Northern Thailand is home to interesting and colorful ethnic minorities, known as the hill tribes. Most of the hill tribes have migrated into the region during the past 100 years from the Asian interior and have largely preserved their traditional ways, making them a fascinating cultural study. They prefer living above 1,000m, and shy away from the outside world.
There are seven broad hill tribe groupings: Karen, Lahu, Hmong, Lisu, Akha and Mien. However, within these categories, there are sub-categories and clans that further divide the groups. Each hill tribe has its own customs, language, dress and spiritual beliefs and this is sometimes true even of the numerous sub-categories within one hill tribe. The hill tribes are most distinctly recognized for their colorful and unique costume, which they continue to wear daily.
Most of the hill tribes living in the remote upland areas practice subsistence farming. They were pretty much left alone until the 1950s, when the increase in their numbers, extreme poverty, statelessness and threat of insurgency forced the Thai government to establish the National Committee for the Hill Tribes.
Opium cultivation was a major source of income for many of the hill tribes and the government worked hard to eradicate this cultivation by successfully substituting it with other cash crops, such as cabbages and fruits. This is known as the Royal project, initiated by his Highness King Rama IX, and commended internationally for its success.
However, as is the case with any minority groups, hill tribes have issues with citizenship, conforming to mainstream Thai society and the loss of their indigenous customs and languages. Furthermore, their placement at the centre of the lucrative drug trafficking along the Myanmar border has often put them in compromising positions. These are all difficult issues faced by both the hill tribe people and the Thai government.
Population: approx 300,000
This is the largest of the minority groups and many of the Karen were converted to Christianity by the missionaries, with some tribes still practicing animism or being Buddhist. Within the Karen, there are three main sub-groups: White Karen or Sgaw, Black Karen or Pgo and Red Karen or Kayah.
The Karen wear woven v-neck tunics of various natural colors and turbans. Unmarried women wear distinctive long white v-neck tunics. The Karen occupy lowland areas, engaging in agriculture, including rice cultivation. They are also skilled weavers and the most environmentally conscious of the hill tribes - practicing crop rotation, thus preserving the forest.
The Karen prefer to live in the foothills. Their bamboo houses are raised on stilts, beneath which they keep domestic animals: pigs, chickens, and buffaloes. Like all the Hill Tribes, they are skilled farmers who practice crop rotation. They also hunt for wild game with spears and crossbows, and use domesticated elephants to help clear the land.
Karen women are skilled in sewing and dyeing, and dress in white blouse-sarong combinations with colorful patterns or beads for trim. They wear their long hair tied back in a bun and covered with white scarves. The Karen are gentle, peaceful, and cooperative people who reserve their highest veneration for their ancestors and living elders.
Hill tribe silver is handmade by the Karen Tribe. Each piece is crafted by hand using techniques passed down from generation to generation. The mix used has a higher silver content at 95% - 99% than "sterling silver," which is 92.5%. More silver in the mix makes for a softer metal that is easier to bend and shape into the wonderful designs typical of Karen art.
Designs reflect the Karen observations of nature: bumblebees, dragonflies, stars and flowers. In addition, abstract designs like spirals, weaves and braids attach a spiritual significance when used. No two pieces are exactly alike.
Oxidation and hammer marks are part of the allure of this artisan jewelry. Purchases of Hill Tribe Silver help to sustain an indigenous cultural handicraft and provides the Karen people with a reliable source of income.