Ethnic Laotians

The country of Laos is home to many different ethnic groups that are distinct in culture, language, and history. We encourage everyone to continue to learn more about each other and share our unique stories. Here is a brief background of the multiethnic groups from Laos: Hmong, IuMien, Khmu, Lao, Tai Dam, Tai Lue.

Hmong: Kinship Bonds and a Passion for Independence

Many historians have found what they consider roots of the Hmong people as far back in history as 2500 B.C. Over the centuries they are believed to have migrated from a northern area, Mongolia, Tibet or even Lapland, eastward into northeast Tibet and southern China. Of the estimated 7 million Hmong living in the world today, the vast majority remains in China.

hmong_weddingSometime in the mid 19th Century, though, thousands of Hmong families, relying on kinship bonds and a passion for independence, fled the oppression of China and trekked south across rugged mountains to make new homes in Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. The forebearers of the Hmong who have immigrated to the United States settled in the northern Laotian Mountains, around a broad plateau known as the Plain of Jars. Here, interspersed with struggles both political and military to sustain their freedom and independence, their numbers grew to what most experts estimate as 300,000 by 1960.

The word they use to describe themselves, “Hmong,” originally meant “people,” but is now translated as “free people,” largely due to the pride they take with their success in fleeing Chinese rule and thereafter avoiding association or even contact with any particular government or external authority. Instead, they bound themselves to one another through an intense devotion to family, and made the household – which usually included 3 generations – the most important social element of their lives. Usually about 20 such households comprised the average, self-sufficient Hmong village. They became and stayed self-sufficient because families shared in each other’s work and fortunes; those with special talents – blacksmithing, for example – used their skills on behalf of everyone in the village; if a crop failed, everyone pooled their resources so that no family would starve.

They worked from sunup to sundown, seven days a week (except during the 3-week New Year Festival) raising highland rice as their staple food source and corn to feed their pigs, cattle and chickens. Everyone, including the children, usually numbering at least 9 or 10, helped with the work in the homes and in the fields. In addition to the cooking and rice pounding, women had gardens where they grew melons, eggplant, onions, and other vegetables along with various herbs and spices. The men hunted and trapped wild roosters, squirrels, grouse and deer, often with primitive weapons like crossbows and muskets. Papayas, bananas, pineapples and other fruits grew abundantly in the warm, moist countryside. So did poppy seeds, and because the Hmong became experienced in growing and cultivating opium in China, it soon became their only “cash crop” in the mountains of northern Laos.

There was no village chief and there were no “laws” for village members to follow. The Hmong people were guided by two ancient customs: respect for elders and their opinions and authority and unwavering faith in animism or the “spirit world.” The Hmong believe all things in nature have spirits, both living and non-living: humans, animals, plants, trees, mountains, rivers, houses, doors. Furthermore, humans have many spirits, and there are times when a spirit or “soul” is not with the person’s body. Only a shaman, a person chosen by the spirits to be their messenger, can contact and deal with the spirits in the “otherworld.” Shamans, both male and female, receive “signs” from the spirits, sometimes as early as infancy, that they are chosen for this responsibility. Their primary mission is to contact the spirits in order to heal the sick, locate souls for newborn children (“soul calling”) and bring about good fortune for the village households.

In Laos, families were organized in clans, with 5 to 10 households from one clan within a village’s 20 – 30 households and usually from 2 to 4 clans in each village. The names of the clans also served, and still do, as the last names of the clan members. The most capable man from the largest clan usually was considered the village leader, or naiban. The naiban was in charge of trail maintenance, greeting outside visitors and organizing defenses against aggression – military or political. He also served as arbiter in settling disputes. His authority was limited, though, because all final decisions had to be arrived at through a consensus of the village members’ opinions.That’s what life was like for the Hmong in the Laotian Mountains until, in the early 1960s, war once again erupted in Vietnam, their neighbor to the east. For perhaps 150,000 Hmong men, women and children, life and the world would never again be the same.

New homes

  • Of the estimated 120,000 Hmong exiles, most live here. California has largest population with about 50,000, followed by Minnesota (20,000) and Wisconsin (15,000).


  • In the U. S. today there are 19 clans and 19 Hmong last names: Chang, Cheng, Chu, Fang, Hang, Her, Khang, Kong, Kue, Lo or Lor, Lee or Ly, Moua, Pha, Thang, Thao, Vue, Xiong, Vang and Yang. > More info on clans


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Khmu Rok: Tales Around The Fire

The Khmu Rok people live in northern Laos, mostly in the Houn and Pakbeng districts of Oudomxay province.

92578694_c294da0d69There are more than 50,000 Khmu Rok people and they are part of the Khmu family of peoples that represent the largest group of Mon-Khmer people in Laos. Mon-Khmer people are related to the Khmer people of Cambodia whose mighty Khmer Empire once ruled Laos and the Mon people who have lived in the Thai-Burmese region for centuries and probably thousands of years. The Khmu Rok themselves are believed to have lived in their current area for about the last four hundred years. Before that, their location is uncertain but it is most likely that they have pursued a migratory or semi-migratory lifestyle as long as there have been Khmu Rok people.

Khmu Rok villagers are primarily uplander people. Their villages are mostly in the medium height valleys between the mountains of Laos. They fence their villages and keep family granaries outside the fencing. Most of their agriculture follows the slash-and-burn pattern and they harvest highland wild rice. This is mostly women’s work. Rice harvesting is supplemented by hunting and gathering, which is conducted by men to supplement the diet. Other activities include basket weaving, which is very important in providing goods which can be exchanged with other people for necessary items. This is barter trade and occurs with a number of different neighbouring peoples and also includes short-term temporary labour hiring in times of need. This helps show the importance of maintaining good relations with neighbouring villages, because there is occasionally an excess of demand for labour which can only be met by bringing in people from nearby villages. Some people own buffaloes or elephants, which can be used in the logging industry in some areas.

Nevertheless, the Khmu retain something of a reputation for practicing magic, since they have animist beliefs and some families still cast sorcerous spells, while mediums foretell fortunes by going into trances. These activities have almost disappeared these days but the reputation lingers. Nevertheless, reverence is offered to the house spirit (Rroi gang) and people suspected of leaving the house at night to feed themselves on chicken excrement are said to be possessed by the mad spirit (Rroi pong or Rroi suu).

Culture is transmitted to younger generations by the telling of tales around the fire in evenings. Pipes are shared and, in the past, opium smoking was more common than it is now, when tobacco is smoked instead. Some Khmu Rok are heavily tattooed, sometimes across their whole body, for both decorative and sacred reasons.

Most Khmu Rok people have shown themselves to be quite amenable to the processes of economic development and have abandoned social and cultural practices without much of a fight. This means that they are better able to participate in new forms of economic activity and therefore hope for higher and more stable incomes. However, traditionally minded people can be left behind, especially when they find their longstanding non-sedentary agricultural practices are no longer considered appropriate. These days, international migration has become a possibility for at least some villagers.

John C. Walsh, March 2005,; this article reprinted with permission from the author, August 4, 2009

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Iu-Mien: A Hill Tribe in Flux

The early history of the Iu-Mien (Yao) is obscure and unclear. Much of it has been passed down through oral myths and legends, for few written historical records exist. The available records were written by the Han Chinese, and while they offer important glimpses into early Yao history, perhaps these records raise more questions than it answers.

2046186754_24ae3aebeeThe Yao have been traced to around 220 A.D. as belonging to one of many groups categorized under the term Nanman, which translates to southern barbarian. Nanman is one of two categories assigned to the people of the South, for those who lived in present-day Guangxi, Guangdong, Fujian, Zhejiang, Jiangxi, Hunan, and eastern Guizhou. The actual first reference to the term “Yao” appeared during the Tang dynasty (618-906 A.D.) in the expression moyao, usually translated as “not subject to corvee labor.”

Many scholars have attempted to link this expression to the present-day Yao, implying that those historically not subject to compulsory labor are the Yao’s direct ancestors. However, in an influential work on early Yao publications, Cushman convincingly argues that there is not enough evidence to support this link. The term moyao has only appeared in five sources, and there is no indication that it refers to a particular ethnic group. Furthermore, no one has been able to explain the shortening of moyao to Yao.

Other historical references to the Yao point to “tribal uprisings.” The first uprisings were reported during the rule of the Song emperor Renzong (1023-1064 AD), as due to either the Yao’s refusal to pay taxes or their attempts to reclaim confiscated land. This portrayal of resistance is present in all records, and as pointed out by Litzinger, the Han’s failure to assimilate the Yao into its cultural and political order was often blamed on the Yao’s stupidity, backwardness, and stubbornness, and not on the administration’s inadequacies.

The first major southward migration of the Yao to Vietnam is reported to occur between the 17th and 18th century. It wasn’t until the late 19th and early 20th century that the Yao migrated into Laos, Burma, and Thailand. The cause of these migrations were reported as being due to Han encroachments, Yao’s refusal to pay taxes, and the search for new land because of droughts.

An Origin Myth
A popular legend about Yao origin can be found on scrolls written in Chinese, called “King Ping’s Charter.” The legend tells of P’an Hu, a multi-colored dog who married a Chinese princess. According to the myth, the Chinese emperor King P’ing of the Ch’u Kingdom (528-516 B.C.) promised to give one of his daughters in marriage to anyone who could rid him of his enemy, King Kao. A multi-colored dog named P’an Hu succeeded, brought back King Kao’s head, and married the princess, giving birth to six sons and six daughters. The twelve children are said to be the forefathers of the twelve Yao tribes.

After China
Many Yao settled in Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and Burma after their southward migration in the 17th through 20th centuries. For the purposes of this paper, the Iu-Mien of Laos and Thailand will be the focus and discussed more thoroughly. In Thailand and Laos, the Iu-Mien practiced slash and burn agriculture, also known as shifting cultivation, which involved moving to new land once every decade.

In the 1960’s and 1970’s, Laos got engulfed in the Vietnam War. When the United States intervened to support anti-communist forces in the early 1960’s, they contracted for help from the hill tribes of Laos. Like many other hill tribes, the Iu-Mien got involved and engaged in guerrilla warfare, providing the United States with intelligence, surveillance, and armed manpower. When the Vietnam War ended in 1975 and communist forces were victorious, the Iu-Mien began fleeing the new Pathet Lao government. More than seventy percent of the Iu-Mien population fled to Thailand, escaping through the jungle and across the Mekong. Once they arrived in Thailand, they were resettled in refugee camps. They received food and supplies from other nations and the United Nations Organization. After several years, the United States returned to fulfill their contract made with the ethnic minorities. They offered a refugee rescue program, which gave the Iu-Mien and other groups the choice to resettle in the United States.

Resettlement, Identity, and Links
The first significant group of Iu-Mien arrivals came during the late 1970’s. After resettling, the Iu-Mien faced numerous obstacles. Moving from a non-industrial, slash and burn economy, to the industrialized, post-modern United States made adjustment extremely difficult. Problems existed in all areas, from language and customs to religion and power structures. Since their arrival, the Iu-Mien language has been slowly disappearing. A majority of third generation Iu-Mien are fluent in English but cannot converse in Mienh. Many Iu-Mien have abandoned the Taoist/Animist religion and converted to Christianity. Gender and power relations are in flux, as authority is no longer centered around the oldest male.

Many changes have taken place during the last 25 years. It has been argued that “traditional” Iu-Mien culture will disappear in a matter of decades and ethnic identity will diminish.

While the claims are valid to a certain degree, there is hope. Numerous organizations are being formed to promote ethnic consciousness and education. The Iu-Mien are graduating from universities, starting their own businesses, entering diverse professions, and perhaps most importantly, are giving back to their communities.

Interestingly, ethnic identity is maintained and heightened in other ways. Tracing roots and history has been an important element in fostering an Iu-Mien identity. Since arriving in the United States, some Iu-Mien leaders have made contact with the Mien Yao of China, who number about 880,000 while the United States Iu-Mien number around 30,000. Videotapes are made of these adventures to the “homeland” and are sold and distributed throughout different Iu-Mien communities. A large number of Iu-Mien have revisited relatives in Thailand and Laos, and many keep in touch with relatives in other parts of the world, such as in France and Canada. Ethnic identity is also heightened due to new year celebrations. At new year celebrations, “traditional” culture is performed and played out both on and off-stage. Participants celebrate their “Mienhness” and in the process, create and maintain a shared ethnic identity.

Perhaps in the near future, when the Iu-Mien have had more time to adjust to life in the United States, Iu-Mien ethnic identity and awareness will become more important and stronger. This could lead to the possibility of establishing a pan-ethnic identity with the Iu-Mien throughout the world.

“Iu-Mien History: From China to the U.S.” by Fahm Finh Saeteurn; Note: Most Iu Mien have settled in Iowa.

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Lao: The Dominant Ethnic Group in Laos

The Lao are a subgroup of the Tai/Dai race in Southeast Asia and constitute approximately 70% of the population making them the dominant ethnic group in Laos.

lao2While the majority of Lao reside in Laos and Thailand (where they are known as the Isan), the Communist take over of the country in 1975 caused mass emigration to Thailand where they became refugees. Over the next decade many Lao left Thailand destined for countries such as the United States, Australia, Canada, France, New Zealand, and Argentina.

Today, approximately 206,000 Lao reside in the United States, a good proportion of which are in California.

As the Lao are a subgroup of the Tai/Dai, the Lao language shares many similarities with Thai language and cultural similarities including the elegant dance style distinguished by the delicate hand movements.

The majority of Lao practice Theravada Buddhism, the national religion of Laos. In Laos, almost every village that can afford one will have a wat (or temple) and often times, the wat not only serves as a place of spirituality but as a school, public meeting hall, or guesthouse for travelers. Alongside Buddhism is the continued belief of “phi” which are spirits of nature that are thought to have some control of people’s daily lives.

Well known Lao art forms include the folk theater style called Mohlam, and the folk dance for couples called the lamvong that is usually accompanied by the khene instrument.

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Tai Dam: Animists at the Core

The Tai Dam make up one of the older ethnic groups in Laos.

taidamThe Tai Dam are different from other Tai groups, as they practice are animism.

“The term animism is derived from the Latin word anima meaning breath or soul. The belief of animism is probably one of man’s oldest beliefs,
with its origin most likely dating to the Paleolithic age. From its earliest beginnings it was a belief that a soul or spirit existed in every object, even if it was inanimate. In a future state this soul or spirit would exist as part of an immaterial soul. The spirit, therefore, was thought to be universal.”

Source: Animism

Note: Most Tai Dams have resettled in Iowa.

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Tai Lue: Muang Sing

The Lue people are originally from Sipsong Panna in China.

tai_lueToday, they can be found in Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, and the Northern region of Laos.

Muang Sing is home to over 6,000 Lue people and is now one of the biggest cities in Northern Laos.

Within Muang Sing, the Lue divided further into two groups: the first consisted of people who came from Xieng Toung, Myanmar, and the second came from Xieng Hung in Yunnan. Although the two groups would sometimes make references to this distinction, they saw themselves collectively as the Lue of Muang Sing.

Like other Tai groups, the Lue were animists. Spirits inhabited houses, villages and forests. Ceremonies consisted of making offerings to the spirits for good fortune. Buddhism is also present in Lue society and it is similar to Lao Buddhism. Monasteries exist in almost every Tai Lue village.

In the United States, most Lue people settled in Seattle, Denver, and the San Francisco Bay Area.

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