Lahu - Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Lahu village society is extraordinarily egalitarian. Age, not gender, fertility, or wealth, is normally the basis for what little hierarchy there is. The principal unit of village social organization is the highly autonomous household. Although ritually important patrilineages serve among Lahu Sheh Leh to link otherwise independent households, there are among most Lahu no other corporate groups between individual household and village community. Household heads agree to the leadership of one among them, who holds the title of hk'a sheh hpa, "master of the village." This headman, responsible for law and order within the community, consults the village elders on major decisions. The village priest (pastor among Protestant Christians) usually has an importance in community affairs that transcends the ritual domain. Households may at any time leave and attach themselves to another community; Lahu villages are notorious for their propensity to segment. Sometimes several households move off together to set up a new village under a more acceptable leader. Beyond the individual village, it is not uncommon to find small conglomerations of villages whose leaders recognize one among them, usually the head of the pioneer community, as senior area headman. The conglomeration is frequently multiethnic, and its leader may or may not be Lahu.

Political Organization. Beyond this loose and locally based multivillage polity, one enters the domain of political relations with dominant lowland peoples. For most Lahu these traditionally have been Tai peoples. Lahu leaders often received formal recognition from their local Tai prince, to whom they pledged allegiance, supplied corvée, and paid taxes in cash and kind. As Chinese concern for political control over border areas has grown, Lahu leaders have increasingly come under Han Chinese control instead of, or in addition to, that of their local Tai lords. In modern times, Lahu have various political associations—some intense, others largely nominal—with the administrators of the nation-states in which they live.

Social Control. Village gossip and perceived supernatural sanctions are powerful constraints on deviant behavior. Within the household, the master and mistress are responsible for the good behavior of all who live under their roof. Disputes between members of different households may be brought to the village headman for judgment. Cases involving members of different villages may be taken first to the senior area headman and subsequently to the lowland authorities for settlement. Wrongdoers are usually fined, after which they may receive ritual purification. To determine unadmitted guilt, Lahu headmen traditionally have administered ritual tests of innocence.

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