The archaeologist, picking over the dust of the past, will unearth few items to help him reconstruct a history of the Laotian hill tribes. Here there are no monuments to cultures or civilizations past: no temples, stupas, ancestral halls, foundations of lost villages or images of deities carved into impossibly steep rock faces to mark the passage of time.
Material culture, whether in the shape of textiles, jewelry, ornamentation or other treasures of family or village, has not so much vanished as been folded up, placed in rattan baskets or protective cloth, and carried to the next place of abode. This portable form of culture has been essential to a semimigratory way of life.
Laotian tribes are often associated with specific skills that confer reputation and the esteem of other minorities. Accordingly, the Suay are regarded as the best elephant handlers in Laos, while Kaw women are known for their dexterity at sewing fishing bags from hemp. Crafts are similarly identified with particular groups. The Lahu are admired for their fine basketry, the Mien as accomplished silversmiths and paper-makers, while the Htin show great ingenuity in the designs and patterns they create by interweaving and manipulating bamboo.
Textiles play one of the most significant roles in hill-tribe culture. They are brought out on numerous social and religious occasions, for ceremonies to mark changes of status and rites of passage. Hand weaving and spinning would appear to be as old as the hill tribes themselves. An ancient Chinese text describes the ancestors of the Sinicized Laotian groups “weaving and twisting tree barks, dyeing them with grasses and fruit juice for colorful clothes.”
The styles and designs worn by minorities often have a practical or representational purpose, a lexicon to be read by those who know how. The white, blue or black leggings worn by the Lanten, for example, protect them against cold, mosquitoes and leeches. Marital status among the Lu is indicated in a number of different ways. Some Lu groups conceal patches of red and blue, representing their marital status, in the fold of their hems. Others boldly display a black hem to show that they are married or, alternatively, a red hem to indicate that they are still single and, by implication, receptive to suitors. As a Kaw girl grows to maturity her simple cotton skull cap is gradually transformed by the addition of more beads and other ornaments. The small gourds strung from her waist and head-dress, which indicate her single status, are removed when she marries. The baubles on the head-dresses are made by pouring molten silver into molds made from buffalo horns or by beating silver coins into half-spheres and then welding them together. It is a small but telling example of how clothing and textiles, alive with complex symbols and subtle but explicit implications, reveal a wealth of depth and meaning.
There are moments when the sight of a procession of villagers filing to and from their fields in their distinctive costumes, or gathering in full force for a ceremony or ritual, can seem like an apparition from a costume drama or some other timeless pageant. Time, however, is catching up with the hill tribes of Laos. The hand-woven costumes and meticulously worked ornamentation worn at home and in the fields are gradually being exchanged for the drab, workaday clothes of the migrant farmer.
In the past, hill tribes never thought of their crafts as marketable. Visitors to Laos are often struck by the beauty and sophistication of hill-tribe textiles, clothing and ornamentation and the skill and dexterity required to create them. Many of the finest pieces are now highly coveted. As a result of this relatively recent appreciation of hill-tribe crafts, many rare textiles have vanished into private collections abroad. In the same way, the Kaw are selling off valuable antique glass beads, family heirlooms that were originally traded between Europeans and Chinese merchants, and replacing them with plastic beads. The Lave and Tad-lo tribes I met in villages in the remote southern province of Attapeu had either sold off their heritage to the handicraft shops, or were keeping, rather than using, their gongs, costumes and jewelry in storehouses that would protect them from termites and rodents.
While there are obvious financial benefits to be gained from the current interest in acquiring samples of the material culture of the hill tribes, a short-lived improvement in their economic situation foreshadows the erosion of old systems of barter and an inevitable exposure to the standards and demands of the marketplace. These and developments like them are harbingers of the immense changes facing the ethnic minorities of Laos.