Vanishing tribes

I read about the plight of so many tribal people in so many countries who are facing an uncertain future and a loss of their tribal culture and heritage through no fault of theirs.

I will analyse here why this is happening and what must be done to save these tribes and their beautiful culture.

The native tribes in most countries are called tribals, ethnic minorities , aborigines and even Indians like in the United States but such tribes once lived in splendor with their rich heritage of language, art, culture , clothes , rituals and they made exquisite handicrafts that are nothing short of wonderful.

They were mostly self reliant people who lived in tune with the nature and imposed themselves on no one through religion or ideology. They fought only to defend themselves and claimed no territory or country and were mostly peaceful although there were and still are some war like tribes in Africa that hate each other and kill like the Hutus and Tutsis in Burundi and Rwanda. But they are more of an exception than rule.

Their history predates the arrival of colonials and land grabbing whites who saw them as vermins that had to be exterminated . They looked down on their culture and called them savages as if the whites were superior to them.

But strange as it may sound , the whites were not the only ones who discriminated against the native tribes and ethnic minorities . This has happened in many countries where the tribes still live and suffer in the hands of the majorities who look down on them as savages and treat them as such showing disdain for their culture and way of life.

This is pure racism and exists in India, Vietnam,Burma, Thailand, the Philippines, Taiwan and many other countries in Asia where the ethnic minorties still live in rapidly diminishing numbers. If skin color determined who was superior to whom then it does not apply here.

Once I trekked through the northern mountains in Thailand to visit the mountain people and was struck by their beautiful clothes, jewelry and hospitality. These people lived in remote mountains where there was no hospital,schools, road, drinking water or basic health care facility but were self sufficient and made their own clothes and ornaments some of which is sold in Bangkok market to earn them some money.

The development and the government services available elsewhere in Thailand has passed them by and some tourists gawk at them and take photos because these poor people are treated as photo objects rather than human beings with dignity. The bare breasted women are more photographed than others. Still they smile and tolerate this intrusion into their isolated secluded lives.

Some one in Vietnam called Rehahn is now taking photos and keeping records of all the ethnic tribes in Vietnam, of their clothes, jewelries, their history, their customs and hopes to open a museum somewhere to show the rich culture of various tribes but he is a Frenchman and not a Vietnamese so that alone speaks volumes about how the Vietnamese people look down on their tribes and show contempt.

We were once in Dalat in Vietnam where we watched these graceful tribal women dance in their hand made dresses and jewelries, They were so pretty. We were very impressed by their elegance and poise.
But in other countries such as India , the tribals have not fared so well and no one records how many ethnic tribes are there and how they live. Some can be seen working in coal mines in Bihar and others collect firewood , honey and animal pelts that they sell but all live very miserably in poverty and abject desperation as forest dwelling is more and more difficult and hunting is so restricted.

Once these tribals lived happily in forests all over India but that was a long time ago when India had almost 70% of its area covered in forests and the population was very small and scattered. There were wild animals aplenty for them to hunt and wild fruits and honey to gather. They helped Ram build the causeway to Lanka (now called Sri Lanka) with their bare hands so that his army could reach Lanka and rescue Sita whom the King of Lanka called Ravana had kidnapped. The causeway is now under water due to rising level of the sea but can be clearly seen as a straight line from space.

But Ramayana which is the epic story of Ram calls these tribes monkeys and says the monkeys built the causeway and not humans. In Mahabharata which is another Hindu epic story of Pandavas and their fight for justice leading to the war with their cousins the Kauravas also mentions these tribes that lived in the forest and called them demons who had horns, were ten feet tall and had tails etc.

One tribe that still lives in scattered camps in south India is originally from Ethiopia but they have forgotten their language and history and try to assimilate as best as they can but their numbers are dwindling. There are hundreds of tribes all over India . Some live in forests while others live as destitutes in cities or rural areas working as laborers, maids or in dangerous jobs in coal mines.

What is destroying these tribes and their culture in so many countries is the absence of a written language that they could use to record their history and their culture because they do not have a written language. Their history is only oral and is passed on from one generation to the next.

The second reason is government apathy and indifference toward the welfare of these unfortunate people. They get angry when the missionaries try to convert these people into Christianity but being Christian opens up a few opportunities for some of them. Some tribal women were given scholarships to come to the Philippines to study at the University here but they are the lucky ones.

The third reason is the indifference of their next generation to their culture, heritage and way of living.They want to move to cities to find jobs where they absorb the local culture and see no future in their ancestral way of living in remote mountains.

They also see their way of life is vanishing because of vanishing forest cover, encroachment of people from the outside on their tribal land , less available food in the forest, severe restriction on hunting imposed by the government and simply the modern world is literally swallowing them up that they do not know how to cope with.

So they take to alcoholism and in some case drugs like in northern Thailand and Burma. They do not fare so well in Vietnam either where the Vietnamese call them motagnards meaning mountain people who were recruited to fight the Vietcongs during the terribly long war. The scars are still visible in them of the destruction of their peaceful way of life . The same story is repeated in Laos and Cambodia. Some were sent to settle in the United States where they live in an alien culture and have not adjusted well. Drugs, domestic violence and jobless , aimless life is destroying them as surely as any disease .

But once they were joyful people who took pride in their hand woven clothes, beautiful ornaments ,tribal customs, their beautiful homes made of bamboo and leaves, their independence from outside influence, their songs and dances that were frequent, their festivals and their rituals during marriage . They were free to live in their traditional way and did not ask for anything from anyone. They made their tribal laws that could not be violated so there was no crime and women went around unmolested. The punishment for violating their laws was severe.

I am happy that a Frenchman is making an effort to trace these tribes in Vietnam and taking their photos and recording their history and I wish every country had such a person who could record the history of people who are doomed. Thank you Rehahn.



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Amal Chatterjee

Amal Chatterjee

I am the village bard who loves to share his stories.