AKHA ETHNIC GROUP(Thailand, Laos, China and Myanmar)
The Akha are one of the smallest, poorest and least developed hill tribe groups in Southeast Asia, but they are also among of the best known to tourists. Akha women are famous for their beautiful, elaborate and distinctive traditional costumes. The Akha are known as the Hani in China. In China, the Hani have traditionally been a highland tribe dominated by the lowland Dais.
The Akha live in northern Laos, western Burma, northern Thailand, northern Vietnam and southern China. According to the 1990 census, there were 1,254,000 of them in China. Numbers in other countries are sketchy. According to some estimates there are 180,000 in Myanmar, 59,000 in Laos, 10,000 in Vietnam and 40,000 in Thailand. They are found mostly in mountainous area between the Red River and the Mekong. Many live in Golden Triangle area in Thailand, Myanmar and Laos. In China, the Hani (Akha) live in the Honghe Hani and Yi Autonomous Prefectures, the Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture, and Jiangcheng Hani and Yi Autonomous County and the counties of Mojiang and Yuanjiang.
The Akha ethnic groups are made up of several ethnic sub-groups and other associated groups with clans and lineages. The different ethnic sub-groups within the main Akha group do not mix amongst villages and the languages differ considerably amongst them. Among the many ethnic sub -groups living in Laos are the Iko Mutchi, the Iko Eupa and the Iko Loma.
The Akha have traditionally been semi-nomadic slash-and-burn agriculturalists. In some places they are involved in the opium trade but generally have not been associated with it as much as other groups. The Akha are disliked by the other Thai and Burmese hill tribes who consider them dirty, ignorant and violent. Opium addiction rates are very high among the Akha in Laos.
Sources on Individual Ethnic Minorities in China: (click the ethnic group you want) Ethnic China (very good site with good academic articles) ethnic-china.com ; Cultural China (site with nice photos) cultural-china.com ; China Travel chinatravel.com ; Wikipedia List of Ethnic Minorities in China Wikipedia ; Travel China Guide travelchinaguide.com ; China.org (government source) china.org.cn ; OMF international (a Christian group) omf.org ; People’s Daily (government source) peopledaily.com.cn ; Ethnic Publishing House (government source)e56.com.cn ; Paul Noll site` paulnoll.com ; China Highlights (on some groups) China Highlights
Kitchen Sources on Ethnic Minorities in China: Book on Chinese Minorities stanford.edu ; Chinese Government Law on Minorities china.org.cn ; Minority Rights minorityrights.org ; Minority Travel: China Trekking (click under Minority Towns) China Trekking ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; New York Times Interactive Map nytimes.com ; Ethnic Groups in China (Chinese government site) chinaethnicgroups.com
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History of the Akha
The Akha's history is made up of a long North-South migration from Tibet through Myanmar and Yunnan to Northern Thailand, Northwestern Laos and North Vietnam. Their arrival in Laos has been confirmed to a specific date but the eldest say that it lies more than 55 generations back. Their migration from Tibet to Laos took place in the 16th and 17th century. It is said that they escaped from political rebellions and Chinese robbers stealing the livestock and plundering villages.
There is some debate as to whether the Akha originated in Tibet or Yunnan Province in China. The Akha are believed to be descendants of the Lo-Los, a tribe which once had a number of independent kingdoms in the eastern Tibet and the Sichuan region of China. Oral traditions describe a homeland by a large, northern river and a southward migrations across many rivers.
Some anthropologists believe the ancestors of the Akha, Lisu and Lahu descended from the highlands in the second century B.C. after some of them lost their ability to deal with the harsh cold. By the A.D. seventh century they reached to the valleys of China's Yunnan province and were mentioned in Chinese records from the Sui and Tang dynasties. In the Ming dynasties they were incorporated into the tusi system. In the Qing dynasty the Akha were involved in the Taiping rebellion and uprising against local leaders in 1917.
The Akha began arriving in Burma from China in the 19th century after being harassed by the Chinese and the other hill tribes. There are records of them in eastern Burma in 1860s when the established relations with a the Shan prince of Kengtung. Most of the Akha in Thailand arrived after World War II from the politically unstable northern states of Burma.
In Myanmar most of the Akha tribes are living in Kyaing Ton. There are small villages about 50 minutes drive from Kyaing Ton. such as Ho Kyin. Nan Phi Phank. Pang Ma Phai village. They live on marginal land and find it difficult to eke out a living through their slash and burn method of agriculture. In order to supplement their income. many Akha are now selling handicrafts. employing the traditional skills used in making their own clothing and cultural items. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information]
In Laos, the Akha are the fourth biggest ethnic group in Oudomxay and form part of the Lao Soung like the Hmong people. The Akha migrated from the Tibetan Plateau, Northwest of Oudomxay, several hundred years ago. Their language is part of the Tibeto-Burmese linguistic family. Their villages are situated in remote areas. Opium addiction rates are very high among the Akha in Laos.
Akha in Chinese characters The Akha speak a Tibetan-Burmese language similar to the languages spoken by the Lisu, Lahu and Yo (see Lahu).. It is a tonal language and is a Sino-Tibetan language. There are a number of dialects. Some are so different they are can not be understood by other Akha. Many words have been borrowed from Thai, Chinese and other local languages.
The Akha have traditionally not had a written language, but they have a strongly performed oral transmission. The Chinese, Thais and missionaries have developed Roman-based, Thai-based and Chinese-based scripts for the Akha language. The Chinese government helped them standardize their written language. There are three main dialects. They had no written language until the Communist government gave them one after 1949.
Each child is given a genealogical name in which the first syllable comes from father’s name and the second syllable is added.
They place great importance on the “Akha Way”—a complicated system of beliefs which involves among other thinsg memorizing and reciting oral myths and the names of male ancestors
The "Akhazan" code rules their daily lives and is transmitted orally from one generation to another to ensure that their traditions continue; in this way, everyday behaviors, attitudes and activities are conditioned by Akha beliefs and complex codes
A great respect for human beings and natural resources, all of them under the guard of a protective spirit The importance of the village gate, spiritual and physical boundaries between the world of humans, their souls and spirits and the outside world. The birth of twins or malformed children or the death of someone outside the village's boundaries are considered shameful because they are thought to be wanted by evil spirits
An Akha week is 12 days long; for every activity of the village, there are favorable and unfavorable days. There is also a selection according to the day of the week, the month and the period of the year.
The Akha's complex rules have survived their long migration history and their beliefs are still dominating their way of life. The Akha's traditions represent the key feature of this particular ethnic group – they deserve to be deeply respected, especially in the light of the changes and development that the Akha experience and increasingly depend on.
Akha religion is best described as polytheism, animism combined with ancestor worship. Ancestors provide blessings in the forms of good health, abundant harvests, fat animals and fertility. People and rice have souls that must be kept happy. If they depart they can cause disease. The Akha also believe that disease is tied to certain spirits and can be controlled through sacrifices and magic oriented towards those spirits.
Village leaders are also regarded as the primary religious leaders. They oversee the annual rebuilding of sacred gates and swings (see Villages). Ritual specialist (prima) performs chants at various ceremonies. Offerings to ancestors are usually made by male family members (female family members have to undergo a special initiation to do so).
Some Akha shaman slap their thighs and shack a rattle while in a trance. Shaman are believed to have been chosen the spirits for their job. Not every village has a shaman.
Both Protestant and Catholic missionaries have been very active in Akha villages. A large number of Akha have converted to Christianity. In many cases entire villages converted and they have forsaken many of traditionally religious beliefs.
Akha Spirits and Gods
The Akha believe that all things on earth have souls They offer sacrifices to mountains, rivers, dragons and heaven, and, as often as every week, to their ancestors. Animals have spirits that are honored in hunting rites.
The Akha revere a female creator god, named Ao ma, or “Heavenly Spirit”---who created ths sky and the earth and then gave the Akha their social code---but rarely honor her with formal rituals. The Rice Mother is more often the object of formal worship. A number of rice ritual are directed to her. They also worship “holy hills” as guardian spirits.
Akha people believe in ancestors' spirits that guide humans and they believe that spirits dominate every resource. Every upper spirit is helped by intermediate spirits to which only shamans and very religious people can make contact. Lower spirits are accessible to all people. Spirits manage the attitudes and behaviors of the Akha; they are like inspectors of all daily life. According to the "Akhazan" code, every offence must be punished to calm down the angry spirit and the punishment must benefit the whole village.
Akha people have some similarities with some North American Indians. The Cree tribe in Canada for example believes that trees have spirit. After splitting wood, a person is not allowed to throw the split wood into a pile as that would be disrespecting the spirit of the wood. The Akha tribe also believes that everything, from the sky, forest and land, has spirit.[Source: Alberto C. de la Paz, curator of the Hilltribe Museum and Education Center at Chiang Rai ***]
The Akha believe in a period, which is similar to the Christian idea of the Garden of Eden. To the Akha, that was a period when human and spirits lived in harmony. Of course, someone always throws a monkey wrench into such idyllic conditions resulting in the separation of humans and spirits. It was therefore, agreed that spirits would live in the forests and humans in villages. The demarcation between the spirit world and the human world would thus be the village gates that are erected annually by the village shaman. Everything beyond the village gate is considered as part of the domain of the spirits. If one were to venture forth into the forest, they would be at the mercy of the spirits. ***
Up until 20 years ago, a more extreme case of spiritual interference with human matters occurs when a mother gives birth to twins. The Akha believed that only animals like dogs and pigs give birth to more than one offspring and therefore considered twins as beasts and not human and must be immediately killed. ***
Akha Creation Myth
Funeral In the beginning, according to the Akha creation myth, men and spirits lived together in a world created by A-poe-mi-yeh. They shared the same food and houses but often quarreled with each other and stole from one another because the spirits slept during the day and the men slept at night. Their constant bickering kept A-poe-mi-yeh from getting any rest so he created two worlds, the earth and the sky, and gave men the choice of which one they wanted. Because the choice was made during the day, men got to choose the earth with it trees, fruit and game. The spirits felt they had been robbed and plotted against men. Every wet season they descended to earth with rain (the only link between sky and the earth) and brought floods and disease.
The men called up to A-poe-mi-yeh for help and he told the men to put up gates with statues of mean-looking birds and viscous dogs outside their villages to keep the spirits out. The men obeyed and their problems stopped. But then after a time men began bothering A-poe-mi-yeh with stupid questions, one of which was why men can't live to be 100 years old. They kept asking and asking until finally A-poe-mi-yeh roared, "You keep bothering me. I've had enough! From now on the spirits will try to catch you whenever you are careless or negligent. Even if you manage to ward off their assaults, none of you will ever live one hundred years!" [Source: "Vanishing Tribes" by Alain Cheneviére, Doubleday & Co, Garden City, New York, 1987]
According to one myth the Akha descended from frog eyes.
Funeral The Akha bury their dead. Funeral ceremonies last for three days. The services are different for those with a male heir and those without one. Only those with a male heir become ancestors who receive rites after their deaths. Husbands and wives become ancestors together.
In some villages all work stops and every person attends the funeral. The head of the household of the deceased sacrifices a pig to a spirt of the deceased and everyone enjoys a feast. If the family of the deceased is poor, other village members contribute to the purchase of the pig. The dead are buried in the forest in a grave without a marker.
In other villages, the son-in-law of the deceased is required to offer a cattle for sacrifice and offerings of pigs, wine and chickens is made. Before the funeral a soul sending ritual is held at the site of the coffin in a room full of children. An appropriate burial site is found by rolling an egg until it breaks.
Akha Folk Beliefs
Akha tend to view certain events as unlucky: the arrival of a wild beast or a new family in the village, a dog climbing on the roof of a house, a fire in a neighboring village or tree falling down near the sacred gate. In many cases, they believe, these events signal the arrival of malevolent spirits.
Particularly, inauspicious is the birth of twins or a deformed child. Traditionally, when this happened the children were burned, the parents were run out of town and their house and all their possessions was set on fire. If the parents were wealthy they could buy their way back into the village by hosting a nine-days of feasting and sacrificial rites. Even then everyone in the village would ignore them for a year and they would be permanently excluded from religious rites.
Religious activities are often linked to seasonal agriculture rhythms. The Akha divide the year into two seasons: the people’s season in the dry season and the spirit season in the wet season. During the spirt season, the spirits are especially mischievous and various rites are undertaken to placate them. In the spring roads are repaired, sacrifices are made by rivers to ensure bountiful harvests and lots of noise is made to encourage malevolent spirits to leave.
Akha archery contest
The primary annual rituals are the rebuilding of the village gates and nine to 12 ancestor offerings and rice rituals. The annual ancestor offerings are related to the fertility of rice uses. They use a tall, four-posted village swing. Some Akha celebrate the Chinese New Year and Mid-Autumn Festivals.
Ceremonies are also held to mark births, weddings and funerals. There are also a variety of healing ceremonies that involve soul calling.
The Akha celebrate a torch festival in which participants light torches in front of their houses and set large fires in their village squares. The festival honors a woman who leaped into a fire rather make love with a king. Before the village torch is lit people gather around it and drink rice wine.
Akha have traditionally married in their teens or early 20s. Polygyny is permitted. Marriages within and outside the village are acceptable. When a young girl reaches marriageable age she dons a headdress that advertises the fact. Young people are generally free to chose their partners although they usually need approval from their parents. Marriage is often seen as exercise in wife taking or wife giving. This exercise is very important in Akha society, with wife giving regarded as superior to wife taking.
Most non-Christian villages have a place where young people can gather. In the past they used to come to hear and sing traditional songs. Now they are more likely to listen to pop songs in their language on a radio or boom box.
The wedding ceremony is usually at the home of the groom’s family. Ceremonies and customs vary. In some places the bride and groom walk through the sacred gate. In other places they engage in “bride teasing the bridegroom" games. As wedding gifts the bride is given a carrying basket, a hoe and a knife.
Upon getting married a woman leaves her family and joins the family of her husband. The couple generally lives with the groom’s parents or his older older brother. Since only one married couple is allowed to occupy a house newlyweds generally live in an adjacent hut and take meals in the main house. After the newlyweds have children, they move into their own house and establish their own household with its own ancestor altar.
In some areas, post-marital sex is no big deal for men but is a big deal for women. The ease in getting divorced and remarried varies. In some places the couple merely have to pay a “processing” fee. In other places a wife who seeks a divorce has to return gifts given to her by the groom’s family. After a divorce the children generally stay with the husband’s parent’s family.
Akha Men and Women
The division of labor between men and women is enshrined in the Akha religion. Men have traditionally done heavy work such as plowing, slashing and burning, and hunting. They often do the cooking, especially for feasts. Women do household chores, weave, dye cloth, sew, harvest, carry stuff, process crops, gather wild herbs and cooking rice. Both the mother and father and older siblings help out in child rearing.
According to Akha tradition the entire world is divided into two opposite but complimentary male and female halves. Each has its own duties, responsibilities and rituals. Villages, forests and trails are within the male domain and houses and fields are in the woman's domain.
Akha women are known as being hard workers while men often waste away much of their life smoking opium. Young girls usually take responsibility earlier than boys. Their primary duty is collecting firewood and water.
The youngest son is expected to live with the parents and take care of them in old age. In return he inherit the family’s property. A married son who builds a house of his own usually receives gifts of livestock, tools, seeds, money and household items as housewarming gifts.
Young Akha are given some sexual freedom and intimacy before marriage (special premarital meeting house which allows for the personal choice of the partner).
Massages are a typical feminine activity that benefit to husbands and guests.
In an Akha family, the organization is patrilineal. The father has total authority until his death; it is then transmitted to the eldest son. Akha men often choose to have many wives, however 4 spouses seem to be the maximum.
Patrilineal descent defines kin groups and clans which in turn forms the basis of village and community organization. Most villages are made up of members of a clan or group of clans that can trace their relationship back to a common ancestor, 40 or 50 generations ago, and who in turn is often said to have been conceived by spirits.
Akha society is very egalitarian. There are no social stratifications. Patrilineage kinship, villages duties and marriage alliances are the primary boding forces. Older people are accorded respect.
Village leaders are known as dzoema. They often inherit their position but have to be approved by male elders. The dzoema represents moral and legal authority and supervises and looks after the welfare of the community. The buseh assists the dzoema. If needs be he replaces the dzoema and also represents him in dealing with local and national governments. The pima is responsible for administering and transmitting heritage and is thought to be aided in his task by supernatural forces with which he is in contact.
Almost every aspect of Akha life is governed by Akhazang (the "Akha way"), a social code which combines poetry, mythology and tradition with morality and tribal law. If laws are broken punishments are generally worked out by dzoema n conjunction with male elders. Akha go out of their way to avoid conflict. There are few examples of war in their history.
Traditionally, Akha villages are situated at a high altitude and their locations are chosen for the qualities of the surrounding areas. The territory must be forested, favorable to rice, corn and poppy growing and there must also be grassy pastures for cows. An agreement with the spirit of the land is necessary before the settlement of the village can take place.
Akha villages are quite easy to spot once you have some knowledge about their architectural preferences and way of life. Traditional Akha villages will have a ceremonial swing placed at one of the highest points in their village. Furthermore, there will also be spirit gates at the upper and lower ends of the village which, to the Akha, are very sacred and should never be touched. [Source: Alberto C. de la Paz, curator of the Hilltribe Museum and Education Center at Chiang Rai ***] Akha usually live in villages interspersed with other ethnic groups in the mountains. Their villages usually have 40 or so households. Large villages have up to 100 households. Small one may only have a dozen or so households. Foot paths connect houses in the village and one village to another. Many villages can only be reached by walking several hours or days along mountain trails.
Akha villages generally consists of so thatch-roof wooden houses grouped around a open dirt area. In this area there is often a tall, four-posted village swing, used in annual ancestor offering. Villages are often on ridge tops or steep slopes. Every Akha village is distinguished by their carved wooden gates presided over by guardian spirits. One should not walk through the gate unless you plan to spend time in one of the village houses. The gate has large wood-carved man and woman figures with exaggerated sexual organs that 'separate' the human world from the spirits.
The sacred gates are intended to keep evil spirits from bringing disease and misfortune to the village. The gates are often made of bamboo and accompanied by male and female fertility statues that are indistinguishable from one another except for the exaggerated sex organs. There are usually two gates: one up slope and one down slope. Inside is the domain of people and animals. Outside is the realm of the spirits. It is strictly taboo for people to pass through these gates or touch them.
For protection against hostile tribes, villages have traditionally been built on the crests of mountains, which also happens to be where most of the spirits reside. Often the mountain ridge serve as a kind of avenue dividing the village in half. Sometimes villages are built on a slope.
Akha houses are either built on the ground or raised about 1½ meters off the ground on low stilts. typical house has a thatch roof, walls made with logs or bamboo and a storage area for produce below the living quarters. Many houses are located in a fenced compound, which contains a main house and a granary and smaller houses used by extended family members.
Each house has a masculine and feminine side as a well a space for pigs. The men live in separate quarters with their own bucket-like stoves. It is taboo for them to enter the larger room where the women and children spend their time and prepare and eat their food. Each house has an ancestor altar.
Akha Village Gates
Wooden gate looks like a raised door jam, with two wooden male and female figures placed inside. The village gates mark the demarcation between the human world and the spirit world, which live in the forest. The gates are erected annually by the village shaman. Everything beyond the village gate is considered as part of the domain of the spirits. If one were to venture forth into the forest, they would be at the mercy of the spirits. [Source: Alberto C. de la Paz, curator of the Hilltribe Museum and Education Center at Chiang Rai ***]
The village swing and gates are structures, which have to be replaced yearly by the village shaman, although not all at the same time. When constructing a village gate, only male members of the family, both young and old, are allowed to participate. Women are strictly forbidden from participating in this activity. This partly explains why family planning might not always work in a traditional Akha village, as each family will try to continue having children until a baby boy is born. ***
Upon returning to the village, that person is expected to pass through the village gate in order to exclude any malicious spirits. Occasionally, there would be a rash of sickness running through the village. To us, we may look at that as a flu epidemic. To the Akha, however, it means that the spirits are running havoc on the community, which requires an offering to be made at the sacred forest to appease them. ***
Akha Life and Culture
Akha like to sing. Akha musical instruments include drums, cymbals, and Jew’s harp.Massage is a welcoming gesture. Massages are a typical feminine activity that benefit to husbands and guests.
Opium use is high in some Akha villages. Some Akha have teeth stained red from betel nut. Due to their belief in the very powerful spirit of water, which is feared, hygiene is very low. Illness are treated by shaman, by chants from ritual specialists and herbal medicines.
Goods are carried by women baskets on their back with a strap around the forehead. An Akha innovation to this ancient means of transporting goods is plank connected to the forehead straps which also carries some of the weight. The day usually begins with women pounding grain with mortar and pestles underneath their homes.
Akha Swing Ceremony
The Swing Ceremony is unique to the Akha tribe. It falls in August or September each year depending on when that particular village will harvest its rice. Determined by the village priest, the date can change often making planning difficult. The Swing Ceremony is a sacred thanksgiving ritual & form of ancestral worship. Through the ceremony & its associated merry-making, feasting, singing & dancing, the Akha show respect & gratitude to their ancestors, who, in turn, give well-being, welfare & crop abundance to their descendants.
The ceremony also marks a 'rite of passage' for Akha girls passing into womanhood. Its this later component that makes the ceremony so very spectacular - the girls of the village come dressed in their finest hand-made/hand embroided clothing/costumes. Indigo dyed cotton cloth jackets skirts & 'leg wraps' are embroided in intricate patterns of every possible distinctive colour. The most ornate of headware made from silver (they weigh around 5kgs each) & colourful beads adorn their heads. The girls laugh their heads off as they launch each other on the swing - individually, in pairs, seated, standing.
The Akha ethnic group make their own traditional clothing. The women grow and spin cotton or hemp to make cloth. They then use natural indigo dye, before weaving the thread into cloth and decorating it with colourful embroidery. Clothes and ornaments are very important and they are produced with great care Akha women are very skillful in spinning cotton (they do so while walking) and in making clothes. Their very decorative textiles combine weaving techniques, embroidery, sewing, plaiting and the application of beads, feathers etc. and silver coins.
Akha women wear smock-like blouses and pleated short skirts, with a pair of pants underneath them in cool weather and gaiter-like anklets in hot weather. Many women wear this costume all the time, including when they work in the fields. Some Akha men wear sarongs and embroidered jackets but otherwise their clothing is not as colorful as women’s. Akha men in Burma sometimes shave their head except for one Chinese-style lock hanging down the back.
The ladies’ costume in Myanmar consists of a headdress, a short jacket with colourful embroidery and a short. gathered skirt and embroidered leggings of cotton and wool. The headdresses are of two types: the shorter has a rounded back to the cap made of silver while the longer one has a square piece of flat silver standing up at the back. The ladies’ headdresses are made of tightly sewn rows of beads. embellished in the front with silver coins some of which date back over perhaps a century and on the sides with large globes of silver. strands of beads connect to the cap from behind one ear to the other.
The man’s costume in Myanmar is also embroidered with silver coins and with significant figures hung down. We also observed their daily chores such as weaving basket. spinning wool. pounding and shifting the grain. fetching water and gathering firewood. It is an amazing scene for all of us. because we have never seen before. The young boys and girls always participate in the dance. While they are dancing. they beat the bamboo nodes on the wooden log rhythmically. This way the Ahka nationals live united and in amity forever.
Jackets, hats and shoulder bags are regarded as works of art. The patterns of embroidery and applique on mens and women’s jackets is unique for each Akha subgroup. Akha women wear mostly black or blue clothing. According to legend, all Akha women at one time wore indigo costumes. But then one day a man stole another man's wife, and to keep her from being recognized he dressed her in bright clothing, and since then the entire tribe has followed this custom. Silver is a sign of wealth, and it adorns belts, necklaces and bracelets as well as the headdresses.
Most Akha women make their own clothes and they take great pride in their cotton weaving skills. The cloth is made on bamboo looms with foot-operated bamboo pedals, a hand-operated wooden carding system and poles for the yarn. Until recently the cotton was grown locally and home spun and often dyed with indigo.
Akha Women's Famous Headdresses
The famous foot-high conical headdresses worn by Akha women are called u-coes. They are made from cotton, and embroidered and decorated with colored beads, silver balls, strands of colored wool, shells, long red boas, tassels, bird feathers, silver coins and bells. Sometimes they are decorated with monkey fur, dog fur, beetle wings and French, Burmese and Indian coins that date back to colonial days.
Akha babies sometimes wear embroidered skull caps decorated with coins and red pompons. Small girls receive their first bonnets when they are six or seven, and they given ornaments as gifts to attach to the bonnet as they get older. When the decorations become to heavy a bamboo frame is attached to the bonnet to hang them from. The u-coe's of some older women weigh over 11 pounds. The style of headdress varies somewhat from village to village and even among individuals within a clan. The most beautiful u-coe's are said to be found at the village of Napey in Thailand and Loi Mwe in Burma. [Source: "Vanishing Tribes" by Alain Cheneviére, Doubleday & Co, Garden City, New York, 1987]
Some women wear their headdresses nearly all the time. They have covers to protect them from the rain and sometimes they even wear them to bed at night. The only time the headdresses are removed is when there is a possibility they might be damaged---for example, when carrying bags of grain or vegetables.
In China the Akha are famed for cultivating tea bushes that are source expensive Pu’er tea. Some of the bushes are over 100 years old. Puer is known as “green gold.” It was a key trading item on the ancient “Tea and Horse Route.”
Baskets of various types are woven from bamboo or rattan. Chopsticks and other utensils are made from bamboo. Many villages traditionally have had a blacksmith who made tools such as knives and hoes. Silver crafts and ornaments are usually made by non-Akha craftsman. These days, more and more Akha are moving to towns to earn money from wage jobs.
Most goods are purchased in towns or at markets. In the village, one family may run a shop out of their home that sells cigarettes, kerosene and cooking oil and other items in their home. Itinerant traders and peddlers occasionally show up to buy, trade and sell goods.
Akha Hunting and Agriculture
The Akha have traditionally been semi-nomadic slash-and-burn agriculturalists who grew dry-land rice on the slopes of mountains between elevations between 3,500 and 4,000 feet, and moved on to a new place when they had exhausted the soil. In China most Akha live in mountainous areas and have traditionally been good are rasing rice in terraced fields and on steep mountain slopes. Opium has been an important cash crop. Other cash crops include grown include peanuts, sugarcane, cotton, ginger, chilies, soybeans, tomatoes and cabbages.
Dry-land rice is nourished completely with rain water. Vegetables such as pumpkins, cabbages, beans, greens, peppers and yams can be planted in the rice fields. Maize, chiles and cotton are grown other fields. If enough water is available irrigation may be to grow paddy rice. The Akha also collect wild mushrooms, wild greens, rattan, camphor, pine, cypress and other timbers are collected in the forest.
Slash-and burn agricultural land has traditionally been owned by a household only when the land was being used to raise crops. While it is left fallow it belongs to no one. Land used to grow wet rice belongs to the household that prepares the land. It can be bought and sold.
Pigs, chicken ducks, goats, cattle and water buffalo are raised. Fishing is done with traps and nets. Many Akha still hunt. Rifles of various kinds have replaced traditional cross bows. Most game is caught with traps and snares. Hunters used to catch deer, wild boars, bamboo gopher and jungle foul but many of these animals are gone due to overhunting.
Akha in Thailand
In Thailand the Ahka and Lahu have relocated to places that are accessible to tourists.
Many child prostitutes in Thailand are from ethnic minorities. In some cases they are sold by their parents for as little as $40 to $80. Young Akha girls from Burma sometimes are sold into prostitution by their parents to make money for a television.
"Mii Chuu was 12, when her stepfather, an opium addict, sold her into prostitution," wrote William Branigin in the Washington Post. "A slight girl, she was brought from her village in the Akha hill tribe region of neighboring Burma by a Thai policeman, who paid her stepfather $192 and delivered her to a brothel in the town of Chiang Rai. She was forced to have sex with three men her first day." [Source: William Branigin, Washington Post, December 28, 1993]
One Akha family was offered a $400 television and when they realized they couldn't pay for it a child trafficker showed up who was willing to lend the family $1,600 in exchange for their "very pretty little daughter."
Image Sources: Nolls China website http://www.paulnoll.com/China/index.html , Joho Maps
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated April 2014