Tai Dam of Laos, Vietnam, Thailand
Introduction and History
The Tai Dam, who are also known as Black Tai, originated from China as early as the first century, but scholars do not agree on when they actually began migrating south. Archaeologists have discovered ceremonial drums in Dien Bu Phu dating back to the first century. The Tai Dam settled in the northwestern provinces of today’s Vietnam, particularly Lai Chau and Son La. This area was known as Sip Hok Chau Tai or the Sixteen Tai Principalities, and in 1889 was colonized and annexed to Tonkin of Vietnam by the French. In 1948 it was established as an independent state called the Tai Federation under the rule of France.
The Tai Dam are a proud people and have a rich cultural heritage. The name “Black” or “Dam” comes from the black skirt that all women wear as well as the black head covering that they all used to wear. They are found along the Black River in northwestern Vietnam.
Population and Location
When the French and the Tai forces were defeated at Moung Thaeng (Dien Bien Phu) in 1954, the Tai administration and their families who opposed the communist insurgents were forced to flee to the south of Vietnam or to Laos. Additionally, since World War II large numbers of Tai Dam have migrated from northern Vietnam and its communist government into northern Laos. Today 130,000 Tai Dam live in Laos. Large groups are found throughout in the northern Laotian provinces of Phong Sali, Hua Phan, Luang Nam Tha, Luang Prabang, Xieng Khouang and Vientiane. An estimated 800,000 Tai Dam live in Vietnam, while 20,000 live in Thailand.
With the influx of communist governments, numerous Tai Dam entered refugee camps in Thailand in the 1970s and were then relocated to third countries. As a result there are around 5,000 Tai Dam in France and about the same number in the United States.
Tai Dam villages are spread through numerous fertile valleys in the mountainous parts of Laos and Vietnam. They vary in size from a few houses to more than 500 people. Life revolves around the home, and activities are carried out as a family. In many ways, they are a people caught between a Thai and a Vietnamese lifestyle.
Linguistically, the Tai Dam belong to the Tai branch of the Kam-Tai family. According to Thai academics at Chulalongkorn Institute of Thai Studies in Bangkok, the dialect spoken by Tai Dam is closest to northeastern Thai. The Tai Dam have their own distinct script, but due to government pressure it is not used any longer. In addition, most people today under 40 years of age can no longer read this script. For the language to “live on,” groups have begun to write the Tai Dam language in Lao and also the Vietnamese script. The Lao script is similar to Thai but the Vietnamese script is based on a romanized alphabet.
The Tai Dam are settled agriculturists who cultivate wet rice. They also raise pigs, goats, chickens, dogs and vegetables for their own use. Commerce is not highly developed; only firewood, vegetables, and their cloth or weaving are sold in the market. A few adventurous individuals have begun opening stores in towns, but the majority continue to enjoy living in their own villages where they have space to breathe and room to build bigger houses than they could have living in towns.
A Tai Dam house has a unique roof line. When the roof was made of grass the Tai Dam spent much time and effort making it oval-shaped. It looks very similar to a tortoise shell. In the 20th century, with the influx of more modern building materials such as corrugated tin and asbestos or clay roof tiles, the Tai Dam are no longer able to build this unique type of house. Like all Tai peoples, the Tai Dam live in wood or bamboo houses raised on stilts.
There is a belief in a wide range of spirits, collectively known as pi. In each house there is an ancestral altar where the spirits of the ancestors are thought to live, and where the ceremonies are conducted. The Tai Dam venerate their ancestral spirits and have ceremonies to honor them once a year. If there is sickness or a special need they will do other ceremonies to ask the spirits for help. At one time the Tai Dam also believed in spirits of the soil, the source of soil fertility and abundant harvests. The biggest obstacle to the Tai Dam following Christ is their concern and desire to serve and venerate their ancestral spirits. “Who will take care of the ancestral spirits if we don't do it? Who will show them that we remember them?” They feel this is necessary for protection and the well-being of the family. The oldest male in the family is responsible for doing these ceremonies, and, as such, males find it most difficult to really call Jesus "Lord."
Catholic priests first made their way into this area during the time of the French occupation. Protestant Christians were effectively kept out until the late 1800s. During the early 1900s the CMA made it into the area but found a people very resistant to anything Christian. As the communists came to power and removed any foreign influence, the Christians were forced out as well. There was very little fruit and the church died (1954). The Tai Dam that fled the area, either to South Vietnam or Laos, found new opportunities to hear about the Lord Jesus, and a small church sprang up in South Vietnam. There were also a number of refugees that fled to Thailand during the fall of the government of Laos in 1974, and here, another small Tai Dam church sprang into life. Many in this church moved to the U.S. as refugees and now live in Des Moines, Iowa.
Portions of Scripture have been translated into the dialect used by the Tai Dam, and there are a few hundred Christians among the Tai Dam in Laos. Missionary work is not officially permitted there, although a few expatriate believers are seeking ways to bring the love of God to them. Pray for God’s grace to open many more hearts to the Word of God, and that the believers would be protected from the evil one. In Vietnam, there are approximately eight groups of believers meeting in various parts of the country. They have endured persecution and Tai Dam pastors have been imprisoned because of their activities.