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Mongolians and American Indians

October 08, 2021

My spiritual Buddha and Mongolia fellow traveler, Bill Penttila, and I had a strange connection to American Indians.  As a “mature” Eagle Scout, I became quite interested in Native American Indians and joined an El Paso, Texas Indian Explorer Scout dance team where we competed with Indian dance teams all over New Mexico. I must admit that I was of an age that I was greatly attracted to the native ladies. Therefore, we showed our dance prowess to the ladies with the fluff/bustle dance.  We were always the best and the native guys on the other side of the aisle could never measure up.

In case you are not familiar with the bustle dance, native American dancers are shown below.  You will also note that most of them are a bit corpulent which gave we young skinny lads a massive advantage. 

We would dance in a circle in full costume and one of us would move to the center, pull a fluff out of our bustle, throw it in the air, dance around it and then pick it up from the floor without using our hands and blow it into the air with great drum fanfare.  Joey still asks me to perform that task in the evening.  I wrapped the Indian lore into my aspirations to become an archeologist even though Indiana Jones had not been created at that time.  Ultimately, I realized a doctorate was required to become an archeologist though the financial payout was not particularly good.  Therefore, I was conned into going to Southeast Asia to participate in an illegal war in Laos and I have had no regrets. Bill grew up on an Indian reservation in Montana where his father was an educator. While on our geological field trips in Mongolia, we observed that the behavior of the Mongolians on the steppe, be it on horseback or merely eating as shown below, to be the same as the as the folks we knew in our past.   

I asked my good friend Baabar, a geneticist, about the similarities between American Indians and the Mongolian people. Most Mongolian politicians lived in fear until they read his Monday morning article in the leading Mongolia newspaper. Therefore, Baabar was “the political critic of Mongolia” and an acknowledged anti-corruption crusader. We once drove by the Government Anti-Corruption office and Baabar said, “We are passing the most corrupt office in Mongolia.” Nonetheless, his scientific passion was genetic studies and he was quick to respond to my question about American Indians that “We are the same people.” Baabar’s office was in a high-rise condominium complex where our condo was located so I would see him from time to time. In fact, the complex was pretty much ground zero for the Mongolian Democratic party with which I identified as opposed to the “People’s Party” with its communist roots.  

Well one day I received a chilled DHL package in my Houston office from Baabar with instructions to call a certain individual in Washington, D.C. with the Smithsonian Institute. As the package obviously contained chilled blood samples, I asked the Smithsonian individual about what to do next. He said to refresh the freezer packs and to send it on to Panama for analysis.  When I asked about the efficacy of sending blood samples at the height of the HIV crisis, he said that I was to turn a blind eye to that in the interest of science. Baabar is shown below holding court on an issue.

Although Baabar’s “We are the same people” description, in essence, covered the relationship which was confirmed in a far more detailed scientific paper I read.  An interesting facet of the scientific paper was the relationship between the Finns and the Mongolians. None of that was surprising, as the Finns I have been around are people of few words much like the Mongolians. 
As our Buddha friend, Bill Penttila, was a Finnish American, we would laugh that his brother would come to visit Bill in his office where they would sit forever never saying anything. Bill’s joke on his own people was that two Finn’s buy a case of vodka, quietly sit down and drink bottle after bottle.  At some point, one Finn says “Skoal” which was roughly equivalent to “Cheers.” The Finn across the table responds, “Did we come here to talk or drink.”  The Mongolians take the same approach to drinking and chatting though, late in the evening, you will hear them singing.

Baabar and several of our Mongolian friends asked if I could help get an unwieldy manuscript of his translated into English and published. I received a large box containing his work and hired a young western student studying Mongolian and about the best he could do was number the pages. I went back to Baabar and said he needed to give me an idea who could do his life work justice. He came up with a crumbled card that had Caroline Humphrey’s name on it who, among many other distinguished positions, was the Sigrid Rausing Professor of Collaborative Anthropology and head of the Mongol Studies program at The University of Cambridge.

I asked one of my British directors for a dining selection to offer up in London and he suggested Wilton’s Restaurant best described as a “Bastion of British food with oyster bar.” As Caroline Humphrey accepted my invitation, my British director and I met her there one evening which was a very special occasion. Caroline Humphrey who is shown below is a most interesting person sharing a love for Mongolia and keen to educate others as to the difficulties, trials and many deaths the people suffered at the hands of their Russian overseers. It is funny what strikes you about people’s habits and for Caroline she smoked unfiltered cigarettes.  I had smoked for years prior to settling down with Joey, but always filtered cigarettes other than when I rolled my own home-grown brand X.

Now, you should know I had eaten at Wilton’s with my British friend one evening prior to that visit when an unusual creature crawled out of my oyster. As I had no fear of strange creatures, I finished the oysters and only regretted it the next morning. At that time, I was on a flight to Brussels to recruit Pierre Simondoux, head of Institut Francais du Petrole whom I met in Russia, to join our board. I took a permanent spot in the small rear compartment of the aircraft and somehow made it on to join Pierre for lunch. Dinner with Caroline was my last visit to Wilton’s as I decided to end on a high note and take no further oyster chances there.

Thanks to the undaunting and inspirational efforts of Caroline Humphrey and with the support of Christopher Kaplonski who edited the manuscript following the translation by a number of Mongolian scholars, Twentieth Century MONGOLIA by Baabar (Bat-Erdene Batbayar) was published. I retained the The White Horse Press Cambridge to print one thousand copies of the hard back for distribution as well as a greater number of soft-sided versions which I gave to libraries and interested scholars. Baabar once asked me when his royalties would be paid and I responded that, sadly, there was no income but only bills. In fact, Baabar never cared about money but he did have a penchant for my wine cabinet. In any event, the image of the work is shown below and can be found on the internet. We remain good friends and his sister Deli who has worked for us many years continues to pay the bills for our condo near that of Baabar in Ulaanbaatar.

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