New American Series: Karenni Cultural Differences

Continuing a series on the five largest ethnic groups resettled by the RIC in Sioux Falls in the last five years.  Upcoming blog posts will focus on the following topics: Conflict History, Cultural Differences, and New American Success Stories.  Please join us as we learn together about our new neighbors and their courageous stories.

New American Series: The Karen and Karenni (of Burma)

Cultural Differences:

This post is meant to give helpful cultural information to school workers, hospital staff, and community members on important cultural differences to keep in mind when working with the Karen and Karenni.  To research for this article, I spoke with Law Reh and Klaw Reh, two Karenni caseworkers at the RIC.  These men are in high demand as they are also South Dakota’s only registered Kayah interpreters.  This post focuses on the Karenni culture as the majority of Karen refugees have been resettled to Huron.

While there are many cultural similarities between the Karen and Karenni, such as dietary practices, family structures and religious traditions, there are also significant differences.  One of the most important is language.  Karen State and the Karenni state, known as Kayah State, are separate states within Burma, “almost like their own country,” Law said.  The Karen language is completely different than the Karenni language, known as Kayah.  These languages are for the most part mutually unintelligible.[1]    There are many different dialects within the Karen and Kayah languages.  The official language of Burma is Burmese, but many refugees do not want to speak this language due to their feelings towards the Burmese government.

The majority of Karenni refugees are Christian, attending churches in Sioux Falls, though often praying at home in their own languages.  As part of their religious tradition, they celebrate the major Christian holidays of Christmas and Easter.  Christian Karenni will go caroling around the Christmas holiday, visiting neighbors and praying together.  “Though maybe in Sioux Falls there is bad weather!”  Law joked.  Some Karenni practice traditional animist religions, with the natural world and spirits playing an important role.  “It is difficult for them to practice their religion in Sioux Falls, as some traditions must be done in the jungle.”  Law said.

(The video above is of Karenni women singing in the RIC’s Talent Show last December.  This year’s Talent Show is December 19th!  Videos and pictures to come!)

There are no religious dietary restrictions for Christian Karenni, who share a common diet with other ethnic groups of Burma that centers on rice, curry, vegetables and meat.  Most Karenni eat three meals a day with breakfast being the biggest meal.

When asked what may be important for school personnel to know, Law highlighted knowledge of what language Karenni parents speak and gave a reminder that Karenni people tend to avoid confrontation.  Conflict avoidance may be shown by simply remaining quiet.  Also in a school meeting, as a way of greeting and showing respect, Karenni parents may enter the room and walk in front of school personnel bowing and walking low before finding their seat.

Klaw said there are some American medical practices that may be foreign to Karenni refugees.  In Burma, only women deliver babies.  During the delivery, the husband is nearby, but not in the room.  Also, in Burma medicine is often given directly by the doctor or hospital following a visit.  It is not common to be given a prescription, which needs to be filled somewhere else.  “I will have clients who get confused and say ‘The doctor did not give me the medicine.’”

Two special holidays celebrated in Karenni State in Burma include Dee Ku and Kathooboo.  Dee Ku is festival celebrated in September or October where Karenni will gather together, sharing meals of sticky rice and chicken.  Law described it has a kind of harvest festival and other articles I read described it as a day of unity for all Karenni.  Kathooboo is celebrated in May and acts as a kind of New Year celebration. During the celebration a tree is painted white and men will dance around the tree while women are sprinkling water as a way to be clean for the upcoming year.

sticky rice and leaves prepared for Dee Ku (Photo courtesy of http://www.karenniphe.com)

sticky rice and leaves prepared for Dee Ku (Photo courtesy of http://www.karenniphe.com)

The Karenni people are a resilient and gracious people, learning to adjust from their homes in the jungles of Burma to life on the plains. Please check in next week for my interview with a Karenni family creating a new life in Sioux Falls!


[1] Barron, Sandy et al., “Refugees from Burma: Their Background and Refugee Experiences.” Center for Applied Linguistics (2007).

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