Against the simplistic thesis that hill peoples are marginal and unruly groups by choice, in conflict with state power, this article shows that, in the context of mainland Southeast Asia, hill peoples develop relationships with lowland state societies that are more complex and ambiguous than usually portrayed. Ethnographic and historical evidence reveals that they compromise and cooperate with the lowland state more often than they oppose it. Although hill peoples are commonly conceived as ‘barbarians’ of the periphery, and ill-treated or instrumentalized accordingly, in some circumstances they played a central role in the defence and the reshaping of pre-modern and modern Southeast Asian states. Moreover, their political and religious acculturation by lowland societies sometimes proves to have been instrumental in the perpetuation of a specific identity under the guise of surface assimilation. This article not only highlights the dynamics of past and present interactions between lowland and upland societies but also questions the future of the latter, in the context of an increasing engulfment by nation-states and, conversely, of new perspectives offered by globalization. The analysis thus demonstrates that hill peoples often take advantage of new forms of partnership resulting from globalization to renegotiate their image and status more favourably, and to counter the pressure exerted by the dominant society. Finally, they appear to be neither Zomian – that is, uncompromising rebels to ‘stateness’ in James C. Scott’s formulation – nor zombies, unable to adapt.