In Pakbeng District of Oudomxay Province in northern Laos, the Kmhmu account for a large proportion of the population. Among the Indigenous tribes currently living in Laos, the Kmhmu are said to have lived there the longest. The typical lifestyle of the Kmhmu people is based on agriculture, particularly rice production in swidden fields, which is supplemented with hunting, fishing, and gathering in the forests and rivers.
Auntie Toop, one of the older residents of Chom Leng Noy Village, Pakbeng District, is the village’s leading re-counter of tales from old times. Having become too old to go out to swidden fields, she spends her time looking after small children, feeding chickens, and gathering vegetables in the forests nearby.
The old tales recounted by Auntie Toop always feature a variety of plants and animals. In the tale, “The Owl and the Deer,” cited below, wild animals such as the owl, the deer, the elephant, the snake, and the bat, and farm animals such as the chicken and the pig all play a part, along with people and even a dragon. A banana tree growing wild in the forest makes an appearance, and so does a pumpkin, perhaps raised by people in a swidden field. In the folk tales of the Kmhmu, we experience a glimpse of the world that surrounds these people, who have deep connections with the natural environment of the forest and rivers, and the inner workings of their lives.
One day, an owl invited a deer to go fishing with him. When they reached the river together, the owl chose a small side stream and the deer chose a large one, and they used woven baskets to scoop up fish from their respective streams. The deer caught lots of fish, crayfish, and other things. The owl, however, did not catch anything at all. The owl, who was getting hungry, turned to the deer and said, “Hey, Mr. Deer. If you go upstream, you can catch even more fish.” The dear said, “Really? In that case, I’ll go up a little and come back in a while.”
The deer left his catch behind and went upstream. When the deer had gone far enough that he could no longer be seen, the owl ate up all of the fish the deer had gathered. When the deer returned, he could not find any of the catch he had painstakingly gathered. The only thing that remained was crayfish that the owl had left uneaten. Realizing that he had been deceived, the deer stamped around in a rage. When he did that, he accidentally caught his hoof on a pumpkin vine, and the pumpkin went rolling down the slope.
The pumpkin’s course took it straight to where an old woman was tending a fire to boil water. The pumpkin hit the pot, knocking it over, and spilled boiling water onto the old woman’s legs. The old woman, upset at having been showered with hot water, beat on a drum that was nearby. A chicken, surprised at the sound of the drum, ran around crying out loudly, and knocked over a pole (used for making holes in the soil when sowing paddy) that had been left standing. The falling pole hit a snake. Startled, the snake took off in a mad dash. The panicking snake slithered over an ant hill, demolishing it.
The ants in the ruined ant hill came rushing out all at once at a pig that was nearby and bit him in the mouth. Bitten by the ants, the pig tried to shake them off, and rubbed his mouth on a banana tree. The pig rubbed his mouth so hard that he knocked the banana tree over. A bat sleeping in the banana tree was startled by this. Flying off in a panic, the bat flew into an elephant’s ear. In turn, the elephant was startled. He kicked a branch that had fallen from a tree and sent it flying. The fallen branch pierced the eyes of a dragon-child that was swimming in the river. Upon hearing her child crying because of his injured eyes, the mother dragon came rushing out in a panic.
The mother dragon said, “Good Heavens! What’s the matter?” “A tree branch came flying and poked my eyes,” said the young dragon. “Mr. Tree Branch! Why did you go and pierce my child’s eyes?” The tree branch said, “Because I was kicked by the elephant, so I went flying.” “Mr. Elephant! Why did you kick the tree branch?” “Because the bat suddenly flew into my ear, and I was startled.” “Mr. Bat! Why did you fly into the elephant’s ear?” “Because the banana tree in which I was hanging fell over.” “Mr. Banana Tree! Why did you fall over?” “Because the pig rubbed his mouth on me.” “Mr. Pig! Why did you rub your mouth on the banana tree?” “Because the ants were biting me in the mouth.”
“Ant Tribe! Why were you biting the pig?” “Because the snake destroyed our anthill.” “Mr. Snake! Why did you destroy the anthill?” “Because I was suddenly struck by the falling pole.” “Mr. Pole! Why did you fall over on the snake?” “Because the chicken bumped into me.” “Mrs. Chicken! Why did you bump into the pole?” “Because the old woman suddenly started beating the drum.” “Old Woman! Why did you beat the drum?” “Because I was surprised when the pot overturned, pouring hot water on my legs.” “Mr. Pot! Why did you overturn?” “Because the pumpkin came rolling down the slope.”
“Mr. Pumpkin! Why did you go roll down the slope?” “Because the deer uprooted my vine.” “Mr. Deer! Why did you uproot the pumpkin vine?” “Because the owl stole my catch and I got angry.” Finally, the mother dragon arrived at the owl. “Mr. Owl! Why did you steal the deer’s catch?”
The owl could not think of a clever explanation. Unable to respond, he looked all around with his big eyes. “You are to blame. Because of you, my child’s eyes were damaged. To replace them, I will take your eyes.” The dragon pulled out the owl’s eyeballs and placed them in her child’s sockets. To replace the owl’s eyes, she used the seeds of a fruit called salaen, which allowed him to see only at night. This is how the crafty owl lost his ability to see by day.