The Akha Heritage Foundation - www.akha.org
Akha Human Rights - Akha University
An Overview of the Akha
A Brief Overview of the Akha Hill Tribe:
We are in the process of updating and expanding our information about the Akha. Where ever possible we would like the Akha to tell their own story. The process is sometimes slow and so we appreciate your patience while they write and edit their own articles for this web site. This is part of a bigger effort to assemble a cultural record and history of the Akha people.
The Akha Hill Tribe
A Sino-Tibetan Language Group
Subject Object Verb language structure
A distinct language from Hani although there are similarities.
A distinct racial and cultural group from the Hani at this time.
Though all Akha in China are classified the same as Hani by the Chinese government, they are not the same people.
Located in China, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar (Burma) and Thailand
More than 200,000
Their language is considered endangered because in many cases it is not being passed onto the children. Most children can not read or write it and it is not taught in schools.
Locations in Thailand
The Akha of north Thailand have some 320 villages and live in the mountains through out Chiangmai and Chiangrai provinces. They farm mountain rice, corn, soybeans and raise livestock. Their population numbers around 70,000 people. Akha culture resembles an environmental theology. Village life and practices circling around the planting, care for and harvest of the rice as well as particular care given to the environement in which they live.
The Akha learn their extensive geneologies from a young age and give great emphasis to both honoring onems parents and not bringing shame upon the family or their own place in the geneology. Unknowing outsiders call this lancestor worshipn a poor explanation of the facts.
The Akha practice hillside farmingwhich is often referred to as lslash and burnn and this topic is highly debated, depending on onems point of view, yet the facts show that villages which are stable and adhere to traditional ways, rotate their crops as do the Lahu and Karen, slashing regrowth, not standing trees. The Akha say it takes 50 years to build a village. Stable villages invest in the building of terraces which takes many years. Village relocations have increased the trees that have been cut but this can hardly be blamed on the Akha who have opposed these relocations. Areas that the hilltribe have lived in have all been heavily logged for timber, the blame conveniently being place on the h illtribe also..
Akha traditional dress is carefully made, the best clothes of hand woven cloth and beautifully embroidered.
The Akha Struggle
Mountain farming for the food you eat year to year has never been easy, but changes in economics and controversies over the land has made life even more difficult for the Akha people.
The Akha are hard workers and good farmers. They make good use of water and tillable soil. Few people have taken the time to study and understand their practices so the public is fed poor information that works against the Akha in the already difficult life they live in the mountains. Traditional practices are pushed aside by outsiders in favor of western medicine and treatment, wether the Akha favor it or not. Missionaries, who view themselves as better parents than the Akha, try to lure as many of the Akha children as they can to distant cities and foreign cultures, supposedly better than what and who the Akha are and have always been.In the end, they are left little for and of themselves. Missionaries, working in tandem with tragedy, are the most dangerous single factor to the Akha being allowed to be who they are, Akha. Chinese Fundamentalist missionaries are the most fanatical in their effort to take over strategic economic border areas.
The land is very valuable, especially mountain land. All the land once had trees on it, but mountains are expected to have trees than low land areas in peoplems mind so they may never consider to replant trees where they once stood in the low lands.
The land that the Akha live on is particularly valuable. Ethnic Chinese continue to take as much land as they can for their exotic farming. The Forestry Department does not evict them. But the Akha are continously evicted and have their land use restricted. Money talks. Race talks. Mountain lands can grow flowers, fruit, tea, coffee, nuts. All exotic plants. However, the rich would take the land for themselves, leave the Akha nothing, except to be plantation labor, the land still used, just a matter of WHO uses the land.
Water use and quality is often an environmental concern as it should be. But more often than not lip service is given to this issue to push a political agenda that would ignore human rights, and this is certainly the case with the Akha. While attempts are made to use water quality issues to force relocation of Akha villages from highland watersheds, Thai pig farms can be seen abundantly near rivers throughout Thailand, disposing of fecal matter directly into the water, along with whatever pharmaceutical or chemical residues there are left over from the feed. In case after environmental case we not the careful manipulation of the facts, never showing the whole picture.
Until recently most Akha did not have ID cards as Thai citizens, born in Thailand or not. But this is improving with tiem, thanks to changes in policy on the part of the Thai governemnt. However at the local level the Ampur offices continue to charge fees which are not official for these ID cards. Ampur Mae Faluang is no exception.
Akha women continue to be required to take the tetanus toxoid vaccination during pregnancy against their will. Health care, supposedly free, varies greatly dependent on if the Akha have money or not. Many women are sent home again with sick children and insufficient care. The issue of sterilizations continues to be of concern.
The Akha need your support. Please help spread the word to assist and protect these marginalized people. For information visit or contact the Akha Heritage Foundation:
Extensive intrusion into this region on the part of Catholic and American Missionaries with their particular view of Christianity has served to create much division among villages and families and now between denominations. This divisive approach has greatly damaged Akha culture and the chances for the preservation of the language and custom. Faults that one might find in Akha culture as one might find in any culture were used as excuses to label it all "pagan" (a term still frequently heard here from missionaries) and to completely forbid it.
Paul Lewis and the American Baptists were the best known in this region for causing the elimination of traditional Akha culture in the villages and now there are a host of American Missioanry groups which have followed in their steps bringing this version of denomination and that version of denomination with them and imposing these defining differences on the Akha as well, the Akha not being in a position to validate the worth of any one of them.
As late as this year it has been possible to document the missionaries still requiring the sweeping abandonment of Akha culture in the villages and the recomendation on mission web pages is for the goal of total conversion of entire villages over targeting of individuals.
In the impoverished position that the villages are in one could almost consider the villages as being under seige.
One certainly is made to feel that the American Evangelical approach to missionary work is racially biased. This in turn leaves no room for the culture.
The missions compete for villages so constructing a prominent church in a village is the quickest way to lay claim to it and have a photo to prove you are busy planting churches in Asia. It does not matter if this chuch is seldom used, if it is locked most of the time, or if the money could have been more wisely used for a general meeting house or clinic in the village. As well, big concrete churches are also usually inappropriate to the bamboo construction of most villages in the mountain. The whole method seems quite arrogant.
We are VERY STRONGLY APPOSED to this approach.
We have repeatedly questioned mission groups about this practice but they refuse to discuss it!
Other Problems the Akha Face
There are a host of problems that the Akha face as one of the poorest hill tribes. It is to their credit that in light of all these problems and assaults on their culture they continue to hold onto their traditions.
Currently the Akha are being displaced off land that they have long lived on or migrated to.
They have difficulty getting identity cards in the countries in which they live as a means of marginalizing them even further. They do not particularly fit the Nation State model.
They lack sufficient medical services and often are treated roughly on the part of medical staff.
Numerous cases have been documented where hospital staff sent critically ill children home because they did not have the money to pay and the result was the need for emergency medical services to keep the child alive.
Many Akha are involved in the consumption of drugs.
Right or wrong it continues to present problems regarding the police, health, imprisonment and family survival.
The same can be said for an increase in prostitution among the Akha as more roads get built into the region and with not enough educational opportunities. The number of people trying to get Akha girls to become prostitutes is far greater than the number trying to help them get an education. As long as the wide open exploitation of young women in Thailand is tolerated by allowing brothels to continuing to operate this will not change.
A fascinating combination of rituals, songs and dances throughout the year which are also beautifully woven into their garments.
The Akha are often classified as animists.
This may not be the best definition.
Akha traditional culture and law is defined as Akha Zauh.
There is very little written in English on Akha Zauh that was written without predjudice. Much of the available material has much bias built into it according to the Akha and does not present their culture well. They feel that this was done on purpose by missionaries who saw them as potential converts and on the part of anthropologists who just thought them handy to study for the advancement of academic careers. The unwillingness on the part of both parties to share their research with the general public would tend to bear this out.
For this reason we are encouraging further documentation and writing on this subject by the Akha themselves as they are the best qualified to tell their own story. We hope to have much more posted here, written by them, in the times to come.
The Akha are said to engage in both spirit and ancestor worship but this is very difficult to document.
More often it is used as a means to demonize their culture on the part of missionaries to justify imposing changes on them. A people in "darkness and bondage" is the phrase of choice.
However what can be observed in the villages is quite different.
It appears that the Akha believe that their presence today is a result of their parents and that there are particular ceremonies in which they pay respect for that history.
There appears to be two parts to Akha Cultural Law which is fascinatingly elaborate.
One part of the law has to do with how village life, life between people is run.
The other part of the law seems to have to do with how the world runs, good spirits, bad spirits and what effect it will have if you cause a disturbance of these spirits and do things which throw things out of balance. This includes your relationship to the environment. (One Akha man spoke that in times past it was realized that if you did not follow the appropriate procedure and cut down a big tree you could become sick. Today there is more evidence that the Akha were right about this than ever. Then he said, "but we donmt believe that any more because we are Christian now." What a sad commentary on change.)
Akha music revolves around their daily lives, their hopes and the bounty that the earth must give if they, as any humans, are to stay alive. Many of their ceremonies, 12 main ones over the year, revolve around the planting of the mountain rice crop.
Akha culture is full of wonderful songs, poetry and a beautiful variety of dances.
We have much of this documented on tape and video and hope to bring it to this sight soon.
The Akha Village
Akha villages are often built high in the mountains and it is not unusuall to wake up in the morning and be looking down on the clouds. The villages often are located on a saddle leading to a higher mountain. They draw water from springs above and below the village. The do not live near water which has a very practical side to it as the children run and play without their parents fearing that they will drown.
The Akha Hut
The Akha hut is of clever bamboo and sometimes wood construction. The Akha are good craftsman of both, all the village men turning out for the job of building a hut which it would appear can be mostly finished in a day or two depending on how large it will be, and how high off the ground they are making it which differs.
The Akha hut is divided into the womenms side and the menms or public side.
Like weddings, these are elaborate festivals. There is the making of a coffin, much cooking and singing and the sharing of meat with the rest of the village. In some cases one or more water buffalo may be killed at this time.
Singing of traditional songs by a group of men and also a group of women may go on late into the night drifting out into the fog.
Peeh Mahs and Neeh Pahs
There is usually a Peeh Mah and a Neeh Pah in each village. The Peeh Mah knows the songs and poetry for the festivals. The Neeh Pah is a woman who is like the village doctor and knows how to dress wounds and treat various ailments sometimes with herbs and sometimes with ceremonies, definitely, in either case however, more time than your physician will be spending with you.
The Akha often live off of what they can find in the jungle, chickens, eggs, pigs, cattle, mountain rice, mountain corn, tomatoes and a host of other crops and herbs. The cooking ranges from challenging to superb. Like anywhere. But the Akha are insistant that one join them and eat. Rice seems always abundant in supply, a chilli concoction known as Sah peeh tauh, or hammered chilis, is spicy and mouth watering all at the same time and there are vegetables to be dipped in it. There are herbs and other greens to eat at different times and the Akha improvision it would seem is unparalled. All food is chased with hot tea, boiled for health. Sometimes sweet fruits are lacking, sour fruits are not.
The Akha weave a ten inch wide or so cotton cloth from hand spun cotton thread by the most nimble of seasoned hands. They then either dye it with store bought black dye or by dipping it many times in crocks of vegetable dye next to their house. The best cloth is sort of a blue from being dipped so many times. They take a very long piece of cloth, pleat it many times and add a draw string that makes it into a dress. They where a pouch in front weighed with strings of colorful beads to keep the dress in a modest form while working in the hut or sitting about. Their jackets are elaborately stitched and designed, and the women also wear leggings. Some women where a front side only shirt under their jacket or none at all, convenient to nursing their children and only talked down by, you guessed it, the missionaries. To top this all off the women wear beautiful headresses which the missionaries have also encouraged them to give up as a sign of Christianity although in many cases the missionaries themselves were collecting and trading in these headresses.
The men wear an elaborate jacket when going to town and baggy black cloth pants.
Akha cloth is strong and the garments by far outlast the expensive and flimsy western garments that bear such a heavy cost on the environment. In their true form the Akha have been here a long time, not consuming very much at all.
Akha Migration and Swidden Agriculture
It is very convenient to blame the Akha for migration and slash and burn agriculture. However their latest known base over the last two hundred years was in China and a couple of hundred miles into Thailand is not far to migrate. Villages in Thailand have been at the same location for years as in Burma.
It is also a misnomer that swidden agriculture is to blame for deforestation. Only in recent years as more ground is used for cash crops to buy into a western style economy has this practice spread. Until this time it is well documented that one village can and only needs to farm so much land for one year. The often sited six year life of a hillside farmed in this way would mean that villages would need to move every six years which is not the case. As well, western observers have long noted that the tribal peoples are often blamed by big timber interests who cut all the big stuff down as being the cause of it all. One trip to an asian lumber yard will tell you that the trees are not all being cut down by and for the reason of growing crops. As well, after seven years in this region I note that the Akha are farming the same hills next to their village year after year. This is nothing to say of terrace agriculture which has been going on for hundreds of years.
However, pressure on the Akha to consume like everyone else, to be the maximum consumptions unit as encouraged in the west, will put increasing pressure of this type on the land beyond the need to just feed the village.
There are many Christian Akha now. Though many were taught that they were a step above their neighbors or had to split from the culture and the village, which many did, there are a large number of Christian Akha who chose to see their belief different from their western counterparts and believe in the spirit of the teachings of Jesus Christ rather than all the cultural and racial baggage the missionaries brought with it. In so doing they remain Akha, proud of who they are and the traditions of their culture. This is a far cry from so many that aquired the worst aspects of guilt and shame about who they were or arrogance over their neighbors.
Copyright 1991 - 2008