Not the Taos Cow

Dixon photojournalist to give presentation about indigenous water buffalo herders


Correction appended.

In 2009, 24-year Dixon resident Michael Benanav contacted a nongovernmental organization to document an indigenous tribe in Northern India. At 7 p.m. Saturday (Jan. 13) at the Embudo Valley Library, Benanav will have a book signing and slide show to celebrate the literary product of that effort: his work "Himalaya Bound."

"Himalaya Bound: One Family's Quest to Save Their Animals and an Ancient Way of Life" is the true story of the seasonal migration of the family of Jamila (mother) and Dhumman (father), members of the Van Gujjars, a nomadic group of water buffalo herders. The herders, who have their own native language, pass the winter months in the lowland jungles of the Shivalik Hills and migrate in April to the Himalayas before the September trek back into the jungle.

Released Jan. 2 by Pegasus Books, "Himalaya Bound" has been reviewed as "compelling" and "told with integrity and compassion" by Biblio: A Review of Books.  The first version of the book was published in 2015 by Harper Collins India. The new version is a 224-page book that contains 16 pages of color photographs of the ancestral meadows, water buffalo and portraits of the family.

"It's a story of the migration from beginning to end, and weaving in a lot about the culture of this tribe, their traditional way of life, the way they live," said Benanav describing his book. "It's a forest dwelling tribe of nomads so it really gets into who these people are, what their way of life is like, as well as the challenges that they face today that really may be pushing their culture to the brink of extinction."

For 44 days Benanav became part of the Indian family, photographing and writing of their culture, their lifestyle and their struggles. Utilizing a translator he walked along with the Hindi-speaking people during their April pilgrimage to the lush regions of the Himalayas for the nurturing of their buffalo.

This particular group of indigenous people are Muslim and even more uniquely, vegetarian. They have very personal relationships with their water buffalo, which they see not as milk producers, but more as members of the family.

"They'd never eat them, they'd never sell them for slaughter, they only use them for milk," said Benanav. "They really don't like the idea of killing animals, and their animals in particular. It's almost like they are the servants of the buffalo."

While documenting the migration, Benanav witnessed something reminiscent of the Yellowstone model, a reference to the way in which United States "forced eviction of indigenous people from national parks and wildlife sanctuaries," Benanav wrote in an email.

The jungles and meadows the Van Gujjars have resided in for hundreds of years have been designated as national parks. Park authorities have been attempting to evict the Van Gujjars from their ancestral lands. While there are laws that protect their rights to the jungles and meadows, According to Benanav, authorities sometimes intimidate the herders. The Van Gujjars are an illiterate group, yet the forest department has confronted them with contracts that vary in nature, such as allowing one seasonal re-entry into an area and denying them future access, according to Benanav. He continues to keep in contact with the tribe and visits with them whenever passing through India.

One day while attending a peaceful support gathering as tribal leaders negotiated with officials about entry back into an area designated as a national park, Benanav, who was documenting the show of solidarity, was arrested.

"The head of the forest department asked to see me," said Benanav. "At gunpoint I was thrown into this police car and taken down to the police station. Once I got there and explained the situation to the police captain, he let me go."

While Benanav remained a neutral party, only there to document the culture and the migration, neither taking the side of the park authorities nor supporting the Van Gujjars connection to their land, he appeared to be caught in a political crossfire.

India, as of 2017, was ranked 136 out of 180 countries by the World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders. Journalists, as well as media companies allegedly face threats, attempted censorship and intimidation regarding sensitive subjects, such as the resistance in Kashmir.

Benanav, typically off the beaten path with the Van Gujjars, aside from the arrest, did not face the alleged tension between the media and the state. However, after the incident with the park official, an article describing the arrest was published in the local newspaper and the tribe felt closer to Benanav, he said.

"Word spread among people in the tribe very quickly about what happened, so I became instantly known among people I had never even met within the tribe, and as soon as I met them I was very easily accepted," said Benanav. "They felt I had suffered for their cause, and I finally I had a first-hand view of who this guy (park official) is they're dealing with, and who this person was who is making the decisions that their lives depended on."

"Himalaya Bound" is Benanav's third book. Previously he has written about hauling salt with camel caravans in the Sahara and the Holocaust wartime experiences of his grandparents before they met on a refugee boat in the '40s. He freelances for various publications, such as the New York Times and CNN. He has received recognition from the American Library Association.

He finds inspiration in foreign cultures in the remote niches of the world.

"Honestly, I'm mostly inspired by the people whose stories I cover. They are so often unheard, or misrepresented, or marginalized - and are so often such incredible individuals whose ways of life are truly valuable elements of the human experience on our planet," Benanav said. "When I ask myself why I do what I do, which is often not easy, the importance of sharing the stories of these remarkable people is what truly motivates me."

This story has been corrected from its original version. Dhumman is the father and Jamila is the mother.  Benanav has been a Dixon resident for 24 years. "Yellowstone model" refers to the forced eviction of indigenous people from national parks when they were founded in the United States.