Today, we focus on someone that Girl Museum has long admired – Aisholpan Nurgaiv, the 13-year-old eagle huntress of Mongolia.
Aisholpan is a Kazakh – a group of nomadic people in Mongolia and Central Asia who speak the Kazakh language and are Muslim. Due to their nomadic lifestyle, religion, and the limited learning of Mongolia’s dominant language, the Kazakh people face much prejudice and discrimination. This discrimination led, in 1940, to the creation of the Bryan-Ulgii province, where Kazakh’s keep their culture and mother tongue but are isolated from the rest of the world and kept from fully participating in the political life of Mongolia. This is where Aisholpan lives.
The Kazakh people practice eagle hunting – also known as falconry. This is an ancient practice, especially among people living on grasslands like those of Mongolia. The earliest images of falconry appear in Assyrian and Hittite reliefs of the 9th and 8th centuries BCE – that is over 2900 years ago! Falconry was also prevalent in Ancient Greece, Persia, and even described in the accounts of European explorer Marco Polo.
Archaeological evidence goes back even further. This includes burial mounds made by nomadic peoples on the steppes of Asia, dating back over 3,000 years ago. Many finds in these mounds point to eagles as the nomads’ preferred hunting companions, with artifacts adorned with eagle imagery. There is even a skeleton of a Scythian nomad that was found buried with an eagle in Kazakhstan. Falconry is also preserved in oral history and cultural lore, including Central Asian poems that epically document the heroes and heroines who hunted with eagles. Known as the Nart Sagas, these tales tell of many heroes and heroines, including the 17th-century nomadic Nokia warrior, Jayne Myrna, who tamed eagles and gained respect among her people.
Falconry continued for centuries. In modern times, there have also been eagle huntresses – in the 1920s, a Mongol eagle huntress became known as Princess Nirgidma in Europe. A highly educated nomad, she was photographed with her eagle in 1932, where she was buried after her death in 1983. There is also Makpal Abrazakova, who was documented in 2009 while competing in the eagle festival in Kazakhstan.
As historian Adrienne Mayor of Stanford University states, “For thousands of years, golden eagles have been the favorite raptor to train as a hunting companion across the northern steppes from the Caucasus to China. Eagles are strong predators especially adapted to winter hunting for hare, marmot, wild goat, deer, fox. […]” They also trained horses and sight hounds. “By training these three animals—horse, dog, and eagle—to be their hunting companions, the early nomads made the harsh, unforgiving steppes into a land rich with accessible game for furs and food.” (Mayor)
Girls and women have been eagle hunters since antiquity. Though men are more common, the practice has always been open to girls – and archaeology suggests that girls were once more common than men — “graves across ancient Scythia…reveals that steppe nomad females engaged in the same riding and hunting activities as the men, and about one third of the women were active warriors in battle.” (Mayor)
Mayor also described the process of training eagles: “To support the eagle on a rider’s arm, a baldak, a Y-shaped wooden rest, is attached to the saddle. […] Fledglings or sub-adult eagles are captured from the nest and trained to hunt. According to tradition, after 5-7 years the eagles are released back to the wild to mate and raise young.” (Mayor)
Today, the tradition is carried on primarily among the Kazakh and Kyrgyz nomadic groups of Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Xianjiang province in China. They are commemorated in a bronze sculpture in Kyzyl, Tuva, that shows a man and a woman setting off on horseback with their dogs and eagles. There are approximately 200-400 eagle hunters are known today, with a handful of them being women.
What is not commonly known is that the societies were practice falconry gender equal compared to more Western societies: “Girls and boys start riding horses at age five and help with herds and putting up gers. Girls and women can compete in horse racing, archery, and wrestling. Eagle hunting is traditionally passed down among male relatives. Female hunters are rare but there are no religious or cultural prohibitions against a girl who wishes to participate in training and flying eagles.”
Aisholpan is one such girl. She began to train at the age of ten, when she told her father she wanted to be an eagle huntress. Within a year, she was training and hunting. “Aisholpan also confirms that she was aware some men thought a girl was not strong enough to hold an eagle, that she should stay at home, and would not be able to stand the cold hunting for hours in the Altai mountains.” She says the pressure gave her more will, power, and inspiration
In 2014, Aisholpan won her first competition, followed by additional wins in 2015 and 2016. Her accomplishments were first documented by Israeli photographer Asher Svidensky for BBC News; seeing the photographs, film director Otto Bell tracked her family down. In an interview with BBC, Otto stated that “on the very first day…[he] filmed one of the early scenes in the film, where the girl and her father seize a baby eaglet from its nest. It’s a dramatic moment with Aisholpan climbing down a cliff, her father holding a rope attached to her waist.”
Apparently unaware of Makpal Abdrazakova’s fame and other girls and women with eagle training experience, Svidensky cited the extreme cold and difficult terrain as the reason eagle hunting was always reserved for males. He portrayed Aisholpan as the only girl to train an eagle. Otto Bell took this as truth. But since antiquity, the challenging conditions on the steppes have meant that men and women engaged in strenuous riding and other activities together. Indeed, as Svidensky himself remarked in his 2013 photo essay, girls only have to ask and they could become a bürkitshi, the native word for eagle huntress. (Mayor)
The film which Bell made featured Aisholpan becoming the first female to enter the Golden Eagle Festival, an annual competition, which she won and her eagle broke a speed record in one of the events. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2016, and was purchased for distribution by Sony Pictures and Altitude Film. The resulting documentary featured narration by Daisy Ridley, an actress from the Star Wars films, and later won Best Documentary at the Hamptons International Film Festival.
Yet the film faced criticism, with some claiming the film was staged. A major flaw with the film is that it suggests that Aisholpan’s parents are outliers in the Kazakh community, which is not true. Her parents’ support and the general belief that girls can do whatever boys can do has been confirmed by several other celebrated Kazakh and Kyrgyz eagle hunters such as Kukan, Agii, and Sary, by Mongolian guides, and by the experiences of other young women in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Mongolia. Eagle hunting families are deeply committed to preserving their ancient legacy. 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 have failed to acknowledge Makpal Abdrazakova’s prior eagle hunting prowess, widely publicized since 2011. Otto Bell knew about Makpal in 2014 but he declined an offer to meet her, preferring to focus on his heartwarming story pitting one girl and her father against their male-dominated society. In spring 2016, Bell indicated that it is not his responsibility to tell an ethnologically comprehensive story. As co-producer Asher Svidensky commented to Mayor in early 2016, “Entertainment isn’t anthropology.” (Mayor)
Despite criticisms, historian Adrienne Mayorstates, “[Aisholpan’s] bravery and her feats in that eagle hunting contest are really amazing and inspiring.”
We were pleased to hear that Aisholpan has benefited from the film. Profits from its distribution were shared with Aisholpan and her family, who established a fund to help her pursue higher education and her dreams of becoming a doctor.
Additionally, the film – and Aisholpan’s resulting fame – has helped to shift attitudes about the Kazakh minority, especially among Mongolia’s dominant ethnic groups. Kazakhstan’s President invited Aisholpan and her family to move to Kazakhstan, where many Kazakhs had previously moved, but her family declined the offer, calling it a privilege to live in Mongolia. Though the film was only shown twice in Mongolia in theaters and a few times on television, many call Aisholpan a patriot and claim her decision to stay has helped change opinions on the Kazakhs and express their patriotism.
Aisholpan also wants to encourage investment in Mongolia. Already, ethnic Mongolians are investing in the eagle festivals (which are held twice a year), raising attendance from an average 1,500 to over 3,500 — as Aisholpan stated, “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.”
In 2017, Aisholpan received the Asia Game Changers award from the Asia Society for breaking gender barriers. She also met with Prime Minister of Mongolia.
Even though she is not the first – and certainly won’t be the last – eagle huntress, Professor Mayor summed up Aisholpan’s legacy as a Great Girl, stating, “Her story is inspiring enough without being cast as a struggle against male oppression. As the first girl to compete in the Ulgii eagle festival, her achievements are truly 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 if they wish.”