Joel M. Halpern Laotian Slide Collection

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Consisting of slightly over 3000 images, the Joel M. Halpern Laotian Slide Collection is a unique portrait of life in Laos. Nearly all of the images were personally taken by Professor Halpern, an anthropologist, in Laos in 1957, 1959, and 1969. He initially went to Laos as a Junior Foreign Service Officer attached to USOM, the U.S. Operations Mission, in January 1957 and stayed until January 1958. Subsequently supported by the Rand Corporation and a University of California Junior Faculty Fellowship, Prof. Halpern returned to Laos in 1959 to conduct a study of, in particular, the Lao elite. His stays and research resulted in some of the first American academic work on Laos, a French colony from 1893 to 1953, most notably the 22-volume Laos Project Paper series published while he was at UCLA. In 1969, Prof. Halpern went back to Laos again as chair of the Mekong Seminar of the Southeast Asia Development Advisory Group (SEADAG) to study the impact of dams being constructed in Laos. Following appointments at UCLA, Brandeis University, and Harvard University, Prof. Emeritus Halpern retired in 1992 after teaching 25 years at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Digitization of his extensive, nearly all, slide collection commenced at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in late 2003, with the metadata phase being completed in early 2005. As a part of SEAiT, the Halpern Collection represents the project’s initial component for Laos. The slides and photographs are themselves one portion of an extensive collection of materials which Prof. Halpern donated to the University of Wisconsin Library System’s Special Collections Department.

The Halpern Collection provides a very interesting picture of activities and life in Laos, from royal ceremonies to rural scenes, from American aid to “hilltribe” communities. Its most distinctive feature is its extensive focus on Luang Prabang, the (then) royal capital, where Prof. Halpern and his wife, Barbara Kerewsky-Halpern, resided during their 1957 stay, as well as neighboring parts of northern Laos. Among the Luang Prabang and northern Laos highlights are:

  1. Coverage of several royal ceremonies, including the wedding of (then) King Sisavang Vong’s youngest son, Prince Manivong, in 1957;
  2. A rural trip with Prince Phetsarath, the “Uparat”, or Viceroy, in 1957, shortly after he had returned from political exile; and
  3. Numerous images of the region’s various ethnic minority “hilltribe” groups, in particular the Akha, Hmong, Kammu, Lanten, Lu, Tai Dam, and Yao (Mien).

Among the latter grouping, the Collection includes an especially rare set of images from the White Hmong village of Kiu Katiam in Luang Prabang province. The village, about 50 miles south of the city, was home to Father Yves Bertrais, a Frenchman of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, from April 1950 until the end of 1959. In 1952, Father Bertrais was one of three missionary co-founders of the Hmong Romanized Popular Alphabet (RPA), the script now most used by the Hmong around the world. Prof. Halpern’s Kiu Katiam images have been most significantly enhanced by the addition of personal information about individuals as well as the village through direct contact with Father Bertrais (working in Thailand at the time, December 2004) and several Hmong born in Laos, including Kiu Katiam, who now live in the U.S. (as of December 2004, August 2006, November 2007, and January 2008). In particular, two Kiu Katiam natives — the husband and wife couple of Fyntso Yang and Mai Thao, now of West Chicago, Illinois — have been invaluable informants, providing and/or confirming nearly all the names and additional information for the village community.

During his time in Laos Prof. Halpern also gathered an ethnographic collection for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. An online database with images of these objects can be viewed at: In addition, the Joel M. Halpern Collection at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston is primarily on Laos and Southeast Asia.

Additional Information

Various published works were referred to in preparing the descriptions for the collection; for a list please see the complete bibliography. This bibliography is not intended to be a comprehensive one on the country of Laos past or present. The focus of these references is as they relate to the Halpern Collection. Works were consulted on the chronological period of 1957-1969, the early years of Laos’ independence and the rule of the Royal Lao Government. Geographically, the references focus on central and northern Laos, especially the city of Vientiane and the town of Luang Prabang, the centers of administrative and royal functions respectively. Ethnically, the principal groups considered are the lowland Lao and the upland peoples, especially the Hmong, the Kammu, and to a lesser extent the Mien and tribal Tai peoples such as the Lu and Tai Dam. An extensive list of Prof. Halpern’s publications is provided because they relate directly to the images and specific references are given in some of the descriptions. Also included are references to works by Thomas Dooley, M.D. and Fred Branfman, both of whose pictures appear in the collection. Over the last half century there have been several releases of the Library of Congress Area Handbook on Laos; the most recent edition (1995) has been consulted here. Prof. Halpern has been involved in the writing of these editions. These volumes are particularly important for referencing changing place names and administrative divisions as well as providing summaries of the changes (see “Place Names” herewith for more information). Important also are the extensive works on the Kammu by Damrong Tayanin (or Kam Raw); please also refer to his website at There are also, as appropriate, some references to publications which deal with the post-1969 period.

Ethnic Group, Geographic, and Personal Names:
The Library of Congress Authorities database is the guideline for the spelling of name entries—personal, geographic, as well as those of ethnic groups—in the Place/Time, Description, and Subjects fields. However, in certain instances the preferences of the scholarly community take precedence. For example, while LCA supports the spelling Khmu’, scholars specializing on this upland ethnic group prefer Kammu, or even Kmhmu. Thus for the Halpern Collection the term is given as “Kammu (Khmu’)” in order to present a compromise between these different spelling preferences. Similarly, the Hmong ethnic group was formerly referred to as Meo or Miao, terms which are neither current in scholarship nor authorized by LCA. The Collection thus uses Hmong (Meo).

As already noted, one feature of the Halpern Collection is the way it sheds light on Laos’ complex ethnic mosaic. The current Lao government divides the country’s more than sixty ethnic groups into three categories based on which ecological zone they occupy: 1) Lao Loum, or lowland Lao; 2) Lao Theung, or Lao of the lower mountain slopes; 3) and Lao Sung, or Lao of the upper mountain slopes. In many ways this schema is problematic, not the least of which is because it attributes Lao ethnicity to many ethnic groups that are Lao in either the linguistic or cultural sense. However, it does have a certain utility if we understand it to show how ethnolinguistic identity coincides loosely with the ecological zones occupied (or manners of subsistence engaged in) by Laos’ peoples. The following is further elaboration of this schema, as well as information on how it relates to this particular collection of images. Most of the information comes from the Library of Congress’ Laos: A Country Study (1995 edition) as well as from the broader community of scholars specializing on Laos.

Lao Loum: This term mainly designates the ethnic Lao proper, who practice lowland, wet rice agriculture, speak a language belonging to the Tai language family (referred to by some scholars as Austro-Thai), and practice Theravada Buddhism. The term is sometimes expanded to include other Tai speakers who may or may not live in the lowlands or otherwise fit the pattern. For example, regarding the Lu and Tai Dam (both featured in this collection), the former are quite similar to the Lao in terms of subsistence and religion, while the latter live in upland valleys and do not practice Buddhism.
Lao Theung: According to Laos: A Country Study (1995 edition, p. 341), this term refers to “Literally, Laotian of the mountain slopes; group—including Kammu, Loven and Lamet—that traditionally lives in medium altitudes, practices swidden, or slash and burn agriculture, and speaks Mon–Khmer languages and dialects. According to the 1985 census, approximately 24 percent of the population. Regarded as original inhabitants of Laos, formally [and formerly] referred to by ethnic Laos as Kha, or slave.” Most of the people from this family of ethnic groups seen in the Halpern Collection prefer to be referred to as Kammu or Kmhmu, which connotes “person” or “human” as opposed to the pejorative connotations of “Kha” (personal communication of Damrong Tayanin (Kam Raw), May 10, 2005, who is co-director of the Kammu Research Project at the University of Lund in Sweden. He is himself Kammu and prefers that spelling, with Kmhmu as a secondary choice). See the works of Damrong Tayanin, Kristina Lindell, and Frank Proschan in the bibliography for more information.
Lao Sung: According to Laos: A Country Study (1995 edition, p. 89), “The Lao Sung make up about 10 percent of the population. These groups are Miao-Yao or Tibeto-Burmese speaking peoples who have continued to migrate into Laos from the north within the last two centuries. In Laos most highland groups live on the tops or upper slopes of the northern mountains, where they grow rice and corn in swidden fields. Some of these villages have been resettled in lowland sites since the 1970s. The Hmong are the most numerous Lao Sung group, with villages spread across the uplands of all the northern provinces. Mien (Yao), Akha, Lahu and other related groups are considerably smaller in number and tend to be located in rather limited areas of the north.”

Place names:
Each record has a Place/Time field which lists “Laos” and appropriate geographic and/or place sub–units. City and provincial names are distinguished from one another when they are the same, for example Vientiane (City) as compared to Vientiane (Province). Also, please note that Laos has changed administratively since the images were originally taken, with the SEAiT “Atlas Search” map (see the menu bar) showing Laos as it is now. For example, during Prof. Halpern’s time in Laos, the province of Oudomxay on the map was part of Luang Prabang province. Thus, Prof. Halpern’s images of the town of Muang Xay, now Oudomxay’s provincial capital, are listed in the Place/Time field as being part of that province. The province of Luang Namtha is another case of name variation, as it was formerly referred to by various names, including Province d’Haut Mekong and Nam Tha, which is the same name as the province’s capital.

Keyword searching will bring up a place name wherever it may appear — the Title, Place/Time, and/or Description fields.

Bret Johnston and Thai Yang, PhD students in anthropology, aided in writing descriptions using Prof. Halpern’s field notes (housed in the Library’s Special Collections unit) and some of the works cited in the bibliography as well as providing valuable information based on their own personal knowledge and studies of Laos and the Hmong respectively. They also translated native terms relevant to the images, for instance words seen on signs. Damrong Tayanin (Kam Raw), a distinguished researcher at the University of Lund in Sweden who is also a Kammu from Laos, provided significant advice on images pertaining to his native culture.  Grant Evans, Reader in Anthropology at the University of Hong Kong, gave indispensable commentary on a number of images, especially those pertaining to the Lao royalty. Katherine Bowie, Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, provided key assistance at all stages of the undertaking.

by Larry Ashmun and Bret Johnston

April 20, 2007 (updated)