To Dong Hai
The ethnic minority group of Ta Oi, called "Ta Uot" in some areas, has a population of over 26,000 (according to the 1989 census figure), residing largely in Quang Tri province and western part of Thua Thien-Hue province. Yet, a larger number of Ta Oi people also live in Laos, on Ta Oi Plateau of Saravane province. It is, therefore, this ethnic group bears the name of Ta Oi, which is divided into various subgroups: The Ta Oi (the main subgroup), the Pako (living on highlands) and the Bahi (part of this subgroup tends to merge with the ethnic group of Bru-Van kieu). Their language belongs to the Mon-Khmer family and they are culturally attached to the neighboring ethnic groups of Kotu and Van Kieu.
Like other ethnicities in southern Truong Son (long mountain range) and Central Highlands, the Ta Oi has practised nomadic farming, diversifying their crops on milpas with rice, maize, taro, melons, pumpkin, gourd, spice vegetable. Husbandry has long been practised by the Ta Oi, with buffaloes, cows, goats, pigs... being used mainly as offerings to deities in religious rites. Trading among Ta Oi and between Ta Oi and Laotians as well as the people of Viet majority has developed.
"Vel" (hamlet) is the basic social and residential unit of the Ta Oi people. Each "vel" accomodates several dozens of houses and has its own name often originating from a myth, a legend or a natural occurrence of mythical character. Yet most "vel" have been named after the water sources, springs, mountains or hills nearby.
The house of Ta Oi people is called "Dung" where resides a whole paternal clan. New annexes will be added thereto when male family members get married. In a "vel", houses are built in a circle around the communal house called "Rong" (or Ron, or Dung Put lu). Besides "Rong", another communal house, called "Trap Cunui" (the ghost house), is also built by Ta Oi people but on the edge not in the center of their hamlet. "Trap Cunui" is used for communal activities during funerals, disinterment for reburial, festivals, rituals etc.
The Ta Oi costumes are very simple. Men often wear only loin-cloths while the women wear skirts made of barks of a forest tree called "Abay", which are soaked into water, flattened and plaited into "fabric". All members of the Ta Oi community, when grown up, shall have their bodies tatooed and their ears pierced. The patterns and pictures tatooed on men's skin are often the tiger, the eagle, the mountain..., symbolizing the male's strength, firmness and dexterity. A very popular tatoo on women's bodies is the picture of a forest tree called "Aboong" by the Ta Oi, with a big shade and vines winding about, which all symbolize the purity of women under the protection by the entire community.
The Ta Oi society has been differentiated, though not so deeply, into the rich, called "Konpronha", who make fortunes through inheritance, business activities or exploitation, and the poor, the "Kadik". The hamlet chiefs called "Ariay Vel" are well-to-do people often belonging to the ancestrial line with great contribution to the founding and building of the hamlet. The "Ariay Vel" holds all powers which have been passed from generation to generation if there appear no important incidents compelling his replacement through an "election". Set up in each "vel" is a council of the hamlet elderly, which is consisted of aged people, of persons who are knowledgeable about the customs and practices of the entire hamlet community as well as the head of all family lines. Such council is assisted by people knowledgeable about the customary laws and capable of reasoning, who will undertake the judicial affairs, and people knowledgeable about ritual ceremonies and capable of communicating with deities, who will perform the worshipping, treatment of diseases or the annihilation of ghosts...
"Vel" is also a clan unit embracing various family lines, including one or two main lines. In some cases, a big family line has separated itself from others to set up a new "vel". It can be said that the relationship between "vel" members is still based mainly on consanguinity besides the increasingly enhancing and expanding relationship of neighborliness.
Each family line is headed by a chief called "xuat ya" who has competence to decide on matters related to the material and spiritual life of members of the family line, on issues relating to the relationship between such family line with others as well as between the family line and the entire hamlet community. He also represents the family line in discussing and settling affairs of the entire hamlet. The larger the family line is, the bigger role its "xuat ya" will play in the hamlet. Each family line has its own name which, though known to every member, does not, however, go together with the proper names of members of the family line as seen among the people of Viet ethnic majority or other ethnic minorities. The male names all begin with "Kon" and all the female names begin with "Kan". Under the family line are groups of families bound together by direct blood lines, called "top" or "chum", and under "top" or "chum" there exist "Kton", sublines of descent, grouping relatives of the same family lines.
According to Tai Oi customs and practices, young males and females of this ethnic group, when grown up, shall have to file their six incisors before they are recognized as the grown-up members of the community and allowed to get married. Like in many other ethnic groups, Ta Oi boys and girls are free to choose their companions in life and have to go through various procedures and ceremonies such as the plighting ceremony, official proposal ceremony, wedding ceremony, etc.
When married, Ta Oi women are not allowed to do any thing for her husband's family, even cooking a rice pot or fetching a firewood, if they fail to perform the ritual to kindle a fire and fail to return to her family for a show-up. Several years after their wedding, a couple shall have to save up their money for the "Pay Ploh" rite which is a must for every Ta Oi family. The married Ta Oi women totally belong to their husbands' ancestrial lines, having to abandon their own ones as well as their own ancestors.
Under the Ta Oi customary laws, a man can marry more than one wife or can marry the wife of his elder or younger brother or the concubine of his father if the brother or father dies. If their husbands die, women still have to stay with their deceased husbands' families for the rest of their lives. They can return to their parents' homes but only with bare hands. Ta Oi laws encourage the marriage between sons of sisters and daughters of the brothers but prohibit the marriage between daughters of the sisters and their brothers' sons. Any violators of this rule shall be severely punished, even with the expulsion from the hamlet.
The Ta Oi long house is considered a residential unit of a paternal clan usually headed by the eldest son of the first branch of the lineage, who has great power in deciding important issues related to the big family. Yet, the final decision shall be made jointly by representatives of small families. As the result, the community character within the long house (or the large family) has gradually disappeared, giving way to the formation of small independent families.
It can be said that the Ta Oi customary laws and practices have exposed the deeply-rooted ancestrial relations which have helped consolidate this ethnic community through various stages of its development. However, such customs and practices have shown not a few limitations, particularly the inequality between the rich and the poor, between men and women. So, the inheritance of positive factors and the abolition of negative ones in such customs and practices, which have still exerted influence on various aspects of the Ta Oi's present life, shall be of great significance for the building of a new life for people of this ethnic group.-