Ethnography as a Contact Sport: the Mla Bri and the Long Family of Phrae, Thailand

Ethnographers and a Lack of Common Sense

How many ethnographers are crazy? This question came up for me in a Facebook post recently by Gene Long, a missionary/linguist/ethnographer who has lived with the Mla Bri (Yellow Leaf) hunter-gatherers of Thailand since 1981. In other words, he and his wife Mary Long have 34 years of participant observation data about people who have the rare habit of hunting and gathering for subsistence—an anthropological rarity.

Today the Mla Bri are somewhere between hunter-gatherers, horticulturalists, and charismatic Thai television stars. Anyway, using their training in linguistics, Gene and Mary developed a sophisticated understanding of the nature of the Mla Bri language and culture. This is of course not unprecedented in anthropology—it is something like the anthropologically charismatic Ju/’Hoansi in Namibia—but more about that at the end of this blog. In the meantime, if you want to know more about the specifics of the high quality ethnography Gene and Mary Long can do, please see this 2013 article about Suicide and the Mla Bri published in the Journal of the Siam Society. Or of course there is a Wikipedia article, too.

Of all the ethnographers I know, I’ve known Gene and Mary the longest. I first met them in Phrae when I was in the Peace Corps in 1980-1982. I visited Gene and Mary recently (in August and July 2015), so of course we reminsiced, as old friends will. Somewhere in between this, Gene posted on Facebook, introducing my wife and I to his many Thai and American Facebook friends. He pointed out that when we first met in 1981, he thought I was “weird,” and that I thought he was “nuts.” I disagreed on Facebook—I might be weird, but Gene was not just “nuts,” he was crazy because of the goals he set for himself, his family, and his mission in 1981. In 1981 he told me that he would spend at least 30 years looking for a group that everyone else in Phrae said did not exist, live with them even though they were wanderers and had no permanent house (and did not exist), learn their unknown language (if there was one), and begin translating Christian scripture into that potentially non-existent language. He also said he had people in America who would pay for the whole venture. If that is not delusional in a rational world, I don’t know what is.

But thinking about it more, I think that this crazy irrational quality is something that Gene shares with ethnographer-types. Think about the physicist Franz Boas who sailed off to Baffin Island to study geography, but ended up asking the Inuit about colors in a world where everything was covered with snow. Or Bronislaw Malinowski who offered to spend his World War I internment on the Trobriand Islands where he became grouchy, grumpy, lustful, and ethnocentric, and wove tales about travelling kula armbands which even today first year anthropology students must read about. Nigel Barley, a patron saint of this blog, was also crazy—after all he had his teeth removed by a mechanic in Cameroon (see his book The Innocent Anthropologist), and more recently ethnographer Alice Goffman hung out with probationers and criminals for six years in Philadelphia in a world which was mostly boring, but in which illegal drugs were sold, running from the police was a sport, and most of her friends/informants were armed. From her ethnography On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City it also sounds like she spent much of the six years visiting people in jails and other lockups. Such behavior is not just “nuts,” but more accurately described in the vernacular as “crazy.”

Now I don’t know Boas, Malinwoski, Barley, or Goffman, so I can’t tell you how they became that way. But I have known Gene Long (known more commonly by his Thai name Bunyuen Suksaneh) for 34 years, so I thought it might be a good idea to explain to the world why not only Bunyuen/Gene is crazy, but so are ethnographers in general.

The “Spirits” of the Yellow Leaves in Thailand

In Gene’s case, he was convinced of his life’s work in 1979 after reading a 1963 article in the Journal of the Siam Society about an “expedition” to visit a group of hunter-gatherers living in northern Thailand who were known derogatorily as “spirits,” because they were so rarely seen. The other significant reference to the Mlabri was made in the 1930s by Austrian adventurer Hugo Bernatzik who visited them for about two weeks in 1936 or 1937, and wrote half of a book about his visit. On this rather slim record, Gene dedicated his life.

It turns out that “Spirits” of the Yellow Leaves is a northern Thai term used to describe people we now know call themselves Mla Bri (the Mla Bri do not mind being called “Yellow Leaf people,” but they do object to being called “spirits”). The northern Thai called them “Spirits” because the only evidence ever seen of them were lean-to shelters made out of banana leaves which had yellowed—the story went that the yellowing of the leaves was the signal for them to disappear. Anyway Gene chased these rumors around northern Thailand for about two years before settling in Phrae Province where I lived because first, there were rumors about the Yellow Leaf people there, and second because the Thai government would not let him settle in provinces where the Thai Communists had organized a violent insurrection which it seems was where most of the Yellow Leaf lived then.

So Gene and Mary Long are actually still in the Thai forest with the Yellow Leaf people in 2015. Their modest house is on the edge of a Yellow Leaf settlement, they speak the language well, have started a hammock making business to generate income for the Mla Bri and neighboring Hmong, and have for years been relating Bible stories to the Yellow Leaf. They are also sitting on 34 years of ethnographic and linguistic notes (Mary is a very methodical record keeper) is in my mind also crazy. And like Malinowski, they are taking some time writing up their decades of notes and observations about hunter-gatherers who have smashed into the world of modern Thailand, a country which includes some of the world’s largest shopping centers.

Anyway, the first installment of their ethnographic efforts was “Suicide among the Mla Bri,” described above. A second story about demographic change among the Mla Bri is being prepared. This will be a lighter story, since it is about drops in infant mortality, the eradication of malaria, and the birth of a robust cohort of children after about 2000. Hopefully, there will also be some writing about the experiences of the Yellow Leaf people starring in video productions, having blood samples taken by roving anthropologists, weaving in Washington D.C. for Refugees International, and bungee jumping in Japan.

So back to 1981. In 1981, I was a Peace Corps Volunteer at the malaria zone office in Phrae where Gene and Mary had moved. So I asked my co-workers at the Malaria Zone Office about the “Yellow Leaf” people. The malaria service people often travelled in remote areas (even those areas where the Communist insurrection was a problem) of Phrae and Nan provinces chasing malaria parasites, and spraying DDT to control the malaria carrying mosquitoes. They told me that they had heard of such a people, but they were fictional, which in their mind was why they were called “spirits.” No one they knew had ever actually seen a Yellow Leaf person, and they insisted that the whole story was just some rural rumor. They noted that there were Hmong, H’Tin, Yao, Akha, Karen, and other groups out there, but really they insisted, there was no such thing as the Yellow Leaf people.

On the basis of this authority I told Gene shortly after meeting him that he could go home to America and have all Krispy Kreme donuts he dreamed of. But he didn’t take my wise counsel, and continued hiking around the mountains asking rural villagers about the Yellow Leaf people, as he had for the previous two years. He would come back with great stories about sleeping in Hmong corn cribs, encounters with the Thai military, trouble with the Thai police, opium fields, and the Communist insurgency. In fact, truth be told, I too would have liked to have been doing some such exploration, rather than being cooped up in my office next to the DDT storehouse studying Thai, which was how I spent much of my time.

Anyway, one day in late 1981 or 1982, Gene came back very excited—he had found his first real live Yellow Leaf person! So of course I wanted to know more. How did he talk to the Yellow Leaf men he had met? In northern Thai, he responded proudly. Did you ask them about their own language I asked? Yes, he said, excitedly! “They said that they speak northern Thai like everyone else.” So I asked, what does this mean for your project regarding translating the Bible into a non-existent language for a people who insist they are northern Thai, albeit with an unusual lifestyle?

Gene said he was going to still do it—after all he still had thirty years or so to go in setting up his mission to the Yellow Leaf people. See what I mean about crazy? He was going to translate Bible stories into a language which did not exist, for a people who said they were northern Thai. He also had plans to live near them, even though as hunter-gatherers and had no fixed abode.

Anyway it got crazier when I pressed Gene further on this issue. Gene responded confidently that the “Yellow Leaf” men he had finally met after three years searching had lied to him about not having their own language—they really had one! He knew this because they used the wrong tone when saying the northern Thai for “ear”, which is “hoo.” He then gave me one of his mini-lectures on linguistics—it seemed that the fact that the men pronounced the tone wrong meant that there must be some kind of “interference” from another language which they used. Otherwise they would not have such a bad “accent” when speaking northern Thai. On this slim conclusion, he moved his family to a rural Thai village whose name translates into English as Sugar Cane Creek, located at the end of a very rudimentary dirt road, where they enrolled their son Allen in the local school.

Finding that he had frequent contact with Mla Bri people, but wanting more, Gene built a bamboo house for himself, Mary, and his two boys some five kilometers from Sugar Cane Creek in 1982. As an adventurous 24 year-old, I thought this was pretty cool—I like full-time camping. But for a young farang family? Wouldn’t you think he was crazy? The really crazy thing was that somehow he still got churches in America to pay for this years-long camping hobby among Communists, Hmong, and various renegades, but that’s another story.

Anyway, the bamboo hut did not last long—like Indiana Jones, neither Gene nor Mary do snakes, and snakes liked the bamboo hut. This was also the time that their children began to develop their annoyance with the unpredictability of work elephants, which were found in the area. So they built a more substantial house in the jungle where apparently the Yellow Leaf people did not really live, or for that matter speak anything but northern Thai.

As for me, I left Thailand in late 1983, and ended up in Tanzania in 1984. When I next visited Gene and Mary in 1985, they were settled into a small Thai-style house on pillars, and had a third child. They also after six years made more systematic contact with the Yellow Leaf people, a few who were put up their lean-tos nearby, and the Longs were starting to learn their language—it seemed that they actually had one after all! The key question it turned out was to ask not directly for the words they knew by pointing to the item, but to ask what the “old people” used to call something. In this way they were beginning to accumulate vocabulary and trust. Over the next few years they started to figure out the language, cosmology, kinship system, and religion. They were also surprised to find out that unlike other languages in the area, the Yellow Leaf language had a dual verb tense (in addition to the more typical singular and plural), but no extensive counting system.

The Mla Bri started slowly to settle down in the 1990s. It turned out that there were only a total of 300-400 people speaking the Mla Bri language (a Khmuic language). Other groups also settled in the area as the mountains of Phrae became more densely populated. In particular, in 1983 or so, the Communist insurgency in Thailand ended, and Hmong who had been in revolt were resettled near where the Longs had built their house—the Thai government even built a school and health clinic there. The Yellow Leaf were so marginal and itinerant that they did not use the government facilities at first. The Hmong also provided another context for the Yellow Leaf to settle in the area—it turned out that the Yellow Leaf were not only Hunter-Gatherers, but also when food supplies were low, would hire themselves out to do piece work for the Hmong farmers, tilling fields in exchange for used clothing and food. The relationship was unequal and exploitative—the Yellow Leaf were often underpaid—their response to such excessive exploitation was often simply to disappear into the forest which the expanding Thai state was seeking to control.

More Stories of Encounters with the Modern World

So far Gene’s crazy story has been about how difficult the Mla Bri were for the Longs to contact. But the Longs were not the only ones contacting “the last hunter-gatherers in mainland Southeast Asia.” Anthropologists were of course interested, but so were filmmakers, journalists, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and eventually tour operators. The Crown Princess of Thailand, has had a long-time interest in educating and protecting people of the hills, also has charitable interests in the Mla Bri. Particularly as paved roads were developed, ordinary Thai also take an interest in the Mla Bri, bringing with them gifts including food, clothing, bicycles and other items with which in the Buddhist tradition they can “make merit” by assisting the poor.

An Anthropologist for Every Mla Bri?

During the 34 years that that the Longs have had contact with the Mla Bri, there have been at least a dozen anthropologists seeking them out. After all, from an anthropological perspective, the Mla Bri, like the Ju’/Hoansi of Namibia, are charismatic super-stars! They are hunter-gatherers who lived off the land recently, presumably like humanity did for hundreds of thousands of years before settling down to farm and raise animals. Thus, anthropologists (and linguists) from near (Thailand) and far (Denmark, The United States, Japan, Germany) visit and publish about the Mla Bri. Some of this anthropology is very good, and recommended by Gene and Mary. Linguists have designed three alphabetic systems using Thai characters of writing Mla Bri, too, to supplement notes about vocabulary, grammar, etc., made with the international phonetic alphabet. Among the very best are the highly technical linguistic studies by Jorgen Rischel whose ashes were scattered in the Mla Bri village after he died.

Other anthropological writing is strange from Gene and Mary’s perspective—there were the blood typers and skull measurers in the 1980s, and then the genetic analysts who themselves never came to Thailand, but analyzed Mla Bri blood only in distant labs. Such lab-based results—which in the world of science gets publications—seem very distant from what Gene and Mary see on the ground.

What other group of a three to four hundred people has so much anthropological attention?

Media Stars in Thailand and Abroad

Thai have also taken an interest in the Mla Bri since their (re)discovery in the early 1980s. This has resulted in a sporadic attention on the Mla Bri—after all since 1999, they have officially become Thai citizens. Much of this attention addresses Thai cultural interests, and often romanticizes the relationship between the Mla Bri and Thailand and is of the “noble savage” school. Other media focus on issues of development—how can we get the Mla Bri to go to Thai schools, improve health outcomes, and assimilate the Mla Bri (and other hill groups) to Thai society. Important from the Thai world view is the fact that Mla Bri have begun to farm rice on the hillsides—just like rural northern Thai did in the past and indeed some continue do even today.

Perhaps related to the role of the Mla Bri as media stars is the need in Thai Buddhism to “make merit” by assisting the poor. And by modern Thai standards, the Mla Bri are poor. They do not own land, the adults are illiterate, their houses made of cinder block do not have air conditioning, and they rarely go to town. For transport, a few Mla Bri how have motorcycles, but none own their own car, like some Thai families do. Thus in recent years, particularly on Buddhist holidays, Thai merit-makers will arrive in the small village. The Mla Bri know how to line up behind their cars and vans, and graciously accept the clothing, food, and other gifts the merit makers bring.

More widely, the Mla Bri have attracted the interests of talented photographers and filmmakers from abroad. The Longs’ favorite movie was done by Danish filmmakers who made “The Importance of Being Mlabri,” though thre are others, both Thai and foreign, who arrive to make other films.

Tourist Attraction

The largest city in northern Thailand, Chiang Mai, is a mecca for western, Chinese, and Thai tourists. Western tourists in particular appreciate what is exotic from their perspective. This often means the “long neck” tribe from Myanmar (Kayan whose girls wear necklaces which give the illusion of lengthening their necks), anything having to do with opium cultivation, dancing, spirit ceremonies, and so forth. The Mla Bri have also attracted the attention of the tour operators, and periodically a van full of tourists will arrive to take pictures, and so forth. A small settlement of Mla Bri where Gene and Mary do not work, has thus has become a tourist attraction, advertised in Chiang Mai as being the home of the “last” hunter-gatherers. Tourists interested in the exotic are collected, and brought in on mini-vans. Before they arrive, the Mla Bri are told to take off the clothes they have received from Buddhists making merit, and put on their “traditional” loincloths. They then perform traditional dances for the tourists, climb trees, and do other acts which fit with the western imagination of what it means to be “primitive.”

NGOs to the rescue

The small but exotic Mla Bri have also occasionally caught the attention of NGOs as well. Refugees International from Washington DC had a program aimed at the Mla Bri for a while—they even brought two Mla Bri women to the United States to demonstrate weaving skills in Maine. A Japanese NGO interested in indigenous rights also managed to bring a few Mla Bri to Japan, briefly, where they were apparently introduced to indigenous people of Japan. Somehow, the Mla Bri man ended up on a bungee platform, with the cord tied around his ankles. Unable to communicate well, he was pushed off the edge, a ride which he told Gene he assumed to be his last one! Somehow whoever did this to him in Japan was not able to describe the elastic qualities of bungee cords!

Protection from a Princess

HRH Princess Sirindhorn has an office which involves her in charitable work, including in northern Thailand with the Mla Bri. In this context, the Mla Bri have been taken under her wing, and a number of development projects initiated, including the establishment of a reserve where any Mla Bri who want to can live in the forest.

More recently, a Royal Project has begun assisting the school which is near where Gene and Mary live. Two teachers have been assigned to the Mla Bri stream to assist the Mla Bri primary schoolers with acquiring basic literacy and numeracy in Thai, and encouraging them to go on to secondary schooling in the city.

Mary Long’s Piles of Ethnographic Notes

I know of much of this because Mary in particular is an inveterate note taker, and both Gene and Mary have long detailed memories. Mary has notes about Mla Bri folk tales, origin stories, experiences with individual Mla Bri. When I asked her about the blood samples taken for the genetics articles published in PLoS Biology, and BMC Genetics, she went through her notes, and found the exact date in about 5 minutes.

Many other questions can be addressed using such notes—keep in mind that Malinowski’s time on the Trobriand Islands was only five years, Barley a little more than a year in Cameroon, and Alice Goffman six years in Philadelphia. The advantage of 34 years of participant observation is that Gene and Mary remember the grandparents of the children living in the village today! Indeed, they are a veritable storehouse of kinship data, seeking to highlight the kinship relationships of the 300+ Mla Bri in the group today.

Gene and Mary Long’s Ethnographic Imagination

In the article about Mla Bri suicide, there is a discussion of the concept “paluh” which means something between scolding, laying a curse, and some version of clinical depression. This is an important Mla Bri concept, for reasons that we have yet to completely work out. There are also the origin stories of the Mla Bri, fears of the earth opening and swallowing people who displease the spirits, mortuary rituals, marriage practices, child-rearing habits, inter-ethnic relations with the neighboring Hmong, and a host of other practices. Much of these we think emerged from the nomadic hunter-gatherer contexts which the Mla Bri practiced recently, and indeed still occasionally revert to today. Based in Mary’s 34 years of field notes are many PhD dissertations!

And What the Long’s Actually Do Every Day

This all sounds exotic, but the Long’s life is actually quite tedious. The Long’s small house is a hubbub of rather mundane activity. They provide hard boiled eggs to Mla Bri children who attend the Thai school, conduct Saturday school for the interested children, do minor doctoring and ambulance runs into town, teach Bible stories to interested children, organize repairs of the water system and internet, assist with construction activities in the village, and so forth. The Mla Bri still hunt and gather when not working in the fields and, as is customary, divide up the kill with their kin—which today include the Longs.

Much of Gene’s efforts over the years have involved income-generating activities, too. Among the more successful projects have been hammock weaving, and a small coffee plantation. Both are advertised on the internet.  They have also encouraged the Mla Bri to plant their own rice fields, and a number of the Mla Bri in this fashion have joined the horticultural world over the last 10 or 15 years.

All day-to-day village is pretty mundane—many ethnographers have written about this. Gene no longer hikes around the hills, but snakes do still occasionally show up. Today there is a paved road to within 500 meters of the Mla Bri settlement, and the Mla Bri have electricity, Thai television, motorcycles, and grow their own rice. Mla Bri have flown on planes, and occasionally even visit the seashore and Thailand’s capital, Bangkok. Mortality rates have dropped significantly, large numbers of children are surviving, and the Mla Bri language is for the time-being even strengthening. As for religion, the Longs have translated a few Bible stories into Mla Bri, but have not themselves founded a church. A few Mla Bri do have an interest in the newly established Christian church in the neighboring Hmong village which was established by Hmong missionaries. There was even a Mla Bri man who had a nascent career as an elephant mahout!

Much of what has happened since 1981 was unanticipated. I don’t think that Gene ever imagined that he would observe the full-on collision of the Mla Bri with today’s modern Thailand with its motorcycles, resettled Hmong insurgents, merit-making Buddhist visitors, elephants, wandering anthropologists, and prolific filmmakers.

Still, the funny thing is that I think that the Long’s life has turned out pretty much what Gene’s crazy dream was when he first articulated it to me in 1981.






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