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Matthew McDaniel akha at
Wed Mar 17 07:47:23 UTC 1999

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Subject: ELL: Akha and Endangered Languages
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Date: Wed, 17 Mar 1999 14:47:23 +0700
From: Matthew McDaniel <akha at>
Organization: The Akha Heritage Foundation
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 The Nature of Endangerement From a Different Linguistic Point of View:
 >From a perspective of holistic field work with the Akha people.
 By Matthew McDaniel

 * Endangered or not?
 * A matter of comparative wealth.
 * SIL, (Wycliffe Bible Translators) blessing of indigenous peoples, or

 Some people claim that the Akha generally have it better off in Burma
 than Thailand.
 Less Neurosis.
 In Burma there is not wealth, but there are also not as many rampaging
 protestant missionaries.  The Burmese army knows the protestant
 missionaries were and are there for political reasons when they come.
 They also are very aware of the incredible denomination driven fanatic
 divisiveness that they introduce and foster, the Burmese Government
 currently wants none of it.

 Burmese and insurgent troops have made their passes through Akha
 But it should be noted that Akha troops control large areas at this time
 and often insurgent troops were Akha, lived in the villages also.  Try
 sorting that out. (they call it vietnam)
 Currently numerous high ranking officers are Akha in the Burmese Army as
 well, so the concept that the Burmese army can and will just arbitrarily
 run accross all Akha villages would be rather foolish since the
 commanding officer probably has family in that village the way villages
 run as compared to cities which you can conveniently bomb from the air
 when you don't like those people any  more. Much of the western bashing
 of Burma has never taken a look at the efforts that the Burmese army and
 government are making to improve the lives of their people without
 western interference or chinese domination. (as in thousands of chinese
 continuing to flood into your country illegally and buying up all the

 If the west was allowed free access to the countryside of Burma,
 indigenous cultures would be eliminated by protestant missionaries in a
 matter of no more than a couple years. (once again, come look in
 Thailand if you disbelieve)

The Catholics on the other hand are deeply involved in cash based
humanitarian projects as opposed to theological based rhetoric.  They
are one church, same in each Akha village they work with and little
competition between people.

They require that little of the culture be abandoned and the latest
directives from the church leadership reinforce leaving the cultures
alone. In some places they are even trying to undo what was lost, which
we have carefully documented here.  The protestants are still looking
for the word "culture" in the dictionary.  That is the reality here,
however offensive some may find it, come look for yourself.

On the other hand I can document where the protestants from Paul Lewis
on down required the burning of village gates, a crime by any standard.

In Thailand, there is more wealth, but there is also more chaos.

Protestant denominations roam freely and do whatever damage they wish,
all in the name of Jesus.

[[The reason that this is difficult to convey is because westerners as a
rule have very little idea of what a village is all about, apart from
some book a celebrity may write about reinventing it, and probably
haven't lived in one for a few hundred years.  On the other hand they
all "know" that missionaries must be good, (especially when they come
from dominant white society) and to say otherwise is to start making
problems for their warm little fuzzy feeling.]]

More money is had by the Akha on the Thai side, but the village
structure has deteriorated and you will seldom in Burma find an Akha
village so infested with methamphetamine and heroin as you will find in

As well, the very wealthy missions in their battle for villages can
totally eliminate the village by the definition used for a village here.

If you consider what the churches are doing in the villages to peoples
culture without invitation to be a human rights abuse like any other
human rights abuse then the abuses are far greater on the Thai side, but
most people don't want to look at that because it is being done by
solely white western people. Oh gee.

So people may disagree which side of the border has it worse, Thailand
or Burma.

But few would disagree that the Akha have it very bad in one place or
the other, take your pick.

When mortality is very high, does this at all indicate that the people
are endangered?

Can the people be endangered and not their language?

In the case of the American Indians, were they endangered when the
cavalry and the settlers and disease first started killing them, or
after they were all wiped out?

If people's goal is saving endangered languages, peoples and the
knowledge they have, then the answer to that question may be extremely
important in the process.  What will it comparatively cost us based on
our carefully construction of what endangered language work is or should

Now if we say you have to start when there are 400,000 endangered
people, and then you can turn the tide, but it will cost, this will cost
more than if you wait till there are 50 people left and scramble to
stuff every word they know how to say into your computer and perfectly
discribe what it all means and write an orthography for it.

At that point people have little doubt that as a people group they are
disappearing, but it a lot easier to say, gee, so sad to see that happen
one more time, I wonder how it all occured, lucky we were able to record
the language.  And it will not dress the issue of comparable rights,
health care, comfort, access to economic activity etc.

For instance, what would a comparative study of the people who speak
endangered languages and the people who study them point out when it
came to issues of National Identity papers, human rights, health care,

I think that the balance is severely skewed.
Why is this not an issue of endangered languages which gets talked

However, if the native language of a people were considered an item
protected by intellectual property right, as we in the west would have
been certain to insure that it was had it belonged to us, what kind of
wealth might these people now have as represented by the materials that
belong to their languages that make organizations like SIL and
University Libraries wealthy and respectable?

Or is someone now going to step forward and say that the private
collections of University Libraries are not valuable?
Do not bring status?
Are not insured with fire and loss insurance?

Would Microsoft sell what it took a thousand years to build, scraping a
living out of mountain soil, and watching half your kids die, for less
than $600?  And the western tourists here complain when an impoverished
Akha woman, asks for 20 cents for taking her picture with a $500 camera.

[[Some people say, "Matthew, you really get in people's faces" Well when
you see the incredible discracefull inequality of the exchange that is
currently going on in Northern Thailand between the very wealthy and the
extremely poor on a daily basis in the mountains and in the streets, it
can really bust and egg in you.]]

Statistical analysis of any kind could find parallels to point out that
though there may be 400,000 Akha at this time, there is nothing to say
that a people so economically disadvantaged with so many predators will
be around at all in 50 years.

Is that endangerment?

As well it might be worth pointing out that if you take the wealth of
just one linguistics department at one University and compare it to the
collective wealth at any one location in an Akha village, there will be
no comparison.

So is it not rather odd that considering this extreme difference in
wealth, those with the wealth would dismiss those with nothing as not

It has been said on this language list publicly that Akha is not an
endangered language.

I challenge the very premise on which people would judge an indigenous
language as endangered or not and I also bring into question the
incredible difference in wealth between those who discuss it and those
who hold the languages.

Not for the purpose of guilt, though that does have its place ultimately
considering the history of cultural mining by western science and
academics which have pretty much written their own rules, but so that
people will begin to consider this extreme difference in wealth and
attempt to call for the shifting of resources, that people who would
study endangered languages would work in a sort of partnership with the
people who speak those languages to help make their lives better but at
least to see to it that they have a fraction of the books at their
disposal that the linguist might have.

And after all isn't it really about protecting our own level of comfort
as compared to having to share it with the people we so "generously"
help out as we put them under the microscope?

It is about justice.  Justice for the poor whom people study and base
their careers on.

I would also like to comment on the e-mail about SIL(Wycliffe Bible

I still think that as holding a huge vault of knowledge regarding
language as taken from the indigenous, which is an indigenous product of
knowledge, SIL might address the issues of its reputation from the
perspective that it is the same organization as Wycliffe and that it has
less than a good reputation in South America and other places for its
heavy handed treatment of the indigenous, often commented on by

In addition, considering the glowing report for how helpful SIL is on
literacy, why did they flatly refuse to assist on a wide based non
partisan literacy project for the Akha, other than the fact that they
appear to quite aligned with the status quo in Northern Thailand, the
American Baptist status quo, which HEAVILY SUPPRESSES THE AKHA AND THEIR

We do not have the resources yet to get all of our documentation on
paper, in video interviews, but we are getting a lot closer and when we
do we will continue to ask how these things have been allowed to go on,
and why people like linguists have not established tighter ethics about
the treatment and exploitation of indigenous communities?

Furthermore, last but certainly not least, we would like to ask, why
SIL, why any other linguist doesn't seem to have a problem with the fact
that the Akha New Testament, which SIL certainly has a copy of since
they know about the Old Testament project as well, which specifically
calls a Jewish High Priest as in the ones who called for the crucifixion
of Jesus as "Peeh Mahs", the specific name for an Akha village leader
who is the historic poet and doctor for the village and advises the
village in keeping in harmony with its environment?

Is this just a small matter?

Is this just something that polite white people don't talk about or

What if we said it was a chief Linguist who nailed him up there.  Would
any linguists take offense at that?

But with all the discussion put on orthography, no comment has been made
about what orthographies are ultimately used for as in this case.

Everyone wants Akha orthography to be as good as possible.

But why has there been no comment on what you could do to a culture by
telling them that their own leaders crucified Jesus?

SIL knows of this.  They also commented on orthography, but don't appear
to have pushed for any change in the Akha New Testament.

Intentionally built in errors would seem more important than a less than
.999 fine orthography.

Maybe its just a matter of where we are willing to allow errors and why,
not the matter of error after all.

The Akha and other endangered indigenous groups are not suffering from
excessive representation of their plight or cause.

Matthew McDaniel


Matthew McDaniel
The Akha Heritage Foundation
386/3 Sailom Joi Rd
Maesai, Chiangrai, 57130
Mobile Phone Number:  Sometimes hard to reach while in Mountains.
01-881-9288  when in Thailand
66-1-881-9288  when out  Thailand

Web Site:
mailto:akha at

US Address:

Donations by check or money order may be sent to:

The Akha Heritage Foundation
1586 Ewald Ave SE
Salem OR 97302

Donations by direct banking:

In the US can be transfered to:

Wells Fargo Bank
Akha Heritage Foundation
Acc. # 0081-889693
Keizer Branch
Keizer, Oregon, USA

Outside the US:

Matthew Duncan McDaniel
Bangkok Bank Ltd
Acc.# 3980240778
Maesai Branch
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