ALTERNATE NAMES: Khamu; Khmu
POPULATION: About 500,000
RELIGION: Animism; some Buddhism and Christianity
The Kammu (also written Khamu and Khmu) are believed to be the original inhabitants of Laos, and they make up its largest minority today. They are an Austro-Asiatic people who moved north from the area of Indonesia in prehistoric times. The Kammu practiced paddy rice agriculture in the valleys along the Mekong River until they were displaced around the fourteenth century by the Lao moving southward from what is today southern China. The Kammu then settled on mountain slopes and in small, narrow upland valleys in northern and central Laos and in northern Thailand.
The Lao were contemptuous of the Kammu, referring to them as kha, or slaves. Roads, schools, and government services were basically designed for the Lao people and ignored minorities. Many Kammu joined the communist Pathet Lao (Lao Nation) movement and the Lao People's Liberation Army during the Lao civil war, for the communists promised them respect and education and technical training in Vietnam if they joined the cause. Some Kammu areas were heavily bombed by the United States during this period, as the civil war was linked to the war in Viet Nam, which was also being fought in Laos. After the Pathet Lao won control of the country in 1975, some Kammu communist cadres had risen to power, but most were soon replaced by ethnic Lao with better training and more skills.
The Lao People's Democratic Republic (LPDR), established in 1975, has tried to do away with ethnic labels and now refers to lowland, midland, and upland Lao. The Kammu are classified as midland Lao because they tend to live on the mountain slopes. The LPDR government has tried to end slash-and-burn agriculture and has encouraged the Kammu to resettle in lowland areas. Some Kammu had already relocated during the war to escape the fighting and bombing. The Kammu, like other midland Lao, are among the poorest people in what is already a very poor country. Their low levels of education and geographic isolation, together with continued prejudice from the ethnic Lao, have been barriers to their integration.
As the Kammu are the earliest inhabitants of Laos, they are in their homeland, even if they have been displaced and treated as outsiders by the Lao, who took over the land. There are roughly one-half million Kammu in Laos and smaller numbers of Kammu in northern Thailand, northern Vietnam, and southern China. A few thousand Kammu fled as refugees after the communists came to power in 1975, and they have resettled mostly in the United States.
The Kammu live in scattered villages in mountainous areas of north and central Laos and in mountainous border regions of neighboring countries. Often villages are small, with only twenty or thirty families, but some villages can include several hundred households. Neighboring villages may belong to different ethnic groups lumped together with the Kammu as midland Lao, but with their own cultures and languages that are mutally incomprehensible. Young Kammu men often leave their mountain homes to find unskilled jobs in towns and cities for a few years to earn money for a bride price. During the Lao civil war, many young men went to Thailand to escape the draft. All the countries where Kammu are settled have tried to get them to switch to stationary lowland farming rather than shifting slash-and-burn cultivation, but they have not always been offered good land for farming.
The Kammu have their own language that belongs to the Mon-Khmer family of languages, but it is not a written language. Consequently, the Kammu have no written history of their own and little mention is made of them in the histories of dominant groups in the countries where they reside. Variation in the Kammu language is common, as the Kammu are spaced over a wide area with limited contact with more distant settlements. The language includes an increasing number of loan words from Lao.
Most people are illiterate, as few have had access to education. Thus agreements are oral and are made before the village elders, who memorize the terms and will arbitrate any disputes.
Children use their father's first name as their last name, so last names change every generation. Once a person becomes a parent, he or she is referred to as the father or mother of their child.
The Kammu have a rich folklore that has been transmitted orally. They are well regarded by other groups for their knowledge of folk medicines made from plants gathered in the forest.
The Kammu consider Luang Prabang, which served as the Lao royal capital, as their city, and they have a legend that explains how the city was founded by a Kammu.
The old people say that long, long ago people wished to build the city of Luang Prabang, but an enormous tree grew on the site. Nobody was able to cut it down. Each man that tried fell ill and fled. Then a man by the name of Wang said, "I will cut the tree if you will taboo [prohibit] the day of my death forever." The people promised and Wang cut the tree, but he dropped dead when the tree fell. Once they buried Wang, the Kammu began to build the city of Luang Prabang.
When the city was finished, they looked for a man to be their king. They all went to a cliff overlooking the place where the Ou River flows into the Mekong River, and the people said, "Any man brave enough to jump off this cliff, we will elect king."
The people boarded seven boats and seven rafts in the waters below the cliff and called for the men who wished to be king to jump. Looking down from the dizzying heights, one man after another was afraid and ran away. Finally just one man remained, a relative of Wang, who had cut the tree. This man had tucked a quiver into his belt, and as he leaned over to look down from the top of the cliff, his quiver struck against something and he lost his balance and fell into the river. The people hurried to help him get in a boat, and they praised his courage and elected him king. To this day the Kammu taboo the day Wang cut the tree and the day Wang was buried, and on these days no work is undertaken.
The Kammu played a significant role in annual ceremonies in the Lao court of Luang Prabang until fairly recent times. The ceremonies in effect indicated the Kammu's prior claim to the land and supported the legitimacy of the Lao, who now hold sway over the land. A symbolic payment was made to the Kammu representatives, who in turn acknowledged the legitimacy of the King of Luang Prabang.
The Kammu are mostly animists, people who believe in spirits, although a few are Buddhist or Christian. The Kammu believe there are hundreds of different spirits in the jungle, many of which are harmful but some of which are helpful.
Each village has its own shaman to propitiate the spirits that cause illness and accidents, and a priest ( lkuun ) to perform the village ceremony for the ancestor spirits. A shaman can be either male or female, but the priest holds a hereditary office passed on to the eldest son of the priestly family, even if the individual is only a child at the time. One becomes a shaman by apprenticing to a shaman and learning the magic formulas to be recited on different occasions. The shaman must also be a person of good character who follows many specific rules or the magic formulas will not work to drive away evil spirits.
Living far from health centers and access to modern medicine, the Kammu often attribute illness to evil spirits and call on a shaman to exorcise them and bring back the soul of the patient. Minor, easily recognizable diseases are treated by a medicine man, an expert in herbal remedies.
The Kammu calendar operates on a sixty-day cycle. Certain days are considered particularly favorable for some activities and unfavorable for others. There are many taboo days when various kinds of work cannot be done and strangers cannot enter the village.
There are small rituals to be obvserved for many activities. For example, before setting out traps or beginning to hunt, a man must perform a small ceremony to ask permission from the spirit of the place.
The biggest holiday for the Kammu is the three-day series of ceremonies once a year to sacrifice to the village ancestor spirits, remake the village common house where the spirits reside, and ritually renew the village. The village spirits are considered benign, helping people to have good and happy lives so long as proper rituals are observed. There is no set day to sacrifice to the village spirits, but the ceremony is usually performed just after sowing the rice so the spirits will bring rain, or just before harvest, so they will chase away evil spirits such as the spirits of accidents or the spirits of waste. The house where the spirits are believed to reside is cleaned and remade with a new thatched roof, then a black pig is killed and its blood smeared on the altar. The spirits are offered pork, rice, and rice wine, and then the whole village eats and drinks.
The next day a sacrifice is made to the water spirits. Villagers dress up and parade to the village well with drums and gongs. There is a ritual cleaning of the well, and fresh water is fetched from the well in a decorated container and placed in the house of the spirits.
On the third day each family places a basket under the water container, which the priest shoots with an arrow from a crossbow. Those baskets that get sprinkled with a lot of water are considered a sign of luck and a good harvest. There is then a procession to a stream to float away the bad spirits. The young people engage in horseplay with mud fights and pushing each other in the water. A communal meal is eaten at noon and, in the evening, the villagers parade home and celebrate with lots of food and rice wine.
For most men the main rite of passage is preparing for marriage, usually by leaving home to work as a laborer for a few years to get money for a bride price. Each family has a totem and is grouped by totems (plants, birds, four-legged creatures) into a system of marriage alliances. There are three such groups in each village, with a pattern of one group taking wives from a second group and giving wives to a third group. The man can choose a bride only from the wife-giving group in his marriage alliance system, or it is believed dire misfortune will result. Ideally there is matrilineal cross-cousin marriage, in which a man marries his mother's brother's daughter (the brother might be a real brother or a clan brother). Within the constraints of the marriage alliance system, the bride and groom are free to choose a partner, but their parents will negotiate the bride price. Sometimes a man can work for his bride's parents for a few years in lieu of a bride price.
Interpersonal relations tend to be based on one's family lineage. The eldest man in the family is treated with great respect. The marriage alliance system also involves patterns of respect, with the wife-givers having a higher ritual status than the wife-takers because the wife brings children to the family. A father-in-law must be treated with great respect. Indeed, it is common to call an elderly man "father-in-law" as a term of respect.
Living as they do in isolated villages, the Kammu must depend upon each other for mutual help—so relations are relatively egalitarian. Although most families farm individually-owned plots, in some Kammu villages the land was owned collectively.
Living conditions are harsh for most Kammu. They tend to be among the poorest people in each country where they reside. Governments have been slow to extend roads, education, and health services to the hill areas. Diseases like malaria, dysentery, and pneumonia are common, and there are very high infant death rates. Most Kammu suffer from malnutrition. There is endless concern about having enough to eat, and most of each day is spent in farming or hunting, fishing, and gathering. People don't go into the forest alone, however, because they worry about wild animals, snakes, and accidents.
Kammu houses are built close together in the village, located on a hilltop or halfway up a mountain. The village is usually surrounded by a thick band of old forest, which separates it from their fields. The large old trees are believed to have souls, and they serve to protect the village from storms and from fire when the fields are burned off. Houses are built on piles 3 to 7 feet (1 to 2 meters) above the ground, usually with frame and floors of wood, walls of bamboo matting, and a roof of thatch. There is an open porch on one side of the house and a kitchen hearth built over a box of dirt toward the back. The area underneath the house is fenced in for the pigs and poultry. There is no running water or electricity, nor are there any sanitary facilities. There is rarely any furniture.
A household usually numbers six or seven people but can be much larger. Ideally a dwelling would have parents, children, wives of married sons, and grandchildren. Much of the work of the household is gender-specific, with women working longer hours than men and responsible for the hard work of hauling water and firewood and husking the rice. Traditionally, young boys left the family home between age six and eight, to live in the nearest village common house with older boys, unmarried men, and male guests in the village. However, newer villages set up in lowland areas have dispensed with common houses for men. Children are engaged in helping the family get enough food from an early age. Boys learn to fish and make snares to catch rodents and small game. Girls help their mothers garden and go in a group to the forest to look for edible shoots, tubers, and other plants. Women would be embarrassed if the house ran out of water or firewood, while men would be embarrassed if the family ran out of meat or fish. The family could not function without the labor of all, so there is mutual respect for the contribution each person makes to the household.
In the past, clothing was most often rough homespun cloth made from their own cotton, but today manufactured fabric or store-bought clothes are increasingly common. Women wear a long-sleeved blouse that fastens to one side and a sarong, while men wear a shirt and pants. Rubber sandals serve as shoes. Both sexes may carry woven or knit bags that the women make. Some people have special clothes for ritual occasions.
The staple food of the Kammu, as for the Lao, is sticky (glutinous) rice, which is eaten at every meal. The Kammu generally don't buy food, but make do with what they can grow or hunt or trade. Besides rice, they grow corn and other vegetables. The men fish, hunt small game with rifles and crossbows, and set snares for rats and other small animals. Frogs and various insects are also eaten. Fish and meat are smoked and dried over the fires that are kept going around the clock in the men's common houses. Large game is usually shared. The women gather bamboo shoots, mushrooms, and other wild plants in the forest. Deforestation (cutting trees for logging) has made supplementing their diet through hunting and gathering more difficult. Although most families have a water buffalo or cow, these animals are rarely eaten except on ceremonial occasions, when an animal is sacrified to please the spirits. Fruit trees, like bananas, citrus, and jackfruit, are planted around the village. Eggs are considered a special food, and gifts of eggs are given to wife-givers. Black sticky rice is used for traditional ceremonial meals. It represents safety, so a small packet of black sticky rice is always carried by people when they travel. Kammu meals tend to be rather simple fare seasoned with salt and chilis.
Few Kammu have had any education at all, and those few have had to study in the Laos national language, a foreign tongue to them. Although schools are being extended into Kammu areas, these are still relatively few and tend to have very low standards. Teachers sent to Kammu areas often consider the assignment a hardship or a punishment. Compulsory school attendance laws, such as those in Thailand, are rarely enforced and don't apply in any case to children living at a great distance from a school. Kammu are much less likely than the majority population to have a primary school education. Kammu boys are more likely to be sent to school than are girls. Extremely few Kammu would be able to pass entrance exams to go to high school or have the financial means or family network in a city with a high school to make such attendance possible.
Parents and older siblings provide children with on-the-job training for life in a Kammu village. Boys learn from older residents of the men's common houses. Because of the pattern of males leaving the village to work in cities or in northern Thailand for a few years, men are more likely to speak a national language like Thai or Lao.
The Kammu have a musical tradition, but instruments are usually played for ceremonial purposes in conjunction with prayer and sacrifice. Their instruments include long wooden drums, kettlegongs, knobbed gongs, cymbals, bamboo beaters, flutes, and buffalo horns. Musical instruments are often ritual gifts. Bamboo clappers are a gift from wife-givers to wife-takers, while the highly valued long wooden drum is usually a gift from the wife-taker to the wife-giver.
There are songs appropriate to various ritual occasions, and different types of music for every season of the farming year. Music thus plays a ritual role in securing a sufficient supply of food.
Work tends to be gender-specific. Men clear and burn the swidden fields, weave baskets, repair farm tools, care for large animals, trap, and hunt. They are also more likely to be involved in trade, selling livestock, forest products, and, more recently, scrap metal left over from the war. Women cook, care for children, husk rice, haul water, and firewood, care for gardens and pigs and poultry, gather edible plants, weave cloth, and sew. They may engage in trade of vegetables and chickens.
Children help their parents, and both boys and girls may help with care of young siblings. When the rice develops ears in the autumn, young people stay in small field huts for days to scare away the birds and wild animals that come to eat the rice. Teenagers enjoy this period away from the village and grownups. Grandparents help with cooking, childcare, and small chores near the house.
The Kammu do not engage in organized sports. Play tends to involve preparation for adult work. Thus, boys like to go fishing, catch insects, and practice with bows and arrows. Children like to swim in the streams.
Singing and storytelling are popular entertainments. Chanted poems give vent to emotions like sorrow at a friend's departure. Folktales include creation stories, tales of magic and the supernatural, stories of why animals and plants are the way they are, and tales of rascals and tricksters. Kammu in lowland areas also have access to films and concerts.
The Kammu are very skillful in the use of bamboo, which they use to make a wide variety of items including baskets, musical instruments, water containers, snares and even houses.
Because of their lack of education and their geographic isolation, the Kammu are not progessing as quickly as the majority of the population. No government approves of their slash-and-burn agriculture, and they are being pressured to give up their traditional way of life and settle in lowland areas. They usually have no official titles to their land, so government officials can arbitrarily force them to move. Corrupt officials in league with illegal loggers also seek to force them out so the old growth forests near their villages can be cut. They still face prejudice and discrimination and many ethnic Lao still casually use the pejorative term "slave" in speaking of the Kammu.
Damrong Tayanin. Being Kammu: My Village, My Life . Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University, 1994.
Lindell, Kristina, et al. The Kammu Year: Its Lore and Music . London: Curzon Press, 1982.
Lindell, Kristina, et al. Tribe Kammu of Northern Laos and Thailand: Folklore and Folkliterature . Taipei: Chinese Association for Folklore, 1984.