An Introduction to the Hill Tribes of Vietnam's Central Plateau
by Donald E. Voth
MCC Vietnam, 1958-1961
MCC Việt Nam had extensive programming in the Central Highlands of Việt Nam during its first years of operation. I worked for two years at the Leprosarium in Banmethuot, located in the highlands, and a few stories and reflections from that time are available elsewhere in this collection.
Understanding the basic outline of the history of the Highland People and their interactions with the Việt, or Kinh, ethnic group—from whom Việt Nam takes its name; they make up about 85% of the population of Việt Nam today—is central to understanding the history and future of the country, as well as MCC’s place in that story.
In my opinion, mistreatment of Highland People in Việt Nam is one of the central justice issues of our day, and it is more than unfortunate that MCC has been silent about the mistreatment and colonization of our former Highland partners. I hope that this brief introduction to Hill Tribe history is helpful and inspires Mennonite groups like MCC to help the poorest of the poor as they claim to.
The Hill Tribes of the Central Plateau of Việt Nam are ethnically and linguistically distinct from the Việt, as well as from the several Hill Tribe minorities of northern Việt Nam. There are two main linguistic groups in the Central Plateau: Malayo-Polynesian and Mon-Khmer; the former is related to the main languages of Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines, while the latter is related to Cambodian languages.
The major groups in the area of the MCC-supported Banmethuot Leprosarium were the Ede (a Malayo-Polynesian group, sometimes written as Raday, or Rhade), and the Mnong (a Mon-Khmer group). Historically, neither group had a written language, and information about their history is somewhat speculative. There is information both from early French explorers, like Henri Maitre, and from documents of the southern Nguyễn Vietnamese dynasty. An early effort to document their history is that of Bernard Bourotte (1955). More recently the works of Oscar Salemink (2003), and, especially, Gerald Hickey (1982), plus my own unpublished document (Voth, 2013) provide useful information.
Nearly all of the Hill Tribes of the Central Plateau practiced a form of forest fallowing agriculture. It is often called “slash and burn” agriculture, but that term has some false negative implications. They cleared and burned the forest for fields where the main crop was dry-land rice, together with various vegetables including manioc, a perennial, grown around the edges of the fields. When, inevitably, the fertility of the plot declined, they moved to another field in another location, abandoning the previous site. In a period of 10 to 15 years, the soil would regenerate and could be cropped again. It was in this way, also, that they obtained the timbers needed for their elegant above-ground longhouses.
The Ede, like many of the other tribes and Malayo-Polynesian people elsewhere, were matrilineal. Within the respective clans there was a “Land Woman” who was consulted whenever a family needed to abandon one field and move to another site within the lands belonging to the clan. This system of agriculture seems to have been relatively stable for hundreds of years, although evidence other than oral history is difficult to come by. For the most part, the ruling Vietnamese regarded them as nomadic, in spite of ample evidence to the contrary. Although they were not particularly wealthy, the communal ownership of land for crops, as well as for timber and other needs, meant that every family had, at the least, access to a field to raise their basic foods. In fact, they also had chickens, dogs, cattle, buffalo, and even elephants. Some areas had horses. One often found large herds of cattle and buffalo in the villages.
Traditionally, most tribes were animist. Shamans served as communicators with the spirits, which, it seems, were mostly maleficent. This apparently could lead to considerable instability, as the shaman, like religious leaders elsewhere, could have visions and/or obsessions of various kinds, something which could be utilized by the political machinations of outsiders. Catholicism was introduced among the Hill Tribes by the French during the French occupation (1862-1945). Protestantism was introduced in the Banmethuot/Pleiku area in the 1920s, primarily by Christian and Missionary Alliance (CMA) missionaries Gordon and Laura Smith, and around Đà Lạt by Herb and Lydia Jackson, also of CMA, in the 1930s. By the time MCC began working in the area in the late 1950s, there were small, thatched, protestant church buildings in many of the villages. After the current government took over in 1975, many tribespeople converted to protestant Christianity, at least partially because of the manner in which they were treated, most notably having all their clan lands seized and turned over to Vietnamese settlers. Today, more than 50% of Ede claim Christianity.
A Bit of History
The beginning of the famous—or, for those on the frontier, “infamous”—Vietnamese Nam Tiến (Advance, or march, to the South) is hard to pin down. It was certainly already going on before the establishment of the separate, southern Nguyễn Dynasty in what was then southern Vietnamese territory in 1558, now in the central part of the country. That regime both formalized the process and provided some of the early documentation that is available. There were both internal policies and procedures which facilitated colonization of the “savages,” as they were called, and policies for their “pacification” and administration. Internal procedures included “exile,” or “banishment” for crimes, the establishment of both military (đồn điền) and civilian (dinh điền) outposts on the frontier, periodic special “pacification” campaigns, special tax privileges for those colonizing the frontier, etc.
Nguyễn Dynasty documents identify a few of the details of Vietnamese “management” of the “barbarians.” There was a special administrative system called the Sơn Phòng, Protection against the Mountains, which was applied primarily in the area which is now Quảng Nam and Quảng Ngãi Provinces, which included building a 120 kilometer long wall complete with guard posts. I’m told remnants still exist in Quảng Ngãi. There were franchised “tax farmers” who were, in principle at least, the only ones who were allowed to circulate among the “savages.” These were referred to as the “Subject Savages,” Mọi Thuộc, but there were others father south, roughly in the areas of the present Đắk Lắk and Gia Lai Provinces, who were referred to as the “High Savages,” or Mọi Cao.
The relationship of Vietnamese officialdom to the latter group was very different then the relationship to the first. These “high” tribes were treated as vassal states, with periodic “diplomatic” missions carried out by Vietnamese officials in Ninh Hòa, near Nha Trang. The Hill Tribes would come down from their villages in the mountains to meet with the Vietnamese officials. According to Dr. Alexandre Yersin, a physician and early French explorer, the Hill People were very picturesque as they filed down the mountain on their caravan of elephants to meet with the Vietnamese officials, engage in a ceremony of loyalty, exchange symbolic items, and trade with Vietnamese in what was apparently a huge market. These “High Savages” also pledged loyalty to the Cambodian regime in Angkor Wat in a manner similar to that with the Nguyễn Court. Their relationship with Khmer kingdoms probably began before their relationship with the Việt.
It is important to note that in both cases, the “Subject Savages” and the “High Savages” were forbidden to have contact with Vietnamese people, other than the enfranchised tax farmers. The reasons given in historical documents are mostly “corruption of the customs,” and “keeping the peace." However, it seems likely that the royal court fully intended to reserve most of the valuable products coming from the highlands—elephants, horses, timber, precious woods, spices, and, even, items with mystical powers—for itself. Still, as others have argued, it seems there might well have been considerable interaction, particularly trade. This relationship was likely highest in the areas of Quảng Nam and Quảng Ngãi where Vietnamese colonization had been much earlier and much more complete. Even in those places violence and “pacification campaigns” were frequent.
The French, as they gradually gained control of more and more of Việt Nam, adopted much of the separatist strategy of the Nguyễn Dynasty, establishing a somewhat-separate administrative region they called “Population Montagnard du Sud (PMS),” and, other than the many Vietnamese they brought into the region to work in their plantations and perform local administrative tasks, they resisted and prevented the settlement of Vietnamese in the Central Plateau. The word ‘Montagnard,’ essentially meaning ‘mountain-people’ coming from the French word for mountain, ‘montagne,’ was the catch-all term the French used to refer to all the highland groups, and it continued to be used when English become more widely spoken.
The Ede people were considered by the French to be the most advanced of the tribespeople, so they tended to privilege them. Ede was the local language French administrators were the most likely to use. Many Ede people learned French. Among those—the “High Savages,” in contrast to the “Subjected Savages” farther North—very, very few knew Vietnamese or had any experience of contact with Vietnamese. In fact, hegemony of the Việt over the area of the “High Savages”—current Đắk Lắk, Gia Lai, and some of Lâm Đồng Provinces—actually only began after the 1954 division of Việt Nam. Under the prior Nguyễn regime they were considered to be a “vassal state,” and the current western borders of Việt Nam were only established by the French against opposition from Thailand during French colonization.
This was the situation when the intended-to-be-temporary separation of Việt Nam began in 1954, when the southern Nguyễn Dynasty ended and the Ngô Đình Diệm Republican government emerged, with U.S. support, in the south. The new Republic of Việt Nam, emulating some aspects of the early Nguyễn Dynasty’s methods of advance and colonization, soon began to occupy lands in the Central Plateau, both to accommodate North Vietnamese refugees who had fled from the Communist regime in the North and to provide land to others who were poor. There were also outright seizures of land by members of the Ngô family. Concern about such loss of land caused some of the leaders of the Hill Tribes, including some Chăm people as well, to organize, so as to appeal to the government for protection of their lands. At the same time, they appealed to the U.S. embassy and the United Nations. They were rebuffed, and then their leadership was imprisoned. Some of those leaders remained in prison until the middle 1960s, when pressure from the Americans forced the Vietnamese government to release them and to give some minimal protection and rights to the Hill Tribes. So, for a short period of time in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Hill Tribes were able to obtain employment, and educational opportunities were expanded, etc.
That ended when Sài Gòn fell in 1975, which ended the Southern Republican government. All previous privileges for Hill Tribes people were abrogated. Nearly all traditional clan lands were seized, and more than a million North Vietnamese were settled on their lands. Tribes were subjected to forced assimilation, with special hostility given to Christianity. In part, of course, this was simply a continuation of the Việt’s Advance to the South, which had, in its wake, colonized and almost completely destroyed other native lowland peoples including the Chăm and the Khmer and forced other indigenous people they encountered up into the mountains. Also, many tribespeople were considered terrorists, since some of them had tried to oppose the seizure and occupation of their lands. Now, they are a relatively small and completely powerless minority in their “own country.” These Hill Tribes are now the poorest of the poor of Việt Nam.
I was able to make a return visit to friends and former MCC employees in the Banmethuot area in the summer of 1968, soon after the Tết Offensive. My co-worker Alan Hochstetler and I were able to visit again in early 1997, but I have not been back since. Our hosts told us on that trip that, though our visit was appreciated, they would at minimum be investigated by the police after we left. We were told that about 60% of the Hill Tribes in the area were, by then, Christian.
A memory from that trip still haunts me. When we asked why so many Ede had become Christian, the answer was “The Vietnamese people hate us, the Vietnamese government hates us, and you abandoned us. We have no one left but God.”
Thankfully, the Vietnamese government has begun to respond to the dilemma of the Hill Tribes, both in terms of land policy and religion. There are some efforts to return lands to tribal groups, though only in the Vietnamese private ownership pattern, rather than the traditional clan ownership model of the past. And quite recently the policy toward Christianity may also have made a 180-degree turn. Not long ago Christianity was viewed as a threat to the state, now it has begun to be recognized as beneficial, with influence all the way to the Bureau of Religion in the Ministry of the Interior. This seems, in large part, to be the result of the remarkable work indigenous Christians with the support of some Evangelical groups, especially the organization FOCHUS, which began working among Hill Tribes refugees in North Carolina and was able to extend that work to Hill Tribes villages in the Central Plateau. For Mennonites it is remarkable to note that FOCHUS “focuses” upon Jesus’ mandate to forgive, which, in this case, means forgiveness of the oppressor by the oppressed. Though there is now some hope, the extreme lows of colonization won’t be forgotten, and MCC’s lack of action and voice during this period remains a bitter disappointment to me.