Written by Administrator
Tuesday, 21 December 2010 06:12
AsiaViews, Edition: 31/VII/November2010
Akha villagers perform a traditional dance.
A US grant will help an Akha community hang onto its traditions
In a small community on a remote mountain in Mae Suai district, an American grant is helping ward off cultural extinction.
Aid worth US$77,930 (2.3 million baht) is helping preserve the distinct culture of the Akha highlanders. A grant disbursed under the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation has come halfway across the world to a tiny village where the purity of indigenous culture is under threat from outside influences.
On Sept 1, Chiang Mai-based US consul-general Susan Stevenson delivered the grant on behalf of Eric John, the US ambassador to Thailand, and cultural attache John Paul Schutte.
Witnessing the presentation were senior district officials, Ban Doi Chang community leaders and more than 100 Akha hilltribe villagers.
The grant went to the Mekong Akha Network for Peace and Sustainability (Maps), which is under the auspices of the Inter-Mountain Peoples Education and Culture in Thailand Association.
The money will support a pilot project preserving Akha culture through documentation, literacy training and cultural education for the next 26 months until December 2012.
The project will document annual animist religious rituals in the village, whose people are one of four sub-groups of the Akha people in Thailand. Records will also be made of family genealogies, traditional children's songs, games and literature passed on orally over centuries.
Educational material will be produced for Akha literacy training and cultural education. About 40 Akha primary and secondary students will be taught in Khas, a new common orthography agreed upon by Akha people from China, Burma, Thailand and Laos.
"This project is not only to preserve the culture and heritage of Akha people but also to preserve the world's heritage," Ms Stevenson said.
Nine Thai projects have previously received funding from the grant. They included the preservation of the Wat Ban Koh mural painting in Lampang, the Ban Rai and Tham Lod rock shelters in Pang Ma Pha district of Mae Hong Son and the community-based preservation of traditional houses in Phrae.
Maps submitted a proposal for the Ban Doi Chang project to the US embassy. "Having visited the charming village and met its wonderful people, I believe this was an excellent choice," Mr Schutte said.
Because of the merits of the project, the US embassy passed it on to the fund's office in Washington for consideration. After looking at all proposals from US embassies around the world, the Maps project was one of dozens selected for funding in all parts of the globe.
"We have supported nine projects in Thailand since 2001, and this is the first to concentrate on an indigenous ethnic culture such as the Akha people," the attache said.
The project focuses on Moo 33 of Ban Doi Chang in tambon Wawee. It is one of the largest Akha villages in Thailand where the traditional way of life is still practised.
Villagers used to grow opium poppies, which have been replaced by cash crops such as coffee and deciduous plants. In 1969, a royally initiated project was introduced to stop the highlanders from planting opium on Doi Chang. The coffee grown on more than 20,000 rai of land has produced quality yields sold in Thailand and exported.
The village sits about 1,700 metres above sea level. The population consists of three ethnic groups: the Akha, Lisu and Chinese who migrated from the south of their nation. About 800 households comprising more than 10,000 people earn their living from farming.
Mr Schutte said Ban Doi Chang was selected for the project because it was the first village that had approached the organisation and asked for help in documenting all their cultural traditions and rituals.
The village is also one of only a few Akha settlements in Thailand where a substantial number of its population still practises a relatively complete set of Akha cultural traditions.
The attache said Ban Doi Chang has the largest population of any Akha village in Thailand. While most villagers have converted to Christianity, 183 households still practise a relatively complete set of Akha traditions.
Akha swing ceremony enchants
The grant presentation ceremony at Ban Doi Chang showcased the richness of hilltribe culture evident in the Akha Swing Ceremony.
On hand to greet the US delegates were hundreds of Ban Doi Chang residents, mostly Akha highlanders in ethnic costumes, who performed a jabbing bamboo dance.
The delegates, led by US consul-general Susan Stevenson, also witnessed the rare Akha Swing Ceremony performed by Ban Doi Chang village headman Charnchai Pisailert.
The swing is the centrepiece of a festival called Yaerkuqdzaq (pronounced yae-ku-jar in Akha language).
The festival honours an Akha hero, Yaerkuq, who sacrificed his life defending the tribe's land in a catastrophic pest attack on their crops.
The tale goes that a serious plague of pests spread over the Akha land after farmers killed insects while farming their land.
The Akha people sought help from their supreme god, the Aqpoeq Miqyaer (pronounced aa-per-mi-yae).
The god sent his son, Yaerkuq, to fight the pests and he began collecting poisonous herbs.
Yaerkuq mixed the herbs with his own blood to lure the pests into eating them.
He killed many pests with this concoction. But as there were large swarms of pests, he had to use up his last drop of blood to kill them all.
The vengeful insects and vermin spirits which survived the slaughter went to Aqpoeq Miqyaer and demanded justice.
Aqpoeq Miqyaer promised to punish the Akha people responsible for the killing by hanging them one by one.
The Akha did not dare protest. They decided to have fun with the punishment instead.
They built a huge structure with four poles erected to form a square base. The poles are tied together near the top from which point a long piece of rope is suspended. The swing was created and a person would hang on to the rope to trick the god into believing they had been hanged. It is the reason the single-rope swing is known by the special name of lavqcep (pronounced la-cher). It means hanging by the hands.
Aqpoeq Miqyaer and the spirits were convinced the Akha had been punished and allowed them to resume their normal farming activities on the condition that the hanging must be repeated each year after the paddy rice seeds are sowed.
The Akha villagers take to the swing once a year to eliminate bad luck and welcome an abundant harvest and happy life.
By: Anurat Thepthong
Bangkok Post 23 October 2010
Last Updated ( Tuesday, 21 December 2010 06:12 )