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In Search of the Black Tents

On the grasslands of the Tibetan Plateau, the Drokpa people are working to maintain and restore their traditional nomadic way of life, even as they face harsh resettlement policies, desertification, and modernization. Diane Barker offers an intimate portrait of four of these families.

Tibet’s Drokpa, or nomads, have been herding livestock on the vast high-altitude pastures of the Tibetan Plateau for millennia. The Drokpa, meaning “people of the solitudes,” are truly a mountain people.

Traditionally, Tibetan nomads were very free. They formed tribal communities to support each other in their harsh environment and protect each other from threats of weather, disease, and bandits. Strongly influenced by the centuries-old teachings of Bon shamanism and Buddhism, Tibetan nomads understand the earth to be sacred; they bring reverence, care, and respect to the land. With a holistic and self-sufficient lifestyle that is in harmony with nature and the seasons, the Drokpa are natural stewards of Tibet’s grasslands and living examples of original Tibetan culture.

Recently, a lack of appreciation for and understanding of the indigenous knowledge of the Drokpa has resulted in the rapid erosion of this ancient way of life. Resettlement policies have coaxed—or forced—many nomads into selling their herds and moving into concrete homes in towns and villages. Ill-advised agricultural policies, global warming, the boom-and-bust economy of Cordyceps fungus, conflicting advice from Tibetan lamas, and the pressures of twenty-first-century materialism have all contributed to a steep decline in the Drokpa population and an erasure of the Drokpa culture.

It is difficult to grasp, and impossible to measure, the extent of what would be lost were this way of life to disappear. This essay explores the lives of four Drokpa communities holding the thread of tradition in the midst of modernization and imposing development.

“It’s my homeland. I’m a nomad, and for a nomad, the grassland is very, very important—something like home, something like mother. If nomadic people lose the grassland, then they lose their home. If they lose grass, they lose their mother.”

Palzang, from the Machu area in Amdo