With Liz Welch
By Aisholpan Nurgaiv
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In this compelling memoir, teenaged eagle hunter Aisholpan Nurgaiv tells her own story for the first time, speaking directly with award-winning and New York Times bestselling author Liz Welch (I Will Always Write Back), who traveled to Mongolia for this book. Nurgaiv's story and fresh, sincere voice are not only inspiring but truly magnificent: with the support of her father, she captured and trained her own golden eagle and won the Ölgii eagle festival. She was the only girl to compete in the festival.
Filled with stunning photographs, The Eagle Huntress is a striking tale of determination– of a girl who defied expectations and achieved what others declared impossible. Aisholpan Nurgaiv's story is both unique and universally relatable: a memoir of survival, empowerment, and the positive impact of one person's triumph.
The White Eagle
My mother often tells the story of the day before I was born.
“Your grandmother came to visit, and her face was lit up in a way I had not seen before,” my mother says. “She had a dream that the White Eagle flew into our house and sat on the perch.”
The perch that she is referring to is called a tughir. It is more than a century old. It was carved from the roots of a river birch and was handed down from my great-grandfather to my grandfather and finally to my father, who is known as Agilay. It is where all my father’s eagles have perched in our home, and his father’s eagles had perched in his home before him.
It was also where the real great white eagle—the one my grandmother dreamed about—had once sat.
My father comes from the Tolek tribe of the Kazakh nomads, legendary eagle hunters, who have lived for centuries in Ulaankhus, Mongolia, near a mountain called Khuren Khairkhan, where the great white eagle once soared.
My people, the Kazakhs, are descendants from the Turkik, which means we all speak a similar language and have lived a nomadic life. One theory is that the word Kazakh is derived from the Turkish verb qaz, which means “to wander.” Another theory is that it comes from the Turkik word quazag, which means “to gain,” as nomads roamed with their herds of animals from one grazing spot to another, trading their animals or products made from them along the way.
Even today, my family lives a seminomadic life, which means that, depending on the season, we move with our animals to bring them to better pastures. Both my parents grew up in nomadic families who lived off the land. Nomads eat what they raise—in our case, goats, cows, and sheep. Not just the meat, but all the things we can make from cows’ and goats’ milk as well. So we move with our herds, which is why we have moveable homes, which we call gers. They are like fortified tents, made of felt and covered in heavy canvas that is wrapped around a wooden structure, which can be easily assembled and disassembled when we move our animals to the next pasture.
Our winter home is permanent, made of wood and plaster, and then lined with animal skins and rugs to keep us warm during the cold Mongolian winters, when temperatures dip to negative sixty degrees Fahrenheit. In the spring, summer, and autumn, we move our herds to different pastures—first over to a valley for the spring, when everything is starting to bloom; then, in the summer, up to the mountains, where the grass is sweet and tender after the snow melts. In these seasonal grazing spots, we erect our gers. Growing up, my father had heard the stories of the White Eagle. All the nomads who lived in the area knew about her. She could catch foxes and baby lambs with great ease and take down big-horned wild sheep in one fell swoop. Someone once witnessed her kill a fully grown wolf, and from then on, her reputation grew.
Legend has it that one day, Dauit—a wealthy nomad who was the governor of that region and had many cows, goats, and even camels, the most expensive animals—made an announcement: “Whoever can catch the White Eagle and bring her to me to hunt with will get a great prize!”
Bulanby was a nomad and one of the best eagle hunters in the region. In Kazakh, we call them berkutchi. When he heard of this competition, he decided he would be the one to catch that eagle.
He was not alone.
All the hunters wanted to catch this famed bird and collect the prize. They placed traps and nets throughout the area. But nobody could catch the White Eagle. Except for Bulanby.
He brought the great eagle to Dauit.
Dauit was thrilled. “What is your price?”
Bulanby said, “Train the eagle to hunt for you. I will tell you my price later.”
Dauit trained the eagle and went on to catch so many foxes, wild sheep, and even a wolf cub that stories of this great white eagle started to spread beyond Ulaankhus throughout the entire Bayan-Ölgii Province, the area where Kazakh nomads have lived and have hunted with eagles for centuries.
Many months passed, and finally Bulanby returned for his prize.
“You are back, finally!” Dauit said. “What is your asking price for this magnificent bird?”
Bulanby smiled and replied, “Your beloved daughter to marry my younger brother, Bosaga.”
After much consideration, and a conversation with his willing daughter, Dauit agreed. When the couple married, Dauit said, “This amazing eagle has the power to feed your family. It is a sign that you will continue the great tradition of eagle hunting for future generations.”
Bosaga was my father’s great-grandfather.
Dauit’s daughter was my father’s great-grandmother.
This story is famous in my family, and proof, my dad insists, that we come from one of the greatest eagle-hunting families ever known.
This explains the tears in my grandmother’s eyes when she told my mother about her dream. Happy tears, my mother insists.
“It was a good sign,” she says.
My mother was looking for them.
After my older brother, Samrakhan—my parents’ first child—was born, my mother could not stay pregnant, or “hold” a baby, as she says. She lost four pregnancies, one after another, which is why there is a nine-year age difference between Samrakhan and me.
My parents imagined that they would have a large family, as they live off the land and need many hands to help care for our animals. My father has nine siblings; my mother has eight. They thought their family would be of a similar size.
The first time my mother became pregnant after Samrakhan was born, she lost that baby in the spring.
Spring is the hardest time for nomads—my parents had twenty-five sheep, twenty-five goats, and one cow back then. Spring is when baby animals are born, so at that time my parents hardly slept, as they were always getting up in the middle of the night to check on the pregnant animals.
One night, my mother was awoken by the baying of the cow in distress. My father was gone, likely dealing with other animals. So she quickly got up and ran outside, following the sounds of the crying cow. The moon was bright and cast a silvery glow over the grassland that surrounds our home. She found the cow, on her knees instead of lying down and wailing as if in pain. As my mother came closer, she saw tiny hooves emerging from beneath the struggling cow and started to run toward it. That was when she felt a sharp pain in her own stomach. She ignored it. The mother cow was in trouble, so she grabbed the tiny hooves and tugged. The calf emerged, and as she helped it find its mother to suckle, my mother felt another pain in her own belly.
She was only five months pregnant then, and she believes that the baby was not ready for the world.
After that, each of her three pregnancies ended quickly.
She insists that her womb was still grieving.
So when she got pregnant with me, she went to see a shaman. These are holy men who treat every type of illness—including a grieving womb.
“How can I keep this baby?” she asked.
This shaman was famous in the Bayan-Ölgii Province and beyond. His name was Tserern. He had healed Samrakhan’s broken neck the year before, after he was thrown from his horse. It was so bad that when my parents brought my brother to the hospital, the doctor there said Samrakhan would never walk again. They refused to believe this news and brought him to see the shaman, who said, just as they entered his home, “I have been waiting for you.”
The shaman prayed over some mare’s milk, which is already considered holy in our culture. That is the milk of the female horse. We drink it on special occasions. This shaman used it as his medicine and told my mother to give it to Samrakhan first thing in the morning and last thing at night. His neck healed quickly after that.
My mother said the shaman had the spirit. He came from three generations of shamans and was powerful.
The shaman rubbed my mother’s pregnant belly with yak butter and performed a ritual around her that included chanting and the burning of a special herb. Then he wrapped her belly with fabric, “to hold the baby up high in her womb,” he said.
He also ordered my mom to rest. For a nomad woman, this is very difficult. But she took him seriously, as did my father, and his parents, and her parents, who started visiting regularly to help my father with all the chores that my mother usually did. These included cooking and cleaning and milking the cows and turning that milk into soft and hard cheeses. It also meant collecting the dung patties that were being air-dried in the special corral outside our house to make the coal to heat our home. My mother was also responsible for sewing clothes for my brother and father, and for herself, and making the felt from lamb’s wool and the blankets from sheepskin and other animal hides that we use to keep warm at night. We also use them as insulation to keep our spring and autumn homes warm. The list of things Kazakh women do is very long.
The bigger she got with me, the more the shaman encouraged my mother to keep still.
She worried that she would lose me as she had the others.
So when my grandmother arrived, after my mother had carried me for nine months, and reported that she had seen the White Eagle in her dreams, my mother felt relief for the first time during that entire pregnancy.
“This baby will bring luck to our household,” my grandmother announced that same day.
The very next morning, on May 9, 2001, I was born.
Or, as my mother says, “I was ready to see the light.”
This is the expression we use when a baby comes into the world.
My mom was ready, too. But our car was not. My father could not get it to start! Instead, he had to ride his horse to the hospital, an hour away, and fetch someone on a motorbike to come back with him, and then ride my mother on this same motorbike back to the hospital in Altansogts, the nearest town.
When they arrived, my father barely got her up the stairs to the gurney awaiting her. I was born before they even entered the birthing room.
News of my birth traveled quickly, and family members came to the hospital to meet me. My mother’s brother was the one who came up with my name.
Aisholpan means “Venus moon,” the one star you see in the sky all the time, no matter what time of year. It is how nomads tell time. It guides us.
My uncle said, “Aisholpan will guide us. She will be shiny, like this star.”
The curse had been broken.
My mother could return home to her nomadic way of life and continue to build her family. As for me, my mother says that, despite my harrowing arrival, I was an easy child.
“You rarely cried,” my mom said. “We could leave you inside at home all day to go get the sheep from the mountains. And when we would come home, you would still be in the same spot. Staring out the window. Never moving. Just waiting for us to come back.”
My father insists that my calm nature is why I was such a natural with eagles.
My People Are Eagle Hunters
For a time, long before I was born, eagle hunting was banned in Mongolia. From 1924, after World War I, until 1989, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Communists in power decreed it illegal, punishable by time in prison. The way my father explained it to me was that the Communists believed that everyone should live the same life—which meant that any cultural practice, such as eagle hunting for my people or the Buddhist religion for the Mongol people who were the majority in Mongolia, was outlawed. It also meant that nomads no longer owned their herds—the government did. This was a very difficult period for the Kazakh people.
Kazakhs lived for centuries with no homeland, roaming the land between the Altai Mountains and the Black Sea. This is why Kazakh nomads now live in China, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan. We were never people to be contained by borders. It wasn’t until the early 1900s that Mongolia offered citizenship to the Kazakh nomads in the northwestern region of the country.
But in 1924, the new Communist ruler led a brutal purge of Kazakhs, as well as Buddhists. Nomads raised livestock for self-reliance, but the new laws mandated that their livestock was now property of the Communist regime. Livestock exports to Russia rose dramatically—and, understandably, the Kazakh nomads revolted. Instead of living off the land, every single citizen had to register with the government and perform an assigned government job. People who disobeyed wound up in prison or dead. They were dark times.
Life under communism was all my mom and dad had known.
My father’s father worked for the government as a commissioner for the district. As part of his job, he had to shoot marmots, foxes, and wolves for their pelts—not for his family, but for the government. He often brought my father along because my father was a good shooter. So as a teenager, my father hunted with guns for the government. And since the Altai Mountains are so remote, and therefore the risk of being caught was slim, my grandfather would also bring his eagle.
My grandfather is one of the reasons eagle hunting is still practiced in Mongolia today.
He and others like him continued the tradition in secret. He taught my father, as well as his other sons, how to hunt with eagles just as his father had taught him—despite the fact that if he or any of his sons got caught, they would have gone to jail.
My grandfather risked it because, as he always said, eagle hunting was in our family’s blood. He kept his eagle in hiding. The end of communism meant no longer having to hide his eagle or this tradition. This was great for my father and his siblings. They no longer had to hunt in secret.
My father can name eagle hunters in our family for all seven generations that precede him, all of them men. I am part of the eighth generation.
All my childhood memories involve an eagle. I have never, ever been scared of eagles. I have been up close to them since before I can remember.
- "[A] glimpse into another culture.... Recommended."—School Library Journal
- "Nurgaiv's love for and pride in her homeland, culture, and family come through with quiet, persuasive power. An intriguing memoir from a girl who's become a cultural icon."—Kirkus
- "Young readers will be intrigued by the details of eagle hunting and the nomadic lifestyle.... An accessibly written, steadily paced story of perseverance and self-confidence."—School Library Connection
- "A great stand-alone or companion to the documentary film The Eagle Huntress."—Booklist
- On Sale
- May 12, 2020
- Page Count
- 208 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers