Montagnards reconstruct disrupted culture in Randolph

by Amy Kingsley

Down a dusty road in rural Randolph County, a microcosm of Southeast Asia is taking shape, thanks to the work of thousands of Montagnards, former members of the Special Forces and several community volunteers. And on Sunday, hundreds of Montagnards, who hail from Vietnam’s Central Highlands, joined together with American veterans of the Vietnam War for a toast to that culture’s health.

The occasion was Dega Days, an annual event held on the 101-acre Montagnard farmland outside of Asheboro. The land is held in trust by an organization called Save the Montagnard People, which is largely comprised of ex-Marines and Special Forces who served alongside the Montagnards during the Vietnam War.

Montagnard refugees began pouring into North Carolina two decades ago after repression by a succession of governments forced guerillas to abandon the fight for sovereignty.

Now that thousands of Montagnards make their home in the Old North State, they have shifted their emphasis to preserving the culture that was already threatened by Vietnamese oppression. To that end, the tribes have unified to tame the landscape on their swath of homeland and turn it into a monument to Montagnard culture.

Several weeks ago many Montagnard residents joined forces with a Boy Scout Troop to raise the timbers on the first of several longhouses. The tall, narrow frame looms about three stories high, as it is chalked out in old growth timber. Monstrous as it is, the inaugural longhouse is the first of four planned to represent the main Montagnard tribes.

Not all of the activity on the farm is devoted to the preservation of traditional culture. Soon after the erection of the longhouse frame, the Montagnards and their supporters cleared a plot of land for an entirely Western purpose – volleyball. On Sunday, a great deal of the farmland activity centered on the action on both sides of the brand new, taut net.

Nearby families scooped spicy meats and vegetables from warming trays. The Montagnards work the lands on the weekend, usually after spending all week working two or three jobs. Farming is one of the tasks summer holds in store for volunteers.

The centerpiece of the festivities was cultural displays conducted on the main stage of a newly renovated picnic facility. School age girls led modest dances, and older students showcased their musical talents. The instrumentation ranged from traditional to electronic.

Directly in front of the stage a rotating crew of older gentlemen seated themselves in front of ornate ceramic jugs. They wrapped their lips around plastic tubing and slurped the contents: rice wine fermented with enzyme.

Even with the celebration, which occurred during the most beautiful of late summer days, remembrance was paid to those who died in the Vietnam jungle. Many of those in attendance also worried about loved ones left behind in the mad scramble to escape Vietnam.

Montagnards build elaborate monuments to the fallen. Dirt is mounded over the tomb and surrounded by a shallow moat. Between the picnic shelter and the volleyball courts, Save the Montagnard People activists have constructed something of a stage, surrounded by a moat. The Montagnard banner was crossed with the Stars ‘n’ Stripes, and several grizzled men posted themselves in front of maps of South Vietnam.

In this remote part of the state, almost cut off from the rest of the world, they promised never to forget the sacrifices of the Montagnard people.

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