2013 Student-Faculty Fellows Program: LeMoyne College
Cultural Sustainability across the Generation Gap in Northern Thailand
Mentor: Deborah Tooker, Anthropology, Criminology & Sociology
Students: Leon Cominsky ’13, Emily Powers ’13, Frank Sapere ’14, Kelsey Woodrick ‘13
After spending a period of time in Bangkok and Chiangmai, our research group left these urban surroundings to spend almost three weeks in a small village among the Akha people of Northern Thailand. While living amongst the villagers, each of four student researchers conducted independent research on issues related to the impact of rapid political and economic change on the people in this formerly subsistence-based and semi-autonomous rural hill community.
My research examines the effects that the growth of coffee as a cash crop in Thailand has had on the ethnic Akha people tasked to cultivate this lucrative commodity. Traditionally, the Akha practiced swidden or slash-and-burn subsistence-based agriculture based on rice cultivation, and Akha cultural values and tribal leadership, passed from one generation to the next, were closely linked to this practice and the realization that most everyone needed to be engaged in the planting and harvesting process. My research shows that the Akha transition to fixed-position production of coffee, encouraged by the Thai government through a Thai-German Highland Development Project, has produced clear economic benefits, but undermined the structure of Akha society. The emergence of a cash economy has diminished interpersonal relations among the Akha based on reciprocity. Moreover, growing affluence has led to the introduction of new technologies from the outside world that are changing the worldview of the Akha people, especially the young.
There have been a number of standardized written scripts created for the Akha language by missionaries, anthropologists, and others. My research is focused upon the development of CAW (Common Akha Writing), an effort from within the Akha community to create a universal standardized script, and whether or not it is being accepted by the Akha. Within the village where I conducted my research, it quickly became apparent that not many individuals are familiar with CAW, but rather relied upon a script made famous by the missionary Paul Lewis in the late 1960s, and the one that he used to translate the Christian Bible. So prevalent is the Lewis script that when I asked villagers about Akha writing and literacy in general, they replied that they were not Christian and didn’t read. There is clearly a divide in this village. One group is Christian and have embraced Lewis’s script, while the other, non-Christian, has embraced CAW or remain illiterate.
My research is a study of the way in which modern medical techniques and traditional Akha medical techniques are being practiced in a rural area in Chiang Rai Province in Northern Thailand. Traditionally, this region has been served by naturopathic and ceremonial (shamanistic) healing traditions, but increasingly, as the infrastructure in these regions improves, modern medical practices are being introduced. A modern government-run clinic now exists in the village. One might expect that there would be a generational divide regarding acceptance of traditional or modern medical practices, however, I discovered that this is not the case. The older generation of Akha is also seeking modern medical care, but at times, both older and younger Akha rely upon traditional medical practices when they feel that modern practices fail them.
My research considers the transmission of ethnic identity through informal and formal education among the Akha people in their rapidly changing society. Traditionally, Akha values and customs were transmitted through what the Akha call Aqkaq-Zanr (the “Akha Way of Life”). This was an informal education provided by village elders and others before the Thai government built a school. It focused upon traditional Akha ceremonies, rituals and ancestral offerings. Currently, formal education is provided at the Thai National School. As I interviewed students at the school and observed the daily routine, it is apparent that Akha identity is still being preserved to a degree as evidenced by what students wear, the Akha language that they speak, and the Akha culture evidenced among them. However, students have little sense of urgency to learn Aqkaq-Zanr as once formally taught by village elders.