were never forbidden to train eagles. Mongolia is far from backwards: women have voted and held office since 1924 in Mongolia, more than 80 percent of women have secondary education, and 70 percent of college students are women.
New Generations of Eagle Huntresses
FIG 2.7. Aisulu, at age 5, teaching a young eagle to balance while perched on a horse. (Photo 2010 Mongolia, courtesy of Bek, backtobektravel.com)
In 2010, at age 5, Aisulu began helping her father Ardak train an eagle. Aisulu's parents approved her wish to be a burkitshi at age 11, noting that her grandfather would be very proud. At the 2014 Ulgii festival, while Bell filmed Aisholpan, yet another young eagle huntress in training captured attention: Amanbol, the 9-year-old daughter of the bürkitshi featured in the award-winning documentary “The Eagle Hunter's Son” (2009, dir. Renè Bo Hansen). The film starred her older brother Bazarbai when he was 12. After their father died, Bazarbai began teaching Amanbol to be an eagle huntress. As Belgian photographer Stefan Cruysberghs remarked, Amanbol and Bazarbai are “the new generation [who] will make sure these ancient traditions will be kept alive.”
FIG 2.8. Amanbol at Eagle Festival, Ulgii, Mongolia, 2014. (Photo courtesy of Stefan Cruysberghs)
FIG 2.9. Amanbol and Bazarbai, brother and sister eagle hunters, 2014. (Photo by Terry Allen)
In 2015, Aisholpan and Amanbol attended the Ulgii festival, along with a third young girl bürkitshi apprentice. She is the daughter of Shohan, a prominent eagle hunter in Mongolia.
FIG 2.10. Shohan's daughter, Eagle Festival, Ulgii, Mongolia, 2015. (Photo: Marion Demanet)
Strength and Openness of the Kazakh Community
Historian of Central Asian falconry Takuya Soma points out that falconry disappeared in other less open, sedentary societies. In contrast, Soma notes, eagle hunting persisted and has a future among Kazakhs because of their traditional belief that women can participate in the same activities as men. The “chief reason why eagle hunting is still practiced” is the “absence of strict social regulations to join.” As Dennis Keen notes, "curious adults and children absorb eagle hunting not just from 'masters' but from from the culture at large." Soma, Keen, McGough, and the Kazkahs themselves affirm that anyone young or old, male or female, is free to find a teacher, "capture and own their eagle, and hunt without any restrictions.” Rather than exclusive to “Kazakh masculinity," bürkitshi techniques are “shared with community members, elders, wives, and children,” even non-Kazakhs. This “open knowledge and free participation," open to anyone strong, capable, and determined enough, continues Soma, “is a remarkable trait in pastoralist society,” unlike the all-male elite hunting of sedentary cultures.
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“Generally men used to participate in the festival” at Ulgii, remarks Mongolian photographer Batzaya Choijiljav, but “the younger generation” of eagle hunters includes girls, ensuring its future. The intrepid eagle huntresses Makpal, Aisholpan, Aisulu, Amanbol, and the new generation of eagle hunters' daughters are capturing world attention through photographs and film. The great excitement surrounding their extraordinary accomplishments is a powerful affirmation of the egalitarian values that were once taken for granted among the ancient steppe nomad cultures.
Acknowledgments: Thanks to Deborah Armstrong, Bek/Back to Bek Travel, Ariunbold Dorjsembe, Meghan Fitz-James, Alan Gates, Dennis Keen, Byeibitgul Khamsen, Kent Madin, Lauren McGough, Agii Makhsum, and Dauit Daukysh Ryskhan.
Adrienne Mayor, Research Scholar in Classics and History of Science, Stanford University, is the author of The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World (2014), and The Poison King: Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy, nonfiction finalist for the 2009 National Book Award.
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