Hmong refugees in Thailand.

Hmong: An Endangered People

Economically marginalized in Southeast Asia, the Hmong face assimilation and loss of their culture in the United States.

There are more Hmong people today than Tibetans, yet the campaign to "Free Tibet" is widely popular in the U.S. and is internationally recognized, while the plight of Hmong people is relatively unknown. With this challenge, Dr. Eric Crystal introduced his lecture and slide presentation on "Hmong Traditional Culture Studies: Research Perspectives for the Future" on June 1, 2004, for the Center for Southeast Asian Studies on the UCLA campus.

Eric Crystal is an anthropologist who has researched highland Southeast Asian cultures for over three decades. His work has taken him to eastern Indonesia, Vietnam, and the California Central Valley. In Vietnam, he documented traditional Hmong village culture, working on a collaborative project funded by the UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History and sponsored by the Museum of Ethnology in Hanoi, Vietnam. He has worked in Merced, California, with Hmong refugees for a number of years, documenting a vital and growing community of Southeast Asian highlanders in the northern part of the California Central Valley. Much of the audience at Dr. Crystal's talk were themselves Hmong, which gave Crystal a good opportunity to present his suggestions for future research on Hmong traditional culture.

Hmong history is complex. They are reported to originate from Siberia and their emergence dates back thousands of years. The Hmong have had a long and distinctive history in China. Over the centuries they migrated south so that today they are dispersed throughout the highlands of southern China and northern Southeast Asia, including in Laos and Vietnam. There they live primarily as self-sufficient farmers and gatherers. In 1961, the U.S. government began recruiting Hmong people in Laos to fight in a secret part of the larger Vietnam War. At the end of the war, in 1975, the U.S. retreated, leaving Laos under Communist control, and the Hmong population was targeted for genocide. Many of them fled to neighboring countries, and a significant number sought asylum in the United States.

As ethnic minorities in most of the areas where they live, Hmong people have relatively low social status. In Vietnam, Dr. Crystal explained, the Hmong are isolated both culturally and geographically, and most often the Vietnamese government does little to encourage higher eduction for Hmong youth. "The Vietnamese government is not interested in assimilating Hmong population," he stated. At the same time, Crystal was dismayed to discover while studying Hmong culture that at the Museum of Ethnology in Hanoi, an institution which highlights minority cultures, not a single staff member was a Hmong speaker, in spite of the fact that the Hmong make up a large segment of the museum's target minority population.

The situation for the Hmong in Vietnam is worrisome. For example, the population is steadily increasing due to high birthrates, but education levels are relatively low. The highland regions where they farm have almost reached the maximum extent of available land. Crystal described their villages as "pressed against cloud forests" high on the hilltops. Currently many find sustenance by foraging in the forests and some have developed rice terrace agriculture, but this will not be adequate to support a rapidly growing population. To earn a small amount of cash income, Hmong people in Vietnam also gather horse manure and firewood to sell, but this has little potential for the next generation. "Where and how will they live, because they can't all be farmers? Something needs to change to avoid having Hmong beggars on the streets of Hanoi," Dr. Crystal stressed.

Crystal reported a glimmer of hope for the Hmong in Vietnam. In recent years the Vietnamese government has begun trying to place an elementary school in every Hmong village. It is seeking assistance from UNICEF to carry this out. As his slides demonstrated, many of the school children tote UNICEF backpacks because their parents don't have the money to buy school supplies. Still, Crystal said, "there are hundreds and thousands of Hmong who have an uncertain future."

Returning his attention to the Hmong living in the United States, Dr. Crystal posited that as a nation Americans "can't understand the history of the Vietnam War or the demographics in Fresno or Merced without understanding Hmong history. The uniqueness and independence of Hmong culture is eroding right now. [The] time to study Hmong culture is now because it's dwindling." As the U.S. population of Hmong people is slowly assimilating into American society, their ties to relatives in Southeast Asia are also disappearing.

Hmong Textiles and Their Traditions

The talk included a slide presentation of distinctive Hmong textiles. Dr. Crystal demonstrated the rich cultural and historical material that can be learned from the patterns and images of the textiles. Facts about lifestyles and cultural attitudes can be ascertained by closely studying these cloths. One of the slides showed a textile that had patterns of paired snails. The pairs represented the importance of "unity of spouses" which is highly regarded in Hmong culture. There were also photos of Hmong women in California proudly displaying beautiful colorful skirts. Many Hmong women have an impressive collection of skirts because tradition dictates that they make a new one each year. The skirts are sewn by hand in various colors and patterns, each having its own unique and intricate design. "Each pattern tells a story that needs to be interpreted," Crystal said. "You can't find any resources [on the meaning of the textiles] in the library or on the Internet. You need to go to the grandmothers [and elders] because they have the knowledge about these textiles and how they were used in ceremonies."

Throughout his presentation Dr. Crystal continually reiterated that the situation is urgent. "I encounter so many second generation [Hmong] children who don't know their own background." He proceeded to ask the audience if they could name a book or a single text that exclusively described "the essence of Hmong tradition and culture." With no response from attendees, he urged the student participants to consider researching the subject and publishing such material themselves.

Dr. Crystal reported that in 1978 there were virtually no Hmong living in the U.S. By 1984 it was estimated that 18,000 Hmong and Laotians were living in the Merced area alone. The 2000 U.S. Census indicated that a total of 180,000 Hmong lived in the United States and more than 65,000 resided in California. These communities face a myriad of challenges in their new home.

One of the more pressing dilemmas is Hmong people's right to practice their religion. Hmong culture is based on agrarian religious beliefs. Their religious practices include sacrificing animals such as pigs and chickens. To their American neighbors who live nearby in Merced and Fresno, these rituals are seen as inhumane and violent. However, what the mainstream public doesn't understand or appreciate, according to Crystal, is that these practices are based on a "classic form of Northeastern Asian shamanism that is very similar to Inuit or Siberian beliefs." Crystal believes that these traditions should be accorded respect, especially considering that the same animals are on display in nearby supermarkets and delis, already slaughtered. But as Dr. Crystal pointed out "many Hmongs don't know about religious rights. So they don't know how to fight for their rights." He asked the audience, "Who will study, defend and validate these practices?"

Now that there is a generation of Hmong-Americans who are obtaining college educations in the U.S., Dr. Crystal is hoping to encourage these students to train in archeology, art-history, anthropology, etc. "If there is a corpus, a body of material in English on Hmong studies, it could be assigned in classes and could also be used in teacher training." Crystal said that he receives many inquiries from concerned teachers and educators who want to reach out to their Hmong students but are frustrated by the lack of texts and resources. One of his goals is to organize a Hmong studies conference. As he put it, "Asian scholars need to be familiar with the traditional culture. They need some informed analysis in order to formulate the present or the future. We need to understand the history."

Published: Wednesday, July 07, 2004