Upon walking into a hill tribe village in Laos’ Houaphan Province, many first-time guests are surprised to find their preconceived images of “tribal life” at odds with the surroundings. Households commonly own a motorcycle or two that ferries kids to school, drops mom at the market, and takes dad to work (perhaps a field, perhaps an office). The bent grandmother under the stilted home reaches into her purse to retrieve a cell phone chiming the opening of a Phil Collins song. The market down the street offers six flavors of Pringles.
Ten years ago, the sedate village of Xam Tai (population ~1000) received electricity every third day, sharing access with other area villages. Today electricity is 24/7, and washing machines, refrigerators, cell phone cameras, and on-demand hot water heaters have changed daily routines dramatically. The new medical clinic—a building out of Anytown, USA—is busy. Maren and I, beginning last year, now chat in real time with our Lao friends on Facebook.
Yet, amidst this transformation, the local women continue to weave the intricate patterns of their ancestors in their own homes, and the majority of young girls, beginning as young as age six, are routinely introduced to the art of weaving. Still today, 90% of Xam Tai’s women weave.
In Xam Tai and other weaving villages in NE Laos, we are witness today to a particular moment in time when a traditional, but not naïve, culture becomes able to welcome the gadgetry, mobility, and opportunities of modernism. Access to information, markets, and education has never been more readily available, and a general feeling of optimism and forward progress pervades. Fear of hunger and disruption, which many of the elders vividly remember, no longer haunts daily life.
The village leaders of Xam Tai voice both enthusiasm and concern. The enthusiasm comes from the opening of new markets, both in the expanding middle and upper class population in Laos and in developing tourist and world markets. The talent of Xam Tai’s current weavers is still pridefully upheld and recognized as the finest in all of Laos, and a weaver’s time in 2017 can generate economic security for a family, a requirement for any textile tradition to survive.
However, elders also voice concern. Souksakone, a local textile leader who has 400 weavers working with her colors and patterns, tells us that she is confident that the current leadership can maintain the economic foundation of their community through the creation and marketing of handwoven textiles. But the next generation? Souksakone sighs: “Who will lead?” Her own children, all of whom gained a college education, now have so many outside opportunities. Will textile creation be a satisfying and successful occupation in the generations ahead? Will the developing markets persist?
Further, the flood into the local markets of synthetic fibers (both as pre-made clothing and as skeins for weavers) and chemical dyes threatens Xam Tai’s traditional ethic of tomasat—using only natural materials. Can tomasat remain economically viable in a world of cheaper, readily-available options?
Today, Xam Tai is vibrant and confident—a model for this generation of how a traditional culture can adapt without losing its cultural integrity. Whether the future generations of Xam Tai can continue to maintain their unique identity through textile creation will depend on culturally-attentive leadership from within the community and the successful development of and support from outside markets.
An autographed copy of our book may be ordered through our website (www.hilltribeart.com). Also available at thrumsbooks.com, amazon.com, or your local bookstore.