The Akha, also known to the Thai as the Gaw or the E-gaw (names that
the Akha do not like), are located primarily with Chiang Rai and Chiang
Mai provinces. The Akha are closely related with the Hani of Yunnan
province, China, the Akha-Hani complex numbers about two to three
million people, but with just over 70,000 members in Thai territory.
The Akha speak a language in the Lolo/Yi branch of the Tibeto-Burman
language group, but have no traditional written language. There are
a variety of schemes for writing Akha developed by missionaries or
linguists which employ Roman, Thai or Burmese characters, but literacy
in Akha is still virtually nil. The Akha are traditionally subsistence
farmers, growing a variety of crops including rice and corn.
Though many Akha, especially younger people, profess Christianity,
Akha Zang (The Akha Way), a total lifestyle perscribed in the oral
literature of the Akhas, still runs deep in the consciousness of older
generations. The Akha Way combines animism, ancestor worship and their
deep relationship with the land.. For an Akha, the Akha Way is a way
of life which extends beyond simple religious practice and infuses
every aspect of their existence. The Akha Way emphasizes rituals in
everyday life and stresses strong family ties; every Akha male can
recount his geneology back over fifty generations to the first Akha,
Sm Mi O.
But the chain of continuity so important for Akha people is being
broken. A combination of Thai schooling, land restrictions, some missionary
activities, technology and a feeling of social inferiority to lowland
Thais is making the once essential Akha Way less attractive and relevant
for younger generations who are rapidly integrating into Thai society.
The Karen, who call themselves Pwakin-nyaw and who are known as Kariang
to ethnic Thais, are one of the largest hilltribes in Southeast Asia
with a total population of about three million spread throughout Burma,
Laos and Thailand. There are an estimated 320,000 Karen in Thailand
alone, which makes up half of the total hilltribe population in Thai
Traditionally the Karen live at lower elevations than the other hilltribes
and although they still practice slash and burn, unlike many hilltribes
they live in permanent villages and have been aggressive in developing
environmentally sustainable terraced rice fields. These factors have
allowed the Karen to become much more integrated members of Thai society.
The Karens living at lower elevations almost universally have Thai
citizenship which has allowed them to buy land and to have access
to free secondary education, luxuries other hilltribes do not yet
Much of the Karen population in Thailand and Burma is Christian and
has been for multiple generations. Christian Karens are very strong
in their beliefs.
Among hilltribes in Thailand, the Karen have a distinct advantage.
The size of the Karen population and their unification in their religion
allow them to adapt while still retaining their cultural identity.
The Lisu have a legend quite similar to that of many other tribes
in Southeast Asia. Long ago there was a giant flood. There were only
two survivors: one man and one woman. These two were brother and sister.
They survived by living off the meat inside a giant bottle gourd.
Once the water had receded, the pair set out in search of other survivors,
but to their dismay, they found no one. They became convinced they
must be the last remaining man and woman in the world. They realized
that if they did not reproduce then mankind would disappear off the
face of the planet forever. Still, they couldn't get over the fact
they were brother and sister. Finally, they decided to to consult
the spirits. Seeing a grinding stone and a mortar on top of a hill,
the pair determined to separate the two parts and roll them down opposite
sides of the hill. When the grinding stone reached the base of the
hill it refused to stop rolling. Instead, it persisted in rolling
all the way around to the other side of the hill and reuniting with
the mortar, ending up in exactly the same position it had been when
on top of the hill. It did not matter what objects the pair used to
test their fate, the results were identical each time. The older brother
and younger sister agreed that God must have given his blessing to
the union. Soon they had produced a son and a daughter which marked
the new birth of the tribe.
|What "Lisu" means
Lisu earned their name as the tribe that is alive with color. In fact,
the Lisu are considered to use the greatest variety of colors of all
the hill tribes. Their confident decision-making and independence
is reflected in the way the Lisu use powerful combinations of colors,
one on top of the other, to decorate their costumes. Often referred
to as "Lisor," they refer to themselves as "Lisu."
The word "Li" comes from the word "eelee," which
means custom, tradition, or culture; "su" means "person."
The combined meaning is: a group of people who share a deep pride
in their customs, traditions, and culture. The Lisu are a people who
love order and independence. The established social order is flexible,
allowing room for change and diversity. Different cultures and customs
are not dismissed out of hand, but new things must pass through a
democratic decision-making process before being accepted. Processes
like these make Lisus good managers, in general, and have allowed
the Lisu have been quite successful at adapting to change.
The Lisu are a people with a hunger for understanding about life.
Their language falls into the Yi-Lolo subgroup of the Tibeto-Burman
family of languages. About 30% of the language comes from the Chinese
Haw dialect. Originally, the Lisu were from the area near headwaters
of the Salaween and Mekong rivers, located in northern Tibet and the
northwest portion of Yunnan province, China. The Lisu immigrated into
Thailand around the year 1921. This first group of migrants was made
up of only 4 families. They settled in a village now known as Huay
San in the capital of Chiang Rai province. Later, in that same year,
15 more families made the journey. As the Lisu have no traditional
written language, though a group of missionaries interacting with
this first group helped create a romanization of Lisu. Some Lisu are
now Christian. About five to six years after the initial move into
Thailand, the group separated, with one group remaining behind and
the other moving to Doi Chang in the district of Mae Sruay, Chiang
The Lisu are divided into two sub-groups: the striped Lisu and the
black Lisu. Almost all Lisu residing in Thailand are of the striped
Lisu sub-group. The black Lisu are spread out across China, Burma,
India, and Thailand. The Lisu in Thailand are scattered across nine
different provinces: Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai, Mae Hong Son, Phayao,
Tak, Kampaengphet, Phetchaboon, Sukhothai, and Lampang. Originally,
the Lisu divided themselves into seven different family dynasties:
honey (bia-seu-wee), wood (seu-pa), fish (gua-pa), bear, rice bug,
wheat, and hemp. The honey dynasty is the largest of these family
lines, and it is itself divided into three smaller sub-dynasties.
There are nine family lines branching off from inter-tribal marriages
with the Haw Chinese: Lee, Yang, Yao, Woo, Kao, Ho, Joo, and Jang.
The two largest of these lines are the Lee and Yang line.
Religiously, the Lisu worship their ancestors and the great Spirit.
They have two religious heads: the cultural leader (meu-meu-pa) and
the ceremonial leader (nee-pa).
In mid-1983 there were approximately 18,000 Lisu spread out over 110
villages in Thailand. In 1958 a survey concluded there were only about
7,500 Lisu, meaning their numbers multiplied at a rate of 3.6% per
year over the course of 25 years. Most of the expansion accounts for
new immigrants to the country, rather than births. For perspective,
in 1983 there were 250,000 Lisu in Burma and about 500,000 in China.
Hundreds of families crossed the border and settled in the north and
northwest. Interestingly, there are no Lisu in Laos or Vietnam. The
Lisu in Thailand are divided up across the different provinces as
follows: 47% in Chiang Mai, 23% in Chiang Rai, 19% in Mae Hong Son,
with the other 11% scattered across Phayao, Tak, Kampaengphet, Phetchaboon,
and Sukhothai. The Lisu now living in Thailand are quite different
from their relatives in northern Burma. This may be due to the fact
that the Lisu began in China and divided up and separated out over
many different generations. This is not to mention all the inter-marriage
that occurred between the Lisu and the Haw Chinese, to the point that
these Lisu began referring to themselves as Chinese-Lisu.
A survey conducted in 1997 by the Hill Tribe Research Institute found
there were 30,940 Lisu living across 151 villages in 5,114 households.
This accounts for 4.11% of all the hill tribe peoples living in the
country. 23% are in Chiang Mai, 19% in Chiang Rai, 11% in Mae Hong
Son, and the rest are spread out across Phayao, Tak, Kampaengphet,
Phetchaboon, and Sukhothai.
The past and current organizational structure in a Lisu
1. Kwa-Too (Leader of the community): This person is elected to
the position by the villagers.
2. Meu-Meu-Pa (Ceremonial leader): The holder of this position is
chosen by way of ah-bpa-mo (a fortune-telling ceremony). Each village
can have only one Meu-Meu-Pa. The ceremonial leader's responsibilities
are to act as a medium between the great Spirit and the villagers,
and to announce and conduct ceremonies to observe the various sacred
days of the year.
3. Nee-Pa (Spirit doctor): This individual is elected and appointed
by the spirits of the ancient ancestors of the family dynasty and
is responsible for maintaining the connection between the spirit
world and the world of humans.
4. Cho-Mo-Cho-Dtee (Head elder): An elder in the village who is
respected and revered by all the younger members of the village.
1. Kwa-Too (Leader of the community): Now the official village headman.
2. Meu-Meu-Pa (Ceremonial leader): Still appointed in the same way
as in the past.
3. Assistants to the village headman (1-2 assistants): Appointed
by the headman.
4. Official representative to the Tambon Administration Organization:
This position is an appointed one and the appointee is responsible
for general administration work in the village and managing and
maintaining a budget from the government.
5. The village committee.
6. Advisor: Cho-Mo-Cho-Dtee (Head elder).
7. Nee-Pa (Spirit doctor): Responsible for performing miscellaneous
As for the Lisu Village Organization (Tribal Organization), its
role was not all that clear in the past, but was best known for
its work in bringing distant relatives of the same family dynasty
together. In other words, the organization was not an official one,
but was known and respected among the Lisu. In the past, it had
a long list of roles and responsibilities in Lisu society. Now,
distant relatives continue to come together to perform various ceremonies
of importance to the family.
Master Chee yee did not have to wait long before a giant Naga dragon
returned to find that her eggs had all been cracked. The mother Naga
dragon went to the edge of the cliff and picked the leaves of a medicinal
plant. After chewing up the leaves in her mouth she then proceeded
to apply a layer of the ointment to the broken eggs. After the first
application the eggs began to improve slightly. Following the second
application the eggs improved even further. By the third application
the eggs had returned to their original condition, totally healed.
||The Hmong have passed down their ancient art of healing from
generation to generation. Their spirit doctors have the power
to cast out evil spirits from the bodies of the sick. According
to legend, a long time ago there was a spirit doctor named Chee
yee, which roughly translated, means a wise philosopher/a wiseman/a
master. One day, Master Chee yee came across a pile of Naga
dragon's eggs near the edge of a cliff. Master Chee yee cracked
the eggs open and continued on his way home. Three days later
Master Chee yee returned to see what had happened to the eggs,
but to his surprise they had all returned to their original
state, whole and sound. Master Chee yee decided to crack all
the eggs once more and came back the next day to see what happened,
but again the eggs had returned to their original state. Master
Chee yee became quite curious and decided to crack all the eggs
once more, but this time he would wait in hiding and see how
the eggs managed to return to their original state.
After seeing this, Master Chee yee waited anxiously until the Naga
dragon left again. He then made for the eggs and broke them open with
a rock. Next, he proceeded to climb down the cliff face until he reached
the medicinal plant, which he had seen the mother Naga dragon use.
He picked the plant and took it back home with him to take care of
it. Two days later he returned to see what had happened to the eggs
he cracked and found them laying out, rotting in the sun. Master Chee
yee realized the value of the plant he had taken and resolved to take
extra special care of it. It wasn't long before he began to care for
the sick and suffering in his village, successfully curing them of
their ailments. He was even able to resuscitate people that had died.
As a result, Master Chee yee became famous as word of his amazing
healing power spread throughout the land. The special plant, which
Master Chee yee had so cleverly discovered, was named "goo-ah
moo-ah joo-ah." It wasn't long before word of Master Chee yee
reached the spirits of the underworld - known as da in Hmong - and
they decided to teach Master Chee yee a lesson. Seven da were sent
to the village and they proceeded to devour the villagers. Many
people were dying and Master Chee yee could not care for them fast
enough. Finally, one day Master Chee yee ran into the da, or spirits
of the underworld, and quickly devised a strategy for ridding the
village of these evil creatures. Master Chee yee and the seven da
met and began to bargain. Master Chee yee complained to the da that
he was unable to heal everyone in time, causing many to die. He
had the Seven da each raise up one of their arms, then he bent over
and looked at their arm pits. He saw many dead people (It is believed
that by peering through one's legs or under arms one can see into
a different dimension).
Next the da had Master Chee yee raise one of his arms and when they
peered into his arm pit they saw many chickens, ducks and other animals
left as offerings to him (these would have been gifts made to him
by the families of those who he had healed). Both sides having sized
up their opponent, Master Chee yee made the da an offer. He challenged
them to a duel, stating that if he lost the da would be free to eat
all the people in the world. First, however, the da must accompany
him to the cliff edge where he would spray medicine at them. If Master
Chee yee stumbled and fainted, then he would be considered the loser
and the da could proceed to eat all the people in the world. But,
if he didn't faint, the da would have to immediately stop eating people.
The da agreed and Master Chee yee proceeded to spray his medicine
at them. Master Chee yee pretended to become faint and wobbled back
and forth. The da laughed with glee at his plight. Master Chee yee
stabilized himself and sprayed his medicine at them for the second
time. The da continued to be unaffected by the medicine and laughed
hysterically at Master Chee yee's drunken stuppor, certain of their
victory. Finally, Master Chee yee sprayed his medicine at them for
the third time and the da immediately all turned to stone. Master
Chee yee had tricked the evil da and the village was once again peaceful.
After two days had passed by and the wives of the seven da still had
not seen their husbands come home, they decided to come up and investigate.
After seeing what had happened they decided to try to fool Master
Chee yee into coming with them to the city of spirits to treat (or
oo-ah neng) a sick patient. Once Master Chee yee had gone, one of
the da's wives killed Master Chee yee's eldest son and took him down
to the city of spirits to be used in the healing ceremony for her
husband. Upon entering the city of spirits the boy turned into a pig
(the Hmong believe that once a dead person reaches the city of spirits
they turn into an animal). The healing ceremony was carried out in
the same manner Master Chee yee had always done, and when it was complete
the da's wives offered Master Chee yee the liver of the pig used in
the ceremony to eat. Master Chee yee had a strange feeling, but had
to accept the offering, and so he ate a piece of the the liver (Chee-ya).
Immediately the jeu neng, or instruments used in oo-ah neng (meaning
"working with spirits") spun away and returned to earth.
The Lahu are a strong independent and very diverse ethnic group who
number about 60,000 in Thailand. The Lahu are located primarly in
Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai provinces, but can also be found in considerable
numbers as far south as Tak province. Their settlements are usually
remote from roads and towns, due to their strong commitment to the
maintenance of the Lahu way of life.
The Lahu are complex and diverse ethnicity. In Thailand there are
no fewer than six different Lahu tribes, some of whose languages are
not mutually intelligible. The majority of Lahus in Thailand are Red
Lahu, pantheistic animists who follow a Dtobo, a messianic leader.
There are also a significant number of Black, Yellow and Shehleh Lahus
in Thailand, many of whom have been Christian for nearly one hundred
years. Black Lahu are the most populous throughout Southeast Asia
and theirs is considered to be the standard Lahu dialect.
Although primarily subsistence farmers, growing rice and corn for
their own consumption, the Lahu are also proud of their hunter-warrior
heritage. They remain a strict, serious people governed by strong
principles of right and wrong, every individual in the village answering
to the common will of the elders. While less importance is placed
on the extended family than in other hill tribe communities, the Lahu
are still strongly committed to principles of unity and working together
for survival. Lahus may have the most gender-equitable society in
|The Mien Culture/Groups
Evidence of Mien (Yao) history as far back as 5th BC.
For the past 2000 years, the records show that the Mien lived in
the surrounding mountains near Tibet. The Mien moved constantly
because they did not like the controlling ruling from the Han. There
were as many as 28 sub-names under the Mien. There were 4 major
groups of Mien, the Phan (Bienh), the Bunu, the Cha Sun, and Ping
Ti. Out of the 4 groups, the Phan (Bienh) group had the most man-power,
and that was the group that constantly moving from place to place.
The Phan group had concentrated in one large area of the country,
where the Mien language was developed. The Bunu and the Luc Jaa
developed into separate languages.
|Legend of the Creation of the Mien People
In heaven, there were Daa Ong (Grandfather) and Daa Gux (Grandmother).
One day they decided to create the Yao, or the Mien people. They
planned to transform themselves and live on Earth . During that
time, there were two kingdoms already exist on earth, one ruled
by Baeng Hung (the good side), and the other by Gux Hung (the bad
side). They hated each other very much .
As they two had planned in heaven, Daa Gux would come down to earth
reborn as a third daughter of Baeng Hung (with a birthmark on one
leg), while Daa Ong would transform himself into whatever was needed.
During the war between Baeng Hung and Gux Hung. Baeng Hung announced
to his whole kingdom, "whoever can bring me Gux Hung's head,
I'll reward you with marriage to my third daughter and some land
." No one answered the Baeng Hung's demand.
One day Daa Ong transformed himself into a five-colored dragon-dog
named Phan Hu . The dog showed himself up at Baeng Hung's palace
. The emperor had never seen a dragon-dog such as this one, full
of talent, with 120 beautiful spots on the top of its body, and
could talk . The emperor ordered his people to take a good care
of the dog . The dog had become Baeng Hung's trusted, loving pet
||One day, Baeng Hung and his staff had a meeting, planning
the war with Gux Hung. The dragon-dog was there at the meeting
as well. At the end of the discussion, the dragon-dog spoke
up, he said "Baeng Hung doesn't have to send thousands
of armies, military equipments to fight Gux Hung. I will volunteer
to fight Gux Hung myself. Since I'm a dog, the least respected
animal, Gux Hung and her military probably will not think I
can cause any harm to them." Baeng Hung agreed with the
dog. He wanted to see what the dog could do.
Phan Hu (dragon-dog) prepared for the departure. He asked
heaven to send him a magic pill, which helped him endure his
7 days 7 nights swimming accross the sea to Gux Hung.
The dragon-dog arrived Gux Hung's empire. Gux Hung admired
the beautiful talking dog. She kept it as her own body guard.
The dog became Gux Hung's favorite pet as well. Gux Hung was
confident with the dog, therefore, she no longer needed her
servants and body guards at all times. One day, Gux Hung sent
her servants and body guards out for the daily chores. The
dragon-dog took that opportunity, and bit Gux Hung's head
off then swam back across the sea with the head as proof to
Baeng Hung. In return, the dragon-dog was married to Baeng
Hung's third daughter (as promised).
As the wedding day neared, Baeng Hung, the emperor realized
he didn't really want his third daughter to marry a dragon-dog.
So, Baeng Hung called nine women who looked identical to his
third daughter and then dressed them up with identical gowns.
The dragon-dog had to pick from the ten identical women. Daa
Gux (the third daughter) was one of the ten. This ruse, however,
did not fool Daa Ong a.k.a. Phan Hu (dragon-dog). The dog
looked for the birthmark on the leg. The dragon-dog picked
the third daughter of Baeng Hung and was married to her. They
moved to an isolated piece of land given to them by Baeng
Hung and had 12 children, six sons and six daughters. These
six sons and the husbands of the six daughters became patriarchs
of the twelve Mien clans.
|The Iu Mien 12 Clans
When talking about the original twelve clans, it is difficult
for almost any Mien to name all of them since a few of the clans
got lost or left behind when escaping from mainland China many
generations ago. Another complicating factor is that the names
that the Thais gave to each clan (which are the basis for today's
Mien surnames in Thailand and the United States) not only depended
on what each Thai interviewer heard their clan name to be, but
also differs from the names that Miens call themselves. For
instance, Ann (Saefung) and Laosan (Saefong) spell their official
last names differently, yet each will identify themselves as
a member of the Bungz (pronounced Bpung) clan. Notice that when
Ann introduces herself, she first says her Thai name, then her
Mien clan (in this case calling it La Bpung), then finally her
Mien given name.
Note: The "Sae" prefix was appended by Thai authorities
to designate a last name derived from a Chinese clan. Hmongs
and ethnic Chinese, especially Hakka and Teochiu, also were
originally given names of this form, though most have changed
their names since; Hmongs doing so by dropping the Sae, Chinese
by requesting an official four-syllable Thai last name from
the Thai government. Most Miens have kept the Sae appended to
The letters q, z, h, and c at the end of the clan names are
silent and are used to indicate the tone in which a word is
Migration from China to Thailand and Beyond
The Mien, who are also related to the lowland-living Lanten
peoples of Laos and Vietnam, are believed to have begun migrating
from Hunan province in China during the 15th-16th century
and spread throughout northern Vietnam, northern Laos and
northern Thailand. Immigration into Thailand was sharply accelerated
after the Indochina War when victorious Pathet Lao forces
began seeking reprisal for the involvement of many Mien as
soldiers in a CIA-sponsored secret army. As a token of appreciation
to the Mien and Hmong people who served in the CIA secret
army, the United States accepted many of the refugees as naturalized
citizens. Now there are as many as 50,000 Miens living in
the United States, largely concentrated on the West Coast,
particularly northern California.