Symposium Follow-Up & Comments

The Montagnards in the Central Highlands of Vietnam fall into two groups, those who speak Malayo-Polynesian and those who speak Mon-Khmer – Austroasiatic

Montagnard is a French term for people from the mountains applied to the ethnic minorities who lived in the highlands of then French colonized IndoChina--Vietnam (both North and South), Laos and Cambodia.  (The term Montagnard – La Montagne - was coined to describe a political group at the time of the French Revolution that sat in the highest benches in the Assembly.)  The hill tribes of Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos) that the French referred to as Montagnards are mainly of Malayo-Polynesian, Mon-Khmer, and Sino-Tibetan extraction.  A pejorative term – mọi (savage) - was traditionally used by the Vietnamese when referring to the Montagnards; however, as a conciliatory gesture, in the 1950s the South Vietnamese government instituted use of a more benign term người thượng (highlanders) and later đồng bào thượng (highland compatriots) in reference to the Montagnards.

Often, the Americans, especially the military, mispronounced Montagnard as Mountain-Yard, but they usually they just used “Yards” for short.  Many Americans who worked with the Montagnards mistakenly refer to all Montagnards as Dega, which is the name that the Rhadé call themselves, an abbreviation of Anàk Dega (children of Y-De and H’Ga -- their equivalent of Adam and Eve).  Kok Ksor, a Jarai who heads the Montagnard Foundation Inc. (MFI) in the US, bastardized this Rhadé term Dega and refers to all hillstribes people as Degar.  Through Kok’s advocacy for human rights in Vietnam and the return of ancestral lands, and his electronic reporting on abuses, many people who know no better have taken to referring to all Montagnards as Degar. 

If the tribespeople were to choose a universal name, it would probably be Anăk Čư Čhiăng (children or Sons of the Mountains). 

During the Vietnam War, Americans referred to only those hill-tribes people indigenous to the Central Highlands (Tây Nguyên) of South Vietnam as Montagnards, as they still do today.  Other tribal groups that immigrated to the Central Highlands from North Vietnam after the Geneva Agreements in 1954 were referred to by the name of their tribe; for example Nungs.

The present borders of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were established by the French colonialists and have no relationship to the territories hill tribes have lived since ancestral times. Thus, peoples of the same tribal group may have villages in more than one country (e.g., the Jarai and Mnong in Vietnam and Cambodia, and the Bru in Vietnam and Laos).

The Montagnards in the Central Highlands of Vietnam fall into two groups, those who speak Malayo-Polynesian and those who speak Mon-Khmer – Austroasiatic

*Excerpts from: Michael D. Benge. The History of the Involvement of the Montagnards of the Central Highlands in the Vietnam War.  in "The Fall of Saigon". SACEI. Forum #8.  March 2001. OutskirtsPress.com.