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THE MONTAGNARDS
Cultural/Historical Perspective Of Vietnam's Indigenous People

Visible to the West, from almost any place along the central coastal plain of Vietnam, are the lofty mountains that form the southern portion of the Annam Cordillera. (The French call this range the Chaine Annamitique; the Vietnamese know it as the Truong Son, or "Long Mountains.") These uplands people lived in a world that they themselves evolved and sustained. Geographically, this area has come to be known as the "Vietnamese Central Highlands"; to the original residents, it is home for the "sons of the mountains." It is a most appropriate term, capturing the almost mythical relationship that exists between them and the surrounding mountains, which is a world where they know that they will survive or die out as a people.

Today, these highlanders are generally known by the French designation, Montagnards ("mountaineers"). They are “ethnic minorities” in today’s Vietnam.

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Some of their ethnic tribal names are:  the Bru, Pacoh, Katu, Bahnar, Rhade, Jarai, Cua, Hre, Sedang, Rengao, Halang, Jeh, Monom, Roglai, Stieng, Sre, Chru, Maa, Nop, Mnong, Kayong, Lat, Cil, Hroy, Rai and Koho.

EARLY HISTORY

Long before the advent of history, human societies have existed in Southeast Asia. The drama of change in the course of centuries has produced a rich variety of peoples and cultures. There have been small groups that settled in ecological niches well suited to their needs, and changing relatively little over the years. Some migrated and came together with other groups, giving rise to many new and distinct societies while there were those that lost the struggle for survival and died out.

Through many long centuries before the appearance of civilization in Southeast Asia the warm Indochinese peninsula, with its fertile valleys and deltas, its dense forests so rich in game, and its rivers and coastlines alive with aquatic life, sustained human existence. One of the earliest links between archeological and historical evidence is found in the vestigial ruins of the kingdom of Champa which lie scattered along the mountainous coast of what is now central Vietnam. These ruins contain a number of inscriptions, most of which relate the deeds of the Cham rulers. A few, however, refer to a people who lived in the remote hinterland west of Champa...a people who were not as advanced as the Cham and who were regarded with disdain. These inscriptions constitute the first recorded mention of the highlanders.

Two thousand years ago, the Montagnards settled along the coast and fertile valleys of southeast Indochina. Over the centuries, other cultures gradually filtered into their homelands. First, the Cham people expanded their kingdom throughout the coastal lowlands and the Mekong Valley. Later, the Chinese ancestors of today's ethnic Vietnamese migrated south along the coast of the South China Sea. Together, these ambitious and expanding cultures forced the Montagnards deeper and deeper into the highlands. Strangely, this isolation aided their survival.

For the Montagnards, man and society are embedded in nature and dependent upon cosmic forces. In the highlanders' green milieu of forested mountains, sweeping, plateaus, and valleys through which brown rivers flow, each ethnic group over time worked out its adaptation to nature and shaped its society. This evolutionary process resulted in some social-structural differences, but at the same time, adaptation to the mountain country created among them physical and ideational bonds that gave rise to a common culture - a highlander world.

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Montagnards are different from the Vietnamese in that they speak languages of the Mon Khmer or Malayo-Polynesian linguistic stocks and physically resemble Cambodians, Malays and Indonesians. Although divided into nearly 40 distinct ethnic groups, Montagnard characteristics have historically set them apart from the Cham and Vietnamese.

In a world centered on small communities, kinship was primary and resources were shared by all. The people respected the integrity of their natural surroundings, and each society had leaders who served as stewards in preserving it. Livelihoods were based on agriculture with rice the staple crop. Villagers farmed slopes and bottomland within the never-ending cycle of rainy seasons followed by dry seasons, of fields planted or fallowing. The forests supplied game, wild fruits and vegetables, and firewood as well as hardwood, bamboo, and rattan for their houses, artifacts and wood carvings. Although their religious practices varied, all of the highland people tried to keep in harmony with their deities. Throughout the highland world there were expressions of beauty in art, architecture, music, and dance.

The highlanders remained relatively aloof from the Chinese great tradition that molded the society of the Vietnamese and others. Cham rulers had tributary relations with some highland leaders and there was trade with outsiders. But lowlanders by and large regarded the mountain country as remote and forbidding, populated by backward tribes. The Vietnamese remained in their orderly lowland villages surrounded by paddy fields. Kingdoms and dynasties among the Cham, Khmer, Lao and Vietnamese flourished and crumbled, monumental cities were sacked and abandoned, and populations shifted. All the while in the background, the mountains, their peaks shrouded in mists, were silent and seemingly immutable.

The arrival of the first French missionaries at the highland town of Kontum in the middle of the nineteenth century ushered in an era of ever-increasing contact among the Montagnard tribes themselves and the outside world. As the French colonization of Indochina progressed, administration of the highlands became increasingly formal. Growing numbers of French traders and plantation owners wedged themselves into previously unexplored territories; and as early as 1899, parts of the highlands became formally divided into "Montagnard Provinces."

In some instances, the developing relationships were harmonious and, to varying degrees, mutually beneficial. The French and Vietnamese gained access to a largely unexploited territory, while the less isolated Montagnard groups were exposed to the goods and techniques of culturally more advanced societies. French administrators and Christian missionaries established schools, hospitals and leprosariums for Montagnard use.

World War II, the French Indo-Chinese War, and the U.S. Vietnamese war changed the way in which the Montagnards would live and cope in modern society. They are still adapting to these changes today while trying to maintain many of their traditional ways to preserve many aspects of their culture.

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BIBLIOGRAPHY SOURCES

  • Sons of the Mountains, Gerald Cannon Hickey, 1982
  • Free In the Forest , Gerald Cannon Hickey, 1982
  • We have Eaten the Forest, Georges Condominas, 1977
  • Shattered World, Gerald Cannon Hickey, 1993
  • The Montagnards of Vietnam, Robert L. Mole, 1970


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