How a Group of Mongols came to America
by Sanj Altan.

I would like to thank my good friend Burenscharaw for giving me this opportunity to share my thoughts with the readership of this journal, by writing this article about how the first community of Mongols, the Kalmyk-Mongols, arrived in the United States and then to say a few words about later Mongol arrivals.
In the early part of the 17th century, under the leadership of their Khan Kho-Orlok, a mostly Torguud group of some 30,000 families wandered westward out of Zungaria and found grazing lands in the Volga region of Southern Russia. They would be joined by Dorbod and Khoshut groups later. Almost immediately, a long history of accommodation and wars with their Russian and Turkic neighbors began which saw increasingly greater linkage to the Russians. Ayuka Khan (1670-1724) was named a лProtector of RussiaТs Eastern Border╗ in 1697 by Peter I and during his reign, the Kalmyks achieved the zenith of their political and military powers. However, AyukaТs successors could not resist Russian domination. In 1771, this increasing Russian interference caused a majority of these people (30,000 families) under Ubashi Khan to begin a long trek back to their ancestral grazing grounds in Central Asia. Slightly more than 50% survived the odyssey, a story little known in the West. They were accepted back by the Manchu emperor Chien-lung to lands which were formerly occupied by their kinsmen, the Zungarians, who had a mere decade and a half earlier been annihilated by the Ching army in 1757. The descendants of those who returned still occupy the lands along the Altai Mountains today and speak a dialect indistinguishable from that spoken today by the descendants of the remaining people in Russia. My ancestors were among those of the 10,000 or so families who remained behind in Russia. ItТs this group and their descendants who are commonly referred to as лKalmyk╗ as opposed to their original name, Torguud or Dorbod. There is not a clear understanding among scholars of the derivation of the name лKalmyk╗.
Over the next century and a half, the Kalmyks maintained their distinct Mongolian dialect and their strong Buddhist faith. They adopted Zaya PanditaТs лTodo╗ script along with other Western Mongols and they continued also a strong tradition of shamanism, celebrating the Spring Oboo ritual, the fire ceremony and the yearly homage to the лDelkhiin Tsagaan Ubugen (White Old Man)╗. They continued to maintain contact with their Mongol brethren in Asia despite the separation and the Ching Emperors fancifully referenced them to point to the western reaches of their dominion.
Two groups evolved with slightly different traditions. The more traditional, nomadic group nomadized the Astrakhan region, and the second group became part of the Don Cossack Host and consequently gave up their nomadic traditions and became known as the лBuzawa Kalmyks╗.
During the Russian Revolution my father and his parents fled Russia since my grandfather was a member of the CzarТs Cossack troops and part of the army of the White Guard. My mother was swept up in the turmoil and escaped as an orphaned girl and was later found and raised by relatives. They made their way across the Black Sea, through Turkey and Eastern Europe. They along with others eventually formed a small but active Kalmyk community of several hundred in Serbia that thrived through the late 20s and 30s into the Second World War. Through the generous donation of a wealthy Serb, Milos Yachimovic, a Buddhist Temple was established in June 1931 in Belgrade and formed the center of Kalmyk life in Serbia.
During the Second World War, some emigre Kalmyks fought on the German side in opposition to the Communists. My father had just graduated from the University of Belgrade Veterinary School when the war broke out and was inducted into the German army as a member of the German Veterinary Corps tending to the horses used by the cavalry. Following the end of World War II, several hundred Kalmyks found their way to the American sector in Germany, and were joined by several hundred others who had fled their homeland during the German occupation of Southern Russia. Stalin ordered the remaining Kalmyks liquidated in 1943 and exiled to Siberia on the grounds that they were лcollaborationists╗ of the Nazis. A significant proportion of the Kalmyk population died during this horrific period of exile which lasted for 13 years, amounting to nothing less than ethnic genocide.
The Kalmyk community in Germany during this period had to await a Congressional Act to declare them non-Asians in order to get around the immigration bar applied to Asians. The argument was made that during the prior 3 centuries, they had resided in Southern Russia, considered geographically part of Europe. This was enough to convince Congress to convert the Kalmyk-MongolsТ racial classification to лEuropean╗ and hence non-Asian. Consequently, several hundred Kalmyk families were allowed into the United States beginning in 1951 establishing the first Mongol-American community. They were not the first Mongols in the United States, but they were the first who were large enough to form communities of a sort. My parents, with 4 children in tow arrived on the shores of the United States, in New York harbor on December 26, 1951. My mother was destined to have her youngest child, my brother Mukhali, in the United States several years later.
Over the next half a century, the Kalmyks in the US integrated into American society. They established a number of Buddhist temples, the first Lamaist-Buddhist temples in the United States. Through the 50s, 60s and 70s they continued to practice many of their traditional rituals, the Oboo ceremony, the fire ceremony, the usual Buddhist sutras at weddings and funerals and of course the лTsagaan Sar╗ was the biggest holiday, with a night long recitation of sutras on лduleen╗ or лbituun╗ night. Several graduate students of anthropology investigated the Kalmyk community and wrote their dissertations on different aspects of the community. Various attempts were made to form Kalmyk language schools and Buddhist instructions but none were long lasting.
They formed various cultural associations, most of them now long defunct. The Mongol-American Cultural Association was founded relatively recently in 1988 by John Gombojab Hangin, Cheojey Lama and their students, including the author of these lines. Beginning in the 80s, signs of absorption were abundant. The younger generations increasingly lost their facility with the Kalmyk dialect and what little Kalmyk intellectual life existed more or less vanished during the 80s and 90s.
This period was also characterized by an inability to form cohesive social and political units. The age-old specter of tribalism dominated much of Kalmyk affairs, as it has in other Mongol groups, and no compelling leadership emerged to overcome this social dynamic. Some favored the role of Taiwan in opposing communism and made yearly treks to the double ten celebrations, which was touted by the Taiwan government for their own propaganda purposes. This interference served to divide peopleТs sense of connection even more.
When the Kalmyks first came to the United States in the 1950s, there were many Buddhist priests among them. Much to their surprise and joy, the late Dilowa Khutugtu had already arrived in the United States at the invitation of an academic program headed by Owen Lattimore at Johns Hopkins University. The Dilowa became a major spiritual figure among the Buddhist clergy of that period and as a small boy, I remember his presence at religious services. In the late 50s and early 60s, more Kalmyk and Mongol priests came from India. The Kalmyk priests from India had left their Russian homeland in the 20s as young novitiate lamas on a journey to study the Dharma in Tibet, hoping to one day return to their lands to spread Buddhism. They never dreamed that their land would be permanently closed to them because of communism, that they would remain in Tibet to join the flood of Tibetan emigrants to India following the Chinese Communist invasion of Tibet in the 50s, and they would rejoin their people but in the United States. These Buddhist priests formed the core of Kalmyk society in the United States, but with each passing decade, their numbers dwindled. The last one died in the late 70s and with his passing, Kalmyk society in the US entered a new phase of moribund absorption into the larger American society.
In the late 80s and into the 90s, recent emigres from Kalmykia have come to the United States, either through marriage, as students or tourists. In addition, individuals from other Mongol groups have found their way to the United States, from Inner Mongolia and Mongolia. Thus today, there are concentrations of Mongols in the United States in New York, Washington DC, Chicago, Denver, San Francisco, Philadelphia and New Jersey. The actual count of Mongol-Americans is probably in the neighborhood of 4-5,000, with few formal connections going across all groups. But with the Internet, itТs possible to find some sort of connections between them, and there has sprung up a Mongol Internet group, whose subscribers engage in all sorts of discussions that invite viewpoints from members of virtually all Mongol groups. The Pan-Mongol movement has found a voice through the wonders of the Internet.
Today as the new millennium begins, the ethnic fabric of the United States certainly has some Mongolian threads, threads from many parts of the MongoliaТs. It will be an interesting story to see if these disparate groups of Mongols, the new and the old from all areas can manage to find a balance with the pressures of absorption, overcome tribalism, maintain some Mongol traditions and language, practice Buddhism and identify as Mongolians? There are some hopeful signs but it is still too early to tell.

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