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Black Friday in an Akha Village

Black Friday in an Akha Village Draft Declaration On The Rights of Indigenous Peoples Article 12

"Indigenous peoples have the right to practice and revitalize their cultural traditions and customs. This includes the right to maintain, protect and develop the past, present and future manifestations of their cultures, such as archaeological and historical sites, artefacts, designs, ceremonies, technologies and visual and performing arts and literature, as well as the right to the restitution of cultural, intellectual, religious and spiritual property taken without their free and informed consent or in violation of their laws, traditions and customs."

I and a friend fought our way up mud track roads after a four hour trip to reach one of Northern Thailandís most remote Akha villages, Hur Mae Khom.

We had a gift of writing books and pencils for the last traditional families in the village.

Two weeks before the headman told me that the Chinese Baptists had come and convinced three quarters of the village to become Christian. From personally checking with the families they had told me that it was required that they abandon all of their traditions in the process. Finished.

So when I climbed the ladder to the headmanís porch and sat down I was greatly concerned as he sadly poured me tea. I and my friend drank while he related the events of the last two weeks.

There had been five or six families that stuck with him. There was one village elder living up the hill that was helping to hold it all together. The headman had not invited the missionaries and did not approve of their demands. But then some time in the last week they had convinced the elder to join their forces below and abandon the headman. So he moved down to those huts. The other families soon followed along.

What could he do, with the last elder gone from the tradition there was no one left to teach the old ways to the families. He was more than just a little sad, saddest that I had ever seen him. Though the huts had not moved he was now a headman without a village and the new puppet pastor the new functional headman. He knew that the missionaries always promised to give lots to the people if they converted. Meanwhile the villagers were still asking for medicine that the missionaries apparently werenít including in the deal.

I went down into the other huts and was immediately struck by all the changes being imposed on the people. Numerous women were no longer wearing their headresses as they had been so proudly doing all the years that I had supplied medicine to this village. I asked them why and they said they couldnít any more. Some of the older women still hung on. But the pressure was now definitely there to abandon them. There would be no traditional practices, songs, or dances at all now, possibly something would be allowed at Christmas.

The woman who practices the traditional knowledge and medicine for the village was stopped. She was told that it was evil and that she could no longer treat peopleís illnesses. In the name of their religious beliefs, and quite in contradition with the spirit of those beliefs, the missionaries are eradicating Akha culture in village after village. The Akha, with probably 98% written illiteracy, their books the elders, have no way or perspective by which to judge this method that comes with all the promises of prosperity. Prosperity that seldom materializes. From a standpoint of incredible rapid economic change and severe poverty they are being robbed of their rich heritage. Children are taught that their parents are living under the power of darkness and bondage, teaching disrespect to parents in direct contradiction of the missionariesí own religious texts.

Such practices could not be gotten away with without much criticism in the west, but people who enjoy the freedoms of their individual traditions and beliefs in the west do not believe in offering those same freedoms to others if they can exploit them for the agendas of their mission agencies.

We believe this has everything to do with endangered language. If you ban the culture, what exactly is the language then good for? A religious ban imposed on culture is just as powerful as a governmental ban on culture if not more so.

We find these repeated actions to eradicate Akha culture from among the Akha people as going against standards set forth in the UN Draft of Human Rights for Indigenous Peoples. Anyone who would like an entire copy of the UN Draft on Indigenous Rights please send me an email.

There is a whole lot going wrong here.

Matthew McDaniel

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