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The Akha and the Spirits

By Alberto C. de la Paz
curator of the Hilltribe Museum and
Education Center at Chiang Rai

Akha villages are quite easy to spot once you have some knowledge about their architectural preferences and way of life. Traditional Akha villages will have a ceremonial swing placed at one of the highest points in their village. Furthermore, there will also be spirit gates at the upper and lower ends of the village which, to the Akha, are very sacred and should never be touched.

The village swing and gates are structures, which have to be replaced yearly by the village shaman, although not all at the same time. When constructing a village gate, only male members of the family, both young and old, are allowed to participate. Women are strictly forbidden from participating in this activity. This partly explains why family planning might not always work in a traditional Akha village, as each family will try to continue having children until a baby boy is born.

Akha people have some similarities with some North American Indians. The Cree tribe in Canada for example believes that trees have spirit. After splitting wood, a person is not allowed to throw the split wood into a pile as that would be disrespecting the spirit of the wood. The Akha tribe also believes that everything, from the sky, forest and land, has spirit.

The Akha believe in a period, which is similar to the Christian idea of the Garden of Eden. To the Akha, that was a period when human and spirits lived in harmony. Of course, someone always throws a monkey wrench into such idyllic conditions resulting in the separation of humans and spirits. It was therefore, agreed that spirits would live in the forests and humans in villages.

The demarcation between the spirit world and the human world would thus be the village gates that are erected annually by the village shaman. Everything beyond the village gate is considered as part of the domain of the spirits. If one were to venture forth into the forest, they would be at the mercy of the spirits.

Upon returning to the village, that person is expected to pass through the village gate in order to exclude any malicious spirits. Occasionally, there would be a rash of sickness running through the village. To us, we may look at that as a flu epidemic. To the Akha, however, it means that the spirits are running havoc on the community, which requires an offering to be made at the sacred forest to appease them.

Up until 20 years ago, a more extreme case of spiritual interference with human matters occurs when a mother gives birth to twins. The Akha believed that only animals like dogs and pigs give birth to more than one offspring and therefore considered twins as beasts and not human and must be immediately killed.

We must not pass judgement on the way of life of other people even if their beliefs may seem primitive or even barbaric. Remember, every time you point an accusing finger, three fingers, point back at you.

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