In this article, I demonstrate that notions of collective identity among the Akha of Northern Thailand have shifted in recent history from a comprehensive, holistic form to a compartmentalized form. I contrast forms of collective (Akha) identity during the period of my initial fieldwork (1982-1985) with forms emerging post-1985 through 1998, a time period characterized by increasing nation-state and capitalist penetration. This recent shift is placed within a broader, long-term historical context of the shifting politics of identity in upland/lowland relations. A comprehensive, holistic form of collective identity was historically developed by the Akha as a protective and organizational complex under conditions of dispersion, orality, local autonomy and unequal power relations with outside, lowland (especially Tai) groups. Thus recent critiques of holistic, bounded approaches to culture need to take into account the fact that such forms may be produced by native actors, both as concepts and as lived realities. This form, which was defined as permeating multiple dimensions of everyday life, is being replaced by a form in which it is acceptable to compartmentalize Akha identity as an "ethnic" component that is relegated to special occasions and social domains. These two different forms of identity have different implications for the way the Akha construct and relate to others (non-Akha). Such a change raises comparative questions concerning the creative formation of and limits on modern forms of collective identity. Both new tensions and new accommodative potential between ethnic groups arise under these new conditions.