Newsletter Spring 2019

Picturing Nomadic Ways of Being in the World

by Nic Tanner, Cohort ’17

Joel Goldberg, a regular writer and contributor for NPR and National Geographic, interviewed me for the piece, and I couldn’t help but get a shout out to IDSVA in there.

https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2019/03/22/699330147/headless-goat-polo-is-a-top-sport-at-world-nomad-games

Police officers stand guard during preparations for the opening ceremonies of the third World Nomad Games in Cholpon-Ata, Kyrgyzstan, held in September. Photo by Nic Tanner for NPR

Police officers stand guard during preparations for the opening ceremonies of the third World Nomad Games in Cholpon-Ata, Kyrgyzstan, held in September. Photo by Nic Tanner for NPR

NPR’s global health news website, Goat Soda, recently published a series of images I photographed in fall of 2018 of the third biannual World Nomad Games held in Kyrgyzstan. At the Games, countries from across the world competed in a wide variety of traditional Central Asian nomadic sports and activities, some of which have remained in practice for millennia. Events included horseback archery, horseback wrestling, and kok-boru, otherwise known as headless goat polo.

While these sports are thrilling, if not strange and wonderful to witness, there is, in addition to the economic and socio-political benefits, an overlooked aspect to the performance of these nomadic games and traditional practices. This is true not only for local athletes and artists participating in the games, not only for fans and tourists eager to see these spectacles unfold for various reasons, but also for anyone interested in learning about and even incorporating nomadic ways of living into their own life. The World Nomad Games offers the athletes, fans, tourists, and the global world one of our closest means of experiencing an alternative way of living; an alternative to the ubiquitous, sedentary existences most people living in the developed countries of the western world experience.

The ongoing need to reevaluate how and why contemporary societies, from the individual to the global level, relate to their world and one another-- how and why they do what they do-- has never been more critical than the present. Sedentary ways of life have been able to secure vast quantities of resources and power, upon which the developed western world founded and maintained its control of a now globalized system of production, communication and organization.  But the ability of mass populations in sedentary societies to change, even in the face of catastrophic threats to the planet's ability to sustain life in future, appears increasingly impossible on any meaningful scale, as time goes on. In contrast, nomadic ways of life which have survived to the present day offer alternatives. What might looking to those ancient ways of living, practiced by nomads, teach contemporary people about navigating an increasingly uncertain present? How might they help us thrive in a future no longer secured by the promise of a sustained sedentary existence, protected and maintained by global state powers?

A Turkish tightrope walker shows his skills at the games. Photo by Nic Tanner for NPR

A Turkish tightrope walker shows his skills at the games. Photo by Nic Tanner for NPR

For example, nomadism's central connection to horseback riding is not incidental. By domesticating the horse, nomads such as the Kyrgyz were able to travel beyond the confined spaces offered by roads taxed and controlled by invading powers. Meanwhile, the yurt allowed them to put down a home, and take it up again, wherever the present moment dictated was ideal. And by developing weapons which could be fired from horseback, nomadic groups were able to disrupt encroaching state-led powers by becoming an ever-changing, fluidly adapting force, always in motion.

These ways of life and others still echoed in many of the events put on at the World Nomad Games, allowed nomadic peoples of the central Asian mountains and steppes to live on the earth and within its natural processes in such a way that rendered the possibility of exhausting its resources or significantly altering these processes impossible. Nomadism stresses fluidity, mobility, and adaptation, allowing people to thrive even in uncertain and rapidly changing conditions. In contrast, producing, amassing, and protecting things, especially the things sedentary societies tend to produce, are cumbersome, labor-intensive activities which produce collections of things that together become too heavy if the goal is ever-ready movement and adaptation to an ever-changing environment. Sedentary ways of life, which must be adopted by nearly every individual living in the globe’s most populous societies, appear to be more harmful in the long run, for the individual, their society, and the earth. Perhaps sedentary minds and bodies stand, now more-so than ever, to learn something vital, that we’ve perhaps forgotten, about a more fluid, present, and nomadic way of moving, living, and being in the world.

A Kyrgyz woman from the southern part of the country (center) and other onlookers watch the Nomad Game events. Photo by Nic Tanner for NPR

A Kyrgyz woman from the southern part of the country (center) and other onlookers watch the Nomad Game events. Photo by Nic Tanner for NPR