The customary laws of “Xe Dang” ethnic minority
Xe Dang is an ethnic minority group seen mainly in Kontum province in the Central Highlands.

By To Dong Hai

Xe Dang" is an ethnic minority group seen mainly in Kontum province, Central Highlands, on the territory of the districts of Dac To, Sa Thay, Kong Plong and Dac Glay as well as the provincial town of Kontum. In addition, people of this ethnic group also reside in Tra Mi district of Quang Nam - Da Nang and Son Ha district of Quang Ngai province. According to the 1989 census figures, the Xe Dang population stood at around 96,800 people, who have gathered in various subgroups such as Xe Teng, To Dra, Mo Nam, Ka Dong, Ha Lang... with their similarities in culture, language, race... and also with their particularities in customs, practices and daily life.

Belonging to the Mon-Khmer language group, the “Xe Dang” were among the first to move into northern Central Highlands. According to a local legend, formerly the “Xe Dang” settled down in low-lying areas. Yet, through many ups and downs of history, they were pushed up to high mountains around Ngoc Linh peak by frequent floods in the region. Milpa farming is their basic production mode. The fields reclaimed through slash and burn have been cropped for 2 to 3 years, them left uncultivated for 8 to 10 years until the land restores its fertility. The ownership over those fields always belongs to the first reclaimers even when they move to new places for new fields. Cultivated on their field in addition to rice are gourd, pumpkin, vegetables, beans, and particularly millet for liquor distillation or cake making. The millet liquor is often used in rituals for reconciliation between villages.

For long now, the “Xe Dang” have known how to raise domestic animals and do the gardening. Yet, hunting and forest fruits and vegetable picking, particularly exploiting forest products also play important part in their economic activities. Such traditional crafts as bamboo and rattan weaving, textile, smithery, pottery... have also been practiced by the “Xe Dang”.

The Xe Dang tribal society, according to some researchers, had once begun to develop into a class society. Yet, this process of social development was pushed back by many historical upheavals and repeated wars. It can be said that by the 19th century, the Xe Dang society had remained to be basically a communal clan society, in which each “play”, “ple” or “ble” (village) is a community of people of the same blood line or the same ethnic subgroup. People in a village are all equal and closely bound together by their strong communal spirit. They have observed the same customs and practices handed down from generation to generation, which have bound the Xe Dang together, the living, the dead or the to-be born, in their material and spiritual life. The Xe Dang conventions define the obligations and rights of every member in the commuity, describing severe punitive measures against those who are opposed to the community or those who violate regulations on marriage and the family. Under their rules, every Xe Dang has the responsibility to protect the community, to help and support one another. Cheaters, traitors, lazy persons who only want to depend on others... have been rejected by the community. Therefore, the Xe Dang’s is a tightly knit community in which every people voluntarily observe the communal rules, members protect and help one another in woes or happiness without any discrimination and a community in which people can set their mind at peace leaving their valuables outside the house. A person of the same clan can easily joint the community and live in the same village provided that he/she is guaranteed by a villager and baptized by the village chief.

Each “play” (village) comprises many “rpoong” (house) and each “rpoong” is headed by a “kan rpoong” (house owner) who is usually an old villager called “kra play”. All “kra play” group into the village’s collective leadership, namely the Old Villagers’ Council, which run all affairs in the village. The Council is headed by the village chief (kan play) who is a rich, influential and prestigious person owning key “rpoong” with properties and many workhands in the village. Whenever there is any thing to be settled, the Council meet at the “rong” (a communal house where meetings, rituals are held) to discuss the matter, then the “kan rpoong” go back to their houses and discuss matter with other family members until all members of the community reach consensus. Thanks to the village chief’s prestige and strick regulations of the community’s customary law, this is often achieved without any major disagreement among villagers. When thing is decided, every people shall voluntarily fulfill his/her assigned task. There is hardly any opposite idea or protest; if any, the splitting up of the village is ineviatable.

The village chief’s responsibility is heavy. He represents the interests of the whole village in defending the village’s geographical boundary, deciding war or peace, leading the villagers in the fight against invaders, if any, receiving guests of the village, preserving the community’s customs and practices, presiding over rituals, handling all disputes among villagers as well as violations of customary laws. The Xe Dang think that if the village chief handles things well and preserve rules and conventions strictly, the village will, with support from deities, be prosperous and populated. Contrarily if he handles things wrongly, the deities will punish by causing crop failures, diseases or even landslides to villagers. If this is the case, the villagers will meet and select new village chief.

According to the Xe Dang’s rules and conventions, their land, rivers, forests and mountains belong to the entire community and every member is entitled to use them. The newly reclaimed land is owned by the reclaimer, and the ousiders are not allowed to reclaim land in the area managed by the village. Members of the community are entitled to sell, purchase, transfer, inherit terraced fields of others. A milpa owner can sell his field or lease it for one crop to other people in exchange for a thing with value corresponding to his/her labor spent on reclaiming it.

The money borrower don’t have to pay the interests. If he/she is unable to pay his/her debt, he/she shall have to work as “slave” for the debtor, but equally treated as a member of the family.

The Xe Dang traditional house can accomodate 80-90 people of a big family, including those related by blood for 3 or 4 generations, members of the maternal and paternal sides, old spouse, relatives, friends, sworn brothers. In case of any event, all households living under the same roof voluntarily contribute their parts. Running all affairs of a big family is, besides the house owner. She often sleep by the sacred stove. The family guests shall never be allowed to enter her place which is a compartment where a sacred stone is placed and where, according to the Xu Dang’s belief, the rice spirit and the desiny spirit of the whole big family reside. The Xe Dang people bear no family name. Only letter “A” is put in front of a male’s given name and “Y” in front of a female’s. Xe Dang people of a subgroup abstain from eating a certain kind of animal. This customary practice is maintained for one or many generations. The spouses follow each other’s customs. People who abstain from eating the same animal are not allowed to marry each other. Incestion between people of direct blood relations or of the same abstaining group shall be severely punished because the Xe Dang think that this will make the deities angry who will bring them drought, crop failure, epidemics or even earthquakes or landslides. For a ritual held to ask for the deities’ forgiveness, the offenders have to pay to the village 6 pigs and to each family which keeps pigs and buffaloes a chicken, a bracelet and a hoe blade. During the deity-worshipping ritual, the offenders shall have to crawl on the ground and have their food from the animal trough. That’s not enough. If during that year any catastrophe is brought down upon the villagers, the offenders shall have to pay for all the cost of a ritual held to ask for the forgiveness from the deities.

The pre-marital sexual relations are strictly forbidden; and if a child is born within one year after the marriage, couple shall be severely punished. The monogamy is practiced by the Xe Dang.

The customary law of the “Xe Dang” also allows divorce, but heavy compensation must be paid by the divorce initiator to the other party. Levirate and sororate are also practiced by the “Xe Dang”, but the widow is allowed to marry the elder not younger brother of her deceased husband, and the widower to marry the younger not elder sister of his deceased wife.

In short, the customary law (or conventions) of the “Xe Dang” people is their firm mainstay, creating a tight and durable bond among the community members as a shield against external threats. Yet, like rules and conventions of other ethnic minorities, the Xe Dang’s also saw its limitations. Some barbarous regulations based on people’s supertitiuos belief were abolished while harsh rules regarding marriage have diminished, thus creating conditions to make the Xe Dang’s customary law conform to the social development on the basis of equality, fairness, respect for the interests of the community and of other people, which all are the basic principles of the “Xe Dang” conventions.-

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