Conference of Lisu look to preserve culture with digital help

Among the most colorful of the kaleidoscope of hill tribes that populate Southeast Asia, the Lisu, like many other indigenous peoples, find their way of life endangered by the forces of globalization. But at an international conference of Lisu in northern Thailand last week, some Lisu demonstrated how digital technology, one of the very forces that tribal people find so threatening, may be able to help them preserve their culture and identity.

Thailand is home to about 50,000 Lisu scattered across 150 remote and mountainous villages. With their vibrant and multi-colored hand-stitched clothing and headdresses, they never fail to dazzle and charm outsiders. But Lisu in Thailand are a small part of the estimated 1 million Lisu worldwide with most living in Myanmar and China, smaller populations in India and Laos, and a few having migrated to countries on other continents, including the United States.

From February 23-25, thousands of Lisu from those countries and others gathered for the third “International Conference on Lisu Cultural Inheritance and Sustainable Development” at Sri Dong Yen Village in Mae Taeng District, about 25 miles north of the city of Chiang Mai.

High on the agenda were discussions on how to sustain their culture, customs and language, especially as there isn’t one uniform script for the Lisu language used or known by all Lisu. There is, nonetheless, a rock solid desire to see that Lisuness is carried on to future generations, and so they have formed a Lisu Unity Movement, headquartered in Myanmar.

“The strength of the will to cultural survival among Lisu is just so passionate — it is very moving to witness,’’ said Michelle Zack, a writer from California who recently published the first book ever written about the tribe entitled The Lisu: Far From the Ruler.

Zack said that for most of their existence, Lisu groups lived basically in isolation with little to no contact with villages just a few hilltops away. But during the past decade, “every Lisu seems to have become at least tangentially connected to every other in the world via social networks.”

“On the digital front, especially through social media, they are figuring out how to connect with each other to strengthen their culture’s odds of survival,’’ Zack said. “Looking at the content of their social media posts, one is struck by how much of it is directed at affirming their ‘Lisuness.’ Such affirmation must be essential for any tiny minority not wanting not to be swallowed up by the majority culture.”