Hmong: Becoming Minnesotan

Laos, CIA World Factbook, 2010.

Map of Homeland

Hmong Stories

Quick Facts

Note: Members of Hmong ethnic groups live in Laos, southwestern China, Vietnam, Thailand, and Burma.  The Hmong in the U.S. come mainly from Laos.

Hmong Population:
U.S.: 226,522 (2009)
Minnesota: 54,524 (2009)
Laos:  550,000 Hmong; 6,993,767 total population (2010)

Major Religions: Animism and ancestor worship form the traditional Hmong religion.  Up to 50% of Hmong in the U.S. are now Christian.   Laos in general is Buddhist 67%, Christian 1.5%, other and unspecified 31.5% (2005 census). 

Ethnic Groups: Hmong include two major groups, White Hmong (Hmong Der) and Blue Hmong (Hmong Leng), several subgroups including Striped Hmong, and about 19 clans.   Ethnic groups in Laos include: Lao 55%, Khmou 11%, Hmong 8%, other (over 100 minor ethnic groups) 26% (2005 census). 

Major Languages:  White Hmong and Blue Hmong in Laos, Thailand, and the U.S. speak mutually intelligible dialects of the Hmong language.  The major language in Laos is Laotian.

Current Government of Laos: Communist state.

Geography of Laos:  Landlocked; most of the country is mountainous and thickly forested; the Mekong River forms a large part of the western boundary with Thailand.  Rugged mountains; some plains and plateaus.  Most of the Hmong in the United States come from Xieng Khouang, Houa Phan, Luang Phrabang, and Sayaboury provinces in northern Laos.

Climate of Laos: Tropical monsoon; rainy season (May to November); dry season (December to April).

Source: CIA World Factbook 2010 and American Community Survey 2009.

Population Comparison

Hmong:

550,000

USA:

226,522

Minnesta:

54,524
  • Introduction
  • Religion & Culture
  • History & Geography
  • Finding a New Home
  • Investigate Further

Introduction

The Hmong are members of an ethnic group that has lived in Southeast Asia for thousands of years.  Although they have not had a country of their own, they have developed their own independent culture within their small mountainous farming communities.  During the Vietnam War in the 1960s & 70s the Hmong people in Laos partnered with the Americans to fight against Southeast Asian Communists, and many became refugees when Laos fell to a Communist group in 1975. Although there are Hmong in Thailand, Vietnam and China, nearly all of the Hmong who settled in the U.S. are from Laos. The Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, have become a primary resettlement center for these Hmong refugees, and currently Minnesota boasts the second highest Hmong population in the U.S.

Religion & Culture

RELIGION

Traditional Hmong religious practices involve worship of ancestors and natural spirits.  These spirits affect everyone’s daily life, for good and bad, and they can be contacted with the help of a spiritual leader called a shaman.  The shaman is also a healer, and people go to him for treatment of the same kinds of illnesses that would cause a person to go the doctor’s office here in the U.S. 

According to Hmong tradition, a person has several souls, and sickness is caused by upsetting one of the souls.  There are specific rituals, chanting, and ceremonies that must be performed by the shaman in order to discover the problem and then please the upset soul and make the person healthy again.  Sometimes these rituals include special herbs or sacrificing an animal.  In the U.S., the Hmong have had to adapt to American laws, so animal sacrifice is less common than it was in Asia. Many Hmong have also converted to Christianity, or blended together practice of Christianity with traditional Hmong beliefs.

A traditional Hmong burial is an elaborate ceremony and recounting of the person’s life that lasts several days.  Sometimes animals would be sacrificed as part of the burial ceremonies, and the kind and numbers of animals would show off the wealth and prestige of the family.

The Hmong New Year is an annual celebration that takes place in the fall to honor the ancestors and give thanks for the completion of the year’s harvest.  Over three days certain rituals are performed to honor the spirits of ancestors and to provide for the health and safety of the current family in the New Year.  After these three days, people celebrate for several days with outdoor sports, and games, music, dancing, and feasting.

education

Historically, Buddhist monks provided most of the education for young men in Laos.  This was the virtually the only form of education until the mid-20th Century, and it focused on teaching the principles of Buddhism.
Schools began to develop in the 20th Century, but Laos was slow to develop widespread public education for all people within its borders. Under French rule in the 1800s there was little effort by the French to build Laotian schools (like they did in other parts of French Indochina.)  The Hmong lived mostly in rural mountainous areas, so schools were often not accessible to them. If any Hmong children did go to school, they were not taught in the Hmong language but in Laotian, Thai, Vietnamese, or Chinese depending on where they lived.

If education was available to the Hmong, it was often the boys who were sent to school because the girls were needed to help at home.  In traditional Hmong society, sons were more highly valued than daughters because they would stay in the same clan and were thus given better opportunities.  After Hmong men began being recruited to fight with the American soldiers in the “Secret War” in Laos, the daughters were needed even more to help with all of the chores at home.  Even in the refugee camps, there was not adequate schooling for all children, and girls often had to watch younger siblings.

FAMILY LIFE

The Hmong traditionally farmed in the mountainous areas of China, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand.  Most of the Hmong were subsistence farmers who grew only enough food to feed their families, because farming was difficult in the mountainous regions where most of them lived.  The crops they grew included rice, corn, and poppies for opium.  In order to become wealthy, a person had to produce more food then they needed (which required a lot of land), or have some other business where they could charge people for their services.

The Hmong in Laos typically had large families, and the children spent most of their time helping the family with farming and household tasks.  However, having a lot of children could also be a burden if there was a year with bad crops, leaving not enough food for all of the family members.  Because families often struggled to support everyone, it was common for young people to get married at a very early age compared with the U.S., often in their young teens.

Hmong society is divided into eighteen or so clans, and daily life is centered on these clans. And the clan leaders traditionally make decisions for their clans and keep peace among the members.  Each family belongs to a clan, and when a woman marries she joins her husband’s clan.  Clan members are supposed to support and take responsibility for each other, and in the U.S. members of the same clan often moved to be nearer to each other.   Traditional Hmong society is also very patriarchal, with the men of the households making most of the decisions for the families. 

History & Geography

GEOGRAPHY

Although the Hmong people lived in many different places throughout Southeast Asia, most of them settled in areas were similar geographically.  As the Hmong migrated into Laos, where much of the lowland farmland was already occupied, they were forced to settle in the rugged mountainous regions.  Thus, they built their communities by clearing the heavily forested areas in the mountains to create small plots of land where crops could be grown.  The climate in Laos is tropical and monsoon, so for several months of the year it is very hot and humid with heavy rainfall.

EARLY HISTORY

Ancestors of the Hmong have lived in southwestern China for thousands of years. Starting in mid-1600s the Chinese began limiting the freedom of the Hmong people.  During the early 1800s the Hmong unified in rebellion against the Chinese and afterwards many Hmong families migrated out of China into the mountainous regions of Thailand, Burma, Laos, and Vietnam.  However, to this day there are still far more Hmong in China today than anywhere else in the world combined.

From the 1600s to the 1800s Laos was divided into three separate kingdoms, and during this time the country experienced several invasions by the Vietnamese, Thai (then called Siamese), and Burmese armies.  From the late 1800s until 1954 Laos was controlled as part of a French colony called French Indochina. During this time a system of government was established that included regional governors and mayors who were in charge of local communities.  Between 1919 and 1921 the Hmong revolted against the French, and were then granted an autonomous Hmong district where they were allowed to govern themselves through their traditional clan structure. 

20th CENTURY

Laos faced a lot of political turmoil in the 20th Century.  During the 1940s a Communist leader named Ho Chi Minh rose to power in Vietnam. He was successful in leading the Vietnamese, Laotian, and Hmong people to fight against the French and get them out of Southeast Asia.  However, when the French were gone, the Vietnamese Communists were not satisfied with simply disbanding French Indochina and creating independent countries.  Ho Chi Minh established control of the northern half of Vietnam, but he wanted to expand Communist control into the neighboring areas of South Vietnam and Laos. These other countries were struggling to establish their own systems of government after the French were gone, so they were vulnerable to attack by the Communists.

The Americans eventually joined the conflict to try to stop the spread of Communism in Southeast Asia, and help South Vietnam and Laos to establish stable democratic governments.  However, when the Americans went to war against the Vietnamese Communists, they needed help from local soldiers.  The Hmong leader General Vang Pao was a high ranking officer in the Lao army, and he agreed to recruit soldiers to help fight off the Communist invasion of Laos. This has now come to be called the “Secret War” in Laos.

Civil war had been raging in Laos since the removal of the French and after the U.S. pulled out of southeast Asia the very repressive Communist Pathet Lao government gained control of the country.  They ruled Laos from 1975 into the mid-1990s.  During this time many Hmong fled to neighboring Thailand, fearing persecution and reprisals from the goverment.  Over the past 15 years, the Lao government has relaxed its harsh practices significantly, and tens of thousands of Hmong refugees living in Thailand have voluntarily returned to Laos.  However, over 200,000 Hmong have now settled in other parts of the world where there are better opportunities for education and jobs.  Laos continues to rely mostly on small-scale farming but the government has made many reforms in recent years to build tourism and other industries.

Finding a New Home

The Hmong people began immigrating to the U.S. as refugees after 1976, and more continue to arrive each year to join family members currently living here.  Today Minnesota has the second largest Hmong population in the country behind California.

During the Vietnam War many Hmong soldiers fought with the Americans against the Communists.  When the United States pulled out of Southeast Asia, the Vietnamese Communists and the Communist Pathet Lao began retaliations against the Hmong for helping the Americans.  General Vang Pao and other military leaders were airlifted out of the country but civilians were left mostly to fend for themselves.  Tens of thousands of Hmong began to flee to Thailand, to escape persecution from the forces who had gained control of Laos. Numerous refugee camps were set up just across the border in Thailand, but the camps were crowded and the Thai people were not always very friendly towards all of these newcomers who meant competition for few jobs and resources. 

Knowing that they could not return to their homelands in Laos, Vietnam, or China many of these refugees made the decision to find a permanent home in the United States or other countries. There have been four major waves of Hmong resettlement in the U.S. since 1975.  A Hmong person had to apply for a refugee visa while they were in the refugee camp.  If selected, each person or family would be placed in a specific place in the U.S. where they had a sponsor who would help them find jobs, housing, and provide other services to help them get settled. 

It can take a long time to get permission to resettle in the U.S., and many Hmong lived for years in Thai refugee camps before getting refugee visas.  Many younger Hmong were born in the camps and lived their whole lives there before immigrating.  The last and largest official refugee camp, Ban Vinai, was closed by the Thai government in 1993, and its 20,000 residents were supposed to be sent back to Laos.  However, many Hmong fled into Thailand rather than return to Laos.  In 2004, the U.S. agreed to allow 15,000 refugees living in a makeshift camp in Thailand to settle in the U.S.

LIFE IN THE U.S.

The Hmong people were traditionally farmers, but have had a difficult time continuing this occupation in the U.S.  If they live in a rural area they are more able to continue farming, but are more likely to be culturally isolated there.  In addition, American agriculture is now largely based on huge farms that are too big to be worked by hand and require large and expensive equipment to operate.  Hmong families simply cannot afford this machinery and have a hard time competing with corporate agriculture.  Although home and land ownership rates have risen dramatically among Hmong refugees in the last 15 years, it takes time for each family to save to buy enough land for a profitable farm.

For those Hmong who have settled in the city, there is more community support but very little land for farming.  Many Hmong who were originally placed in rural areas have chosen to resettle in the Twin Cities where there are other Hmong families nearby and the newcomers don’t feel so alone.  There have been efforts to create opportunities for farming in the metro area, by creating community gardens in the city and renting farms in more distant suburbs.  Recently, public interest in buying local and organic food has created a new market for small scale farmers, and encouraged more Hmong to start growing crops to sell at local farmers markets.    

Hmong culture is constantly evolving and changing, especially as younger generations grow up in the U.S. and adapt more to American culture.  The Hmong New Year celebration is an important celebration to honor relatives and Hmong culture, but the traditional festivals in Southeast Asia lasted for days.  The Hmong in the U.S. have adapted the New Year celebration to accommodate stricter work schedules and further distances that people travel to attend.

Marriage is another area where changes have taken place within the Hmong community.  Early marriages do still occur in the U.S., often performed by the clan elders and mej koob (wedding negotiators) instead of by someone licensed to perform legal marriages in the U.S.  However, it is becoming more common for Hmong young people to wait until they are older to get married.  In the United States, all children are mandated by law to attend school through age 18, so this has opened a lot of doors for girls who might not have had the opportunity to attend school in their homelands in Southeast Asia. As more Hmong students are graduating from high school and going on to college, they are waiting to get married.

Many Hmong families are no longer farming together, but instead parents have other kinds of jobs that take them outside the home. Consequently, Hmong children in the U.S. have much more time away from their parents than they did in Southeast Asia, and they are sometimes influenced more by their American peers and culture around them than their parents at home.  This can be a source of conflict between the generations. Hmong elders try to maintain the Hmong traditions, but the younger generation does not always make the same effort.  There is a fear among the elders that once they lose parts of their traditional culture, it will be very difficult to get it back.  

The Hmong have had to adapt to American culture, but Minnesota has also changed because of this community of newcomers.  At first, it was difficult for many Hmong people to accept the practices of Western medicine because they sometimes go against Hmong beliefs.  One example of this is surgery.  Traditionally the Hmong believe that cutting a person means opening them up to allow bad spirits to come into the body.  When the Hmong newcomers do not speak English well, then it is easy to become suspicious of unfamiliar medicines and treatments that doctors prescribe.  The medical system has adapted in the U.S. by providing training on cultural practices and beliefs for health care workers to better prepare them for dealing with not only Hmong patients, but other new immigrants.  Translators for Hmong, Somali, and Hispanic immigrants are commonly provided so that patients understand the care they are getting.  Hospitals have had to become more responsive to individual patient needs.

Investigate Further

WEB RESOURCES

Hmong Homepage: www.hmongnet.org
This site brings together a collection the Internet-based resources related to Hmong news and current-events, issues, history, publications, and culture.

Hmong American Partnership (HAP): www.hmong.org
Website of the St. Paul based organization, which provides support to Hmong refugees and Hmong American families.

Lao Family Community of Minnesota: www.laofamily.org
Website of the St. Paul based organization, which provides support to Hmong refugees and Hmong American families and sponsors local Hmong cultural events.

Hmong Times: www.hmongtimes.com
"The Newspaper of the Hmong Community," based in St. Paul, provides information for and about the Hmong community.

Hmong in Minnesota: www.mnhs.org/hmong
Minnesota Historical Society resources about the history and culture of Minnesota’s Hmong people.

MNopedia

RECOMMENDED READING

Cha, Dia. Dia's Story Cloth: The Hmong People's Journey of Freedom. New York: Lee & Low Books, 2001.
The story of the Hmong people and of the story of Dia, a young Hmong refugee, are told through a traditional Hmong story cloth, woven by Dia's aunt and uncle. Good for grades 1-6.

Donnelly, Nancy D.  Changing Lives of Refugee Hmong Women.  Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997.
An anthropological study of female Hmong refugees in Seattle, and their changing roles in society.

Fadiman, Anne. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1997.
This non-fiction book uses the story of one Hmong refugee family in California to explore the conflict between Hmong traditional beliefs and the medical system in the U.S.

Hillmer, Paul.  A People's History of the Hmong. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 2009.
A narrative history of the worldwide community of Hmong people, exploring their cultural practices, war and refugee camp experiences, and struggles and triumphs as citizens of new countries.

Moua, Mai Neng, Ed. Bamboo Among the Oaks: Contemporary Writing by Hmong Americans. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 2002.
An anthology of poetry, essays, and short stories by first and second generation Hmong Americans.

Symonds, Patricia V.  Calling In The Soul: Gender And The Cycle Of Life In A Hmong Village.  Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2005.
This book examines Hmong beliefs regarding the cycle of life and how those beliefs are expressed in practices surrounding childbirth, marriage and death.

Vang, Chia Youyee.  Hmong in Minnesota. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 2008.
A brief history of the arrival of the Hmong in Minnesota in the 1970s, their struggle to build community in a new land, and the challenges they face today.

Yang, Kao Kalia.  The Latehomecomer: a Hmong Family Memoir. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2008.
Kao Kalia Yang, a young Hmong Minnesotan, tells the tale of her family's escape from Laos to refugee camps in Thailand in the 1970s, her birth in Ban Vinai camp, and the family's struggles in the U.S. after relocating there when Yang was six.

Events

Hmong ABC Bookstore
298 University Ave W, St. Paul, MN 55103
In addition to books, this store also offers Hmong arts, crafts, music and more.

Hmong Flea Market - Hmong International Marketplace
217 Como Ave, St. Paul, MN 55103

Hmong New Year
RiverCentre, St. Paul, MN
Late November-Early December

Hmong Sports Festival
McMurray Field, Como Park, St. Paul, MN
July 2-4

Hmong Resource Fair
Aldrich Arena
1850 White Bear Ave N, Maplewood, MN  55109
Early October
This event brings imformation on health, education, employment, housing and other other resources to the Hmong community each year.


Citation Sources

"2008 Southeast Asian American Data from the American Community Survey." Hmong Studies Internet Resource Center website, http://www.hmongstudies.org/2008SEAAmericanCommunitySurvey. 15 May 2010.

Aamot, Gregg. The New Minnesotans: Stories of Immigrants and Refugees. Minneapolis: Syren Book Company, 2006.

"Building Bridges: Teaching about the Hmong in our Communities." Hmong Cultural Center website, www.hmongcc.org. 13 May 2010. 

Gary Yia Lee website, http://www.garyyialee.com. 13 May 2010.

Hang, MayKao, Community Focus Group Member. Meetings and email correspondence with Kate Stower, May-September, 2010.

"This is Home: The Hmong in Minnesota." Minnesota Public Radio, 8 March 1999. Minnesota Public Radio website, http://news.minnesota.publicradio.org/features/199903/08_nymanl_home/index.shtml. 15 May 2010.

Vang, Chia. Hmong in Minnesota. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2008.

Wikipedia website, www.wikipedia.org. 16 May 2010.


nid: 576