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Spirits of the Home: Material Culture and Cultural Maintaince in a Diaspora Community

Logo https://ourstories.pageflow.io/spirits-of-the-home-material-culture-and-cultural-maintaince-in-a-diaspora-community

Intro.

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Notions of Spirits

 Animism is a term used to describe the belief system of many older or more periphery religious systems and their emphasis on nature, spirituality, and the connectivity of the physical and meta-physical realms. Animistic beliefs attribute objects, places, and ideas with spiritualistic powers and connections. The term was coined by English anthropologist, Edward Tylor (1832-1917) in the 19th century and used it to describe the religious beliefs of many of the U.K.'s colonized peoples. Tylor believed that animism was the foundation from which all religious would be born from, arguing that the pseudo-scientific, spiritualistic approach to analyzing the world was what would set the ground-work for organized religions after on (Havey, 2005). with this approach, Tylor issued impartial terminology that was outside the norm of colonial anthropology at the time, and is accounted for considering colonized people and colonizers to share no real difference except for location and pre-disposition, hence why "animism" is considered to be an impartial word for the field of study (Stringer, 1999).





 




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For many people across the globe, and the Lao ethnic groups (for my research I consider all ethnic groups that currently reside in the Lao Peoples' Democratic Republic (LPDR) to be a part of the Lao community and canon), animistic faiths were the first belief systems used in order to better understand the world. For the Lao peoples, the first belief systems focused around the connection between the physical realm and metaphysical and emphasized the importance of the two worlds working together to support one another. For early Lao peoples, and other groups of early Southeast Asia, this took the form of ancestor worship and a religious approach to the natural world and required specific ritual practices that maintain that relationship. Spirits (phi) were not regulated to just the ancestors but to notions of the natural world; this led to a diverse pantheon of spirits and "gods" (or beings that possessed god-like abilities or authority) that had a direct, perceived connection to each individual and required particular behaviorisms of that person in order to maintain the order of the natural world. Sadly, many of these practices have been either lost to history or were hybridized with Brahmanical faiths (Hinduism and Buddhism) caused by the Indianization of the region.


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For the Lao peoples, animisim was closely realted to the sanctity of one's abode and required rituals to both protect the home and appease the spirits of teh ancestors of the spirits of the natural and unnatural worlds. Not dissimilar to some beliefs in the Celtic-Anglo sphere, where people worried about appeasing brownies (house spirits) in Scottish homes and keeping the banshee (death spirit) at bay in Ireland are still prevalent in those societies today. However, the Lao people had their own diverse colelction of spirits, each with a speicifc purposes or powers; both malevolent and benign. For example, an anceient spirit known as the phi ka was reputed to be a liver-eating spiirt that saught out Lao people in the night to consume their livers and leave them dead. And this particular ghoul is still alive and well in the minds of contemporary Lao-communities both in the homeland and abroad (Muecke, 1987). To appease these spirits Lao people had to perform rituals and daily activites in order to sustain the balance, and many of these practices became intertwined with notions of merit making and in Buddhism. For example, many Lao families still possess spirits houses for the housing of the ancestors as well as the Buddha and make offerings to them, keeping an ancient tradition alive and well.


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Following the French victory in the Sino-French war of 1884-85, France would be largely uncontested in its conquest of Indochina. With the French occupation of the Lao kingdoms (fully consolidating French power across the kingdoms in 1893) along came the imposition of Christian ideas and traditions and the subversion of "savage" belief systems. French Catholicism became the institutional religion of Laos (as well as the French Empire as a whole) and was widely promoted across their domain.

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Despite Catholic coercion and French other-ization of Lao traditions and norms, some practices of animism found refuge in Buddhist practices which enabled some form of cultural maintenance. Lao people could use their notions of Lao-Buddhism to resist identity change and sustain the old ways of life in the face of colonial powers. This can be seen in how Lao peoples maintain spirits house and attribute divine powers to everyday items of their heritage. For example, pendants and medallions that have the faces of royalty are said to bring good luck and fortune since they are attached to spirit of the king or how items that are attached to particular ancestor possess residual merit and fortune that could be passed from generation to generation (Evans, 1998). While not Buddhist, its historical relationship to Buddhism in Laos, allowed it and other "less-noticeable" practices to slip into the periphery and not be attacked by the colonial regime as more flamboyant practices of animal sacrifice and notions of shamanism.
Practices such as the baci ceremonies (shown in the background image; a pre-Buddhist ceremony that connects the 32 spirits and organs and meant to bring good wealth and good fortune; involves communal string tying to wrists and celebrations) -ceremonies attached to the idea of community and connectivity between people living and passed- and certain traditions attached to other celebrations possess these ancestral practices associated with animism and are enabled to exist in the contemporary world via this hybridization of animism and Buddhism. Another example of this would be the themes of cleansing and renewal associated with the Lao-Thai New Year celebrations and the use of water to cleanse ourselves and others for the year ahead.
Another example of this is how Lao communities still use spirits bells to both draw in protector spirits and to keep bad spirits away, under the guise that its for the children's protection rather than the protection of the community. This shows not only the maintenance of animistic practices but also the evolution of how these practices are perceived by Lao-communities of today (Meunekithirath, 2019). These items and practices that Lao-people have had for millennium are prime examples of material culture that illustrate the evolution of animistic beliefs.

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By possessing these items and notions, the Lao people have been able to upkeep a material culture that has reference to the notions of animism that is still being produced to this day. Contemporary Lao communities have access to specialized craftsmen that produce these sacred items and keep the practices alive and well. In turn notions of spirits and peoples’ connection to the spiritual side of the physical world. While the materials used to make spirit locks and bells in the U.S. come from different sources than the ones of the homeland, some say the power of the items is dwindled by its lack of connection to the ancestral home. However, despite the Lao-communities abroad being abroad, they also believe that the homeland comes with them, in a sense, to these "new worlds," exemplified by how Lao diaspora communities retain spirit paranoia and fear bad spirits from the homeland have followed them to their new abodes, especially the phi ka when numbers of Lao people seemed to have dropped dead well answering the phone. Not only do these cases show the relevance of these beliefs, but also their integration into the modern world and how these spirits adapt to the world around them, making them feel all the more real and powerful (Muecke, 1987).



 



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With the movement of peoples and their material culture, these items and places take on new forms to better a situate to their new surroundings. Diaspora hubs, such as Elgin, Illinois, have many sites of cultural relevancy such as grocery stores, Wats, and other structures of Lao identity and behaviorisms. The picture in the background was taken at the Golden Market in Elgin, where not only Lao, but many Southeast Asian peoples come to get food, household, and religious items that harken back to the homeland. Items such as incense, for ceremonies, and structures for spirit houses proliferated the stores aisles and demonstrates how active these beliefs are in the contemporary.
This is not uncommon among diasporic groups and ethnic hubs of other groups, whom also shape their new environments via businesses and places that allow for these groups to participate in cultural maintenance and continue the knowledge of their homelands in these new spaces.
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The interviews that I conducted alongside this research strengths the arguments that I came across within the academic literature: that while the continuation of some animistic practices is maintained via different Lao-Buddhist ceremonies and oral traditions that parents pass down through the generations. However, despite groups keeping some of the traditions alive, as with all cultures, generational gaps have appeared where younger people can lose interest in the subject matter or become disenfranchised with their ancestral heritage; yet according to one of my interviewees, she has noticed a revival in interest and participation within the Elgin Lao community and "has hope" that they will continue on our traditions and fight more for cultural maintenance and retention of ancestral identity (Meunekithirath, 2019). From here the "routine" ritual behaviors take on a role of cultural maintenance in a time of identity politics and neo-tribalism, adding to the prerogative of Lao-peoples to upkeep the old ways and retain their attachment to their heritage.

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While some of the traditions have been maintained and strong connections between the Lao-people and the rituals of the past have lasted the ages, modernity has had its effect on tradition and possess a great threat for the maintenance of more traditional life-ways. Especially for communities that are in foreign lands, acculturation erodes the efforts of cultural maintenance and the balance between new ways of life and the old play out in both micro- and macro-scales, however Muecke argues that Lao communities possess an unyielding strength and powerful sense of communal bonds that enable it to be more adept at cultural maintenance than other diasporic communities (Muecke, 1987: 287-89).
For the Lao in America, and Elgin in particular, these strong bonds and renewed appreciation for the old ways, illustrate a picture of a strong people continuing their traditions despite adversary and modernity form now and years to come.


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While some of the traditions have been maintained and strong connections between the Lao-people and the rituals of the past have lasted the ages, modernity has had its affect on tradition and possess a great threat for the maintenance of more traditional life-ways. Especially for communities that are in foreign lands, acculturation erodes the efforts of cultural maintenance and the balance between new ways of life and the old play out in both micro- and macro-scales, however Muecke agrues that Lao communities posses an unyeilding strength and powerful sense of ciommunal bonds that enable it to be more adept at cultural maintenance than other diasporic communities (Muecke, 1987: 287-89).
For the Lao in America, and Elgin in particular, these strong bonds and renewed appreciation for the old ways, illustrate a picture of a strong people continuing their traditions despite adversary and modernity form now and years to come.




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Evans, Grant.The Politics of Ritual and Remembrance: Laos since 1975. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press, 1998. Accesssed October 10th, 2018.

Harvey, Graham, 2005. Animism: Respecting the Living World. London: Hurst & Co. ISBN 978-0-231-13701-0. Accessed April 2nd, 2019.

Meunekithirath, Jasmine. Interviewed by Thomas Phetmeuangmay. Personal communication. Founders memorial Library. April 4th, 2019.

Muecke, Marjorie A. "Resettled Refugees' Reconstruction of Identity: Lao In Seattle." Urban Anthropology and Studies of Cultural Systems and World Economic Development 16,    no. 3/4 (1987): 273-89. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40553108. Accessed, January 15th, 2019. 
       
Stringer, Martin D., 1999. "Rethinking Animism: Thoughts from the Infancy of our Discipline". Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute5(4): 541–56. doi:10.2307/2661147. Accessed April 2nd, 2019.







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Holt, John Clifford. Spirits of the Place: Buddhism and Lao Religious Culture. University of Hawai'i Press, 2009. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt6wqx0n

Phetmeuangmay, Thomas J., 2018. 'Moon Over the Mekong: An analysis of the History of the use of Buddhism as a tool for Nationalism in the Lao Peoples Democratic Republic.' Paper presented to the NIU 2019 Southeast Asian Studies Student conference, held at Swen Parson Hall on March 29th, 2019.

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