Population – 1 million
Religion – animistic, ancestor worship
Jesus Film – Completed
Scriptures – New Testament completed, a few portions of Old Testament
Christian Broadcasts – daily 15 minute radio broadcast
Status of Christianity – 1 Christian for very 1,500 people. Less than 0.1% are Christians. 90% of the Tai Dam have never heard the Gospel.
An estimated 800,000 live in Vietnam mostly in the provinces of Son La, Dien Bien and Lai Chau. Large groups are found in the northern Laotian provinces of Hua Phan, Luang Nam Tha, Luang Prabang, Xiaeng, Khouang, Phong Sali, and Bo Kaew. While 20,000 live in Thailand. In China there are 20,000 Tai Dam and they are officially included under the Dai minority group. There are 5,000 Tai Dam in France and 5,000 in the U.S.A.
The Tai Dam, who are also known as Black Tai, originated from China maybe as early as the 1st Century but scholars do not agree on when they began migrating South. They settled in the northwestern provinces of today’s Vietnam. The Tai Dam are a proud people and have a rich cultural heritage. The name “Black” or “Dam” comes from the black skirt that all women wear as well as the black head covering that they all used to wear.
Linguistically, the Tai Dam belong to the Tai branch of the Kam-Tai family. According to Thai academics at Chulalongkorn Institute of Thai Studies in Bangkok, the dialect spoken by Tai Dam is closest to northeastern Thai, but the Tai Dam have their own distinct script. As Tai Dam are found in Laos and Vietnam, the TD language has been recorded in Lao script and also the Vietnamese script. (based on a Romanized alphabet). Most people under the age of 40 years of age can no longer read this script. Though not read as much, the Tai Dam language is still widely spoken an dis an important element of Tai Dam identity. An ancient Tai Dam story refers to the Tai Dam language as the root and fiber of the Tai Dam ethnicity.
The Tai Dam are settled agriculturists who cultivate wet rice. They also raise pigs, goats, chickens, dogs and vegetables for their own use. Commerce is not highly developed, only firewood, vegetables, and their cloth or weaving is sold in the market. A few adventurous individuals have moved to the main towns and opened businesses, but the majority choose to live in their own villages where they can have a larger house, land to farm, and the Tai Dam community around them. They continue to come into town for business.
Religion and Beliefs
The Tai Dam believe in a wide range of spirits, collectively known as phi. In each house there is an ancestral altar where the spirits of the ancestors are thought to reside, and where the yearly ceremonies are conducted to honor them. If there is a sickness, or a special need, they will also do other ceremonies to ask the spirits for help. At one time, the Tai Dam also believed in spirits of the soil, water, and rice, the source of fertility and abundant harvests. It seems that the biggest obstacle to the Tai Dam following the God of all Creation, is their concern and desire to serve and venerate their ancestral spirits. They ask, “Who will feed the spirits? Who will show them that we love them and are remembering them?”
The Tai Dam Society
The Tai village, called a baan, is usually found in upland valleys and comprises on average 40- 50 and sometimes up to 100 houses on stilts. It has well defined boundaries, usually located on water courses and often has an expanse of forest for its members to hunt in, gather produce, tend their cattle and bury their dead. The Tai Dam tribal organization had three levels: the village; the commune, which was composed of a number of villages; and the overall muang. Several baan form a muang, which in the past came under the authority of a feudal lord or hereditary ruler called a chao muang. The commune was also ruled by the noble class, while the village headman was selected from among the commoners by the heads of households.
In the past there was a sort of class hierarchy where peasants and settlers coming from other regions found themselves on the lowest level. They were deprived of their civil rights and had to depend on the lord for their livelihood. The ruling elite held title to all the land in these muang domains of the Black Tai. In the past, each Tai region had their common families with specific names.
Before 1945, marriage also had to conform to class considerations. A young peasant could not marry the daughter of a mandarin and a peasant woman married to the son of a mandarin was never considered a legitimate wife. Dominance by men over women was the rule in marriage and family life. The daughter was like a stranger, and as among the White Tai, had to sleep in the room normally reserved for visitors. The wife took the name of her husband. Even in love, young people had to take class and social status into consideration. Sometimes, in order to live together, they had to resort to marriage by kidnapping and live with the girls family to escape from the paternal house, or to accept becoming a servant for a noble.
In the areas where the Tai Dam are scattered, individual family ownership of land had been traditional, but with the Communists taking control of the local situation, a collectivization of agriculture took place following along on the model of Russia and China. Family rice fields were turned into collective farms and many traditional agricultural practices were condemned as feudal.
The number of large patriarchal families has decreased in favor of small ones. Although patriarchy remains the foundation of society, Tai families live in great harmony. They are also very committed to each other within these family units and only vary rarely will someone break away from it. The spirit of hospitality and mutual assistance is well marked in Tai villages.
Lao Song Dam
In Thailand there are questions about whether or not the Lao Song Dam people are actually the same as the Tai Dam. Though they are referred to by a different name, this may be a result of their being brought to Thailand as slaves hundreds of years ago. Recent studies have estimated that there are around 4 million Lao Song Dam who have assimilated with Thai society to a high degree. Some of them have maintained their cultural traditions and there is an effort being made to revive their heritage. Could this group be a much larger group of Tai Dam as well? Further research may prove helpful in determining their identity and whether or not they should be classified as one group, or if a separate strategy and focus on them as Lao Song Dam would be needed.
The New Testament has been translated into the dialect used by the Tai Dam, and there are a few hundred Christians among the Tai Dam in Laos. Missionary work is not officially permitted although the God of All Love is not limited or hindered from teaching His creation about Himself nor from working in their hearts. Today, there are about 20 known missionaries focusing their efforts on the Tai Dam. In Vietnam, there are scattered groups of believers meeting in various parts of the country. They have endured many hard times from the authorities and Tai Dam pastors have been imprisoned for their activities. There is a growing Tai Dam church in Thailand, and perhaps a handful of Tai Dam Christians in China. Outside Southeast Asia there are also a couple of hundred Tai Dam who are now Christian.
By God’s grace we aim to mobilize global prayer movements for the Tai Dam, trusting God for an indigenous, biblical church planting movement in each community of Tai Dam, evangelizing their own group and reaching out in mission to other peoples.