CHIANG MAI – In an age of globalization – and homogenization – how can an indigenous culture like that of the ethnic Lisu survive and thrive. That was one of the questions addressed by a three-day conference in Chiang Mai’s Mae Taeng district that wrapped on Sunday.
Conference-goers said a key challenge was maintaining interest amongst young people in traditional Lisu culture.
Language loss – particularly the lack of Lisu literacy in their own writing system – are particular problems, said Michele Zack, author of the new book The Lisu: Far from the Ruler. “But the strength of the will to cultural survival among Lisu is just so passionate — it is very moving to witness”.
There are more than a million ethnic Lisu in SouthEast Asia, China and India, with approximately 50,000 living in 150 villages in in Thailand’s northern provinces of Chaing Mai, Mae Hong Sorn and Chiang Rai.
They originate in eastern Tibet. Their house are built on the ground, with dirt floors and bamboo walls around a central ridge.
For many generations the main means of livelihood for many of the Lisu people has been the cultivation of the opium poppy. Some of these people have given up poppy growing, and are now seeking to supplement their income through the sale of skillfully produced crafts.
The Lisu make their clothing from colored cloth stitched into outfits trimmed with row upon row of various-colored strips of cloth. The women wear brightly colored costumes, consisting of a blue or green party- colored knee length tunic with a wide black belt and blue or green pants.
Sleeves shoulders and cuffs are heavily embroidered with narrow, horizontal bands of blue, red and yellow. The more affluent wear massive amounts of hand-crafted silver ornaments for festive occasions.
Lisu men produce crossbows, musical instruments, bird and animal traps, and other items made of wood, bamboo and rattan. A few Lisu people have been converted to Christianity by western missionaries.
The Lisu believe strongly in the spirit world, and their shamans are used to divine the causes and cures of all problems and sickness. These hill-tribe people are perhaps the best looking of all the tribes, and they like to think of themselves a little bit above their other hill-tribe neighbors. They are among the least bashful of these ethnic groups and in general adjusting well to the changes taking place in their society.