Living Kinship, Fearing Spirits: Sociality among the Khmu of Northern Laos

Rana Abhyendra Singh

Unlike other ethnographies, Rosalie Stolz’s Living Kinship, Fearing Spirits does not beat around the bush before introducing her readers to her project. She keeps her piece in the acknowledgment itself and informs beforehand of the parts of this book being drawn on previously published materials. She has written the whole book as a monograph presenting a detailed analysis of every ritual and custom that has taken place during her stay. Her book is situated against the backdrop of a village named Pliya, a small village in northern Laos wherein she resides with the Khmu tribe. She casts light upon their lifestyle, rituals, traditions, beliefs, and kinship. The word kinship is the keyword to the whole book, and Stolz has done justice to the word in her work. She begins the introduction by describing a scene in the midst of the harvest season, giving her readers a glimpse of another important word in her work: “spirits.” Stolz attempts to answer the following questions through this book: "Does consanguinity play a role here? Are totemic groups of relevance? What is entailed in the notion of family?" (p. 28).

After locating the Khmu tribe, she exlores the village (Pliya) and describes its history along with its social, economic, and geographical conditions. She boldly states that the village is mono-ethnic and throws light on the reason and history of migration. The scenic descriptions of the village, the rituals and superstitions, and some important customs are briefly mentioned in the beginning. Stolz mentions her experience of how she got into the village and blended in while participating in their rituals, being involved in the village life, and finding ways to assimilate. There are, however, no notes of her experience in the beginning, for as she states, "Sitting with a pen and notebook and taking occasional notes was not acknowledged to be a valid activity" (p. 23).

As mentioned, kinship constitutes an integral part of this book. Stolz begins by explaining kinship, the kin group, and ways to enter the kin other than birth and marriage. In case of children, the method of adoption is practiced, whereas for adults, it’s a ritual of transfer from one’s own kin to another (generally in one’s wife’s kin). She not only names the kin groups but also traces their roots and states the difficulties and reasons for finding the traces. The Khmu tribe are culturally very rich people. They take their ancient rituals and cultures very seriously, even when the matter is entirely legal, such as an adoption, which Stolz describes as another way to enter the kin. Teknonymy is practiced in the case of nomenclature, but there are special exception cases. Stolz describes the process of a younger child being adopted in a kin group and the transfer of an adult male into another kin group. An adult woman changes her kin group when she gets married, but an adult male is transferred via some rituals and traditions. The author explicitly mentions the metaphors associated with such rituals. An important concept of the Khmu kinship, which is often mentioned throughout the book, is the relationship between the “wife givers” and “wife takers.” Stolz explains the concept with proper examples and descriptions.

In this book, kinship and the spirit cannot be separated. So whatever or whenever a ritual happens among kin, the first offering is given to the spirits. Many rituals, myths, stories, and superstitions are mentioned throughout the book concerning the spirits and the various factors that enable a person to become their “ancestors’ spirit.” The detailed description also includes the process of dwelling – that is, how the houses in the villages are almost uniform, the feng shui, the leaving of the old house and the making of and shifting into the new house, and the involvement of and rituals involving the wife givers and spirits during this whole process.

Moving on, a detailed description of wedding rituals follows, which are somewhat similar to Indian Hindu customs. Chapter 2 throws light on the different stages of the life cycle, from birth to toddler, to adolescence, to adult, and finally to old age. It can be concluded that since kinship plays a vital role in the Khmu tribe, the upbringing of children is uniform. However, uniformity exists only within the boundaries of the village. If the village changes, so do the traditions, kinship patterns, rituals, customs, and spirits. The author also records a detailed account of a funeral for an old lady, where a wake is followed by the burial of the corpse without a coffin, with the face facing downwards.

Following this, records of crop harvesting are accounted for, wherein the females play an important role and a unique set of customs are followed. This includes treating their crop as a child – in fact, the child needs to appear in a crop harvester's dream or else it is considered an inauspicious sign. A set of rituals and taboos is followed during harvest. A similar process is carried out when there is an actual child birth among the tribe. The later chapters consist of the importance of gift exchange among the tribe or between different kinship groups, focusing also on what a particular gift symbolizes. A final chapter throws light upon the second important word mentioned earlier: “spirits.” Even though Stolz mentioned kinship and spirit as equally important aspect of this book, comparatively, the 'Living Kinship' part receives more attention than the 'Fearing Spirits' part.

Rosalie Stolz has done an outstanding job in this book, which includes elaborate details of every aspect of the Khmu tribe. She patiently describes each and every facet as if writing a personal journal. Another notable feature of this book is that basic Khmu translations have been used throughout. This allows the readers to develop a sense of a new language. A few things are absolutely clear by the time we end the book. Firstly, people of Pliya consume alcohol and meat on all sorts of occasions. It is as if the ritual is incomplete without them. Secondly, the status of the wife giver is almost as important as gods and spirits. Thirdly, rituals and customs are essential to the lives of the Khmu; they cannot exist without them and cannot afford to offend their ancestor spirits. Even though the book is commendably accounted for, the flow is interrupted by constant citations, which distracts the readers. Overall, the book is very interesting and can be read at least once by all, whether you are interested in the field or not. For people associated with this particular field, the book is a real treat.