LAZY, STUPID, IGNORANT, dirty, illiterate, immoral, criminal, opium-addled. That’s the way many Thai citizens once regarded the hill tribes who lived precarious lives in the remote mountains of northern Thailand, eking out a living through subsistence agriculture, selling a few crafts such as weaving, producing illegal opium in recent times, and, in the remote village of Doi Chang, cultivating coffee.
Most of the farming families in Doi Chang are Akha, a culture that may have originated in Mongolia and that can be traced through at least seventy generations, back 1,500 years, according to the Akha Heritage Foundation. “Civil unrest has led them to migrate practically throughout their existence, although they eventually settled in Yunnan province of southwestern China for a significant period of time,” foundation literature states. “Tibetan and Chinese influence helped shape their culture. Wars of recent centuries once again led them to travel south.”
Despite their marginalized status and uncertain existence, they proudly maintained their traditions and way of life; they regarded themselves as a kind of chosen people. They did not try to protect themselves through military prowess. Rather, they sought peaceful accommodation. Mostly, they just wanted to be left alone. The center of their universe was the village, wherever it might be. The resourceful Akha would cultivate a small area on a mountainside that no one else wanted. In general, they rotated fields around an established village for years, practicing what anthropologists call swidden agriculture, which has commonly been termed “slash-and-burn,” a more pejorative term that implies environmental destruction, whereas the Akha had a profound respect for the mountainsides where they lived.
The Akha would cut trees to make a clearing, then burn the fallen trees and underbrush, clearing only sufficient space to grow their mountain rice, corn, squash, and other crops. They also foraged, hunted, fished, and kept domestic animals. They rotated their crops, often leaving fields fallow for ten years or more as part of the rotation, allowing nutrients to be replenished before the field was burned again in preparation for replanting. They were not nomads, since they were not constantly on the move. They would, however, move their village periodically. Their homes, made of bamboo, wood, and thatch, were sturdy but relatively easy to construct.
Some tribes wandered into Burma, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia; after World War II, many moved to the Golden Triangle area of Thailand, the notorious source of much of the world’s opium and its derivatives, morphine and heroin. (The Golden Triangle area includes parts of Burma, Laos, and Thailand, with Burma comprising the largest portion and Thailand the smallest.)
For reasons long forgotten, the Akha were considered the lowest of the low, even among the other hill tribes such as the Lisu, Lahu, Karen, Hmong, Mien, Dara-ang, Kachin, and Lua, as well as the Shan and Chinese Haw. By the mid-1990s the Akha constituted a majority of the people who lived in the remote, inaccessible village of Doi Chang in Chiang Rai Province, yet they lived below—literally and figuratively—the Lisu who lived in the village before the Akha arrived.
Despite how they were viewed, the Akha have a rich culture and heritage, though with increased contact with the more “civilized” world of mainstream Thailand and television representation of other lifestyles, their cultural heritage is being eroded and diluted. “The Akha have always been a peaceful people,” according to the Akha Heritage Foundation, “interested only in living quietly in the forest as their ancestors taught them. Until recently, they have succeeded, but migration is no longer an option and their survival now rests on the benevolence of strangers.” The story of the Akha in Doi Chang, however, challenges the accuracy of that statement. The saga does indeed involve benevolent strangers, but the tribal community proved itself capable and resourceful on its own.
In the Beginning
THE AKHA WERE largely egalitarian, without a formal class structure, though they did have a hierarchy in place. The village council of elders, composed of the head of every household, made most decisions. The village priest (dzoema), also called “the father of the village,” was the most important figure. Well versed in the Akha Way, he ensured that rituals were conducted properly, and he was treated with great respect and deference. The village headman (buseh) took care of dealing with lowlanders, regulations, and disputes. In addition, there were two spirit specialists. The spirit priest (pima), who was always male, repeated incantations to call back wandering souls or recited ritual texts during important occasions such as funerals. The shaman (nyipa), either male or female, could go into a trance, riding a horse into the underworld where spirits and ancestors dwelled. Finally, the blacksmith (baji), another extremely prestigious villager, forged the sacred knife used by the spirit priest. The men of Doi Chang were expected to memorize their patrilineal descent back over fifty generations to an Akha named Sm Mi O, reputedly the first human (à la Adam in the Judaic tradition), who came from Jadae in Yunnan Province in China, a kind of Mecca for the Akha.
This egalitarian society was also a patriarchal society. When a woman married, she left her family to become part of her husband’s clan. Women took on a disproportionate share of the work both in the fields and at home. Yet as she aged, she could become a “white-skirted woman” who was especially honored and who could conduct many important rituals on her own. Despite their lack of official power, Akha women were clearly strong-willed individuals, as illustrated by the story of the fate of the first Akha man to take a wife (described by anthropologist Cornelia Kammerer in her dissertation):
Long ago, when the sky and earth first appeared and human beings were first born, Apoe Miyeh [the supreme Akha deity] asked an Akha man if he wished to marry… A spirit woman, sometimes described as half-tiger, half-spirit, emerged from the woods. She wore no clothes; her body was covered with thick matted fur. Her fangs long, her fingernails like sickles, and her toenails like hoes, the promised bride walked noisily onto the path… Together they returned to the village, where after their marriage the spirit wife killed and ate the first Akha husband.
Then the spirit woman asked another man to marry her. “You eat people,” he observed. “I would not dare marry you!” But she promised not to eat him, allowing him to knock off her fangs and claws, and she suggested that he build an interior wall separating her living area from his. And that is why, the story explains, women and men live on separate sides of an Akha home, though they can visit one another when others are asleep.
The Akha language, part of the Tibeto-Burman linguistic family, appears to the uninitiated to be simple, since it consists primarily of one-syllable words with an initial consonant followed by a vowel sound, but there are twenty-six possible consonants, including a kind of glottal stop, and thirteen vowels. Perhaps most important, there are five different tones: high, middle, low, and two varieties of “creaky” tones made by constricting the larynx. The tone of a vowel is extremely important, because the same consonant-vowel combination can have five different meanings, depending on the tone used; for instance, the word “Akha” can mean “the tribe,” “a crab,” “in between,” or “later.”
There is no native written form of the language. The Akha have a rich oral tradition and a wealth of myths to explain their world. One Akha creation myth—and there are many—asserts that, in the beginning, an all-powerful God called Apoe Miyeh created the sky, where “owner-spirits” lived. God had nine sons, known as “children of the sky.” One of these sons, M G’ah, created the Earth—three pieces of clay and three white rocks, from which water flowed—then rain, moon, stars, clouds, grass, wild raspberries, and vines, followed by birds, termites, squirrels, fish, crabs, and other animals, and finally people. The Earth was at first very small, but it kept shaking and gradually grew larger. Initially, the sky was quite close to the ground, with twelve suns and twelve moons, but as people shot down eleven of each, the sky rose higher and the hot rocks cooled.
At first there was no distinction between humans and spirits, who were born of the same parents and lived together. In heaven and on Earth, there was no serious sickness, and people grew over 10 feet tall. They lived a long time, perhaps for hundreds of years, and everything in the world could speak, including birds, trees, animals, grass, wind, water, and earth. After the first eleven generations, however, a father chopping a tree accidentally felled it on his son, whose shoulder was impaled by a branch. Although the father pulled out the branch and the wound healed, people never grew so tall again.
In another story, a dragon caused a huge flood that lasted seven days and seven nights, and everyone drowned except a small boy and girl, who floated in a giant gourd, the Akha version of Noah’s Ark. Afterwards, God gave them a magic wand to bring the dead alive. “From that day to this,” the Akha told an ethnographer in the 1960s, “the people followed what they could of the religion God had taught them, but since they had died and risen from the dead, they forgot many of the old customs.”
The Akha Way
BUT THEY REMEMBERED enough of the old ways to be guided by them. The people followed the Akha Zah, the “Akha Way,” which emphasized everyday rituals and stressed strong family ties. They believed in a form of animism, in which all beings and many locations or objects possessed a spirit. Thus, both people and rice were considered to have souls. Rice was the most important food item and was a crucial part of Akha rituals, in which ancestor spirits were asked to help provide a good harvest. Every house had an ancestor shrine. All their rites were designed to maintain harmony, fertility, and continuity. As anthropologist Deborah Tooker observed, “The drawing of Akha village boundaries served to protect village inhabitants from negative external forces.” Each village traditionally had at least two “spirit gates” to ward off threatening spirits and entice favorable ones.
Much of what we know of traditional Akha beliefs and daily life comes from an extensive ethnography written by Paul W. Lewis—an American Baptist missionary and anthropologist who with his wife, Elaine, worked among the Akha in Burma from 1947 through 1966, and subsequently worked with the hill tribes in northern Thailand from 1968 through 1989. The Human Relations Area Files at Yale published his Ethnographic Notes on the Akhas of Burma in 1969. Anthropologists Leo Alting von Geusau, Cornelia Kammerer, and Deborah Tooker also did field work in Akha villages in the late 1970s and early 1980s, adding new insights into their way of life.
In late 1980 and early 1981, writer Frederic V. Grunfeld and photographer Michael Freeman spent three months in an Akha village down the mountain from Doi Chang; they published a book, Wayfarers of the Thai Forest: The Akha, the following year. Grunfeld concluded:
It gradually became clear to me that underlying the apparently random and spontaneous nature of Akha village life was a complex tissue of the unwritten rules of Akha Zah. These govern the villagers’ relations with each other, with animals, with the natural world and its powers: they specify the correct way of doing everything, from building a house to laying out a village, from planting the rice to serving a meal, from welcoming the new year to dealing with outside communities. For the Akha, therefore, there is no real distinction between the level of ritual or prescribed behavior and the level of secular daily life.
Paul and Elaine Lewis made a similar observation in their lavishly illustrated 1984 book, Peoples of the Golden Triangle: “The Akha Way determines how they cultivate their fields and hunt animals, how they view and treat sickness, and the manner in which they relate to one another and outsiders. It is all embracing.”
An Akha folktale explains that long ago, the different tribes took baskets to receive their customs from God. All the other tribes carried loosely woven or torn baskets, but the Akha brought finely woven baskets suitable for carrying rice. That is why they have more detailed customs than the Lisu or other hill tribes.
If all humans lived as the Akha did and embraced the same belief system and way of life, there would probably have been no wars to displace them, since they seldom fought with one another. Murder was virtually unknown, although they did practice infanticide, smothering twins at birth, since they were considered “human rejects,” along with babies born with the wrong number of fingers or toes. The house in which such children were born was burned, and the parents were treated as though they were guilty in some way.
Paul Lewis heard of one instance in which the Akha purportedly resorted to violence against adults. Around 1955, Chinese Kuomintang (KMT) soldiers (nationalists who fought against the Chinese Communists) camped in an Akha village in Burma, seven of them lodging with the village priest. “Some of the village children came running and told him that the soldiers were taking wooden decorations off the village spirit gate and using them in their fire for cooking rice and curry.” When the priest objected, the soldiers beat him and “told him he was crazy.” Back at his house, the priest recited his entire genealogy, then asked God and his ancestors for help. “He then took up his machete, and he and his son killed all seven men in his home, and then went up and killed the four men at the gate.” Though the soldiers had guns, they couldn’t shoot, presumably because the ancestor spirits prevented them. But in general the Akha preferred to use their wits rather than force against their enemies.
The Justice System
THE AKHA HAD a relatively informal, common-sense justice system and no jails. The elders and the headman would hear both sides of a case and pass judgment, usually within a day. If the trial lasted several days, waiting for witnesses to return from a trip, for example, the headman might be bribed. If the people uncovered evidence of bribery, however, the headman would often be ousted.
There were three levels of crime. A minor offense would involve stealing small things from a person’s house, such as firewood, or killing someone’s chick if it strayed into the wrong garden. Such cases were often dropped, or the fine assessed as free drinks for the elders. A more serious offense was actually entering someone’s house to steal something. For that, the offender had to give a pig, return the stolen goods, and sometimes pay a fine. If they stole something from the bamboo section containing the ancestor altar goods, they also had to pay for a ceremony that involved a spirit priest and various sacrifices. The third and most serious offense was “wronging another’s wife”—that is, adultery. Paul Lewis asked if murder would also fit into this third category, and the answer was affirmative, but “perhaps there are not enough murders in Akha society that they categorize it along with the more ‘common’ crimes.” For these more serious offenses, a water buffalo or two pigs would be assessed.
In the vast majority of the world, suicides outnumber homicides. Human beings seem to be unique among animals in their tendency to kill themselves. Yet it was almost unheard of for an Akha to commit suicide. “As to the Akha’s attitude toward suicides fro...