by Miriam Gross
You don’t have to cut trees just because you have
a sharp jungle-knife; You don’t have to persuade others just because you
have a clever tongue.
For a child born into a Khmu village, much of one’s life and relationships in the human, natural, and spiritual realms was already preordained. The Khmu lived in isolated villages on mountainsides in Laos surrounded by jungles, tigers, poisonous snakes, wildfires, storms, and evil spirits. They eked out a precarious existence hunting, gathering, and using slash-and-burn agriculture. The lowlands, although seemingly safer, until fairly recently contained people determined to humiliate and enslave the Khmu. For this reason, learning life’s essential survival skills; gaining the protection of the house and village spirits; following the extensive, calendrically based, taboo-driven prohibitions; maintaining family unity; and complying with societal roles were the only things that stood between the individual and obliteration. On the other hand, learning ancient wisdom and following taboos ensured the survival and even the success of the family and the village.
For most Khmu, their house, village, and its surroundings were integrated with the spirits of the land. For this reason a person’s house and village became holy or ritualized spaces2 intimately familiar and carefully organized to best meet the needs of both human and spirit inhabitants. Each house had its own set of protective ancestor spirits and the village as a whole had spirits of the land who would care for its members. Each family was under the protection of a totem such as a boar or an eagle who had originally helped an ancestor and would continue to protect the family if appropriate measures were taken.3 The typical house had three altars, two different hearths, and three different spaces for family meals depending on the occasion.4 Houses generally had two rooms, one for unmarried girls and one larger living space where the parents slept.5 For many Khmu, it was taboo to have anything associated with death or violence within the house because this would make the ancestor spirits who resided there unhappy.6
The village, which contained at least three different family totem groups, was equally well organized. In addition to family houses, it contained family workhouses, common houses/guest houses, smithies, and an additional common "house" that was a communal offering built to shelter the village spirits. Communal offerings were rebuilt by the entire village yearly to represent the renewal of the village.7 The carefully designed interior space of the village was defined by a perimeter consisting of three to four gates.8 Outside and surrounding the village were barns, more altars, and a ring of very large jungle giants that protected the village against storms and wild fires.9 In addition, the cemetery had four different areas: one for those who died normally, one for those who died by accident, one for those who died as children or who were mute, and one for burying the clothes of those who died far from home.10 Placement of the dead was very important to the Khmu because unlike their Laotian neighbors, they did not believe in rebirth.11
Outside the village’s ring of large trees, there was an extensive set of fields that were used in a seven- to fifteen-year cycle.12 Before a field was used, it was burned so that the growth of the fallow years could fertilize the new plantings of dry rice and other vegetables. Infrequent use of the fields ensured their long-term fertility. Villages moved infrequently and usually settled only a few kilometers from their previous location.13 In addition to growing food in the fields, women went gathering, men went hunting using traps, and both went fishing. To succeed in these activities, people had to have extensive knowledge of hundreds of plants and animals, growth patterns, and likely habitats and behaviors. Every plant had a name and a use. Every stream had a name and a location. For example, one Khmu could remember the uses for each of seventeen different kinds of bamboo14 and could map out the location and name for eighty-six different streams in relation to his village.15 There were almost as many taboos for propitiating the spirits of the land as there were in the house and the village. For example, for many Khmu, it was taboo to cut down any trees by a stream because this would make the stream dirty and its spirits unhappy.16 All Khmu were especially careful to act respectfully before the spirits in the many sacred areas both within the village and surrounding it. Thus the land surrounding the village was as well known for its beauties and its dangers as were the members of one’s family. This knowledge led to security both in terms of success for hunting and gathering and in terms of spiritual and natural protection. In the spaces between the house and the village, and between the village and the more distant terrain of fields and jungles, an individual formed rings of physical, natural, and spiritual forces providing the security needed for survival.
Just as the space in and around the Khmu village had been charted and ritualized, so was time mapped out. The Khmu used a lunar calendar subdivided by a ten- and twelve-day cycle that ran simultaneously creating sixty possible combinations of days.17 Most days clearly defined which activities would be successful and lucky. Some days were good for starting, others for ending, and others for continuing activities. Some were death days, when it was appropriate to make traps or go hunting; others were good for planting or building.18 It was taboo to do many different types of activities at one time.19 An individual’s birthday, which occurred every ten days, also determined what was appropriate for him or her.20 Thus almost every day’s activities were predetermined both in terms of time and location. The spirits would not become vindictive if a taboo was broken; they would simply stop protecting not only the individual wrongdoer, but also the wrongdoer’s entire family. This meant that a family’s protection was based equally on the efforts of all its individual members.21 Such extensive taboos, although complex and confining, were also liberating since they ensured the individual’s safety and gave the individual control over an unpredictable environment.
The relationships between people in the Khmu village were almost as formalized as those with space and time. Age and gender-based roles were clearly defined.22 At the age of about six or eight boys would gradually move out of the family house to live in the closest common houses.23 While members within a household all had to share the same protective totem, membership in a common house was determined by proximity.24 This ensured that boys of different clans formed friendships at an early age. Most boys spent their days working with and helping their families, returning in the evening to sleep in the common house. By living in the common house, boys developed independence and learned skills and traditional stories from older men.25 Since trap making, a major male occupation, was forbidden in the household,26 most men stayed in the common house during their spare time. Girls continued living at home learning skills from their mothers until marriage. Although both genders often worked on the same task, such as planting, each had a specific role to play. For example, men dug the holes and women planted the seeds.27 At each age there were specific gender-appropriate activities and roles to be played.28 Elder people and siblings were always responsible for younger ones.29 The eldest son had a particularly dominant role within the family and was expected to lead, make decisions, and provide material support for his younger siblings. At the same time, the eldest son and his wife would be responsible for the care of his parents and would inherit the family household.30 Although the house was often considered the woman’s space,31 the father of the family and later his eldest son made all family decisions.32
Village Leadership and System of Justice
Elders were the most important people in the village. They were often both feared and respected,33 making all wider village decisions and solving conflicts that arose within and between families.34 Although younger people and women could chip in ideas during councils, the elders alone made the final decision.35 In larger group activities, elders also often directed activities. For example, an elderly woman often took the lead in terms of management of the fields.36 Each village had up to four additional sources of leadership: the shaman, the medicine man, the priest, and the village headman.37 Both men and women could be shamans, a position based on great knowledge since there were hundreds of different kinds of spirits, each of which required being dealt with by a different ceremony.38 Truly powerful shamans could provide services for up to twenty different villages. Shaman’s duties included learning magic for calling back sick people’s lost souls, and for chasing away or calling out evil spirits.39 The medicine man provided the herbal complement to the shaman’s spiritual healing. 40 The priest, who had the only hereditary position, was thought to have a special relationship with the village spirits.41 He planned and officiated over the various communal annual ceremonies that were held in appreciation of the village spirits’ protective efforts.42
The village headman was usually chosen by the Laotian government. Despite this, he was almost always a very well respected individual who tried to protect the village against the Laotian authorities.43 In addition to extremely heavy taxes, most of which went to line the pockets of petty officials and none of which were ever used to build roads, schools, or clinics for the Khmu, the Khmu were subject to corvée labor.44 They were often called away to work for free for the benefit of the officials who controlled their village. Moreover, they were forced to carry messages among the high-mountain peoples no matter how terrible weather conditions were on the mountainside.45 Many headmen tried to systematically underreport the size of the village population so that the whole village could pay taxes for the few on the tax rolls. In this way, people were rarely forced to sell their fields and starve.46 Since 1975 this situation has greatly improved. However, most of the Khmu refugees had left for America before they could experience this change.
Both because of their isolation and because of the treatment by the Laotian authorities, in the past the Khmu rarely went to officials with problems.47 Instead, they developed their own independent, self-maintained system of justice. Although they lacked prisons, they had an extensive defined system of fines that were used as punishment.48 Parents of the offender were always included in the discussion. The village headman and elders made all decisions regarding crimes and received a portion of the punishment money. They were also given personal apologies for misbehaviors perceived to harm the village spirits as well as the family—such as out-of-wedlock pregnancy.49 For those Khmu to whom violence was taboo in the household, domestic violence was almost unknown.50 However, when a man did beat his wife, she went back to her parents. In order to get her back the husband paid a fine to the village elders and headman, and performed an expensive "apology ceremony" for his wife and her family.51 Often, merely the threat of elder involvement in a family argument was enough to resolve the conflict.52