The Hill Tribe minorities of the mountainous regions of Northern Thailand are semi nomadic in origin coming from Tibet, Burma, China and Laos during the last 200 years or so. They are "fourth world" people, belonging to no developing nations nor recognise the political boundaries of countries. This fluidity of territorial identity is exacerbated in Northern Thailand by the porosity of the jungle, which masks the boundaries. (A helpful commodity when fleeing oppression.)
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The self-identity of all the Hill Tribes, rather than defined by borders is one bound by links of kinship, customs, language, dress and spiritual beliefs. Due to the isolation of the Hill Tribes customs and traditions remain unchanged that go back centuries. The Hill tribes do not write and therefore all their folklore, knowledge, wisdom, customs and the minute details of their lives are all passed by spoken word and committed to memory, the Yeo the only exception to this rule.
In the modern world, the arbitrary constraints of global geopolitics have obliged the Akha, Karen, Lahu, Lisu, Yeo, Padong and Hmong to accept an external national identity, while their instinct for tribal survival pushes them to find strategies to preserve their own cultural integrity.
Whether the Hill Tribes will continue their traditional way of life, or whether they will eventually be absorbed into the ever encroaching Thai society remains to be seen. They do however need our interest, our respectful and sensitive understanding and the economic benefits that such contacts bring.
The Hill Tribes of Northern Thailand are amazingly skilled artisans, producing a wide array of products such are basket wear, weaponry, musical instruments, tools, weaving, embroidery and the finest of silver. Appreciating the true cultural value of their crafts enables their traditional livelihoods to be sustained, work and training is then available for the next generation and their tribal heritage can be preserved.
Five Hill Tribes are involved in silver production, these are, Karen, Akha, Lahu, Hmong and Lisu. It is the Karen however who produce silver on a commercial scale and supply Luna Tree Jewellery. Their villages are situated in villages north of Chiang Mai in the mountainous regions of Northern Thailand.
The Karen Tribe
Population: approx 440,200
This is the largest ethnic minority in Thailand. They are Animists although some have converted to Christianity and Buddhism. There are three main sub groups: White Karen or Sgaw, Black Karen or Pgo and Red Karen or Kayah.
The Karen engage in agriculture, including rice cultivation and practise crop rotation to ensure the fertility of the land. Skilled weavers, the Karen women produce remarkable clothing and other textiles.
Up until marriage girls and women wear long white dresses with red edging. Married women wear a sarong made of two lengths with a v-neck blouse in either blue, black, red or white depending on which sub group they belong to. These blouses are normally decorated with embroidery and beads. Finally a cotton turban is worn on the head. The men wear simple woven cotton shirts and black or blue trousers. A cotton turban also completes their outfit.
They generally occupy the lower altitudes, residing in houses built on stilts. They move around less frequently than other Hill Tribes and this therefore allows them to undertake longer term farming projects such as fruit trees.
The Akha Tribe
Population: approx 70,000
The Akha are among the most down trodden and often most impoverished of the Hill Tribes, resisting all assimilation into Thai culture. They are, however the most colourful and intriguing of the Hill Tribes.
Akha practice slash and burn farming, growing rice and vegetables. They raise domestic animals; some breed specifically for sacrifice and dogs, which they use to make soup, believing that the soup made with their bones, can restore strength and vitality to the elders. The sacrifice of a dog is considered an important moment in village life.
They have a very rich oral literature tradition. They are Pantheists and believe in an almighty that created mankind. They also worship their ancestors and spirits of the natural world. Every year the Akha have a unique swing festival when the rice harvest has ripened.
Akha women are particularly well known for their elaborate traditional costumes and striking headdresses adorned with silver buttons, coins, beads, seeds and pom poms. The clothing is hand woven cotton using local vegetable dyes to create black or blue fabric. These consist of a long sleeved jacket, a blouse, knee length skirt and leggings. The jacket is belted with a highly decorated belt. The men wear a long black jacket, embroidered with geometric patterns in red and finished with silver buttons and an embroidered trim. Broad wide leg trousers and a turban complete their costume.
Residing at high altitudes in houses built directly on the ground, each village is entered via a spirit gate that also has totems and star or taboo signs to protect the residents.
The Lahu Tribe
Population: approx 103,000
Origin: Yunnan (Southern China)/Burma
There are five sub groups of the Lahu: Red Lahu, Black Lahu, Yellow Lahu, White Lahu and Lahu Shehleh. The Black Lahu is the largest group and make up about 80% of the Lahu population.
The Lahu use slash and burn farming techniques, where they grow hill rice, vegetables and cotton. They keep domestic animals such as pigs, poultry and cattle. Renowned as excellent hunters, they hunt many animals such as wild boar, monkeys, deer, birds, toads and lizards, which give them an excellent protein source. The Thais call them "Mooseu" which derives from the Burmese for hunter. Opium was once the main crop of the Lahu until the Thai government outlawed all opium poppy growing in 1959. Since 1997 opium poppy growing has practically disappeared.
The main god of the Lahu is Geusha, the creator of the heavens and his wife A Ema creator of the earth. Many Lahu have converted to Christianity but have retained some of their animist beliefs and practices. During their New Year festival all the villagers wear traditional costume and sacrifice pigs and chickens to the gods to win prosperity for the year to come.
The women wear very distinctive black and red jackets with embellished buttonholes, a dark sarong, black leggings and a white turban. As with most other Hill Tribes the Lahu women, on festival and celebration days will wear their silver jewellery including necklaces, moulded bracelets, earrings and large buckles that fasten their jackets. The men wear waist length black jackets and baggy Chinese style black pants; a black turban is sometimes worn too.
The villages are built round the central site of the headman and priest of the village and built on stilts. The Lahu do not have clan divisions or family names that has exasperated the Thai authorities. Many have now taken Thai surnames.
The Hmong Tribe
Population: approx 155,000
Origin: Yunnan (Southern China)
This is the second largest Hill Tribe group and often referred to as Meo. There are three main groups that consist of White Hmong, Blue or Black Hmong and Striped Hmong.
Hmong practice high-level slash and burn farming, growing all manners of vegetable but in particular, sweet corn. Due to this they tend to be more nomadic than other tribes, moving onto fresh fertile land every few years or so. Slash and burn farming, although is an excellent feed for the ground initially, it is short lived and the soil becomes thin and corrodes. Landslides can occur in the rainy season and the deforestation is a deep concern for the Thai government. Animal husbandry is an important aspect of their lives and they are known for distilling their own alcohol. Up until about ten years ago the Hmong were very much involved in opium production as a cash crop but now have completely abandoned growing the opium poppy.
Largely animist in belief, every village has an alter near the houses to protect against evil spirits and every village will have both a male and female shaman in charge of all religious ceremonies. In Hmong society polygamy is accepted, which helps to raise a man’s status but only taking a second and sometimes a third wife if the first wife agrees. The Hmong have no writing system so all significant stories, tribal and family history etc. is committed to memory and passed on by mouth.
Known for their fine intricate embroidery that adorns even the youngest family members clothing, they are skilled needle workers. The women wear short jackets over a pleated skirt, leggings and an apron all highly embroidered. Variations on this costume will depend on which sub group the women belong to. The men wear short black cotton or velvet jackets, with asymmetric button details embellished with embroidery, with wide black trousers. An embroidered belt, many meters in length is wrapped around the waist and a cotton cap with a pom pom completes their costume.
Silver is a huge status symbol to the Hmong people and many wear their fortune proudly each day. Babies actually receive their first piece of silver traditionally when it is three days old at a naming ceremony. During festivities the Hmong are known to wear up to six necklaces at a time.
Real mountain dwellers, the Hmong build their villages not far from the tops of mountains but in sheltered sites. Their houses are built directly on the ground.
The Lisu Tribe
Population: approx 39,000
Origin: Tibet/ Yunnan (southern China)
Good hunters, the Lisu supplement slash and burn agriculture with prey they shoot with arrowheads dipped in poison. They also raise pigs, poultry, ponies and cattle.
Mainly animist in belief but the Lisu also has a form of ancestor worship that can be traced back to their Chinese origin. They pay their respects in the form of offerings left at altars and sacrifices of pigs and poultry are regularly made.
All the different Lisu clans wear the same traditional dress. Originally hand woven from hemp or cotton nowadays they are mainly synthetic and machine made. Lisu women wear green or blue tunics decorated with red, yellow and white lines over long pants. Tasselled turbans trimmed with hundreds of cotton threads of every colour are worn on festive days, along with multicoloured silk belts and black jackets and covered with silver buttons. The men’s costume is simple, consisting of a short black jacket with silver buttons and Chinese style trousers. The men also wear a silk turban on festive days.
The villages are situated around a communal square and the sacred space for the altars. Due to their discontinued production of opium the lifestyle of the Lisu is now one of a settled nature and the villages are permanent dwellings. At higher levels their houses are built directly on the ground but at lower altitudes the Lisu opt for stilt houses.