MONTAGNARDS IN VIETNAM

MONTAGNARDS IN VIETNAM

Minorities that live in the mountainous regions are known by their generic name, Montagnards. Montagnard is a French word that means "mountaineers." It is sometimes used to describe all ethnic minorities. Other times it used to describe some specific tribes or tribes in the Central Highland area. [Source: Howard Sochurek, National Geographic April 1968]

The Vietnamese used to call all forest and mountain people "Mi" or "Moi," a derogatory term that means "savages." For a long time the French also describe them with a similar derogatory term "les Mois" and only started calling them Montagnards after they had been in Vietnam for some time. Today the Montagnards are proud of their own dialects, their own writing systems and their own schools. Each tribe has its own dance. Many have never learned to speak Vietnamese.

There are maybe around 1 million Montagnards. They live primarily in four provinces in the Central Highlands about 150 miles north of Ho Chi Minh City. Many are Protestants who follow an evangelical Christian Church not sanctioned by the government. The Vietnamese government attributes the backwardness of the Montagnards to the overwhelming influence of their history as exploited and oppressed peoples. They are darker skinned than their lowland neighbors. Many Montagnards were driven out of their forests and mountain homes during Vietnam’s wars with the French and the Americans. After reunification of Vietnam in 1975 they were given their own villages—some say on land the Vietnamese didn’t want—and lived independently of mainstream Vietnam. Many that fought against the North Vietnamese went abroad. Some Montagnards have settled around Wake Forest, North Carolina.

In his the booklet "The Montagnards—Cultural Profile," Raleigh Bailey, the founding director of the Center for New North Carolinians at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, wrote: "Physically, the Montagnards are darker skinned than the mainstream Vietnamese and do not have epicanthic folds around their eyes. In general, they are about the same size as the mainstream Vietnamese. Montagnards are completely different in their culture and language from the mainstream Vietnamese. The Vietnamese arrived much later into what is now Vietnam and came primarily from China in different migratory waves. Primarily lowland rice farmers in the south, the Vietnamese have been much more influenced by outsiders, trade, the French colonization, and industrialization than have the Montagnards. Most Vietnamese are Buddhists, belonging to varying strains of Mahayana Buddhism, although Roman Catholicism and a native religion known as Cao Dai also have large followings. Part of the Vietnamese population, especially in larger towns and cities, maintain Chinese traditions and language. The ethnic Chinese constitute the largest minority in Vietnam. " [Source: "The Montagnards—Cultural Profile" by Raleigh Bailey, the founding director of the Center for New North Carolinians at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG) +++]

According to U.S. Army in the 1960s: "The Montagnards constitute one of the largest minority groups in Vietnam. The term Montagnard, loosely used, like the word Indian, applies to more than a hundred tribes of primitive mountain people, numbering from 600,000 to a million and spread over all of Indochina. In South Vietnam there are some twenty-nine tribes, all told more than 200,000 people. Even within the same tribe, cultural patterns and linguistic characteristics can vary considerably from village to village. In spite of their dissimilarities, however, the Montagnards have many common features that distinguish them from the Vietnamese who inhabit the lowlands. The Montagnard tribal society is centered on the village and the people depend largely on slash-and-burn agriculture for their livelihood. Montagnards have in common an ingrained hostility toward the Vietnamese and a desire to be independent. Throughout the course of the French Indochina War, the Viet Minh worked to win the Montagnards to their side. Living in the highlands, these mountain people had been long isolated by both geographic and economic conditions from the developed areas of Vietnam, and they occupied territory of strategic value to an insurgent movement. The French also enlisted and trained Montagnards as soldiers, and many fought on their side. [Source: US Army Books www.history.army.mil ]

Central Highlands of Vietnam and Its Regional Economy

The Montagnards in the United States are from the Central Highlands of Vietnam. This is an area situated north of the Mekong delta and inland from the China Sea. The northern edge of the Highlands is formed by the formidable Troung Son mountain range. Before the Vietnam War and the Vietnamese settlement of the Highlands, the area was dense, mostly virgin mountain forest, with both hardwood and pine trees, though areas were regularly cleared for planting. [Source: "The Montagnards—Cultural Profile" by Raleigh Bailey, the founding director of the Center for New North Carolinians at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG) +++]

The highland weather is more moderate than that of the intensely hot tropical lowland areas, and at the higher altitudes, the temperature can drop to below freezing. The year is divided into two seasons, dry and wet, and the monsoons of the South China Sea can blow into the Highlands. Before the war, mainstream Vietnamese remained close to the coast and the rich delta farm lands, and the Montagnards in the rugged hills and mountains ranging up to 1500 feet had little contact with outside peoples. Their isolation ended in the mid-20th century when roads into the area were built and the Highlands developed strategic military value during the war. The Cambodian side of the Highlands, also home to Montagnard tribes, is similarly forested with dense jungle and has no established roads . +++

For those Montagnards growing upland rice, the traditional economy was based on swidden, or slash-and-burn, farming. A village community would clear a few acres in the jungle by cutting down or burning the forest and allowing the fodder to enrich the soil. Next the community would farm the area for 3 or 4 years, until the soil was depleted. Then the community would clear a new swath of land and repeat the process. A typical Montagnard village might rotate six or seven agricultural sites but would let most lie fallow for a few years while they farmed one or two until the soil needed to be replenished. Other villages were sedentary, particularly those that adopted wet rice farming. In addition to highland rice, crops included vegetables and fruits. Villagers raised buffalo, cows, pigs, and chickens and hunted game and gathered wild plants and herbs in the forest. +++

Slash-and-burn farming began to die out during the 1960s because of the war and other outside influences. After the war, the Vietnamese government began to lay claim to some of the lands for the resettlement of mainstream Vietnamese. Swidden farming has now all but ended in the Central Highlands. Increasing population density has required other farming methods, and the Montagnards have lost control of ancestral lands. Large-scale government-controlled farming schemes, with coffee being the major crop, have been implemented in the area. Tribal villagers survive with small garden plots, growing cash crops such as coffee when the market is favorable. Many seek jobs in the growing villages and towns. However, traditional discrimination against the Montagnards restricts employment for most. +++

Minorities in the Central Highlands

The Central Highlands—comprised of four provinces about 150 miles north of Ho Chi Minh City—is the home of many of Vietnam’s ethnic minorities. Evangelical Protestantism has taken hold among the ethnic groups here. The Vietnamese government is not very happy about this.

The hill tribes around Dalat raise rice, manioc and maize. Women do much of the field work and men make money by carrying loads of firewood from the forest and selling them in Dalat. Some hill tribe villages have huts with TV antennas and community house with billiard tables and VCRs. In the Khe Sanh area a large number of Van Kieu tribesmen were killed or injured when they dug up live shells and bombs, along with spend cartridges and rockets, to sell for scrap.

The French ethnologist Georges Colominas is the author of a number of books on ethnology and anthropology in Southeast Asia and Vietnam and a specialist on the tribes of the Central Highlands. Born in Haiphong to a Vietnamese mother and a French, fell in love the Central Highlands while living there with his family and returned there with wife after studying ethnology in France. His wife soon had to leave Vietnam due to health problems, leaving Colominas alone in the Central Highlands, where he lived with the Mnong Gar people in Sar Luk, a remote village, where he almost became a Mnong Gar himself. He dressed like one, built a small house, and spoke the Mnong Gar language. He hunted elephant, tilled fields and drank Ruou Can (wine drunk out through pipes). In 1949, his book Nous Avons Mangé la Forêt (We Ate the Forest) attracted attention. [Source: VietNamNet Bridge, NLD , March 21, 2006 <>]

Once, Colominas heard a story about strange stones from local people. He immediately went to the stones, which he found in Ndut Liêng Krak, another village dozens of kilometers from Sar Luk. There were 11 stones, between 70 – 100cm. Colominas said that the stones were made by humans, and had rich musical sounds. He asked villagers if he could bring the stones to Paris. He later discovered that they were one of the oldest stone musical instruments in the world - believed to be nearly 3,000 years old. Colominas and his discovery become famous. <>

Montagnard Language and Names

Naming traditions vary by tribe and the degree of accommodation to other cultures. Some people may use a single name. In some tribes, male names are preceded with a long e sound, indicated in the written language by a capital Y . This is comparable to the English Mr. and is used in everyday language. Some women’s names may be preceded by the sounds ha or ka , indicated by a capital H or K . Names may sometimes be stated in the traditional Asian way, with the family name first. Americans may experience confusion trying to distinguish between the given name, family name, tribal name, and gender prefix. [Source: "The Montagnards—Cultural Profile" by Raleigh Bailey, the founding director of the Center for New North Carolinians at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG) +++]

Montagnard languages can be traced to the Mon-Khmer and the Malayo-Polynesian language groups. The first group includes the Bahnar, Koho, and the Mnong (or Bunong); the second group includes the Jarai and the Rhade. Within each group, the different tribes share some common language characteristics, such as root words and language structure. Montagnard languages are not tonal like Vietnamese and may sound a little less alien to the ear of the English speaker. Language structure is relatively simple. The written scripts use the Roman alphabet with some diacritic marks. +++

The first language of a Montagnard is that of his or her tribe. In areas with overlapping tribes or tribes with similar language patterns, people may be able to communicate across tribal languages without much difficulty. The government has outlawed the use of tribal languages in schools, and those who have had schooling can also speak some Vietnamese. Because there is now a large mainstream Vietnamese population in the Central Highlands, more Montagnards are learning Vietnamese, which is the language of government as well as commerce. However, many Montagnards have limited schooling and have lived in isolated conditions and, as a result, do not speak Vietnamese. A language preservation movement in the Highlands has also affected Vietnamese language use. Older people (mainly men) who were involved with the U.S government during the war may speak some English. A few elderly people who were educated in French colonial times speak some French. ++

Montagnard Religion

The traditional religion of the Montagnards is animism, characterized by a keen sensitivity to nature and a belief that spirits are present and active in the natural world. These spirits are both good and bad. Rituals, often involving the sacrifice and blood letting of animals, are practiced regularly to appease the spirits. While the Montagnards still practice animism in Vietnam, those in the United States are Christian and for the most part do not practice the traditional religion. Christianity was introduced to the Montagnards in Vietnam in the 1850s by French Catholic missionaries. Some Montagnards embraced Catholicism, incorporating aspects of animism into their system of worship. [Source: "The Montagnards—Cultural Profile" by Raleigh Bailey, the founding director of the Center for New North Carolinians at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG) +++]

By the 1930s, American Protestant missionaries were also active in the Highlands. The Christian and Missionary Alliance, an evangelical fundamentalist denomination, had a particularly strong presence. Through the work of the Summer Institutes of Linguistics, these highly committed missionaries learned various tribal languages, developed written alphabets, translated the Bible into the languages, and taught the Montagnards to read the Bible in their own languages. The Montagnards who were converted to Protestant Christianity were expected to make a full break from their animist traditions. The sacrifice of Jesus as the Christ and the ritual of communion became a substitute for animal sacrifice and blood rituals. +++

Mission schools and churches became important social institutions in the Highlands. Native pastors were locally trained and ordained. Montagnard Christians experienced a new sense of self-worth and empowerment, and the church became a strong influence in the Montagnard quest for political autonomy. Even though most Montagnard peoples did not claim church membership, the influence of the church was felt throughout the society. The U.S. military alliance during the Vietnam War reinforced the Montagnard linkage with the American Protestant missionary movement. The oppression of the church in the Highlands by the current Vietnamese regime is rooted in this dynamic. +++

Montagnard Family and Gender Roles

In Vietnam, Montagnard families traditionally lived in tribal villages. Related kin or extended families of 10 to 20 people lived in longhouses that shared public space with some private family room areas. The Montagnards have duplicated this living arrangement in North Carolina, sharing housing for camaraderie and support and to reduce expenses. In Vietnam, the government relocation program is currently tearing down traditional longhouses in the Central Highlands in an attempt to break down the kinship affinity and solidarity of the close knit communities. Public housing is being built and mainstream Vietnamese are being relocated onto traditional Montagnard lands. [Source: "The Montagnards—Cultural Profile" by Raleigh Bailey, the founding director of the Center for New North Carolinians at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG) +++]

Kinship and family roles vary by tribe, but many of the tribes have matrilineal and matrilocal marriage patterns. When a man marries a woman, he joins her family, adopts her name, and moves into her family’s village, usually into her mother’s house. Traditionally, the woman’s family arranges the marriage and the woman pays a groom price to his family. While marriage is often within the same tribe, marriage across tribal lines is quite acceptable, and the man and children adopt the identity of the wife’s tribe. This serves to stabilize and further unify the various Montagnard tribes. +++

In the family unit, the man is responsible for affairs outside of the house while the woman manages domestic affairs. The man confers with village leaders about community and governmental affairs, farming and community development, and political issues. The woman is responsible for the family unit, finances, and child rearing. He is the hunter and the warrior; she is the cook and the childcare provider. Some family and farming chores are shared, and some are shared communally with others in the longhouse or village. +++

Communal House Architecture in the Central Highland

The communal house of the Bana and Sedang are considered the symbol of Central Highland. The normal feature of the house is the axe-shaped roof or the round roof of tens of meters high, and all are made from bamboo and bamboo strings. The higher the structure is, the more skillful the worker is. The thatch used for covering the roof is not nailed into place but gripped with each other. There is no need of the bamboo strings to connect each grip, but just fold one head of the grip to the rafter. The wattle, partition, and head are made from bamboo and decorated very uniquely. [Source: vietnamarchitecture.org For more detailed information check out this site **]

The differences between the communal house of Jrai, Bana and Sedang ethnic groups is the curling degree of the roof. The long house is used by the Ede uses vertical beams and long timbers to make structures than can be tens of meters long. They are placed to overlap each other without any nail, but they are still stable after tens of years among the plateau. Even the single timbers are not long enough to complete the house’s length, it is hard to find the connection point between two woods. The long house of Ede people contains kpan (long chair) for the artisans playing gong. The kpan is made from the long timbers, 10 meters long, 0.6-0.8 meters wide. A part of the kpan is curled like a head of the boat. The kpan and gong are symbols of richness of Ede people.

The Jrai people in the Pun Ya are often build houses on a system of big pillars which is suitable for the the region’s long rainy season and frequent flooding. Laos’s people in Don Village (Dak Lak province) cover their houses with hundreds of timbers which overlap each other. Each slab of wood is as big as a brick. These wood "tile" exist for hundreds of years in the severe weather of Central Highland. In the area of Bana and Cham people in Van Canh district, Binh Dinh province, there is a special type of bamboo wattle used making the house floor. Wood or bamboo which as small as the toe and connected to each other each by each other and placed above the wood girdle of the floor. There are mats in the sitting places for guest, and the resting place of the house owner.

In some parts of the Central Highland, people striving for a better life have abandoned their traditional houses. Ede people in Dinh village, Dlie Mong commune, Cu MGrar district, Dak Lak province are keeping the old traditional style. Some Russian ethnologists said that: "Coming to the mountainous area of Central Highland, I admire the clever living arrangement of people which is suitable for the nature and environment of them."

Unique Architecture of House in Central Highlands

Houses of the Central Highlands can be divided into three main types: stilt houses, temporary houses and long houses. Most of groups use natural materials such as bamboo. The Ta Oi and Ca Tu people make houses of wattle by the trunk cover of achoong tree – a tree in mountainous area of A Luoi district (Thua Thien – Hue province).

People of ethnic groups like Se Dang, Bahnar, Ede lives in stilt houses with big wood pillars and a high floor. Stilt houses of the Ca Tu, Je, Trieng groups—as well as some from Brau, Mnam, Hre, Ka Dong, K’Ho and Ma—have pillars are made from middle-size timbers and a roof covered with oval thatch. There are two wood sticks that symbolize buffalo horns. The floor is made with strips of bamboo. [Source: vietnamarchitecture.org For more detailed information check out this site **]

Temporary houses are used by people from south Central Highland like the Mnong, Je Trieng, and Stieng. These are long house but because of the custom of shifting the location of houses they are all single-storey house with unstable materials (wood is of a a thin or small type). The house is covered with thatch which is hanging down near the ground. Two oval doors are under the thatch.

Long houses are used by the Ede and Jrai people. The thatch roof is normally thick with the ability to withstand of tens of years of continuous rain. If there is any leaking place, people will redo that part of roof, so there are places of new and old roof which sometimes look funny. The doors are at the two ends. Normal stilt houses of the Ede and Jrai people are often 25 to 50 meters long. In these houses, a system of six big wood pillars (ana) is placed parallel along the house. In the same system are two beams (eyong sang) which are also across the length of the house. Jrai people often choose a house to be near a river (AYn Pa, Ba, Sa Thay Rivers, etc) so their pillars are often higher than on Ede houses.

Se Dang people live in houses made from the traditional materials which are available in forests such as wood, thatch and bamboo. Their stilt houses are about one meter above the ground. Each house has two doors: The main door is placed in the middle of the house for everybody and the guests. There is a wood or bamboo floor in front of the door without covering. This is for the resting place or for pounding rice. The sub-ladder is placed in the south end for the couples "getting to know each other."

Montagnard Culture, Food and Clothes

The Montagnard diet traditionally centers around rice with vegetables and sliced barbecued beef when meat is available. Common vegetables include squash, cabbage, eggplant, beans, and hot peppers. Chicken, pork, and fish are quite acceptable, and the Montagnards are open to eating any type of game. Although evangelical churches oppose alcohol consumption, using traditional rice wine in celebrations is a common highly ritualized practice in the Highlands. Montagnard exposure to the U.S. military dispelled any taboos associated with drinking insofar as it related to Americans. Regular consumption of alcohol, mostly beer, is common practice for many Montagnards in the United States. [Source: "The Montagnards—Cultural Profile" by Raleigh Bailey, the founding director of the Center for New North Carolinians at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG) +++]

Traditional Montagnard dress is very colorful, handmade, and embroidered. It is still worn to cultural events and sold as a handicraft. However, most people wear the typical working-class clothes that their American coworkers wear. The children have naturally become interested in the clothing styles of their American peers. +++

Colorful blankets woven on looms are a Montagnard tradition. They are traditionally small and multipurpose, serving as shawls, wraps, baby carriers, and wall hangings. Other crafts include basket making, ornamental dress, and various bamboo utensils. Ornamental longhouse trim and bamboo weavings are an important part of the Montagnard tradition. Animal skins and bones are common materials in artwork. Bronze friendship bracelets are also a well-known Montagnard tradition. +++

Montagnard stories are traditionally oral and passed on through families. Written literature is quite recent and influenced by the church. Some older Montagnard tales and legends have been published in Vietnamese and French, but many of the traditional myths, legends, and tales have not yet been recorded and published Montagnard instruments include gongs, bamboo flutes, and stringed instruments. There are many popular songs, and they are played not only to entertain but also to preserve traditions. They are often accompanied with folk dances that tell tales of survival and perseverance. +++

Sculpture of Grave Houses in the Central Highlands: The five provinces of Gia Lai, Kon Tum, Dak Lak, Dak Nong and Lam Dong are located in the highlands of south-west Vietnam where a brilliant culture of Southeast Asian and Polynesian nations lived. The linguistic families of the Mon-Khmer and Malay-Polynesian played the main role in the formation of the language of the Central Highlands, as well as the traditional customs, which have remained very popular among the scattered communities of the region.Mourning houses erected to honour the dead of the Gia Rai and Ba Na ethnic groups are symbolised by statues placed in front of the graves. These statues include couples embracing, pregnant women, and people in mourning, elephants, and birds. [Source: Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism ~]

Music in the Central Highlands of Vietnam

The T'rung is one of the popular musical instruments closely associated with the spiritual life of the Ba Na, Xo Dang, Gia Rai, E De and other ethnic minority people in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. It is made of very short bamboo tubes differing in size, with a notch at one end and a beveled edge at the other. The long big tubes give off low-pitched tones while the short small ones produce high-pitched tones. The tubes are arranged lengthwise horizontally and attached together by two strings. [Source: Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism ~]

The Muong, as well as other ethnic groups in the Truong Son-Tay Nguyen regions, use gongs not only to beat the rhythm but also to play polyphonic music. In some ethnic groups, gongs are only intended for men to play. However, the sac bua gongs of the Muong are played by women. Gongs hold great significance and value for many ethnic groups in Tay Nguyen. The gongs play an important role in the lives of the inhabitants of Tay Nguyen; from birth until death, the gongs are present at all the important events, joyful as well as unfortunate, in their lives. Almost every family has at least one set of gongs. In general, gongs are considered to be sacred instruments. They are mainly used in offerings, rituals, funerals, wedding ceremonies, New Year?s festivities, agricultural rites, victory celebrations, etc. In the Truong Son -Tay Nguyen region, playing the gongs electrifies the people participating in dances and other forms of entertainment. Gongs have been an integral part of the spiritual life of many ethnic groups in Vietnam. ~

The dan nhi is a bow instrument with two strings, commonly used among the Viet ethnic group and several national minorities: Muong, Tay, Thai, Gie Trieng, Khmer. The dan nhi comprises a tubular body made of hard wood with snake or python skin stretched over one end and a bridge. The neck of the dan nhi has no frets. Made of hard wood, one end of the neck goes through the body; the other end slants slightly backward. There are two pegs for tuning. The two strings, which used to be made of silk, are now of metal and are tuned in fifths: C-1 D-2; F-1 C-2; or C-1 G-1.

Space of Gong Culture of the Central Highlands of Vietnam

The space of gong culture in Central Highlands of Viet Nam covers 5 provinces of Kon Tum, Gia Lai, Dak Lak, Dak Nong and Lam Dong. The masters of gong culture are the ethnic groups of Ba Na, Xo Dang, M’Nong, Co Ho, Ro Mam, E De, Gia Ra. The gong performances are always closely tied to community cultural rituals and ceremonies of the ethnic groups in Central Highlands. Many researchers have classified gongs as ceremonial musical instrument and the gong sounds as a means to communicate with deities and gods. [Source: Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism ~]

The gongs are made of brass alloy or a mixture of brass and gold, silver, bronze. Their diameter is from 20cm to 60cm or from 90cm to 120cm. A set of gongs consists of 2 to 12 or 13 units and even to 18 or 20 units in some places. In most of ethnic groups, namely Gia Rai, Ede Kpah, Ba Na, Xo Dang, Brau, Co Ho, etc., only males are allowed to play gongs. However, in others such as Ma and M’Nong groups, both males and females can play gongs. Few ethnic groups (for example, E De Bih), gongs are performed by women only. ~

The space of gong culture in Central Highlands are heritage with temporal and spatial imprints. Through its categories, sound-amplifying method, sound scale and gamut, tunes and performance art, we will have an insight in a complicated art developing from simple to complexity, from single to multi-channel. It contains different historical layers of the development of music since the primitive period. All artistic values have the relationships of similarities and dissimilarities, bringing about their regional identities. With its diversity and originality, it’s possible to confirm that gongs hold a special status in Viet Nam’s traditional music. ~

Montagnard Health and Education

Although there is evidence of French-educated Montagnards developing a written script for the native language early in the 20th century, major efforts were begun in the 1940s by American evangelical Protestant missionaries to help tribes develop written languages to read the Bible, and before 1975 missionary Bible schools were active in the highlands. Conscientious Montagnard Protestants, in particular, are likely to be literate in their native languages. Montagnards who attended school in Vietnam may have a rudimentary Vietnamese reading ability. [Source: "The Montagnards—Cultural Profile" by Raleigh Bailey, the founding director of the Center for New North Carolinians at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG) +++]

In Vietnam, formal education for the Montagnards has been generally limited. Though levels of education vary widely, based on a person’s experience in Vietnam, a fifth-grade education for male villagers is typical. Women may not have attended school at all, though some did. In Vietnam, Montagnard youth typically do not attend school beyond the sixth grade; third grade might be an average literacy level. Some exceptional youth may have had the opportunity to continue education through high school, and a few Montagnards have attended college. +++

In Vietnam, Montagnards traditionally enjoyed healthy lives when adequate food was available. But with the loss of traditional farm land and foods and the related poverty, there was a decline in nutritional health in the Highlands. There has always been a shortage of health care resources for the Montagnards, and the problem has increased since the end of the Vietnam War. War-related injuries and physical persecution have exacerbated heath problems. Problems with malaria, TB, and other tropical diseases have been common, and potential refugees are screened for these. Persons with contagious diseases may be delayed in resettlement and given special medical treatment. Some Montagnards have been diagnosed with cancer. This is not known to be a traditional disease of the Central Highlands, and many refugees believe that it is the result of government poisoning of village wells to weaken the population. Some Montagnards also speculate that cancers may be related to their exposure to Agent Orange, the defoliant that the United States used in the Highlands during the war. +++

Mental health as conceptualized in the West is foreign to the Montagnard community. In both the animist and Christian communities, mental health problems are thought of as spiritual issues. In church communities, prayer, salvation, and the acceptance of God’s will are common responses to problems. Persons with severe behavioral disorders are generally tolerated within the community though they may be shunned if they are too disruptive or appear dangerous to others. Medication provided by health providers is accepted by the community, and the Montagnards are receptive to both religious and Western medical practices. Montagnards suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), related to war, survivor guilt, persecution, and torture. For refugees, of course, the condition is aggravated by the loss of family, homeland, culture, and traditional social support systems. For many, though not all sufferers, PTSD will fade in time as they find employment and gain self-esteem associated with self-sufficiency, the freedom to practice their religion, and community acceptance. +++

Montagnard Relations with the Vietnamese and the U.S. Military

In the mid 1950s, the once-isolated Montagnards began experiencing more contact with outsiders after the Vietnamese government launched efforts to gain better control of the Central Highlands and, following the 1954 Geneva Convention, new ethnic minorities from North Vietnam moved into the area. As a result of these changes, Montagnard communities felt a need to strengthen some of their own social structures and to develop a more formal shared identity. [Source: "The Montagnards—Cultural Profile" by Raleigh Bailey, the founding director of the Center for New North Carolinians at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG) +++]

The Montagnards have a long history of tensions with the mainstream Vietnamese that is comparable to the tensions between American Indians and the mainstream population in the United States. While mainstream Vietnamese are themselves heterogeneous, they generally share a common language and culture and have developed and maintained the dominant social institutions of Vietnam. The Montagnards do not share that heritage nor do they have access to the country’s dominant institutions. There have been conflicts between the two groups over many issues, including land ownership, language and cultural preservation, access to education and resources, and political representation. In 1958, the Montagnards launched a movement known as BAJARAKA (the name is made up of the first letters of prominent tribes) to unite the tribes against the Vietnamese. There was a related, well-organized political and (occasionally) military force within the Montagnard communities known by the French acronym, FULRO, or Forces United for the Liberation of Races Oppressed. FULRO’s objectives included freedom, autonomy, land ownership, and a separate highland nation. +++

Despite a long of history of conflict between the Montagnards and the mainstream Vietnamese, it should be kept in mind that there are many instances of friendship and intermarriage and efforts to cooperate and correct injustices between the two groups. A mixed population of people is emerging with a bicultural, bilingual heritage and an interest in finding common ground and mutual acceptance between the two groups. +++

The 1960s saw contact between the Montagnards and another group of outsiders, the U.S. military, as American involvement in the Vietnam War escalated and the Central Highlands emerged as a strategically important area, in large part because it included the Ho Chi Minh trail, the North Vietnamese supply line for Viet Cong forces in the south. The U.S. military, particularly the army’s Special Forces, developed base camps in the area and recruited the Montagnards, who fought alongside American soldiers and became a major part of the U.S. military effort in the Highlands. Montagnard bravery and loyalty earned them the respect and friendship of the U.S. military forces as well as sympathy for the Montagnard struggle for independence. +++

Buon Enao Experiment: U.S. Army Trains Montagnards to Fight Against the Viet Cong

According to U.S. Army in the 1960s: "With the permission of the Vietnamese government, the U.S. Mission in the fall of 1961 approached the Rhade tribal leaders with a proposition that offered them weapons and training if they would declare for the South Vietnamese government and participate in a village self-defense program. All programs that affected the Vietnamese and were advised and supported by the U.S. Mission were supposed to be accomplished in concert with the Vietnamese government. In the case of the Montagnard program, however, it was agreed that the project would at first be carried out separately instead of coming under the command and control of the Vietnamese Army and its advisers, the U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group. There was no assurance that the experiment with the Rhade would work, especially in the light of the Vietnam government's failure to follow through on other promises to the Montagnards. [Source: US Army Books www.history.army.mil +=+]

The village of Buon Enao, which had a population of approximately 400 Rhade, was visited in late October of 1961 by a representative of the U.S. Embassy and a Special Forces medical sergeant. During two weeks of daily meeting with village leaders to explain and discuss the program, several facts emerged. Because government forces had been unable to protect the villagers many of them supported the Viet Cong through fear. The tribesmen had previously aligned themselves with the government, but its promises of help had failed to materialize. The Rhade opposed the land development program because the resettlement took tracts of tribal lands and because most American and Vietnamese aid went to the Vietnamese villages. Finally, the discontinuance of the medical aid and educational projects by the Vietnamese government on account of the activities of the Viet Cong had created resentment against both the Viet Cong and the government. +=+

The villagers agreed to take certain steps to show their support for the government and their willingness to co-operate. They would build a fence to enclose Buon Enao as a protection and as a visible sign to others that they had chosen to participate in the new program. They would also dig shelters within the village where women and children could take refuge in case of an attack; construct housing for a training center and for a dispensary to handle the promised medical aid; and establish an intelligence system to control movement into the village and provide early warning of attack. +=+

In the second week of December when these tasks had been completed, the Buon Enao villagers, armed with crossbows and spears, publicly pledged that no Viet Cong would enter their village or receive assistance of any kind. At the same time fifty volunteers from a nearby village were brought in and began training as a local security or strike force to protect Buon Enao and the immediate area. With the security of Buon Enao established, permission was obtained from the Darlac Province chief to extend the program to forty other Rhade villages within a radius of ten to fifteen kilometers of Buon Enao. The chiefs and subchiefs of these villages went to Buon Enao for training in village defense. They too were told that they must build fences around their respective villages and declare their willingness to support the government of the Republic of Vietnam. +=+

With the decision to expand the program, half of a Special Forces A detachment (seven members of Detachment A-35 of the 1st Special Forces Group) and ten members of the Vietnamese Special Forces (Rhade and Jarai), with a Vietnamese detachment commander, were introduced to assist in training village defenders and the full-time strike force. The composition of the Vietnamese Special Forces at Buon Enao fluctuated from time to time but was always at least 50 percent Montagnard. A program for the training of village medics and others to work in civil affairs projects intended to replace the discontinued government programs was also initiated. +=+

With the assistance of the U.S. Special Forces and Vietnamese Special Forces troops who had been introduced in December 1961, and a twelve-man U.S. Special Forces A detachment deployed in February 1962, all forty villages in the proposed expansion were incorporated into the program by the middle of April. Recruits for both village defenders and the local security force were obtained through local village leaders. Before a village could be accepted as a part of the development program, the village chief was required.to affirm that everyone in the village would participate in the program and that a sufficient number of people would volunteer for training to provide adequate protection for the village. The program was so popular with the Rhade that they began recruiting among themselves. +=+

One of the seven members of Detachment A-35 had this to say about how the Rhade received the program initially: "Within the first week, they [the Rhade] were lining up at the front gate to get into the program. This kicked off the recruiting program, and we didn't have to do much recruiting. The word went pretty fast from village to village." Part of the project's popularity undoubtedly stemmed from the fact that the Montagnards could have their weapons back. In the late 1950s all weapons, including the crossbow, had been denied to them by the government as reprisal for Viet Cong depredations and only bamboo spears were allowed until the second week in December 1961, when the government finally gave permission to train and arm the village defenders and strike forces. The strike force would maintain itself in a camp, while the village defenders would return to their homes after receiving training and arms. +=+

The American and Vietnamese officials were acutely aware of the opportunity for Viet Cong infiltration and developed control measures to be followed by each village before it could be accepted for the Village Self-Defense Program. The village chief had to certify that everyone in the village was loyal to the government and had to reveal any known Viet Cong agents or sympathizers. Recruits vouched for the people nearest them in line when they came for training. These methods exposed five or six Viet Cong agents in each village and these were turned over to the Vietnamese and Rhade leaders for rehabilitation. +=+

The Montagnards were not, of course, the only minority group involved in the CIDC, program; other groups were Cambodians, Nung tribesmen from the highlands of North Vietnam, and ethnic Vietnamese from the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao religious sects. +=+

Deployment of U.S.-Army-Trained Montagnard Fighters

According to U.S. Army in the 1960s: "Cadres of Rhade trained by the Vietnamese Special Forces were responsible for training both local security (strike) forces and village defenders, with Special Forces troops acting as advisers to the cadres but having no active role as instructors. Villagers were brought into the center and trained in village units with theweapons they were to use, M1 and M3 carbines. Emphasis was placed on marksmanship, patrolling, ambush, counterambush, and swift response to enemy attacks. While members of a village were being trained, their village was occupied and protected by local security troops. Since no official table of organization and equipment existed, these strike force units were developed in accordance with the manpower available and the estimated needs of the area. Their basic element was the squad of eight to fourteen men, capable of acting as a separate patrol. [Source: US Army Books www.history.army.mil +=+]

Activities within the operational area established in co-ordination with the province chief and Vietnam Army units in the vicinity consisted of small local security patrols, ambushes, village defender patrols, local intelligence nets, and an alert system in which local men, women, and children reported suspicious movement in the area. In some cases, U.S. Special Forces troops accompanied strike force patrols, but both Vietnamese and American policy prohibited U.S. units or individual American soldiers from commanding any Vietnamese troops. +=+

All villages were lightly fortified, with evacuation the primary defensive measure and some use of family shelters for women and children. Strike force troops remained on the alert in the base center at Buon Enao to serve as a reaction force, and the villages maintained a mutually supporting defensive system wherein village defenders rushed to each other's assistance. The system was not limited to Rhade villages in the area but included Vietnamese villages as well. Logistical support was provided directly by the logistical agencies of the U.S. Mission outside Vietnamese and U.S. Army supply channels. U.S. Special Forces served as the vehicle for providing this support at village level, although U.S. participation was indirect in that distribution of weapons and pay of troops was accomplished through local leaders. +=+

In the field of civic assistance, the Village Self-Defense Program provided community development along with military security. Two six-man Montagnard extension service teams were organized to give the villagers training in the use of simple tools, methods of planting, care of crops, and blacksmithing. Village defender and strike force medics conducted clinics, sometimes moving into new villages and thus expanding the project. The civic assistance program received strong popular support from the Rhade. +=+

The establishment of village defense systems in the forty villages surrounding Buon Enao attracted wide attention in other Rhade settlements, and the program expanded rapidly into the rest of Darlac Province. New centers similar to Buon Enao were established at Buon Ho, Buon Krong, Ea Ana, Lac Tien, and Buon Tah. From these bases the program grew, and by August 1962 the area under development encompassed 200 villages. Additional U.S. and Vietnamese Special Forces detachments were introduced. During the height of the expansion, five U.S. Special Forces A detachments, without counterpart Vietnamese detachments in some instances, were participating. +=+

The Buon Enao program was considered a resounding success. Village defenders and strike forces accepted the training and weapons enthusiastically and became strongly motivated to oppose the Viet Cong, against whom they fought well. Largely because of the presence of these forces, the government toward the end of 1962 declared Darlac Province secure. At this time plans were being formulated to turn the program over to the Darlac Province chief and to extend the effort to other tribal groups, principally, the Jarai and the Mnong. +=+

Montagnards in the United States

The Montagnards first began coming to the United States in the 1986. Although the Montagnards worked closely with the U.S. military in Vietnam, almost none of them joined the exodus of refugees fleeing South Vietnam after the fall of the South Vietnamese government in 1975. In 1986, about 200 Montagnard refugees, mostly men, were resettled in the United States; most were resettled in North Carolina. Before this small influx, there were only an estimated 30 Montagnards scattered around the United States. [Source: "The Montagnards—Cultural Profile" by Raleigh Bailey, the founding director of the Center for New North Carolinians at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG) +++]

From 1986 to 2001, small numbers of Montagnards continued to come to the United States. Some came as refugees while others came through family reunification and the Orderly Departure Program. Most settled in North Carolina, and by 2000 the Montagnard population in that state had grown to around 3,000. While these refugees have faced considerable difficulties, most have adapted quite well. +++

In 2002, another 900 Montagnard refugees were resettled in North Carolina. These refugees bring with them troubled histories of persecution, and few have family or political ties with the established Montagnard communities in the United States. Not surprisingly, their resettlement is proving to be very difficult. +++

In the United States, adaptation to American culture and intermarriage with other ethnic groups are changing the Montagnard traditions. Men and women both work outside the home and share childcare according to work schedules. Because of the shortage of Montagnard women in the United States, many men live together in simulated family units. Exposure to other communities is leading more men to marry outside their tradition. Interethnic marriages create new patterns and roles that combine various ethnic traditions within the context of working-class life in the United States. When intermarriages occur, the most common unions are with mainstream Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians, and Black and White Americans. +++

The shortage of women in the Montagnard community is an ongoing problem. It poses extraordinary challenges for the men because traditionally women are the family leaders and decision makers in many ways. Identity is traced through the wife, and the woman’s family arranges the marriage. Many Montagnard men have to move outside of their ethnic group if they hope to establish families in the United States. Yet few are culturally able to make this adjustment. +++

Most Montagnard children are not prepared for the U.S. school system. Most arrive with little formal education and little if any English. They often do not know how to behave or dress appropriately; few have proper school supplies. If they have attended school in Vietnam, they expect a highly regimented authoritarian structure focusing on rote memory skills rather than on problem solving. They are unfamiliar with the great diversity found in the U.S. public school system. Almost all students would benefit significantly from tutoring and other supplemental programs, both for academic achievement and the development of social skills. +++

Montagnard Experience in North Carolina

The first group of Montagnard refugees were mostly men who had fought with the Americans in Vietnam, but there were a few women and children in the group as well. The refugees were resettled in Raleigh, Greensboro, and Charlotte, North Carolina, because of the number of Special Forces veterans living in the area, the supportive business climate with numerous entry-level job opportunities, and a terrain and climate similar to what the refugees had known in their home environment. To ease the impact of resettlement, the refugees were divided into three groups, roughly by tribe, with each group resettled in one city. [Source: "The Montagnards—Cultural Profile" by Raleigh Bailey, the founding director of the Center for New North Carolinians at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG) +++]

Beginning in 1987, the population began to grow slowly as additional Montagnards were resettled in the state. Most arrived through family reunification and the Orderly Departure Program. Some were resettled through special initiatives, such as the program for reeducation camp detainees, developed through negotiations between the U.S. and Vietnamese governments. A few others came through a special project that included Montagnard youth whose mothers were Montagnard and whose fathers were American. +++

In December 1992, a group of 402 Montagnards were found by a UN force responsible for the Cambodian border provinces of Mondolkiri and Ratanakiri. Given the choice to return to Vietnam or be interviewed for resettlement in the United States, the group chose resettlement. They were processed and resettled with very little advance notice in the three North Carolina cities. The group included 269 males, 24 females, and 80 children.Through the 1990s, the Montagnard population in the United States continued to grow as new family members arrived and more reeducation camp detainees were released by the Vietnamese government. A few families settled in other states, notably California, Florida, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Washington, but by far North Carolina was the preferred choice for the Montagnards. By 2000, the Montagnard population in North Carolina had grown to around 3,000, with almost 2,000 in the Greensboro area, 700 in the Charlotte area, and 400 in the Raleigh area. North Carolina had become host to the largest Montagnard community outside of Vietnam. +++

In February 2001, Montagnards in Vientam’s Central Highlands staged demonstrations relating to their freedom to worship at local Montagnard churches. The government’s harsh response caused nearly 1,000 villagers to flee into Cambodia, where they sought sanctuary in the jungle highlands. The Vietnamese pursued the villagers into Cambodia, attacking them and forcing some to return to Vietnam. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees granted refugee status to the remaining villagers, most of whom did not want to be repatriated. In the summer of 2002, close to 900 Montagnard villagers were resettled as refugees in the three North Carolina resettlement sites of Raleigh, Greensboro, and Charlotte, as well as in a new resettlement site, New Bern. The new population of Montagnards, like previous groups, is predominantly male, many of them having left wives and children behind in their haste to escape and with the expectation that they could return to their villages. A few intact families are being resettled. +++

How have the Montagnard newcomers fared? For the most part, those who came before 1986 adjusted quite well given their backgrounds-war injuries, a decade without health care, and little or no formal education-and given the absence of an established Montagnard community in the United States into which they could integrate. Their traditional friendliness, openness, strong work ethic, humility, and religious beliefs have served them well in their adjustment to the United States. The Montagnards rarely complain about their conditions or problems, and their humility and stoicism have impressed many Americans. +++

Among those who came between 1986 and 2000, able-bodied adults found jobs within a few months and families moved toward a low-income level of self sufficiency. Montagnard language churches were formed and some people joined mainstream churches. A group of recognized Montagnard leaders, representing the three cities and various tribal groups organized a mutual assistance association, the Montagnard Dega Association to help with resettlement, maintain cultural traditions, and assist with communication. The adjustment process has been more difficult for the 2002 arrivals. This group had relatively little overseas cultural orientation to prepare them for life in the United States, and they bring with them a great deal of confusion and fear of persecution. Many did not plan to come as refugees; some had been misled into believing that they were coming to the United States to be part of a resistance movement. Moreover, the 2002 arrivals do not have political or family ties with the existing Montagnard communities in the United States. +++

Image Sources:

Text Sources: Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993); New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, 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, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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