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Sunday, 26 August 2012

A history of the Bana hill tribe in Vietnam with whom the New Zealand Red Cross worked.

I worked with the Bana (Bahnar) people for over two years, first in 1971 and again in 1973-74. I was fortunate to see these tribal people who live in the mountainous regions of Vietnam in the provinces of Kontum, Gai Lai (formerly Pleiku) Phu Yen and Binh Dinh, living in a very traditional manner.

In 1971 the Banar people were being affected by the war between the US who were supporting the South Vietnamese Government,  and the North Vietnamese  but were still trying to preserve their culture. That year, 71,  I was part of a New Zealand Red Cross (NZRC) refugee welfare team working with Banar tribes in the An Khe Mang Yang and Van Canh districts where we were providing medical, livelihood and educational assistance. We were the fourth NZRC refugee team in Vietnam, the first starting in 1968 when Jerry Talbot and Moya McTamney were members, and both went on to carve long and successful careers with Red Cross.

Above, a young lady in a Bana village in An Khe. Taken in 1971 by Bob McKerrow

In 1973 I returned to Vietnam as leader of the 5th NZRC refugee welfare team, this time based in Pleiku and covering mainly Pleiku, but some areas of Kontum. Many of our staff were Bana and I remember so many of them; and Mo, Khel, Blon spring readily to mind. The main purpose of this article is to give a brief history of these marvellous people, who have such much, but have kept their culture in tact, to a large extent.
A month ago I visited Vietnam and my interest in the Bana people was rekindled by the excellent exhibitions and displays in the Museum of Etrhnic minorties.

When I worked in vietnam, the common name for the highland tribes we worked with was Montagnards, or people of the mountains.

The Montagnards can be subdivided into (at least) 30 or so different ethnic groups speaking different languages belonging mainly to the Austronesian language family (such as the Gia Rai, Ede, Rag Lai and Cham), and Mon-Khmer language groups (including the Ba Na, Bru-Van Kieu, Gie Trieng, M'Nong, Xe Dang and X Tieng). Many consider these populations to be indigenous, having preceded the arrival of the ethnic Kinh, and most of their societies are matrilineal. Some of the Montagnard groups, such as the Ede and Bahnar, include a significant number of Catholic or Protestant believers. The main groups in this category are the Jarai, Rhade, Bahnar, Koho, Mnong and Stieng.

The exact numbers of these two categories are a matter of some dispute: the Montagnards of the central highlands probably number between 1 and 2 million, whereas the groups from the northern highlands are more numerous, with several of the largest minorities such as the Tay, Tai, Muong and Nung each exceeding or in the vicinity of 1 million.


The Bahnar live mainly on the cultivation of swidden fields and slash-and-burn agriculture. The hoe is main tool used in agricultural production. Intensive land cultivation of swidden fields using the slash- and-burn method dispenses with the notion of allowing fields to go fallow after a period of time. In general, swidden fields are located near rivers and streams and have long been popular among the Bahnar. But since the beginning of 20th century, wet rice cultivation using harrows is also practiced. Horticulture and diversified crops also appeared quite a long time ago. Animal husbandry and craft production, such as basketry, cloth weaving, pottery and blacksmithing, are less developed. Left: A photo of a young male and female Bana wearing traditional costume.





 A group of Bana women return home from collecting firewood in Pleiku district 1973. The small store houses behind them is where they storeb grains and other important stores. Photo: Bob McKerrow 

Lifestyle: The Bahnar people live in vast areas from Gia Lai and Kon Turn to the west of Binh Dinh, Phu Yen and Khanh Hoa provinces. They mostly live in stilt houses, which are characterized by having the entrance door opening at the front of the house. The roofs are decorated with horns at either end. There is a communal house (nha rong) in the heart of the village, identified from other dwellings by its magnificent high roof. The communal house is a place where public activities are held, including education for the youth, ceremonies, trials, etc.

Transportation: The chief means of transporting things is the gui (bamboo or rattan backpacks). The gui has many sizes and types and can be woven differently, but usually follow traditional motifs.

Social organization: The village is the primary social unit. Vestiges of matriarchal social structure are still in evidence in Bahnar family relations, lineage systems, and marriage. The decline of matriarchy has raised the position of men, but social relationships still tend to be closer to the mother's family. After marriage, the Bahnar custom still prevails that the groom stays at his wife's house. Society is differentiated among those who are rich, those who are poor, and those who are classed as servants.

Marriage: Monogamy is a basic principle of Bahnar marriage. The exchange of living places by the newly- married couples are increa¬singly popular. After a period of time when the husband lives at his wife's house, and vice versa, .the couple then moves to a new place to settle and becomes a new cell of the community.

Right: A teenage girl carries a small baby in Manh Yang district. 1971. Bob McKerrow


Left: a Bana woman cleaning rice. Photo: Bob McKerrow



Education: Education for youths takes place at the communal house (nha rong taught by the village elders. This traditional education includes job training, martial arts, combat techniques, and the cultural values of the community.


Artistic activities: Folk songs are ample/ but more popular ones are hmon and roi lyrics. Musical instruments played by the Bahnar include percussion and aerophone instruments as well as chordophones (stringed instruments). Traditional dances are popular, performed on ceremonial occasions and seasonal festivals. The long poems and folktales of the Bahnar are unique, traditional works that are an important part of Vietnam's cultural patrimony.

Games: Among the popular games are chasing (dru dra), rope seizing, stone throwing, kite flying, ball kicking, stick walking, spinning top, and khang playing
  The war between the US and the North Vietnamese took its toll on many ethnic mionorities living in the Central Highlands, especially the Bana. Here is a group of IDPs arriving in Pleiku having been forced out of their homeland due to conflict. Taken in 1973 by Bob McKerrow    

Historical context
Most of the minority populations in the northern and central highlands of Vietnam are descended from various groups who settled in the region long before the arrival of the ethnic Kinh. Many of the highland groups, for example, are thought to have arrived over 2,000 years ago, and at one point to have occupied much of the south of Indochina.

During the pre-colonial period, ethnic minorities living in the highland areas maintained autonomy from the Vietnamese state, which did not consider them a threat. However, the highland population in both the north and the south was economically exploited by the ethnic Kinh. During the colonial period, the highland areas were targets of French missionary education and commercial activities. The French played the Kinh and ethnic minorities off against one another, sometimes supporting Kinh settlement in highland areas, at other times prohibiting such settlement and encouraging local administration by highlanders.

Left. A Banar house in which many families live. Photo: Bob McKerrow

The reaction of highland groups to the French was also mixed. Because of the economic exploitation there were a number of revolts, including a revolt by the Jarai that lasted until the late 1930s. At the same time, many hill tribe populations supported the French for the protection they gave them from the Kinh. Montagnards, especially in the south, fought alongside French and, later, US forces during successive Indochinese wars, though at the same time some also fought against them.


In order to win support from the ethnic groups in the northern and central highland regions, French colonial authorities established before 1954 autonomous zones for the Muong and Thai in the north-western mountains and the central highlands as the ‘Pays Montagnard du Sud', administered directly under Emperor Bao Dai. While Ho Chi Minh made a number of commitments promising autonomy for these minorities, the policies until independence were very much in a state of flux.
South Vietnamese authorities, however, embarked on what would later also be continued in a different form by Vietnam's Communist government: after 1955, South Vietnamese President Ngô Dinh Diêm launched the first programmes to resettle members of the Kinh to ‘land development centres' in the central highlands - in effect appropriating the traditional lands of the highland groups and handing them over mainly to members of the majority ethnic group, as well as to thousands of ethnic minority refugees from the north. These policies were eventually suspended, to try to assuage some of the highland groups who had resisted violently. North Vietnam also began its own resettlement programme during its first Five Year Plan (1961-65), setting up ‘New Economic Zones' in northern highland provinces. By 1975, an estimated 1 million people, mainly ethnic Kinh, were relocated into areas previously the domain of various highland minorities.

A typical loom and traditional weaving by Mintagnards. Taken by the author in the Museum of Ethnic Minorities in Hanoi 2012.

Similar policies were put into place for the central highlands after reunification in 1975, with perhaps as many as 3 million moving into the area. The ethnic Kinh today represent around two-thirds of the population of the central highlands. In addition, efforts to end swidden agriculture and to sedentarize minorities meant the relocation of hundreds of thousands to the valleys to grow rice and other cash-oriented crops. Frustration at the loss of traditional lands, restrictions on the religious practices of some minorities, threats to the maintenance of their languages and cultures, as well as poor access to education and health all combined to spark large-scale demonstrations by some central highland minorities in 2001. There were further demonstrations in 2004 over land rights and freedom of religion issues, as well as over the migration of large numbers of majority Kinh. The 2004 demonstrations were much more violent than in 2001, with the People's Committee building in one commune destroyed, as well as some Kinh migrants' houses and farms. On both occasions, the government clamped down on all outside access to the central highlands.



While the economy of Vietnam has grown rapidly in recent years, the areas in which ethnic minorities predominate have benefited the least, and for the most part they remain the poorest people in Vietnam. Mainly the Chinese population in the urban areas of southern Vietnam seem to have benefited somewhat from Vietnam's more open economy.

Current issues

The Vietnamese government continues to follow a contradictory policy towards the minority and indigenous groups from the highland regions. On the one hand, it conveys a message that it recognizes the importance of these groups and wishes to address their specific needs, yet on the other hand, a number of the policies and programmes it puts in place have considerable negative impacts on them.

Left: Dried gourds for carry water and other fluids. Photo taken by the author in the Museum of Ethnic Minorities in Hanoi 2012.








Carvings with many different referencces to fertility and reproduction can be seen adorning the fences outside the burial houses.

Bana women returning home after cutting and collecting firewood. Photo: Bob McKerrow

After the 2001 protests by thousands of highland groups, a number of announcements and changes were made to address some of the grievances. Among these was a 2004 prime ministerial decision to allocate land to the country's minorities and assist them in areas such as housing. However, other announcements indicate that aspects of policy detrimental to highland groups have not been abandoned. In March 2007, another prime ministerial decision on resettlement declared the aim of completely eliminating all swidden (slash-and-burn) agriculture activities of minorities by 2010. While it is too early to conclude how effective or even desirable such moves away from swidden agriculture are, early studies suggest mixed results: a 2006 report examining a remote upland village in north-central Vietnam where swidden agriculture was severely curtailed, concluded that the move towards wet-rice cultivation resulted in a lower rice production yield, and thus a lower level of food security. There was an increase in forest cover, but this was accompanied by greater use of lower areas for wet-rice cultivation and a reduction in the landscape mosaic resulting from swidden agriculture (some reports indicate that slash-and-burn agriculture supports greater biodiversity than the binary system of forest and permanently cultivated fields).

When I was back in Vietnam in July 2012, I talked to friends who told me about the improvement in relations between the various montagnards and the Government which is encouraging. The Museum of Ethnic Minorities in Hanoi certainly portrays the many tribal cultures in a positive light.

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