The Jarai (also Người Gia Rai, Gia Rai, or Gia-rai) is an ethnic group based primarily in Vietnam's Central Highlands. The Jarai language is a member of the Malayo-Polynesian branch of the Austronesian language family. The Jarai language is related to the Cham language of central Vietnam and the Malayo-Polynesian languages of Indonesia, Malaysia, Madagascar, Philippines and other Pacific Islands (Hawaii, New Zealand, Easter Island, Samoa, Guam, Fiji, etc.). The speakers of Jarai number approximately 332,557. They are the largest of the upland ethnic groups of the Central Highlands known as Degar or Montagnards.
The Jarai live primarily in the Gia Lai and Kon Tum Provinces, with some others in Đắk Lắk Province and a few thousand in Ratanakiri Province, Cambodia. Following the Vietnam War, many Jarai (as well as members of other Montagnard groups) who had been allied with the United States were resettled with their families in the United States, particularly in the state of North Carolina.
Traditionally, the Jarai live in small villages numbering 50-500 in population. The villages are laid out in a square, with single occupancy dwellings or communal longhouses arranged around a village center. Often the village center boasts a communal house, well, volleyball net or rice mill. Houses have traditionally been constructed entirely from bamboo, though in more recent times wooden houses with steel roofs have gained popularity, due to their durability. The Jarai have a matrilineal culture; that is, the lineage is traced through the mother rather than the father.
The majority of Jarai are animists; believing that spirits inhabit all of creation. Sacrifices of pigs, cows, and buffalo are periodically made to the spirits to appease them. In the 1970s, however, American missionaries under the Christian and Missionary Alliance brought Christianity to the Jarai. As a result, the number of Jarai Christians in Vietnam and Cambodia now numbers upwards of 100,000. A smaller number of Jarai who have moved to urbanized areas have also converted to the Buddhist religion of the Vietnamese.
The 1950s and 1960s saw the Degar movement gain popularity among the Jarai and their Montagnard brethren (Degar is a Rhade word meaning "sons of the mountain"). The goal of the Degar was to create an independent state in the Vietnamese highlands, consisting entirely of indigenous people groups. As a result of the movement, the Vietnamese government has become increasingly suspicious of the Jarai. Human rights abuses on the part of the government have become frequent among all Montagnards.
The Jarai perform their music on gongs, xylophones, zithers, and various other traditional instruments. Dock Rmah, a prominent Jarai musician living in the United States, received a Folk Heritage Award from the North Carolina Arts Council in 1996.
As Vietnam now allows only six official religions, the Jarai are having more difficult times there. Canada is among the countries recently accepting refugees on the grounds of religious persecution.
Traditional Jarai tombs are little huts in which are placed the possessions of the deceased and some offerings. Around the tomb are placed wooden pillars which are topped by crude carvings, some of which represent spiritual guardians.
The burial ceremony is extremely expensive and usually entails the sacrifice of water buffalos and cows. If the family of the deceased cannot afford the ceremony, it can be held up for several years.
After a number of years, the tombs are abandoned. This final ceremony of the abandonment of the tomb marks the point where death becomes final and the deceased spirit is released, thus releasing a widow for remarriage for instance.