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The Karens, pronounced (Ka-rans), are an
indigenous people to the southeast Asian countries of Thailand and
Burma. Our population numbers around 14 million in that region with
the majority of the Karens living inside Burma. Traditionally, most
Karens are farmers who farm the nutrient rich soils of southern Burma
and eastern Thailand. The religion of the Karen majority is Animism
and Buddhism although there is a sizable population of Christians
among the Karens. Christians constitute roughly 30% of the Karen
population. Karens, unlike other large ethnic groups, are made-up of
smaller subgroups who, in some cases, speak in their own dialects.
There are, however, two main groups of Karens: the Sgaws(S'waw) and
the Pwos. To most people who are familiar with the Karens, Karens are
known for their colorful traditional clothes and for their energetic
and jubilant festival dances. Foremostly, the Karens are known for
their hospitality and friendliness which they readily extend to
everyone. Please continue to explore this website to learn more about
us, the Karen. (From the
Karen Homepage This webpage is a cultural exchange and communication center representing the Karen people.
I*EARN First Peoples' Project
New Life Center
The Sop Moi Arts
Hilltribes Resources and Development Center of Mae Chaem, Thailand and Handclasp (Visalia, California)
The Handclasp ministry exists to support the
work of the
Resources and Development Center of Mae Chaem,
Thailand. In October of 1992
Zothansiami Ralte (Ajarn Tete), with the assistance of grants from
the Baptist Union of Sweden and Norwegian (Lutheran) Church Aid, the
Hilltribes Resources and Development Center was opened with 15 young
Karen tribal girls in residence. The center not only cares for girls
providing them with education and vocational skills, but it also
empowers women of 9 surrounding villages to become economically
viable resources to their families in the production of tribal
products. In these endeavors. Ajarn Tete does a lot to help the Karen
people value their own culture. As a tribal person, she is very aware
of how important it is to preserve the Karen culture, language, and
songs. She believes the Karen are losing the battle in keeping
culture because the younger people are increasingly unable to read
and write their own language, the women are unable to weave their
outfits, and the children are more reluctant to wear their costumes.
All of the programs of the center combat these trends.
Tete is working with the Karen women of many villages to help them to teach both Karen weaving and written language. She has started women's weavers groups in 9 villages and has a program to teach the written Karen language to the children of seven of these villages. She also has a program at the center to teach children from many of these villages the Karen culture every other weekend. She also has another program, funded by Compassion, that hires a teacher's aid (actually a trained teacher) and another person who teaches the Karen language two days per week. This program gives many children their only access to an education--and one that affirms tribal identity while preparing children for a different world of work they must enter. There is no other program in the country of Thailand that systematically teaches as much Karen culture and provides economic viability, as does the work of the Hilltribe Resources and Development Center.
Presently there are more than 80 children (both boys and girls) in residence at the Hilltribe Resources and Development Center. Many of the first young girls who came to the program in 1992 are now in high schools, Bible training centers, and vocational institutions supported by the work of Ajarn Tete. The Center also supports cooperative enterprises in the village for economic development (agriculture, productions of goods and services, and retail ventures).
Because her sewing and weaving groups are
open to both the community women and her students, she hopes that
this will help maintain some of the Karen ways of weaving and gain
the ability to pass along the different sewing patterns. At the same
time, she hopes that by holding the sewing group sessions and weaving
classes, she allows the
women to work with sewing and weaving machinery they can not afford
on their own. Also, she wants the women to more easily access
materials to help them weave and sew. In return for all of Ajarn
Tetes efforts, she wants the students and women from the
community to be able to earn a living and not have to worry about
other alternatives (Ralte, 1/28/99).
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Humanitarian Project (Bairnsdale Secondary College, Victoria, Australia)
Students at Bairnsdale Secondary College held fundraising activities and approached the Student Representative Council at the College to donate money to support the Karen students in Thailand. This was presented to Siriluck Hiri-O-Tappa when she visited the school in 1998. This, together with money raised by other schools has enabled the purchase of additional educational supplies to support the three schools who are participants in The First Peoples' Project.
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The I*EARN First Peoples' Project The I*EARN First Peoples Project allows indigenous students from around the world to work together on collaborative projects. It allows non-indigenous students to interact with indigenous students in finding out information or engaging in discussions about issues. The project includes writing, art and discussion about issues relating to indigenous people. The Karen of Thailand are one of the featured groups of indigenous people.
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New Life Center (Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, Thailand)
As the economic situation deteriorates in the hills, more and more tribal people are forced to go into the cities to work in order to feed and support their families. But they are ill-equipped for this kind of change: more than 70% of them have received no formal education. Most don't even speak Thai, since their isolated cultures are quite different from Thailand's. And when young, uneducated tribal women come to the cities, they are often exploited in the workplace, with many ending up in the sex industry.
Out of concern for these women, American Baptist missionaries have sought a way to make it possible for them to prepare for legitimate occupations by offering educational opportunities to those who had little or no previous formal schooling. With a small capital grant, the first residence of the New Life Center was opened on May 5, 1987, providing shelter to 18 women. Today, nearly 200 girls and young women, ranging in age from 12 to 30, are sheltered in the houses of the Center, which are located in the cities of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai in northern Thailand. Back to Top
THE SOP MOEI ARTS Two hundred and eighty kilometres west of Chiang Mai, in one of Thailand's remotest, live the Pwo Karen, one of Thailand's smallest tribal groups. The communities live much as they have for centuries; hamlets of eighteen villages held together by beliefs, culture and self-reliant skills that have long since frayed among much of the rest of Thailand's tribal groups.
For the first ten years, through Swedish government assistance, we operated health programmes primarily for mothers and children. Our second programme, begun in 1980 introduced to these slash-and-burn farmers more ecologically sound ways of increasing and varying food production.
It wasn't until 1988 that we turned our attention to the preservation of the arts and crafts of this tribal group. We started with textiles, hoping that the income generated by the women weavers would supplement the family's nutritional needs. In 1992 we extended this programme to include the production of baskets and artefacts made by men.
The result is what you find when you step into our Chiang Mai shop today. And it is unlike any other shop you'll come across in this city, for as those who know Pwo Karen textiles and baskets are quick to point out, most of our textiles don't look ethnically Pwo Karen; a lot of our baskets, too, appear to have come from other tribal groups altogether. It is a point we appreciate well, for it is here that our group is at it's best.
The fact is, when it comes to our textiles we rarely produce faithful reproductions of Pwo Karen fabrics; we leave that to others, and Chiang Mai is awash with them. Ours is a different strategy, one that calls for much greater dynamism from our weavers. While we have employed international textile and fashion consultants to fine-tune our programme, their brief was not so much to come up with new designs as to teach the tribal weavers to look at their traditional fabrics and to reinterpret them. It is this course which ensures that you will always see something fresh in our shop. And it's the reason that our fabrics have a unified, homogeneous look; after all, they come from the same wellspring of inspiration.
Our baskets programme is another example of innovation in a traditional craft. While our team include a full-time Pwo Karen basketry expert to make sure that the baskets conform to all the correct details, we do make a growing range of other "new" basketswhich, unfortunately, we have a difficult time keeping in stock. The village men also weave baskets developed by other ethnic tribes from Laos, Burma and China; baskets which, once common, are now close to extinction because in today's world it is no longer cost effective to make them. Back to Top
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