The Kotu's traditional customs and practices
The Kotu has nearly 37,000 people who live largely on strips along the Vietnam-Laos border in the provinces of Quang Nam and Da Nang and the western mountain regions of Quang Tri, Thua Thien and Kontum provinces.

By To Dong Hai

According to the 1989 census figure, the Kotu ethnic minority group has nearly 37,000 people who live largely on strips along the Vietnam-Laos border in the provinces of Quang Nam and Da Nang and the western mountain regions of Quang Tri, Thua Thien and Kontum provinces.

The Kotu is subgrouped into three: The "Kotu driu" residing on highlands, the "Kotu chalau" on midlands and the "Kotu nal" in the low-lying areas. The people of this ethnic group speak the language of the Mon-Khmer language family. They live mainly on milpa farming. Their milpas are often built in jungles where soil is topdressed with a thick layer of humus. The milpa-selecting season lasts from December to January of the following year. The Kotu avoid building their milpa under secular trees for fear that "a vuu" (devils), according to their conception, would cause harms to their crops and spread epidemics as well. Their practice crop rotation on milpas for 7 to 10 years before building new fields. During crop seasons, families exchange work with their members working together throughout the process, from clearing the fields at the beginning to harvesting the crops in the end. The fruits of their labor are shared equally among all members of such families.

In addition to milpa farming and husbandry, hunting, jungle fruit and vegetable picking and river or stream fishing also play an important part in the Kotu people's daily life. Such traditional crafts as rattan and bamboo weaving, pottery, brocade weaving... strongly develop within the community with their products mainly for exchange.

The Kotu hamlet, called "Vel" in their language, is a self-ruled residential and social unit encompassing not only houses but also gardens, grazings, milpas and forests where people go for hunting and picking forest products. Formerly, "Vel" was built in a self-defense structure surrounded by solid log fences. A Kotu hamlet is small, usually accommodating 10 to 30 houses with some 200 to 300 people. In a traditional hamlet, houses were erected on a circle around usually with the communal house or hamlet yard as its center. In the middle of the hamlet yard, if it is so selected as the center, a buffalo-stabbing post was erected. The selection of land for building a hamlet is an extremely important work for the Kotu people, which is performed by the hamlet chief. When he finds a place of his liking (high and dry, flat, near water sources) and does not witness in his mission any bad omens such as a crawling snake, a flying sparrow, a singing bird, a talking monkey..., he will clear an area of 5 to 6 square meters and put up thereon a neohouzeaua pole with a small cross atop to show that this piece of land has already had its owner. Within 3 to 5 days after the new hamlet is built, every people have to contribute pigs or chicken for the deity-worshiping ritual and no one is allowed to clear milpa, fell trees or go hunting. Particularly when a new hamlet is built, strangers are not allowed to enter. In the traditional Kotu hamlet there is always a communal house (called "guol" in Kotu language) with steeper roofs and rooftop carved with birds and animals. Right here in the "guol", guests the hamlet are received, communal meetings are held and the hamlet's valuable property such as gongs, jars, weapons particularly those used in killing the enemy, are kept.

The Kotu people also have the customs of filing their teeth and tattooing their bodies and faces.

The Kotu society is characterized by patriarchy with men being owners of the hamlets and families and entitled to inheritance. There is big differentiation between the rich and the poor. A family is valued rich or poor through the number of gongs, jars, bronze cookers, buffaloes, goats... and even slaves it owns. Slaves have been treated differently. Those who are parentless or given as payment of debts have been well treated by their masters, being considered family members. Meanwhile those who are captured in wars between hamlets have often been ill treated, beaten or even killed.

The traditional social organization of the Kotu people is the hamlet (val) which is headed by a middle-age man (45 or more years old). He is knowledgeable about the customs and practices of the locality and the ethnic community, is prestigious, clever in speech and better-off economically. The hamlet chief is tasked to determine important affairs of the hamlet, organize meetings of hamlet inhabitants to discuss plans for carrying out such work, handle disputes, quarrels or violations of hamlet customs and regulations. He also represents the people in his hamlet to negotiate with chiefs of other hamlets solution of disputes between people, the border disputes, violations of hamlet rule, or even alliance with one hamlet against another. Yet, a hamlet chief may be dismissed if any disasters such as epidemics, crop failure, etc,. happen to the hamlet during his tenure, and a new hamlet chief shall be elected. The dismissal or election of a hamlet chief is decided by the council of hamlet elderly.

Formerly, seen besides the hamlet chief were military commanders who directed the physical training for the youth and commanded self-defense battles as well as punitive expeditions against hostile hamlets.

The Kotu people have been bound together not only in their hamlets but also their family lines called "Cabu" or "To" which have grouped people of the same descents, the same ancestors, the same customs or even the same legends. People of the same family lines have treated one another like brothers and sisters and been not allowed to marry each other. Each "cabu" is led by the head of the line of descent called "tako cabu" who is responsible for handling any things that happen in such "cabu" or between the "cabu" and the hamlet, such as funerals, weddings, organization of festivals or rites.

Monogamy has been upheld by the Kotu people and the bride will stay in her husband's family after the wedding. If people of the same "cabu" marry each other, they shall be condemned as having committed incesion, called "agam", be expelled from the hamlet or killed. However, some primitive forms of marriage such as the marriage between the widow and her husband's father or brother, or between a man and a concubine of his father or father-in-law when the latter dies... may be accepted after a rite is held to offer a buffalo or a pig to deities and a fine is paid to the hamlet. Marriages between a man's children and his sister's children are still very popular.

Formerly, the custom of "cuop vo" (wife-snatching) existed in the Kotu community. When a girl was snatched home, the man's family had to kill a chicken for worshiping and read the chicken's foot. If bad signs were found thereon, which meant the deities did not approve this, the man and his friends had to return the girl to her family and pay her parents a big sum of fine and a buffalo. If the deities approved such through good signs found on the chicken's foot, the man's parents had to go out and invite the girl into their house and the relatives and neighbors came to congratulate the new bride. Three days later, the man's family invited the girl's parents and relatives to his house for discussing the compensation to the girl's family and the wedding as well. The indemnities were often valuable things such as gongs, jars, bronze bracelet, etc. In the past, beautiful married women used to be victims of the snatching which, if having occurred between hamlets, might lead to fierce fighting or even protracted wars.

Pre-marital pregnancy is forbidden. If committing this, the couple will be expelled from the hamlet; and the boy's family has to organize a big ritual to worship deities and to pay fines to the girl's family and the hamlet. Later, they may be allowed to return to the hamlet, living amidst the disdain of others. The Kotu people are afraid of a woman's death in childbirth. If this happens, a ritual shall be held to kill a buffalo or even a person as offering to the deities. In some places, the entire hamlet shall have to kill all domestic animals and temporarily take refuge in jungle for a while.

The Kotu people observe strict taboos. Whenever there is a big event in the hamlet such as house erection, milpa clearing, rice threshing, rain-praying, epidemic, etc., the entire hamlet shall but put under a strict taboo indicated by a tree branch put up on the road to the hamlet. If a stranger enters a village while it is under taboo, he/she shall be severely punished or even killed. Such taboos still existed till the mid-1980s and have been considerably done away with, though not all.-

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