Indigenous Peoples Calendar Archive November, 2010: Shan Culture Is Resilient to Erosion
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Any opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the policies of The Peoples of the World Foundation. Unless otherwise noted, the author and photographer is Dr. Ray Waddington.

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Most of my month during my first visit to Burma (Myanmar) was spent visiting Shan State. Shan State is probably the easiest part of Burma for foreigners to visit. It also has a large population of many different indigenous peoples — including the Shan after whom it is named. (It used to be geo-politically separate states known as "The Shan States.") I'd entered the southeastern part of the state crossing overland from Thailand. The small town of Keng Tung, about a five-hour drive by car, is the furthest point west that foreigners are allowed to go by land. Fortunately, though, only a short flight is necessary before most of the rest of the state can be visited traveling only by land.

Toward the end of my visit I found myself in the small town of Lashio. I'd lost count of the number of villages I'd visited over the past three weeks or so. I'd even almost lost count of the number of different indigenous groups I'd visited.

As often happens to me when I near the end of a journey, I had been reflecting for a few days on my time, the experiences I'd had and the things that I'd seen. The most common and prominent thought popping into my mind was about the diversity I'd seen in such a small geographic space and in such a small amount of time. On my first day it had taken only a few minutes by motorcycle before I was in a village where a different language was spoken, the clothes were very different and there was even variation in religious beliefs.

I challenged this thought by forcing myself to consider commonalities. What had I experienced everywhere I'd been that was really no different from the last village where I'd been? I struggled with this challenge until I realized the most obvious answers: I'd heard languages that will one day have no speakers; I'd seen customs that will one day no longer be practiced.

We're constantly reminded how indigenous culture is being eroded by modernization, globalization and capitalism and here I was witnessing it first-hand. The last village I visited was a Shan village where the villagers had been making a partial income by weaving fans from local bamboo for longer that anyone knew. My guide had told me this before we reached the village and I expected to see what might be the last generation of the Shan to practice this craft. As we entered the village and began visiting houses where the fans were being made I found this woman teaching her young granddaughter how to make them. As I continued my reflections later that day, I began to feel comfortable in the knowledge that some aspects of indigenous culture will be resilient to erosion for many generations to come.

The Shan are featured in our documentary, Peoples of the World: Southeat Asia.

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