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A girl and her eagle help bridge Mongolian ethnic divisions

Documentary on huntress sparks interest in once-spurned minority

Aisholpan Nurgaiv starred in the 2016 documentary "The Eagle Huntress." (Photo by Odbayar Urkhensuren)

ULAANBAATAR -- Aisholpan Nurgaiv has become famous in Mongolia and beyond as the star of the 2016 documentary "The Eagle Huntress." The film shows 13-year-old Aisholpan, a herder's daughter, succeeding in the male-dominated world of hunting with eagles in the Altai Mountains.

In the documentary Aisholpan convinces her father and grandfather to let her become a huntress, captures her eagle, White Eye, as a hatchling and eventually wins a competition in which hunters call their birds down from the mountain tops. The film, seen around the world, made the 2016 shortlist for the Oscar for best documentary.

But Aisholpan, now 16, has done more than help to break down gender stereotypes. She has also helped to shift the attitudes of Mongolia's dominant ethnic group toward the country's Kazakh minority, of which she is part.

Kazakhs account for only about 0.4% of Mongolia's population, while Mongolian ethnic groups make up 95%. Most Kazakh Mongolians speak Kazakh and are Muslim; some never learn the Mongolian language. This has helped to fuel prejudice against Mongolian Kazakhs among the majority ethnic group.

Kazakhs are frequently subjected to insults, ranging from demands that they "leave Mongolia" to being called "terrorists," but there has been little official effort to counter discrimination. In 1940, Mongolia created Bayan-Ulgii province, Aisholpan's homeland, to allow Kazakhs to keep their culture and mother tongue. But the creation of the province served largely to isolate the Kazakh population, making it unnecessary for local people to learn Mongolian, and reinforcing negative attitudes toward them.

The creation of Mongolia's Bayan-Ulgii province has helped to preserve the distinctive culture of ethnic Kazakhs, including the Golden Eagle Festival. (Photo by Asher Swidensky)

These barriers have kept Kazakhs out of decision-making positions. Ethnic Mongols have also not forgotten that some Kazakh families left the country for Kazakhstan 25 years ago, leading some to regard the remaining Kazakhs as unpatriotic citizens who may abandon Mongolia at any time.

Discriminatory attitudes also surface in the media. In March, Zindaa.mn, a Mongolian news portal, published a brief article praising an alleged plan, formulated under a previous president, to build an intelligence agency in Bayan-Ulgii province to spy on the Kazakh population.

Bakytjan Nurbolat, a Kazakh businessman, was outraged by the article. He went to Zindaa.mn's newsroom with a friend and -- holding a shovel -- shot a live video on Facebook demanding withdrawal of the article. It was the first public act by a Kazakh combatting discriminatory media content in Mongolia.

Although discriminating against people on grounds of race is prohibited, hate speech does not fall under the ban. Bakytjan said he hopes to establish a nongovernmental organization to protect minority rights in Mongolia and promote Kazakh culture.

However, Aisholpan's story is already helping to shift the mindset of ethnic Mongolians. After the initial success of "The Eagle Huntress," Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev invited Aisholpan's family to quit Mongolia and move to Kazakhstan, offering her and her family a new and luxurious celebrity life.

This year’s eagle festival in Ulaanbaatar drew more local ethnic Mongol attendees than ever before. (Photo by Anand Tumurtogoo)

But her family declined the offer, saying "they were granted their privileged life thanks to living in Mongolia." Although most Mongolians have not seen "The Eagle Huntress," which was shown only twice in a cinema in Ulaanbaatar and a few times on television, many who read the news were surprised by the family's decision to reject Kazakh citizenship.

Some called Aisholpan a patriot, and expressed their appreciation in social media posts. "Never thought Kazakh people cared or valued Mongolia in that way," said one.

Aisholpan said she wants "to develop my Mongolia" by encouraging investment." But her role in the documentary and the family's decision to remain has already motivated more ethnic Mongolians to investigate Kazakh culture, especially the two annual eagle festivals -- one held in the capital in March and the other in Bayan-Ulgii in October.

Such festivals were previously attended mainly by foreign tourists or Kazakhs, but this year's spring festival in Ulaanbaatar had more ethnic Mongolian attendees than before. More than 3,500 people attended this year, compared with a previous high of around 1,500.

Festival-goer Nergui Sukhbat brought his three daughters to see the eagles and eagle huntresses. "I was never interested in this festival before I watched [Aisholpan's] movie. When I watched it I thought that I should use this opportunity to see those eagles with my own eyes, since we can't go to Bayan-Ulgii," Nergui said.

Many other parents also brought their children to the festival to show them the birds of prey -- and to take photographs of them with Aisholpan. After the festival Aisholpan, dressed in a fox fur hat and jacket, and holding White Eye, said that she had never regretted her decision to stay in Mongolia.

In a sign of the higher profile of the Kazakh eagle hunters Ulaanbaatar's Tourism Bureau brought 20 from Bayan-Ulgii by plane to the capital for the festival, including Aisholpan. Previously, the hunters came to the city with their eagles by land.

"I was hoping that these great numbers of people came here maybe because they might have watched my movie," Aisholpan said at the festival. "I want Mongolians to see our Kazakh culture, history, father-daughter bonding, and [our] patience from my movie. I'm glad that Mongolians tell me that they're proud of me."

Earlier, the 2017 Golden Eagle Festival in Bayan-Ulgii had reported a 40% increase in attendance, following the release of the documentary, according to the province's tourism officials.

The film has also brought a degree of global recognition for Aisholpan. She received an Asia Game Changers award in November 2017 from the non-profit Asia Society for breaking gender barriers. The Mongolian government has yet to offer her any comparable award, although Prime Minister Khurelsukh Ukhnaa did meet Aisholpan after her Asia Society award was announced.

"Aisholpan excellently served her country by promoting Mongolia overseas," said Bakei Agipar, a former member of parliament for Bayan-Ulgii province. "She should have been awarded by the state with a small prize, title or a medal. Awarding her any title would mean acknowledgement of her merit; it [would] also be [part of] the government's effort to preserve the precious eagle hunting tradition."

Bakytjan said that Aisholpan's decision to stay in Mongolia might help to preserve her unique culture. "If Aisholpan decided to live in Kazakhstan, she would live in the city and she would just turn into a metropolitan girl," he said.

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