LAO SUNG (UPLAND LAO): THE HILL TRIBES OF LAOS

LAO SUNG (UPLAND LAO)

Laotian hill tribes (Lao Soung) make up 15 percent of the population and generally live at elevations above 1,000 meters. For the most part they live in northern Laos and are the most recent arrivals in Laos. Many only arrived in the last hundred years. Tibeto-Burman groups such as the Lisu, Lahu, Llo. Akha and Phu Noi are sometimes classified as Lao Theung because they live at slightly lower elevations that other Lao Soung tribes. The Phuan are a tribal Thai group. Many are Christians.

Lao Sung (Laotian of the mountain top), include six ethnic groups of which the Hmong, Akha, and Mien (Yao) are the most numerous. As of 1993, the Hmong numbered over 200,000, with settlements throughout the uplands of northern Laos. About the same number of Hmong live in northern Vietnam, and approximately 90,000 live in Thailand; this number does not include the 30,000 Hmong that were living in Thai refugee camps at the end of 1992. Some 60,000 Akha reside for the most part in Louang Namtha, Phôngsali, and Bokeo provinces. The other upland groups are the Phu Noi, found in Phôngsali and northern Louangphrabang provinces, the Mien (in Bokeo and Louang Namtha provinces), and small populations (fewer than 10,000) of Lahu and Kui located in the far northwest. The 1985 census also classified the 6,500 Hô (Haw)--Chinese originally from Yunnan Province--with the Lao Sung. All these groups have significant populations outside Laos, and the bulk of the ethnographic information available is from studies conducted in neighboring countries. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

The Lao Sung are the most recent migrants to Laos, having arrived from the north in a series of migrations beginning in the early nineteenth century. Hmong entered northwestern Vietnam from China prior to 1800, and early settlements in northeastern Laos were reported around the turn of the nineteenth century. Pioneering settlements gradually extended westward, crossing the Mekong around 1890 and reaching Tak in northern Thailand around 1930. Mien migrations, in contrast, seem to have come southeast through Burma and Thailand before reaching Laos. All Lao Sung settlements are located in the north, with only Hmong villages found as far south as Vientiane. *

Lao Sung typically live on mountain tops, upland ridges, or hillsides over 1,000 meters in elevation. The name means "the Lao up high." Most groups are considered to be semimigratory; villages are moved to new locations when swidden farming resources in the old locale have been exhausted. Yet some villages have continued for more than 100 years, with individual households moving in or out during this period. Although all Lao Sung traditionally live in the uplands and engage in swidden farming, their housing styles, diet, farming techniques, kinship systems, and social organization vary from one group to another. *

Hill tribes grow dry rice using slash and burn agricultural methods. The government has attempted to reduce deforestation by resettling some hill tribe members to lower elevations near water supplies. Many hill tribes are very dependent on food from the forests to supplement their diets. Many of the women spend their time weaving. There is a far amount of discrimination by the Laotians towards the hill tribes. Many of the insurgency movements in Laos have been run by ethnic rebels who want independence or more autonomy for their people. Lao Soung are often denied education opportunities.

Book: Lao Hill Tribes: Traditions and Patterns of Existence by Stephen Mansfield (Oxford University Press, 2000)

Lao Sung Society

Village stratification is limited but based primarily on clan membership and wealth. Often the clan that founded a village dominates it, either because of numerical majority or because early settlement facilitated access to the better fields. A family's wealth derives primarily from work and good luck. The ability to produce enough rice, or even a little to sell, and a decent opium harvest depend on having enough workers in the family to clear and care for more extensive swidden fields than average. Livestock, particularly buffalo and cattle, are another important source of mobile wealth. This wealth, however, is subject to loss through disease, just as savings of silver, livestock, or cash can be lost almost overnight if the family experiences a serious illness that reduces the workforce at a critical time or that requires the sacrifice of chickens, pigs, or even a buffalo for curing rituals. Proceeds from sales of opium and livestock not immediately consumed are usually converted into silver bars or jewelry for safekeeping. [Source: Library of Congress]

In contrast to the Buddhist wat or the men's common house in Lao Loum, Kammu, and Lamet villages, there is no building or other central point in a Hmong village. Hmong cultural norms are more individualistic, and the household is more important than the village. Despite greater overall village permanence than in former times, individual households may come and go, usually in search of better opportunities but occasionally because of conflict with relatives or neighbors. The decline of migrating villages has been a gradual process since the 1940s. As opportunities for pioneering settlements have disappeared, households often relocate to be near other clan members or less-distant relatives. *

Village governance is usually in the hands of a president and administrative committee, but clan elders have important consultative or advisory roles in all decisions. Interhousehold cooperative relationships occur less often than among the Lao Loum and appear limited to labor exchanges for some farming tasks and assistance at house raisings. Most cooperation takes place among brothers or cousins, and it is primarily close kin who can be relied upon for assistance in the case of family hardship or emergency. Lacking any other resource, Hmong will look for help from any other member of the same clan. *

Lao Sung Agriculture, Trade and Economic Activity

Hmong and other Lao Sung groups have traditionally lived in villages distant from Lao Loum or Lao Theung settlements, although trade in rice, forest products, and other market goods has stimulated contact between the groups. As the population of both Lao Sung and Lao Loum groups increased after the war, Lao Sung expansion of swidden fields had an impact on the watersheds of Lao Loum rice paddies. Northern Lao Loum who cannot produce enough rice on limited paddy fields have also begun to clear swiddens in the middle elevations. For the most part, there has been no overt conflict, and trade and casual contact have continued, but long- standing ethnic prejudice continued to color interethnic relations in these regions of closer contact and competition for land in the early 1990s. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

At the same time that roads in remote provinces were being improved and international trade opened in the late 1980s, the Thai government imposed a ban on logging and timber exports following extensive deforestation and catastrophic floods. Thai logging companies quickly turned to Laos as an alternate source of tropical hardwoods. This suddenly increased demand for tropical timber has stimulated additional competition for hitherto unvalued forestland and provoked increased criticism of upland swidden farming groups. Although traditional levels of swidden farming did not cause the same level of land and forest damage as have recent logging activities, government statements increasingly have attributed rapid deforestation to swidden clearing and have envisioned the abolition of all upland swidden cultivation soon after the year 2000. Thus, in the 1990s, there may be more pressure on arable land in the uplands than previously. However, other analysts have noted the great impact of legal and illegal logging, as well as the encroachment of lowland Lao farmers into the uplands since the end of the Second Indochina War. A continuing low-level insurgency against the government, substantially led by Hmong refugees who formerly fought for the RLG, is a further source of official mistrust directed at some Hmong and other minority groups. Government efforts to resettle Hmong and other swidden farming communities in lowland sites are motivated by security concerns--as was the case under the RLG in the 1960s and 1970s--and by competition for timber, but may lead to increased disaffection of the minorities affected. *

Hmong

The Hmong are the largest hill tribe group in Laos. There are between 200,000 and 400,000 of them. They live mostly in northern and central Laos. There are four main subgroups in Laos: the White Hmong, Striped Hmong, Red Hmong and Black Hmong, defined by certain details on their clothing. In the early 1970s there were about 350,000 Hmong in Laos, roughly 10 percent of the population. Many left after the Vietnam War and their proportion of the general population is much smaller now. The Hmong that have remained in Laos have been denied education opportunities and discriminated against in other ways.

Hmong people are part of the Lao Soung, the "High Lao". They came to the area of now Lao PDR around 150 years ago after they lived several thousand years in the region of Southern China. Today, around 450,000 Hmongs are located in the mountainous areas of Northern Laos. They generate their income mainly through dry-rice cultivation and slash-and-burn techniques. Their traditional beliefs are strongly related to Animism and Shamanism. In Oudomxay they are the second biggest ethnic group after Khamu people.

The Hmong make up more than two-thirds of the Lao Sung. Hmong villages in Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand have traditionally been found on mountain or ridge tops, with sites selected according to principles of geomancy. Before the 1970s, villages seldom consisted of more than twenty or thirty households. Hmong rely on swidden farming to produce rice, corn, and other crops, but tend to plant a field until the soil was exhausted, rather than only for a year or two before allowing it to lie fallow. Consequently, the fields farmed by a village would gradually become too distant for easy walking, and the village would relocate to another site. The new site might be nearby or might be many kilometers distant. [Source: Library of Congress]

See Hmong

Akha

See Minorities

Alak and Other Mon-Khmer Tribes

Mon-Khmer minorities found in southern Laos include Alak, Chieng, Inthi, Kaseng, Kate, Katu, Kien, Chali, Bru, Kaleing, Katang, Lavai, Laven, Nge, Nyaheun, Oung,Salao, Mangtong, Pako, Tahang. Ta-oy and Suay.

The Alak are an ethnic group that lives in the central uplands of southern Laos. There are only around 5,000 or so of them. The speak a Mon-Khmer language, embrace animist beliefs and practice slash-and-born agriculture. Some tattoo their faces. Animal sacrifices and predictions by village sorcerers are important. Another group in southern Laos calls themselves and their language Alak. They are a different group.

The Alak and Katu are perhaps the most famous of the Mon-Khmer ethnic groups. They live in palm-and-thatch houses arranged in a circle and known for their water buffalo sacrifices (usually performed on a full moon in March). Typically one to four buffalo are killed in a ritual that climax with advance by men with wooden masks who surround the animals and spear them to death. The meat is divided among the villagers and each household puts some meat in a basket, fastened t a pole, as an offering to the local guardian spirits.

Alak, Laven and Katu women have traditionally worn facial tattoos. The customs is discouraged by the Lao and is dying out. The Katu make wooden caskets long before they are needed and store beneath a rice shed until they are needed. The Suay practice animism and shamanism and are famous for their elephant handling skills. The Katang are famous for their weaving and 100-meter-long, 30 family longhouses.

Ethnic Groups That Live in Southern Laos

The Loven is a group with about 35,000 members that live on the Boloven Plateau area of southern Laos. They have largely been assimilated into Lao culture. Their traditional animist beliefs have largely been replaced by Buddhism. They have traditionally grown dry rice, maize, peppers and yams for food and potatoes and coffee as cash crops.

The Kasseng is a group of 7,000 slash-and-burn rice farmers that live on the Boloven plateau region in southern Laos. The Kattang consist of 13,000 slash-and-burn rice farmers and wet-rice cultivators that live on the Muong Nong area of southern Laos.

The Negh is a group with about 5,000 members that live on the Muong Phine-Bung Sai area of southern Laos. They speak a language in the Mon-Khmer group and have traditionally been wet rice cultivators. They live in enclosed villages with houses arranged in a circle, Some have long houses built on pilings.

The Oy is a group with about 15,000 members that live on the slopes of the Boloven Plateau in Attopeu southern Laos. Their traditional animist beliefs have largely been replaced by Buddhism and Catholicism. The Sou has about 1,000 or so members that live in Attopeu Province in southern Laos. They are probably almost totally absorbed into Lao society.

Ethnic Groups That Live in Northern Laos

The Mien (also called Lu Mien, Yao and Man) are the second largest hill tribe group in Laos. In China they are known as the Yao. There are maybe 30,000 to 50,000 of them and live mainly in the north. They speak a language similar to Hmong and have many other similarities. They are predominately animist and have traditionally cultivated opium. The Man or Mien in Laos are regarded as expert craftsmen and silversmiths. They place great importance on making offerings to spirits. They observe a highly ritualistic form of Taosim and have large altars in their homes often packed with tributes to family members and ancestors.

The P’u Noi is a group with about 40,000 members that live in the uplands of northern Laos. The are Buddhists who practice slash-and-burn agriculture and raise rice and vir, Each village has a headman and each group of villages has a leader.

The Sork or Sok is a group with about 2,000 or so members that live in Attopeu Province in southern Laos.

Ethnic Groups That Live in Laos and Vietnam

The Katu is a group of 40,000 slash-and-burn rice farmers and cassava and maize cultivators that live along the Laos-Vietnam border, Katu means “savage,” a name given to them by outsiders. They share some of the unusual customs of the Toraja in South Sulawesi---buffalo sacrifice, ritual masks and above-ground burial of the dead.

The Khua is a group with 5,000 members that lives in northern Vietnam and east-central Laos. The Pacoh is a group with 15,000 members that live in the highlands of Thien province in Vietnam and bordering Laos. The Duane live in central Vietnam and Laos. Little is known about them.

The Brao are an ethnic group that lives in mostly in Vietnam, with a small number in Laos. There were about 50,000 of them in 1985, with around 40,000 of the them in Vietnam. They are culturally similar to the Kao and some anthropologists feel they are best classified as a Kalo subgroup. The Tai (Ta Hoi) is a group with perhaps 40,000 members that live in Saravane Province in Laos and in bordering areas in Vietnam. They practice both slash-and-burn dry-rice agriculture and fish.

The Halang Doan is a group of about 2,000 slash-and-burn farmers that lives in Attopeu Province in Laos and Dac Lac Province in Vietnam. Many consider them to be a subgroup of the Jeh.

Jeh, See Vietnam

Ethnic Groups That Live in Laos and Thailand

The Yuan are a Tai-speaking group that dominates the Chiang Mai region of northern Thailand. There are about 6 million of them. There also a few thousand in Laos. Also known as the Lanatai, Lao and Youanne, Youon and Yun, they have traditionally had more in common with the Lao---their northern Pali-language, their Buddhist customs, their script, their polite terms and temple architecture---than the Thais.

The Yuan have largely been assimilated into Thai society but still maintain string connections with the Mekong regions and the Lao. The Yuan differ from the Lao of northeastern Thailand in that they tattoo their abdomens and their dialect is different.

The Sek Noi is a group with about 30,000 members that live on both sides of the Mekong in northeastern Thailand and cental Laos. They have largely been assimilated into Lao society. The So is a group with about 160,000 or so members that live on both sides of the Mekong in northeastern Thailand and cental Laos. They have largely been assimilated into Lao society.

The Kui is a group with about 100,000 members that lives in east-central Thailand, northeast Cambodia and Laos. They are closely related to the Chaobon, Chomg, Pear and similar groups and are believed to be have lived in the region before the Lao and Thais. They practice wet rice agriculture and have largely been assimilated by local groups.

Yumbri

The ethnic minority in Thailand is the Yumbri (Yellow Leaves), a group of a 230 or so hunter gatherers who live near Hahn Boon Yeun in the northern province Thai province of Phrae. They have traditionally used stone tools and collected wild fruits and roots and hunted small animals.

The Yumbri are also known ans the Phi Thong Luang (Ghost of the Yellow Banana Leaves) and Ma Ku. They refer to themselves as the Mlabri ( Forest People). They appear to be a remnant of an Astraloid tribe that lived in Southeast Asia before the arrival of Thais and hill tribes.

The Yumbri were called the Yellow Leaves because that is what their crude soot-stained shelters looked like after they left. In the past the they were exterminated as vermin by Thais and used as forced labor by the Hmong to repay "pork debts" for gifts of pigs. Today, deforestation has made their traditional way of life impossible. Some women make a living by taking off their blouses and posing as bare-breasted savages for Thai and foreign tourists.

Yumbri Culture and Life

Many Yellow Leaves are animists. Little is known about their belief system other than that they believe they can not cultivate land themselves; tigers are angry souls of the dead; and heavy rains, which they call “monster farts,”can swallow up people whole. They are afraid to talk about unpleasant things out of fear that talking about them may cause them to happen. Mothers don’t like their children to be complemented out of fear that the complements will attract the attention of disease-causing evil spirits. Few will reveal their rel names out of fear of attracting evil spirits.

Many Yellow Leaves practice multiple-monogamy, with a woman changing husbands every five or six years or so and bringing her children to the next union. Men have traditionally worn a small piece of cloth to cover their groin while women often wore clothes cast off by other tribes. They lived in their until the leaves turned yellow---about every two weeks---and then move on. Many can’t recognize their own faces in photographs or mirrors.

The Mabri reportedly have extensive knowledge of the medicinal properties of plants are herbs. They can reportedly treat poisonous snake bites and prevent births and promote fertility with herbs. When a member dies they are placed in a tree to be eaten by birds.

Yumbri Today

The hunter-gather life has all but disappeared Many Yellow Leaves do some gathering and hunt sometimes with archaic rifles and spears but few migrate in a traditional fashion anymore. Most wear ragged clothes. Many work for other tribes. Because they have traditionally frowned upon material possessions sometimes they are not compensated for their work.

The greatest threat to Yumbri culture comes from the New Tribe Mission (NTB), a born-again Christian missionary group that has provided the tribe with health care, food and education but is also determined to convert them to Christianity. NTB has instructed the Mlabri how to raise crops; requires children who attend school to bath daily; conducts Bible lessons; and limits television watching time to 90 minutes in the evenings.

T’in

The T’in are an ethnic minority that lives in northern Thailand and northern Laos. Similar to the Kmhmu, Lamet and other Mon-Khmer hill people in Thailand and Laos, they are short, stocky with black hair and have a complexion that is darker than their lowland neighbors. They have traditionally lived among Hmong, Yuan, Lue and Lao and have been involved in the opium trade

The T’in are also known as the Chao Dol, Htin, Kati, Kha Che, Kha Pai, Kha T’in, Lawa, Lua, Kwa, Mai, Pai, P’ai, Pra, P’u, Pai, Thin, Toe, Tin. They live in Nan Province in Thailand and and Xagnabouri (Sayaboury) Province in Laos to the southwest of Luang Prabang. They have traditionally lived in the mountain ranges between the Mekong River and Mae Nam Nan Rivers. There are perhaps 40,000 T’in, with about three fourths of them in Thailand.

The T’in are mostly animist and shamanists. They speak a Mon-Khmer language, closely related to Kmhmu and have many borrowed words from Lao and Yuan. They have no written language. They are believed to have lived in the Mekong area of northern Laos for centuries and migrated into Thailand in the 19th and 20th centuries to escape internecine warfare between lowlanders and highlanders and find better farmland.

T’in Religion

The T’in have traditionally believed in spirts associated with natural phenomena and deceased human beings. There are village guardian spirits, mountain and water spirits, and jungle spirits. Most spirits are regarded as overly sensitive and capricious. Great care must be taken not to offend them. Offended spirits are believed to be the cause illnesses and natural disasters.

Most traditional villages have a part time spirit specialist selected by the village elders. He presides over rituals, weddings and funeral communicates with the spirits, and performs sacrifices. The T’in observe a 10-day work week with a holy day of rest. During the New Year festival in mid-April villagers drink lots of rice liquor through straws and the village priest goes into a trance and communicates with the spirits. Many festivals are often tied to the agriculture cycle and involve the sacrifices of a pig or a dog.

The T’in believe that people have 32 souls. The loss of one or more souls can cause illnesses of varying degrees. Poor health caused by souls by spirits can be restored if the spirits are convinced through rituals to return the souls to the body. Loss of all the souls results in death.

The dead are usually wrapped in bamboo mat and blanket and buried in the jungle with some possessions. The funeral is a loud affair, with singing, drinking and wailing by family members and friends. The house of the deceased is purified and cleansed of evil spirits. On the 10th day after death some ashes are placed on winnowing tray and the dead are asked to walk over them. If no patterns appear the deceased has become an ancestral spirit. If markings do appear they may indicate the dead has been reborn as a dog, pig or chicken.

T’in Marriage and Family

Traditionally, boys marry when they are in their late teens and girls marry when they are in their mid teens. Courting is carried out in groups and sometimes involves singing love songs, and giving small gifts. If a boy is interested in a girl he informs his parents and they contact the girl’s parents. Groom’s provide a bride-price or do a bride service. Premarital sex is a serious taboo. Violators have to make an expensive sacrifice.

Most marriages are monogamous. First cousin marriages are encouraged. The wedding ceremony often takes place at a village-wide feast after the couple has begun living together and involves a ritual in which a village priest calls on the groom’s ancestor spirits and ask for their blessing. There is usually a feast at the house of the bride’s family in which the groom is introduced to the bride’s ancestors.

Afterward the couple often lives with the bride’s family until the groom finishes his bride service. The couple forms their own household after they have their own children. Divorces are common and easy to get .

Both nuclear and extended families are common. The youngest child usually lives with the parents permanently and takes care of them in their old age. Both parents, grandparents and sibling take part in child rearing. Young children are rarely disciplined. When boys and girls are still young they begin working in the fields, looking after younger siblings and taking on other responsibilities.

T’in Society

Men tend to hunt, do heavy work such as plowing, slashing and burning, trade with lowlanders and brew liquor. Women---with the help of their children---do weeding, harvesting, carrying and processing crops, gathering wild fruits, collecting water, feeding the pigs, growing vegetables, cooking and household chores.

T’in villages are very egalitarian. When there is rank it is based more on age, wisdom and experience than wealth or ancestry. Although some patrilineage organization is found, T’in society seems to be rooted more in village bonds and friendship Villagers are led by and disputes are settled by villages elders, a headman and a village priest. The headman position seems to be a fairly recent innovation, created primarily as a response to pressures from lowlanders. There is a strong social code against violence and displays of anger. Threats of supernatural punishment are used to maintain social control.

T’in Villages and Homes

The T’in generally live in hilly areas that were once and still are covered by tropical rain forests, and often live in village interspersed with Hmong, Yuan, Lue, Lao and Mien villages. Their villages, made up of between four and 100 households, are often situated on the slopes of mountains at an elevation between 300 and 1,300 meters. Many of their villages have village gates and carved wooden spirit posts.

Houses are raised off the ground on stilts or piles and have a wood frame, bamboo walls and roofs thatched with grass. The entrance faces west and is reached by a wooden ladder or a notched log. Flimsy bamboo partitions divide the rooms, Rattan mats are used for sleeping and sitting. Rice is stored in a separate raised granary. Every household has rice pounder. The houses are not built to last in part because the T’in have traditionally moved every few years when the soil was exhausted or there was some sort of bad omen.

T’in Agriculture and Economics

The T’in practice mostly slash and burn agriculture and grow glutinous (sticky) dry rice as their main crop. They also grow betel, tobacco, and opium mostly for their own consumption, and maize, millet, root vegetables, herbs, melons, pumpkins, gourds, and cucumbers for food.. Pig and chicken are the primary source of meat and protein. They are kept for sacrifices and food. Some times they are sold to lowlanders.

The T’in earn money from selling salt collected from salt wells and miang (fermented tea leaves chewed as a mild stimulant). They collect medical herbs, wild fruit and foods and in the forest and hunt deer, wild pigs, wild fowl, rabbits and bears with crossbows and rifles. Some fishing is done with nets and poison.

The T’in sell, trade and peddle miang and sell pigs cattle and wild animals to lowlanders. With the money they buy rice, medicine, blankets, clothes, pots, flashlights, matches, beads, earrings and manufactured goods.

The T’in are primarily subsistence farmers. They are not known as being traders or craftsmen. Slash and burn agricultural land is not owned and is cultivated by whoever clears it. Disputes over land are settled by headmen. Irrigated wet rice land is often privately owned and is inheritable.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: East and Southeast Asia, edited by Paul Hockings (C.K. Hall & Company); New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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