History and Culture of the Khmu People

The Khmu, pronounced kəˈmu, people is a large minority ethnic groups that is spread across the central highlands of Asia including sections of Northern and Central Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar (formerly Burma) and Southwestern China.

Throughout their range, they are recognized as a separate ethnic group with the exception of those living in China where they fall under the official designation of undistinguished ethnic peoples (rough translation from Chinese). They are known by various names including Khamu, Kemu, Khammu or Khơ Mú depending on the specific area where they live but as would be expected, share a common language with only slight variations in dialects being noted and generally recognizable customs across the entire region.

Khmu Population Distribution

As can best be determined there are presently between 800,000 and 1,000,000 Khmu spread around the world. The majority of these (700,000 +) still reside in their traditional homelands located in Northern Laos mainly within the Luang Prabang and Xieng Khouang Provinces. However, some spreading has occurred mainly due to the effects of armed conflicts in the area.

In Vietnam there are now an estimated 50,000; 15,000 are living in Thailand. Another 10,000 are now within Chinese borders. 8,000 call the United States home and there is a small community, 1,500, in France. With the exception The Khmu populations in the U.S. and France, all are clustered along border regions with Laos.

Khmu Sub-Groups

The Khmu people are divided into many subgroups which are not easily distinguished by those outside of their tribes. Amongst them are the Keun, Kheng, Khongsat, Khouene, Me, Môn-Khmer, Ou, Lu, and Rok sub-groups.

The Nguan and the Kha Bit people are also closely related to the Khmu and some inter-marriage does occur between the tribes but these ethnic groups are quite different people belonging to the Lamet and the Samtao respectively.

Khmu History

As with many indigenous groups with limited contact with the outside world, Khmu history has been passed down through the tradition of storytelling by elders around the evening fire. Unfortunately, this tradition has increasingly diminished and much of the tribal history is in danger of being lost.

What is known is that they have lived in the highland regions of Laos for a minimum of 4,000 and possibly as long as 10,000 years. Scientist hypothesis from genetic tracings that the Khmu descended from the Austro-Asiatic peoples that were prevalent in what is now central China and at some point, possibly due to climate influences 10-12 thousand years ago migrated to their present homeland.

Arrangement of a Traditional Khmu Village

A traditional Khmu village will contain anywhere from 30 to 150 families. The preferred site for a village will be 600-800 feet above sea-level on a gentle slope above a basin suitable for grub farming. A nearby stream or river to serve as a water supply and place for bathing, fishing, frog hunting and to gather algae in the dry season is also a necessary feature.

Khmu houses generally have thatch or wooden shingled roofs though metal roofing is becoming more prevalent. Most are built of wood but many times traditional bamboo construction can still be seen.

Houses are built on stilts and it is not unusual to find a family's livestock living in the space under their home. Most homes are still built on a two-room pattern with one serving as the family area and the second as the sleeping quarters for single females only. They are built in enclosed village clusters with three or four gates, each guarded by an altar, leading out from the village being the norm.

In a very sensible arrangement barns for the storing of rice are built 5-6 hundred meters from the village itself. This protects the rice from fire should a tragedy befall the village. A house can be rebuilt but for the Khmu rice is life. These storage buildings are also raised off the ground to help keep the rice dry and prevent rats and mice from invading the storehouses.

Khmu Village Life

Khmu society is still very traditional. Authority within the village is held by the community elders who are looked to for guidance and to settle any disputes within the village. There are customarily four positions of authority. A shaman who is knowledgeable in spiritual medicine. A Medicine Man or Woman who is an expert in practicing herbal medicine. A headman who is the political leader and is now chosen by the Lao government and a priest which is still a hereditary title.

The Khmu are primarily an agricultural people with hunting, fishing, trapping, gathering, raising livestock and bartering with neighboring tribes used as a way to supplement their food supply and generate income. Their primary crops are rice, corn, bananas, sugar cane and a variety of vegetables.

Most of their crops are raised in a communal fashion but each family may have as many as three small gardens that they use to supply their own needs and particular taste. Oranges, tamarinds, sayote along with other fruits, vegetables and a wide variety of fragrant herbs are to be found in these family plots.

Livestock was once raised as a source of protein for the families but has recently become more of a way to generate income. Smaller animals such as goats, native pigs and chickens are the most traditional but the number of buffalos being reared has steadily grown in recent years.

It should also be noted that as the modern world has increasingly encroached on Khmu lands many villagers have begun to seek work as farmhands preferring the small wages paid to the uncertainty of growing their own crops.

Khmu Trade and Work

Among local tribes, the Khmu are noted for their weaving abilities. The men weave baskets that are highly sought after by their neighbors as are the uniquely woven bags produced by the women of the tribe.

They are also known for their iron working abilities. Each village will have several Smithies with a number of blacksmiths working in each shop. Iron ore has by tradition been acquired through the native's bartering system but this is another area where the modern world has affected age-old ways. With the advent of the U.S. war in Vietnam, the Khmu were introduced to steel.

They initially acquired the superior metal by recovering fragments from the bombs dropped by U.S. aircraft. Now, they trade for almost anything made of steel and then rework it to meet their own needs and those of their neighbors. Their smiths are well known for their ability to judge the properties of a metal and its usefulness.

Khmu Beliefs

The Khmu people believe that each family is protected by a sacred totem such as a boar or eagle. They also believe that the fortunes of the tribes are tied to the spirits that inhabit the land, village and each household. You will find alters or amulets at each gate entering a village and inside each home to ward off fires and storms. It is taboo for anyone other than the priest to touch any of these sacred objects. Though many of the old ways are no longer practiced many families still perform the casting of spells and telling of fortunes. This makes them well respected and to some extent feared by their neighbors.

Written by Abraham Short

Khmu Artisans in traditional dress displaying Raya Nature Bags made of JungleVine® Fiber

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