The Katu Lands in 1957

I recently came across Gerald Hickey’s1 description of a trip he made to Katu areas of Quang Nam in 1957. He took a boat from Hoi An to Thanh My, then set out on foot into a pretty tense situation. Luckily things are a lot more convivial nowadays.

One particularly revealing field trip (which also was the most exotic I had made thus far) was in August 1957 and took me to the Katu country in the mountains inland from Hoi An, a coastal port that in the past was called Faifoo. The Katu live in the harshest and least hospitable physical environments of the central highlands. In his 1938 article on the Katu (one of the few sources on them), J. Le Pichon describes the relief of their country as being “very broken, a confusion of mountains” where rivers rush through tortuous valleys cut by innumerable streams with rapids and waterfalls. He adds, “Katu paths, slippery and filled with leeches, push ahead, plunging and replunging into rivers, scaling the steep mountain slopes (the Katu do not ask ‘where are you going?’ but rather, ‘where are you going up to?’). At dawn the cries of monkeys mix with songs of peacocks and chatter of birds, belling of deer, and rustling of thousands of insects, a signal that the hunting hour of the tiger, lord of the forest, is at hand.”

Historically the Vietnamese in coastal settlements greatly feared the Katu because of their frequent raids on villages, less to pillage than to kill and obtain human blood for their ritual sacrifices. During the reigns of Minh Mang (1820–41) and Thieu Tri (1841–47), the “blood raids” were so numerous that the royal court was prompted to organize ceremonial presentations of buffalo and other gifts to Katu chiefs in the vain hope of ending the raids. During the French colonial period the only Vietnamese who had contact with the Katu were Vietnamese traders, woodcutters, and those in search of precious oils. But despite their familiarity with the Katu, it was not unusual for these Vietnamese to fall victim to the raids. In preparation for the field trip I joined my friend the American missionary the Reverend Gordon Smith (who had founded the Ban Me Thuot mission) and Philip Hodgeson of the British Embassy at the Smith’s compound in Danang (which everyone still called by its French name, Tourane). A cook and handyman joined us. Located on a beautiful bay, Danang had faded colonial charm, and the boarded-up Grand Hotel on the Han River lent a ghost-town air. Having already visited the Katu, Gordon knew that blood raids normally do not take place in August, a time when villages experienced food shortages. So he arranged with the priest in charge of the Catholic Relief Service in Danang to obtain rice, which would be accompanied by a Vietnamese nurse in a larger boat. Gordon Smith was an unusual man, deeply concerned with the welfare of the highland people, a missionary with extensive ethnographic interests. His son Douglas was with the U.S. Information Service in Saigon, another son Stan was studying for the ministry, and a third son Leslie was a professional hunter who took Americans hunting in the mountains.

With our bedrolls, food, and other gear we drove in a Land Rover south to Hoi An. There, Gordon contacted Mr. Phuong, a wood vendor who spoke Katu and knew their villages. We boarded two sampans belonging to a hardy woman and her equally hardy daughter. They positioned themselves at the rear of the sampans to pole them against the current and move upstream in the Thu Bon River. Leaving Hoi An, the mountains were covered with somber thick forest. The cook served a lunch of canned meat with bread. Afternoon air became heavy and moist as the women guided the sampans through rapids. Sitting erect in his sampan and wearing a toupee, Gordon Smith looked for all the world like the storied Western explorer in the tropics. Toward dusk we reached a small Vietnamese settlement where we slept in the communal temple. The cook purchased strange brown rice from the villagers. It turned out to be tasteless (the cook insisted it was good for us because it contained “histamine”), so we opened a sack of relief rice for dinner.

Three days later we arrived at Tan My on the Cay River, the last Vietnamese settlement where Katu gathered to trade. The Katu men and women in a trading party were of varied ages. Men wore loincloths while women, with brass earrings and bead necklaces, wore skirts and, unlike most highland women, had tops covering their breasts. The Katu were amused when I photographed an older woman kneeling low to allow a pet monkey to rummage through her hair in search of lice. Then in the morning, Katu boys watched quizzically as we shaved, a strange ritual. From among the Katu, Gordon and Phuong obtained bearers to carry our gear. Leaving the settlement on the narrow winding path, dead bamboo stalks covered the ground, cracking underfoot while the canopy overhead filtered sunlight. Suddenly we were enveloped by jungle vastness of huge trunks, tangled branches, gnarled roots, and an astonishing array of fronds. In the soft earth were animal tracks and on wild banana trees large evil-looking spiders in webs. On the path we met a file of Katu women with backbaskets, followed by men with packs containing compartments for a knife, pipe, some tobacco, and a quiver of arrows for the crossbows they carried. Dripping from the still, humid heat, we came upon and bathed in a flowing brook with cool, clear water, a lustral refreshment.

Finally we reached the village Mr. Phuong identified as A-To, surrounded by a stockade. The gate was closed and along the path were freshly made bamboo symbols, raising the question of whether they were taboo signs. Mr. Phuong went to the gate where a young man informed him that the village was indeed taboo. At Mr. Phuong’s behest he summoned the headman. After an exchange, the headman relented, saying we could enter the village and go straight to the men’s house for a short time marked by the passage of the sun. The village struck me as grubby compared with other highland villages I had visited. The seven houses on pilings arranged around a carved sacrificial stake were ramshackle. Gardens were skimpy. The village was strangely still, notched log stairs had been pulled up to the entrance verandas, doors were closed, and we could see eyes peering at us through cracks in the walls.

We lapsed into silence as we made our way to the men’s house which figures prominently in blood raids. It is here that the men gather to perform a chicken-foot divination ritual to decide on the raid and select a victim. After talking, drinking, and singing all night the raid party leaves at dawn. Strategies for blood raids vary from nocturnal ambushes to seeking a victim in a sleeping village. The raiders dip their long spears into the victim’s blood. Afterwards the party returns to the men’s house where they remain incommunicado for one month, during which they cannot bathe. Then they emerge to dance around the bloody spears while invoking the spirits. In the semi-darkness of the men’s house with its smell of smoke and walls covered with heads of buffalo that had been sacrificed, the glum-faced headman sat on a mat. Around him was a group of longhaired young men garbed in very brief loincloths and clutching long hardwood spears with sharp blades used in the blood raids. We mustered up smiles and greeted the headman with bows, but his face remained glum. Talking through Mr. Phuong, the chief expressed dissatisfaction at having “Frenchmen” in the village, saying the “Viet Minh” would not like it. He noted there were Viet Minh in the forest, adding that his brother, who had “gone north” was now with them. When the headman mentioned a food shortage, Gordon said that if his men went to Thanh My they could get rice from the boat. The chief, however, shook his head. “The Viet Minh would be angry if we took food from the French.”

I always brought American cigarettes on field trips to give as gifts, so I offered some “Hit Parade filter-tips” to the headman. Philip whispered that he hoped the Katu would not choke on the filter-tips. The headman brightened up, took the cigarettes and distributed them to the young men. They puffed away and then eagerly split open the filter tips to find out what they were made of. According to Mr. Phuong they all agreed the tips were full of dried grass.

Back on the trail, Gordon, Philip, and I admitted we had experienced feelings of unease in A-To. With Mr. Phuong guiding we walked to the neighboring village of O-Mo, which had no stockade and a small men’s house. Its longhouses (even more ramshackle than those at A-To) were arranged around a sacrificial stake. Smoking his long pipe, the headman welcomed us and explained that survivors of two epidemic-ravaged villages had banded together to found O-Mo. He added that O-Mo was now plagued with more sickness and lack of food. As villagers gathered around us, Gordon distributed large safety pins which the Katu valued as decorations. They touched our clothes, wondered at our watches and cameras, and felt the hair on our arms. We in turn were fascinated with the way the young men combed their long hair and arranged impressive hairdos with boar tusks. In the main room of the headman’s longhouse we arranged our bedrolls and strung mosquito nets from the beams. Sleep did not come easily because the Katu coughed loudly. I finally dozed, only to be awakened by sharp insect bites on the back of my neck. I shined my flashlight to find large black ants on the bedroll. Pulling the mosquito netting aside I was shocked to seen an army of black ants, thousands of them, moving like a conveyer belt alongside the bedroll. Shaken, I rolled out the other side and shouted to Gordon and Philip. Lured by our food, the invading ants were swarming up the pilings. The headman aroused other men who carried pots of boiling water from the open hearths to pour on the ants, finally dispersing them.

When the boat carrying the nurse and relief rice arrived at Thanh My, men from the village carried bags of rice to each longhouse. We accompanied the Vietnamese nurse from the mission who began treating sick villagers, most of them suffering from fevers, abdominal problems, and diarrhea. In one longhouse they unrolled a grass mat which contained a naked emaciated woman, her crotch one red and bleeding sore. After helping tend the sick as best we could we sat with the headman. He gave us basic information about kinship and farming, touching on blood sacrifices. The headman told how three years before in his natal village two people were victims of blood raids.

Back at the Smith’s Danang compound, while enjoying Laura Smith’s warm hospitality and discussing our findings, we learned that two Katu in the central market were being taunted by Vietnamese because they had long hair. We went there to find a man in his twenties and a boy of about fifteen, who explained that they had come to Danang to trade areca nuts and betel leaves for salt (highly valued in the highlands). The older one had vis- ited Danang before, but it was the first time the boy had left the Katu coun- try. Their ride in Gordon’s Land Rover was a frightening experience and the traffic policeman waving his arms mystified them. At the compound the Katu were astonished at running water in the kitchen and glass in the win- dows (which they refused to touch). They clearly felt at home, however, with the compound pets, particularly Chesty, the gibbon.

The comment of the Katu headman of A-To village that his brother had “gone north” and was now with the Viet Minh in the forest strongly sug- gested that highlanders trained in North Vietnam might in 1957 be return- ing to play vital roles in Communist guerrilla cadres. If so it put in a new light earlier information that five thousand to six thousand Rhadé had “gone north” with the Viet Minh. Should these Communist-trained highlanders return as cadres they no doubt would play on highlanders’ discontents with Diem’s minority policies in spreading propaganda that the Saigon government did not care about them.

Further Reading

Århem, Kaj. “5 Animism and the Hunter’s Dilemma.” Animism in Southeast Asia, 2015, 91.

Århem, Nikolas. In the Sacred Forest: Landscape, Livelihood and Spirit Beliefs Among the Katu of Vietnam. Göteborgs Universitet, 2009.

———. “6 Wrestling with Spirits, Escaping the State.” Animism in Southeast Asia, 2015, 114.

———. “Forests, Spirits and High Modernist Development: A Study of Cosmology and Change Among the Katuic Peoples in the Uplands of Laos and Vietnam.” PhD thesis, Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis, 2015.

Hickey, Gerald Cannon. Free in the Forest: Ethnohistory of the Vietnamese Central Highlands, 1954-1976. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982.

———. Sons of the Mountains: Ethnohistory of the Vietnamese Central Highlands to 1954. Yale University Press, 1982.

Sprenger, Guido. Dimensions of Animism in Southeast Asia Animism in Southeast Asia. In Århem, K. & Sprenger, G. (Eds.) Animism in Southeast Asia Routlege, 2016

  1. Gerald C. Hickey, Window on a War: An Anthropologist in the Vietnam Conflict (Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 2002), 72–75.


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