HMONG IN AMERICA
There were 327,000 Hmong in the United States in 2019, compared to about 150,000 in the 1990s. They are found mainly in Minnesota, Wisconsin and California and to a lesser extent in Michigan, Colorado and North Carolina. There are around 95,000 Hmong in California, 90,000 in Minnesota and 58,000 in Wisconsin. There are large Hmong communities in Fresno, California and St. Paul, Minnesota. The St. Paul-Minneapolis metropolitan area is home to the largest community — more than 70,000 Hmong. Around 33,000 live in the Fresno area. They make up about five percent of the population of Fresno city.
Of the 200,000 or so Hmong that fled Laos after the Vietnam War, most made their way to the United States, a place some Hmong still refer to as the "Land Of Giants." About 127,000 were resettled in the United States in the 1970s and 80s. Their odyssey to America often took years, and sometimes it involved dodging patrols, walking along jungle trails, some of which were mined, and finally swimming across the Mekong into Thailand where they waited for their paperwork to be finalized.
Between the end of the Vietnam War in 1975 and 2010, the United States has processed and accepted about 150,000 Hmong refugees in Thailand for resettlement in the United States. As of 2011, there were around 250,000 Hmong living in the United States. About 40,000 went to Wisconsin, including 6,000 in the Green Bay region. Hmong refugees from Laos make up 10 percent of the population of Wausau, Wisconsin. In December 2003, the United States agreed to take the last 15,000 refugees at Wat Tham Krabok in Thailand.
Nicholas Tapp and C. Dalpino wrote in the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”: The change from an illiterate agricultural life in remote mountain villages to an urban setting in the U.S. has been immense. Clan organizations have remained fairly strong and mutual help has eased the transition for many. However, the Hmong-American community is also highly factionalized, and there is a widening gap between the older generation, which tends to cling to Cold War values, and the younger generation, which is more inclined toward reconciliation with the Lao People's Democratic Republic. [Source: Nicholas Tapp and C. Dalpino “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,” Cengage Learning, 2009 ++]
Marc Kaufman wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “Accounts of Hmong life in the United States have tended to focus on their troubles. Shortly after arriving in California, the Upper Midwest and the Southeast, they became known for a high rate of dependence on welfare, for violent gangs and drive-by shootings, and for a despair that too often led to suicide or murder. The Hmong community’s problems remain quite real as shown by the... poverty endured by many. Gran Torino (2006), set in Highland Park, Michigan, was the first mainstream American film to feature Hmong Americans. The central focus of the Clint Eastwood film was a nasty, brutal Hmong gang. [Source: Marc Kaufman, Smithsonian magazine, September 2004]
Success of Hmong in America
Marc Kaufman wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “No group of refugees has been less prepared for modern American life than the Hmong, and yet none has succeeded more quickly in making itself at home here. “When they arrived here, the Hmong were the least westernized, most unprepared for life in the United States of all the Southeast Asian refugee groups,” said Toyo Biddle, formerly of the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, who during the 1980s was the primary official overseeing that transition. “What they’ve achieved since then is really remarkable. [Source: Marc Kaufman, Smithsonian magazine, September 2004]
Difficulties have a way of obscuring the more important story of this displaced people’s embrace of American ideals. “Hmong culture is very democratic,” says Kou Yang, a 49-yearold Hmong born in Laos who is now an associate professor of Asian-American studies at California State University at Stanislaus. Except perhaps in ancient times, he says, the Hmong “never had kings or queens or nobles. The customs, ceremonies, even the language generally put people on the same level. It’s a very good fit with America and democracy.”
Thousands of Hmong-Americans have earned college degrees. In their homeland there existed only a handful of Hmong professionals, primarily fighter pilots and military officers; today, the American Hmong community boasts scores of physicians, lawyers and university professors. Newly literate, Hmong writers are producing a growing body of literature; a compilation of their stories and poems about life in America, Bamboo Among the Oaks, was published in 2002. Hmong-Americans own shopping malls and recording studios; ginseng farms in Wisconsin; chicken farms across the South; and more than 100 restaurants in the state of Michigan alone. In Minnesota, more than half of the state’s 10,000 or so Hmong families own their homes. Not bad for an ethnic group that former Wyoming Republican senator Alan Simpson characterized in 1987 as virtually incapable of integrating into American culture, or as he put it, “the most indigestible group in society.”
Hmong Diaspora Arrives in America
Marc Kaufman wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “The hmong diaspora of the 1970s evolved against the dark backdrop of trauma and terror that unfolded during the 1960s in their homeland. When that first wave of Hmong refugees reached the United States, their poverty was often compounded by the Hmong tradition of large families. The U.S. resettlement policy also created hardships. It required that refugees be dispersed throughout the nation, to prevent any one municipality from being overburdened. But the effect was to break apart families and fragment the 18 or so traditional clans that form the social backbone of the Hmong community. Not only do clans provide each individual with a family name — Moua, Vang, Thao, Yang, for example — they also provide support and guidance, especially in times of need. [Source: Marc Kaufman, Smithsonian magazine, September 2004]
“Large Hmong populations settled in California and the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, where social services were well funded and jobs were said to exist. Today, Minnesota’s Twin Cities are called the “Hmong capital of the United States.” In one of the latest waves of migration, more and more Hmong have settled in a part of the nation that they say reminds them of home: North Carolina.
“Most of the estimated 15,000 Hmong in North Carolina work in furniture factories and mills, but many have turned to chickens. One of the first poultry farmers in the Morganton area was Toua Lo, a former school principal in Laos. Lo owns 53 acres, four chicken houses and thousands of breeding hens. “Hmong people call me all the time for advice on how to start a chicken farm, and maybe 20 come down to my farm every year,” he says.
Life for the Hmong in America
The Hmong have been described as among the least-prepared refugees ever to enter the United States. Many of the first arrivals were illiterate soldiers and farmers. They had never encountered modern conveniences like light switches or locked doors. They used toilets for washing dishes, sometimes flushing cups and utensils into the local sewer system; made cooking fires and planted gardens in the living rooms of their American houses. [Source: Spencer Sherman, National Geographic October 1988]
In the late 1980s, the Hmong were the among the poorest and least educated of the United States’s migrant population. About 60 percent of Hmong males were unemployed and most of these were on public assistance. One man told a National Geographic reporter that in America "it is really hard to become what you want, but it is really easy to become lazy."
The younger generation has adapted well. Older ones still long for Laos. Some have been denied citizenship because they cannot read or write English. In Wisconsin, large numbers of Hmong are employed to grow ginseng in troughs, covered over by a system of wooden lathes that simulate forest shade. Tou Saiko Lee, a rapper from Minnesota, kept his Hmong heritage alive through a mix of hip-hop and ancient traditions.
After they arrived in the U.S. Many Hmong collected earthworms, which were sold as bait to fishermen. The job was described in a 1980 song written by a 15-year-old Hmong refugee, Xab Pheej Kim: “I’m picking up nightcrawlers/ In the middle of the night. / I’m picking up nightcrawlers/ The world’s so cool, so quiet. /For the others, it’s the time to sleep sound. / So why is it my time to be up earning my living? / For the others, it’s time to sleep on the bed. /So why is it my time to pick up nightcrawlers?
There have been some success stories. Mee Moua is state senator in Minnesota. Mai Neng Moua is the editor of an anthology of Hmong American writers called “Bamboo Among the Oaks”. In a speech at the Minneapolis Metrodome, Mee Moua — the first Southeast Asian refugee to be elected to a state legislature in the United States, said, “We Hmong are a proud people. We have great hopes and awesome dreams, but historically, we have never had the opportunity to truly live out those hopes and dreams...We have been chasing those hopes and dreams through many valleys and mountains, through war, death and starvation, crossing countless borders. . . . And here we are today . . . living in the greatest country on earth, the United States of America. In just 28 years . . . we have made more progress than in the 200 years that we have endured life in southern China and Southeast Asia.”
Hmong Adaptions and Clashes with Life in America
The Hmong have adapted to life in America in some interesting ways. Tennis balls have replaced the traditional cloth spheres in the Hmong New Year courtship game of pov pob. During Hmong weddings in America the couple usually wears traditional clothing for the ceremony and western clothes at the reception. Some Hmong were required to make changes. Men with multiple wives were required to have only one. Hmong men enjoy gathering in the parks in American cities, where enjoy smoking out of bamboo bongs, the same devices teenagers like to use to smoke pot. Hmong boys are very enthusiastic boy scouts. There is even an all Hmong troop in Minneapolis, which is often praised for its team spirit. A policeman in California observed an old Hmong gentleman jerking his car through an intersection. Thinking the man was drunk, the policeman stopped him and asked him what he was doing. The man had been told by a relative he was supposed to stop at every red light — the light at the intersection where the policeman stopped him was blinking. [Source: Spencer Sherman, National Geographic, October 1988]
Many Hmong have learned the hard way that American customs are very different from the customs of people back home. In some American cities Hmong men are caught in local forests illegally trapping squirrels and frogs with trip string nooses.. The Fresno police have also received complaints about animals being ritually sacrificed in the backyards of Hmong homes and opium being grown in their gardens. So many prospective brides were kidnapped that police sponsored a program to discourage the practice. To accommodate Hmong medical customs, the Valley Children's Hospital in Fresno, allowed shaman to burn incense outside a sick child's window and sacrifice pigs and chicken in the parking lot.
Some incidents have been more serious. A young Hmong boy, for example, was arrested in Chicago for kidnapping a 13 year old girl he wanted for his wife. A similar case in Fresno resulted in a rape charge. The judge working on the case said he was "uncomfortable" acting as half judge and half anthropologist. In the end the boy had to spend 90 days in jail and pay the American girl's family a thousand dollars.
In 1994, a 15-year-old Hmong girl with cancer ran away from home with a backpack full of herbal medicine and no money rather than undergo chemotherapy. Doctors estimated that her chance of survival was 80 percent with chemotherapy but only 20 percent without treatment. When police acted on a court order and tried to force the girl to undergo therapy they were pelted with stones and the girl's father threatened to commit suicide with a knife. The Hmong believe that surgery maims the body and makes it difficult for a person to be reincarnated.
Hmong Customs Adapted to America
Marc Kaufman wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “The Hmong have always been adaptable, taking in the cultures around them, but they hold tight to many customs. After the Hmong grocery store owner was gunned down (See Below) , his widow, Mee Vue Lo, considered leaving Stockton. But her husband’s clan, the Los, following the Hmong tradition, sought another clan member to be her husband and provide for the children. Vue Lo, who had been in the United States for 25 years, spoke good English and considered herself American, resisted the idea. Still, the clan leader, Pheng Lo, approached Tom Lor, 40, a recently divorced benefits officer at the county welfare office. Lor also wanted nothing to do with old Hmong marrying customs. [Source: Marc Kaufman, Smithsonian magazine, September 2004]
And that’s where things might have stood if Lor hadn’t learned that Vue Lo’s 3-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, was in the hospital with a pulmonary infection and few would visit her; she’d witnessed the shooting, and people were afraid that members of the gang that allegedly killed her father might show up. When Lor visited Elizabeth, she smiled and curled up in his lap. “I couldn’t get the girl out of my mind,” he recalls. “I was suffering myself from my divorce, and was away from my son.” When Lor returned to the hospital a couple of days later, the girl’s mother was there.
The two agreed that the clan’s marriage idea was silly, but they talked, and one thing led to another. Lor moved into Vue Lo’s house, along with the seven children, and they were married in a Hmong ceremony. The marriage took place just a few weeks after Lo’s death, a perhaps shockingly short time by American standards. But in traditional Hmong culture, the new husband-to-be is usually chosen and present at the funeral of a man leaving behind a wife and children.
California Hospital Allows Hmong Shaman Rituals
Patricia Leigh Brown wrote in the New York Times: “The patient in Room 328 had diabetes and hypertension. But when Va Meng Lee, a Hmong shaman, began the healing process by looping a coiled thread around the patient’s wrist, Mr. Lee’s chief concern was summoning the ailing man’s runaway soul. “Doctors are good at disease,” Mr. Lee said as he encircled the patient, Chang Teng Thao, a widower from Laos, in an invisible “protective shield” traced in the air with his finger. “The soul is the shaman’s responsibility.” [Source: Patricia Leigh Brown, New York Times, September 19, 2009]
“At Mercy Medical Center in Merced, where roughly four patients a day are Hmong from northern Laos, healing includes more than IV drips, syringes and blood glucose monitors. Because many Hmong rely on their spiritual beliefs to get them through illnesses, the hospital’s new Hmong shaman policy, the country’s first, formally recognizes the cultural role of traditional healers like Mr. Lee, inviting them to perform nine approved ceremonies in the hospital, including “soul calling” and chanting in a soft voice. The policy and a novel training program to introduce shamans to the principles of Western medicine are part of a national movement to consider patients’ cultural beliefs and values when deciding their medical treatment. Certified shamans, with their embroidered jackets and official badges, have the same unrestricted access to patients given to clergy members. Shamans do not take insurance or other payment, although they have been known to accept a live chicken.
“Since the refugees began arriving 30 years ago, health professionals like Marilyn Mochel, a registered nurse who helped create the hospital’s policy on shamans, have wrestled with how best to resolve immigrants’ health needs given the Hmong belief system, in which surgery, anesthesia, blood transfusions and other common procedures are taboo. The result has been a high incidence of ruptured appendixes, complications from diabetes, and end-stage cancers, with fears of medical intervention and delays in treatment exacerbated by “our inability to explain to patients how physicians make decisions and recommendations,” Ms. Mochel said.
“The consequences of miscommunication between a Hmong family and the hospital in Merced was the subject of the book “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and The Collision of Two Cultures” by Anne Fadiman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997). The book follows a young girl’s treatment for epilepsy and the hospital’s failure to recognize the family’s deep-seated cultural beliefs. The fallout from the case and the book prompted much soul-searching at the hospital and helped lead to its shaman policy.
Ceremonies, which last 10 minutes to 15 minutes and must be cleared with a patient’s roommates, are tame versions of elaborate rituals that abound in Merced, especially on weekends, when suburban living rooms and garages are transformed into sacred spaces and crowded by over a hundred friends and family members. Shamans like Ma Vue, a 4-foot, 70-something dynamo with a tight bun, go into trances for hours, negotiating with spirits in return for sacrificed animals — a pig, for instance, was laid out recently on camouflage fabric on a living room floor. Certain elements of Hmong healing ceremonies, like the use of gongs, finger bells and other boisterous spiritual accelerators, require the hospital’s permission. Janice Wilkerson, the hospital’s “integration” director, said it was also unlikely that the hospital would allow ceremonies involving animals, like one in which evil spirits are transferred onto a live rooster that struts across a patient’s chest.
“A turning point in the skepticism of staff members [towards such rituals] occurred a decade ago, when a major Hmong clan leader was hospitalized here with a gangrenous bowel. Dr. Jim McDiarmid, a clinical psychologist and director of the residency program, said that in deference hundreds of well-wishers, a shaman was allowed to perform rituals, including placing a long sword at the door to ward off evil spirits. The man miraculously recovered. “That made a big impression, especially on the residents,” Dr. McDiarmid said.”
Hmong in the Minneapolis and St. Paul Area
The Twin Cities region in Minnesota, spanning both Minneapolis and St. Paul, remains home to the largest concentration of Hmong in the U.S. with an estimated 66,000 in the region. Kimmy Yam wrote for NBC News: “G. Thao, who was born in a refugee camp and grew up in North Minneapolis, explained that she, along with many other Hmong Americans, live and work alongside black communities. And it’s been that way for decades. For the community member, conflict in the area was never about Hmong versus African Americans, but rather the northside versus “the rest of the world.” “I graduated from a North Minneapolis high school where the student makeup was almost entirely half black and half Hmong American,” she said. “For so many young people from the northside, we push to try to make it to school every day and graduate so we can have a better life for our families. We share the collective struggle as young people trying to fight the odds stacked up against us because of where we come from.”[Source: Kimmy Yam, NBC News, June 9, 2020]
Fue Lee, a Hmong American state representative in Minnesota’s House, came to the U.S. as a refugee with his family, spending his early years on the northside of the city on welfare assistance and in public housing. His parents, who have no formal education, weren’t fluent in English and oftentimes he would find himself translating these complex social services to them as a 10-year-old. “I think that that opened my eyes up at an early age to some of the disparities and some of the barriers to why communities of color, especially black and brown communities, are facing poverty,” the state representative said.
Lee said added that, especially since Hmong families and businesses are also confronting the ongoing racism aimed at Asian Americans as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, many feel that their long-standing issues have gone unnoticed. They feel unheard, he said, contributing to their resistance to joining the chorus of voices demanding racial justice. “It’s more of ... ‘we’re getting harassed, we’re getting attacked but you’re not saying anything. There’s no public outcry for that,’” Lee, who released a statement of support for the black community along with the other members of the Minnesota Asian Pacific Caucus, explained. Hmong people did not come to the U.S. seeking the American dream that other immigrants talk about,” Annie Moua, a rising college freshman who also grew up in the area, said. “My parents came here because they were fleeing war and genocide. As a matter of fact, Hmong folks have been fleeing continuous genocides throughout centuries of our history.”
Suni Lee and Noteworthy Hmong Americans
Gymnast Sunrisa (Suni) Lee became an American darling when she won a gold medal in all around event — one of the most-watched Olympic events — at the Tokyo Olympics in August 2021. One unusual thing Lee was wear acrylic nails in all of her routines, even the floor exercise. The nails were the work of Hmong American nail artists at Minneapolis-based Little Luxuries. [Source: Sakshi Venkatraman, NBC News, August 10, 2021]
Eighteen-year-old Lee was the first Hmong American to represent Team USA and the first Asian American woman to win gold in the Olympics' all-around competition. Hmong Americans watched Lee with great enthusiasm on television and jumped for joy at in the wee hours of the morning American time when she won. Celebrations were the norm in Hmong American households in California,““This is history,” a Sacramento-based Hmong city councilwoman, told Yahoo Sports. “In my lifetime, I never would have imagined seeing someone who looks like me on the screen competing in the Olympics. It was important for me to make sure I got a chance to witness our first Olympian winning a medal.” [Source: Jeff Eisenberg, Yahoo Sports, July 30, 2021]
Yahoo News reported: “So many people in Lee’s hometown of St. Paul, Minnesota wanted to watch her compete that her family rented a venue in nearby Oakdale and threw a break-of-dawn viewing party. Nearly 300 supporters, many wearing “Team Suni” T-shirts, clapped whenever she came on screen and let out a mighty roar when she clinched gold. Suni’s parents Yeev Thoj and John Lee encouraged Suni to dream unthinkably big for the daughter of Hmong refugees. They drove her to practices and meets, scrounged up money for leotards and taught her to do flips on a bed. When Suni needed a balance beam at home so she could put in more practice, John took a look at the price and built her one out of wood instead.
Former Minneapolis police officer Tou Thao, who was of the policemen involved in the death of George Floyd, is a Hmong. Thao, along with former officers Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng, was charged with aiding and abetting murder. Kellie Chauvin, wife of ex-Minneapolis officer Derek Chavin, the one who choked and killed Floyd's killing, is also Hmong. She filed for divorce from Chavin not long after the incident.
Story of Mee Mousa and Her Family
Marc Kaufman wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “Moua’s own story embodies the ascendancy of her people. “Born in a mountain village in Laos in 1969, she and her family spent three years in a Thai refugee camp before they resettled in Providence, Rhode Island, and from there moved to Appleton, Wisconsin, where her father eventually found work in a television-components factory. After the plant closed, he worked at odd jobs, including a mundane occupation shared by many unskilled, illiterate Hmong newly arrived in the Midwest,” collecting nightcrawlers. “Moua’s family harvested worms in Wisconsin when she was a girl. “It was hard and pretty yucky,” she recalls, “but we were always looking for ways to make a little cash. [Source: Marc Kaufman, Smithsonian magazine, September 2004]
“Moua’s persistence and capacity for hard work would carry her a long way in a culture whose leaders traditionally have been neither female nor young. She graduated from BrownUniversity in 1992 and went on to earn a law degree from the University of Minnesota in 1997. By her early 30s, Moua had become a prominent Democratic Party activist and a fundraiser for the late U.S. senator Paul Wellstone. In January 2002, Moua won office in a by-election held after a state senator was elected mayor of St. Paul; she was reelected that fall by a district that is more than 80 percent non-Hmong. Today she travels the nation talking about how the United States finally gave the Hmong a fair shot at opportunity.”
Recalling the time local toughs showed up at her house in Appleton, Wisconsin, when she was about 12 years old, Moua said, They pelted the house with eggs. She wanted to confront the group, some of whom she suspected had been among those who had earlier defaced the house with racial epithets, but her parents intervened. “Go out there now, and maybe you will get killed, and we won’t have a daughter,” she remembers her father saying. Her mother added, “Stay inside, work hard and make something with your life: maybe someday that boy will work for you and give you respect.” Moua paused. “When I go to places around the country now,” she concluded, “I’m very happy to tell you that I get respect.”
“Moua’s father, Chao Tao Moua, was 16 when he was recruited in 1965 by the CIA to work as a medic. For the next ten years, he served with U.S. forces in Laos, setting up remote clinics to treat Hmong villagers and injured American airmen. Then, in 1975, several months after U.S. forces abruptly withdrew from Vietnam in April, victorious Laotian communists (the Pathet Lao) officially seized control of their country. Mee Moua’s father and other members of the CIAbacked secret Laotian army knew they were marked men. “One night, some villagers told my father that the Pathet Lao were coming and were looking for whomever worked with the Americans,” she says. “He knew he was on their list.” Chao Tao Moua, his wife, Vang Thao Moua, 5-year-old daughter Mee and infant Mang, later named Mike, fled in the middle of the night from their village in the Xieng Khouang Province. They were among the fortunate who managed to cross the Mekong River into Thailand. Thousands of Hmong died at the hands of the Pathet Lao in the aftermath of the war.
Poor Hmong in the United States
NBC News reported: “According to a report released by the nonprofit Southeast Asia Resource Action Center almost 60 percent of Hmong Americans are considered low-income, and more than 1 in 4 live in poverty. The statistics make them the demographic that fares the worst, in comparison to all racial groups, across multiple measures of income, the report said. When looking at the general population, the official poverty rate in 2018 was 11.8 percent. Hmong Americans have public health insurance enrollment rates similar to African Americans at 39 percent and 38 percent respectively. As for educational attainment, nearly 30 percent of Southeast Asian Americans haven’t completed high school or passed the GED. It's a stark contrast from the national average at 13 percent. [Source: Kimmy Yam, NBC News, June 9, 2020]
Marc Kaufman wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “Ger yang, 43, represents the other face of the Hmong exile in America. He lives in a three-room apartment with 11 family members in Stockton, California. Neither Yang nor his wife, Mee Cheng, 38, speaks English; neither has worked since their arrival in 1990; they subsist on welfare. Their eight children, ranging in age from 3 to 21, attend school or work only sporadically, and their 17-year-old daughter is pregnant. The family holds to a traditional belief that the newborn and its parents must leave the family home for 30 days out of respect for ancestral spirits, but the daughter and her boyfriend have no place to go. If “the baby and new parents don’t leave the house,” Yang says, “the ancestors will be offended and the entire family will die.” [Source: Marc Kaufman, Smithsonian magazine, September 2004]
“Like Yang, many Hmong-Americans in Stockton are jobless and receive government assistance. Some youths drop out of school in their early teens, and violence is often a problem. This past August, youths gunned down Tong Lo, a 48-year-old Hmong grocery store owner, in front of his market. (He left behind a 36-year-old wife, Xiong Mee Vue Lo, and seven children.) Police suspect that Hmong gang members committed the murder, although they have yet to determine a motive or apprehend the gunmen. “I’ve seen hostilities start with just a look,” says Tracy Barries of Stockton’s Operation Peacekeepers, an outreach program, “and it will escalate from there.”
Pheng Lo, director of Stockton’s Lao Family Community, a nonprofit social service agency, says parents are vying with gangs for the hearts and minds of many Hmong youths. “You either win them over or you lose,” he says. “Many parents don’t know English and can’t work, and the children start to take the power in the family. Soon, the parents can’t control their own children.” In Laos, Lo said, parents had strict control over their children, and they must assert it here too.
Sexual Abuse of Hmong Girls and Young Women
In the early 2000s it was not uncommon to see adolescent girls in St. Paul, Minnesota on the arms of Hmong American men who were 20, 30, or even 40 years older than them. One such girl, Panyia Vang, sought $450,000 in Minnesota court from a Hmong American citizen who allegedly raped and impregnated her in Laos before binding her to a traditional Hmong marriage that continued after she became a U.S. citizens. Yanan Wang wrote in the Washington Post: “Everyone knows about these men, but few dare speak out against them, least of all the women who have been harmed. Those who do are swiftly admonished for questioning “the way things have always been” — or worse, confronted with physical retaliation and separated from their families. Death threats are not unusual. [Source: Yanan Wang, Washington Post, September 28, 2015]
“When a 14-year-old Vang received an invitation to go to Vientiane, the capital of Laos, she believed she was auditioning for a music video. “She had lived her entire life in the Laos countryside, harboring dreams of becoming a singer. At the time, she worked and lived with her mother in a farming community, where she met a young man who asked for her phone number. He told her he needed it to communicate about the farming crew’s work schedule, Vang’s lawyer Linda Miller said in an interview.
“Vang never heard from him. Instead, Miller said, her client got a call from one of his relatives, who offered her an all-expenses-paid trip to Vientiane to try on extravagant outfits, audition for a music video and meet with a local movie star. After Vang arrived, she was introduced to the 43-year-old Thiawachu Prataya, who said her new clothes were waiting in a suitcase in his hotel room. It was there that she claims in a lawsuit that he raped her. When she attempted to run away that night, she alleged in the suit, he captured her and raped her again. She says she bled, cried and pleaded to no avail until she was finally allowed to return home. Some months later, after learning that Vang was pregnant with his child, Prataya forced her into a marriage, her lawyer said.
“Vang, 22, now lives in Hennepin County, Minn., not far from Prataya’s residence in Minneapolis. She arrived in the U.S. with sponsorship from her father, an asylee living in the state, but she needed Prataya, an American citizen, to bring their child from Laos. After Vang settled in Minnesota with her child in 2007, Prataya allegedly continued to force her into sexual relations with him by seizing her immigration documents and threatening to take their baby away from her, according to the lawsuit. Their cultural marriage — one that isn’t legally recognized — wasn’t broken off until 2011, when Vang obtained a protective order against Prataya.
“Now she’s suing him for $450,000, the minimum statutory damages under “Masha’s Law,” a federal law that provides for a civil remedy in the form of monetary compensation in child pornography, child sex tourism, child sex trafficking and other similar cases. Miller believes hers is the first case to use the law to recover monetary damages from child sex tourism — an illicit industry that has faced limited legal accountability due to the challenges of pursuing cases involving alleged wrongdoing that frequently occurs overseas.
“When questioned about her age, Prataya expressed ambivalence, accorded to a transcript cited in the suit: When asked if he was worried about her age, Prataya said: I was not worried...Because in the Hmong culture I mean, if the daughter is 12, 13, the mom and dad volunteer or they’re willing to give their daughters away to a man, doesn’t matter the age.. I was not worried. Whatever I’m doing is right in Laos.”
Violence and Discrimination Directed Against the Hmong in the U.S.
Colleen Mastony wrote in Chicago Tribune: In Wisconsin “the Hmong have faced racial epithets and discrimination. Some of the tension between white and Hmong has played out in forests. The Hmong, avid hunters who came from a subsistence culture, have ventured out on weekends into the woods, where they were sometimes confronted by angry white hunters. Hmong hunters say they have been shot at, their equipment vandalized and their animals stolen at gunpoint. White hunters have complained that the Hmong don't respect private property lines and do not follow bag limits. [Source: Colleen Mastony, Chicago Tribune, January 14, 2007]
In November 2019, gunmen armed with semiautomatic handguns fired into a backyard in Fresno where dozens of friends, mostly Hmong, were watching a football game. Four men were killed. All were Hmong. Six other people were injured.. At the time of the attack it was not clear who the assailants were. [Source: Sam Levin in Fresno, California,The Guardian, November 24, 2019]
Describing an incident involving the Hmong in April 2004,Marc Kaufman wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “Late one night...in a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota, a window in Cha Vang’s split-level house shattered and a container filled with fire accelerant landed inside. Vang, his wife and three daughters, ages 12, 10 and 3, escaped the blaze, but the $400,000 house was destroyed. “If you want to terrorize a person or send a message, you slash a tire,” Vang, a 39-year-old prominent Hmong-American businessman and political figure, told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “To burn down a house with people sleeping in it is attempted murder.” Police believe that the incident may have been connected to two previous near-fatal attacks — a shooting and another firebombing — directed at members of the local Hmong community Many Hmong-Americans are convinced that agents of the communist Laotian government were behind the attack on Vang’s family. [Source: Marc Kaufman, Smithsonian magazine, September 2004]
NBC News reported: “Kabzuag Vaj, founder of Freedom Inc., a nonprofit that aims to end violence toward minorities, noted that because refugees moved into poorly funded neighborhoods that had already been inhabited by other black and brown communities, different groups were left to vie for resources, creating a strain among communities. “There isn't enough for all of you,” Vaj, who’s Hmong American, previously said. Dinh explained that because refugees were resettled in these areas that dealt with histories of overpolicing, they also dealt with the impacts of police force, mass incarceration, and, eventually deportations, Southeast Asian American communities are three to four times more likely to be deported for old convictions, compared to other immigrant communities due to a pair of Clinton-era immigration legislation that further married the criminal legal and immigration systems together. “In communities with large Hmong populations, Hmong youth are often also criminalized and discriminated by law enforcement for alleged gang affiliation,” she said. [Source: Kimmy Yam, NBC News, June 9, 2020]
Some Hmong have had their green card applications held up by anti-terrorism laws. Darryl Fears wrote in the Washington Post, “Vager Vang, 63, is one of thousands of ethnic Hmong refugees in the United States who is hoping to gain legal residency with his green-card application. Vang fought in Laos alongside U.S. forces during the Vietnam War and helped rescue an American pilot who was shot down there. But according to some interpretations of the Patriot Act, Vang is a former terrorist who fought against the communist Laotian government. Although his admission that he fought with Americans helped him gain refugee status in the United States in 1999, it may have hindered his green-card application after Sept. 11, 2001. The application has stalled at the Department of Homeland Security, and Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries, the California group that helped him fill it out, is suspicious. [Source: Darryl Fears, Washington Post, January 8, 2007]
Hmong Hunter Kills Six in Wisconsin Forest
In November 2004, a Hmong hunter named Chai Vang killed six white hunters in a forest near Birchwood, Wisconsin and later sentenced to life in jail. Bob Kelleher of Minnesota Public Radio reported: “Wisconsin officials are trying to understand why a hunter opened fire on others hunters, killing six people and seriously wounding two. Many of the victims were related - all from around Rice Lake, Wisconsin. The shooting took place in a small township near the borders of four rural, wooded counties. During deer season the woods are crawling with people in blaze orange, and it's not unusual to hear of small disputes, over property lines or who owns what deer stand. [Source: Bob Kelleher, Minnesota Public Radio, November 22, 2004]
According to Sawyer County Sheriff Jim Meier, Chai Vang, 36, is accused of opening fire on a hunting party, killing six people and seriously wounding two others. Sheriff Meier say that the suspect was lost in the woods, and apparently wandered onto private property. There, he found and climbed into a deer stand. One of the property owners came by, spotted Vang in the stand and radioed back to his hunting party in a shack about a quarter of a mile away, asking who should be there. "The answer was nobody should be in the deer stand," Sheriff Meier said.
The first victim, Terry Willers, told the others on the radio, that he was going to confront the intruding hunter. He approached the intruder and asked him to leave, as Crotteau and the others in the cabin hopped on their all-terrain vehicles and headed to the scene. "The suspect got down from the deer stand, walked 40 yards, fiddled with his rifle. He took the scope off his rifle, he turned and he opened fire on the group," Meier said. There were two bursts of gunfire within about 15 minutes. Apparently three of the hunting party were shot initially. One was able to radio back to the others that they had been shot. The others soon were on their way, apparently unarmed, expecting to help their fellows. But the shooter opened fire on them too.
Meier says the weapon used was Chinese style SKS semi-automatic rifle. Its clip holds 20 rounds. When recovered, the clip and the chamber were empty. It's not clear whether any of the deer hunting party returned fire. Chai Vang was taken into custody several hours later. He'd been identified by the ID number which Wisconsin deer hunters are required to wear on their backs.
Vang is reportedly a veteran of the U.S. military. He emigrated here from Laos. While authorities do not know why Vang allegedly opened fire, there have been previous clashes between Southeast Asian and white hunters in the region. Locals have complained that the Hmong, refugees from Laos, do not understand the concept of private property and hunt wherever they see fit. In Minnesota, a fistfight once broke out after Hmong hunters crossed onto private land, said Ilean Her, director of the St. Paul-based Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans.
The scene Meier described was one of carnage, the bodies strewn around 100 feet apart. Rescuers from the cabin piled the living onto their vehicles and headed out of the thick woods. The shooter took off into the woods and eventually came upon two other hunters who had not heard about the shootings. Vang told them he was lost, and they offered him a ride to a warden's truck, Meier said. He was then arrested.
Racial Slurs Shouted at Hmong Hunter Who was a Shaman
Colleen Mastony wrote in Chicago Tribune: Chai Vang said the white hunters shouted racial epithets and shot at him first, but the survivors denied his account, testifying that Vang opened fire first. Police records show that Mr. Vang was cited for trespassing in 2002, fined $244 for chasing a deer he had shot and wounded onto private property in Wisconsin. Friends say that like many Hmong, he is an avid hunter. The authorities have quoted Mr. Vang as telling investigators that the hunters who were shot had first fired at him and cursed him with racial epithets. One of the survivors, Lauren Hesebeck, has said in a statement to the police that he did fire a shot at Mr. Vang, but only after Mr. Vang had killed several of his friends. Mr. Hesebeck has also acknowledged that one of the victims "used profanity" against Mr. Vang, but his statement did not indicate whether the profanity was racial. [Source: Colleen Mastony, Chicago Tribune, January 14, 2007]
Racial insults while hunting in Wisconsin, some Hmong say, are nothing new. And Tou Vang, who is not related to the accused, said a hunter fired several shots in his direction when they argued over hunting rights three years ago near the Wisconsin town of Ladysmith. "I left right away," Mr. Vang said. "I didn't report it, because even if you do, the authorities might not take any action. But I know that every year there are racial problems in the woods up there."
Stephen Kinzer wrote in the New York Times, Vang "is a Hmong shaman who has called on the spirit world in trances that last up to three hours, his family and friends say." He "seeks "the other world" when he tries to cure sick people or invoke divine protection for those who request it, said his friend and former hunting companion Ber Xiong. "He is a special person," Mr. Xiong said. "Chai speaks to the other side. He asks the spirits there to release people who are suffering on earth." [Source: Stephen Kinzer, New York Times, December 1, 2004]
Mr. Xiong said Mr. Vang, a 36-year-old truck driver, was one of about 100 shamans among St. Paul's immigrant community of some 25,000 Hmong from Laos. He said he had assisted Mr. Vang in several shamanistic ceremonies, most recently one two years ago at which an extended family asked him to assure its health and prosperity. "He danced on a small table for about two hours," said Mr. Xiong, an employee of an audio technology business in nearby Bloomington. "He was calling out the whole time, not to the people in the room, but to the other world. My job was to sit near the table and make sure he did not fall off."
Mr. Vang's sister, Mai, confirmed that he was thought to have mystical powers. "He is a shaman," Ms. Vang said. "But I don't know how long he has been one." Cher Xee Vang, a prominent leader among the Hmong in Minnesota, said the suspect, to whom he is not closely related, had often participated in curing ceremonies. "Chai Vang is a shaman," Cher Xee Vang said. "When we needed him to cure the ill with traditional ways of healing, he would."
Retaliation for the Killings by the Hmong Hunter
Colleen Mastony wrote in Chicago Tribune: Vang's case exposed a deep rift between cultures. After the 2004 shooting, a Minnesota decal store began selling a misspelled bumper sticker that read: "Save a hunter, shoot a mung." At Chai Vang's trial, a man stood outside the courthouse holding a sign that read: "Killer Vang. Send back to Vietnam." Later, Chai Vang's former home was spray-painted with a profanity and burnt to the ground. [Source: Colleen Mastony, Chicago Tribune, January 14, 2007]
In January 2007, Cha Vang, a Hmong immigrant from Laos, was shot to death while hunting squirrels in the deep woods north of Green Bay, Wisconsin. Many thought the killing was in retaliation for killing of six people by Chai Soua Vang. “I truly believe there must be some kind of racism or prejudice playing a role in someone getting shot on public land like that,” Lo Neng Kiatoukaysy, executive director of the Hmong-American Friendship Association in Milwaukee, told the New York Times. “It needs to stop here and now.” [Source: Susan Saulny, New York Times, January 14, 2007]
Another hunter, James Allen Nichols, 28, a former sawmill worker of nearby Peshtigo, was arrested in connection with the case when he went to a medical center with a gunshot wound. A woman saying she was Mr. Nichols’s fiancée told a newspaper in Milwaukee and The Associated Press that he had called her from the woods and said he had attacked a man who did not speak English. The woman, Dacia James, told reporters that Mr. Nichols had said that he “didn’t know if he killed the guy — and that he had acted out of fear and self-defense. According to a criminal complaint from an earlier burglary, Mr. Nichols used red paint to scrawl a racial slur and the letters K.K.K. in the cabin of a Wisconsin man. He was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
In October 2007 Nichols was sentenced to the maximum 60 years in prison after being convicted of second-degree intentional homicide, hiding a corpse and being a felon in possession of a firearm in the death of Cha Vang. Cha Vang’s family cried foul. They pointed out that Nichols was tried by an all-white jury and Nichols himself was white and said he should have been charged with first degree murder, which carries a sentence of life in prison and was the crime Nichols was originally charged with.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: East and Southeast Asia”, edited by Paul Hockings (C.K. Hall & Company); New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.
Last updated October 2022