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How the Hmong Have Shaped the State

Hmong and Hmong Americans in Minnesota

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Color image of a Hmong American boy in traditional clothing. Photographed by Vue Xiong, c.1992.

Hmong American boy in traditional clothing. Photographed by Vue Xiong, c.1992.

The Hmong first arrived in Minnesota in late 1975, after the communist seizure of power in Indochina. They faced multiple barriers as refugees from a war-torn country, but with the help of generous sponsors, have managed to thrive in the Twin Cities area, a region they now claim as home. Today, many Hmong promote the economic, social, and political diversity of the state.

ORIGINS

The Hmong are a minority indigenous to China. Ten million of their co-ethnics, referred to as “Miao,” still live there in the twenty-first century. The Hmong were a non-literate people, but their funeral dirge, the Qhuab Ke (Teachings of the Way), and proverbs that they passed down orally, refer to an origin in the Yellow River region of northeastern China.

Over the millennia, the expanding Chinese empire gradually pushed the Hmong south. The Hmong arrived in mainland Southeast Asia in large numbers during the mid-nineteenth century. At the same time, the French began colonizing Indochina (Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia). The Hmong of Vietnam and Laos resisted Western encroachment at first. Some, however, forged an alliance with the French that endured until the end of colonial rule in 1954.

The Hmong played equally complex roles on different sides of the political divide during the First (1946-54) and Second (1946-73) Indochina Wars. In Laos, about one third of the population supported the Communists. The rest fell to the side of the pro-French, and, later, the pro-American Lao monarchy. As a direct result of their alliance with the Americans in what was known as the Secret War, these Hmong suffered Communist reprisals. Though some refugees sought sanctuary outside Southeast Asia, the majority ended up in the U.S.

A LEGACY OF WAR AND SURVIVAL

The Hmong who came to Minnesota have endured decades of war trauma since at least 1945. Several generations suffered confinement in Thai refugee camps. Dependent on American rice-drops during the Secret War and fed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in the Thai camps, many Hmong grew up never knowing the life of subsistence farming in the mountains of Laos that their ancestors led. The psychological effects of sedentary confinement and war trauma remain unfathomable. They can perhaps be best captured by literary efforts, such as those written by Minnesota authors Kao Kalia Yang in The Latehomecomer and Mai Neng Moua and others in the literary anthology Bamboo Among the Oaks.

A NEW HOME IN MINNESOTA

Though the Hmong played a crucial role in the Secret War, they were deemed “too primitive” to be given asylum in the United States after their exile in May 1975. Other lowland Southeast Asians, such as the Vietnamese and Cambodians, were accepted for immediate resettlement. It took some maneuvering by individual Americans and Hmong, however, to get the Hmong into the U.S. At first, only General Vang Pao, his closest associates, and others employed directly by the U.S. government were allowed into the country.

After some wrangling, U.S. policy makers amended the Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act to include the Hmong. They allowed the general population to enter the country in 1976. So as not to burden only a few states, they dispersed Hmong families, like other refugee groups, across the land. Many of them, however, relocated to specific locales to reunite with their clan members. Within a few years, pockets of Hmong populations appeared in areas like the Twin Cities.

Credit for the large Twin Cities Hmong population may be owed to the area’s progressive attitude, as well as its economic and educational opportunities. Minnesota has a long history of welcoming new immigrants. Moreover, the state has a reputation for excellent student achievement in national standardized tests. The Twin Cities in particular offer good job prospects and a high standard of living.

Since the war in Laos was a “secret,” many Minnesotans who helped refugees resettle had never heard of the Hmong. Some thought they were sponsoring Vietnamese refugees. Even so, organizations like the Catholic Charities, Lutheran Social Services, Church World Services, and other groups and individuals generously provided the newcomers with basic necessities such as housing, furniture, household utensils, food, and clothing. Others volunteered as English tutors and transporters.

Many of the educated Hmong elites with leadership experience and English-language skills were among the first to be welcomed by Minnesotans. These elites tried to solidify the social services targeted to refugees, attracting others to migrate to the region. The first Hmong family—Dang Her and his wife, Shoua Moua—arrived in Minnesota on November 5, 1975. Dang ranked among those with some education and English proficiency. He had worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) during wartime, qualifying him for asylum. An American co-worker and his congregation sponsored Dang’s family. When Dang’s and Shoua’s son, Bill Her, was born in February 1976, he became the first Hmong American child born in Minnesota.

On July 16, 1976, a group of Twin Cities-area Hmong met to discuss their resettlement challenges and plan ways to build a diasporic community. Several months later, Dang Her, Leng Vang, Tou Fu Vang, Tony Vang, and Ya Yang created the state’s first non-profit Hmong organization, the Association of Hmong in Minnesota (AHM). The founders of AHM aimed to address social and economic issues. They also encouraged an understanding between the Hmong and the mainstream community.

In 1980, AHM leaders joined forces with General Vang Pao. They re-chartered their organization as a Twin Cities branch of Lao Family Community, Inc., a private, non-profit agency that focused on English education and job training. Lao Family—then the area’s sole Hmong community organization— began hosting a Hmong New Year Festival and a Fourth of July soccer tournament. The events generated publicity and drew more Hmong to the region.

In 2010, Minnesota supported the second-largest Hmong population in the U.S.: 66,181 individuals. It was the youngest of all Hmong groups in the U.S., with a median age of just 19.7 years old. The median age of the state was 37.3 years old. Of the state’s total Hmong population, 97 percent (64,422) resided in the Twin Cities area—the densest concentration anywhere in the nation. The remainder lived in suburbs and rural towns like Winona, Rochester, Tracy, Duluth, and Marshall.

LITERACY AND EDUCATION

Educational achievement remains a major challenge for first-generation Hmong Americans. Many have little parental guidance in American academic subjects. Hmong youth perform relatively poorly on standardized tests. They also drop out of secondary and post-secondary schools at disproportionately high rates.

According to the national census, in 2010 14.5 percent of Hmong Americans held degrees at the college level or above, compared to 31.4 percent of non-Hispanic whites and 50.2 percent of non-Hispanic Asians aged twenty-five and older. Some scholars argue, however, that considering the low literacy rate of the Hmong who left Laos in 1975, Hmong Americans have made more progress in education than any other Indochinese group.

Hmong women have made dramatic educational achievements. In 1990, only 19 percent of Hmong women in the U.S. had a high school diploma, compared to 44 percent of Hmong men. Only 3 percent of women had completed a bachelor’s degree, compared to 7 percent of men. Today, the number of women with bachelor’s degrees has surpassed that of men. Overall, 19.9 percent of women and 15.9 percent of men have a bachelor’s degree or above.

The statistics of Hmong Minnesotans closely mirror the national trends. In 2010, 76.2 percent held a high school degree, 13.7 percent held a bachelor’s degree, and about 3 percent held graduate degrees.

Despite this progress, Hmong community leaders have expressed concerns about Hmong educational attainment in Minnesota and elsewhere. At an August 2015 conference held at Hmong American Partnership (HAP), Bao Vang, the group’s executive director, stated that American-born Hmong children were falling behind other ethnic groups, with a 40 percent high-school dropout rate nationally. The trend has been similar in Minnesota. Such concerns may have stimulated the founding of over ten Hmong charter and magnet schools, as well as a Hmong language immersion school in the Twin Cities, since 2000.

ECONOMIC TRIUMPHS AND CHALLENGES

Since 1975, the Hmong have made economic progress. Though of a few of the earliest refugees in the Twin Cities were elites who had some education, the vast majority were nonliterate, uneducated Hmong who spoke no English. In the early years, the elites provided vital support to the community by working as teachers, interpreters, and social service workers.

By the 1980s, farming projects were developed in the Twin Cities and other areas with the aim of establishing Hmong self-sufficiency. These projects included the Hiawatha Valley Farm Cooperative (HVFC), run by Church World Services in the city of Homer, and the Minnesota Agricultural Enterprise for New Americans (MAENA), a program spearheaded by the University of Minnesota Agricultural Extension Services in collaboration with Lao Family Community. MAENA initiatives resulted in the creation of the Hmong Farming Cooperative in Oakdale, which was later relocated to Farmington where land was more available.

Hmong participants in the co-ops were introduced to modern farming techniques, including the use of fertilizers and pesticides. Although the programs ended by 1985, Hmong farmers who completed the trainings went on to rent or buy their own land. Many became successful participants in the many farmers’ markets in St. Paul, Minneapolis, and suburban cities. Recently, younger and more educated Hmong Americans have begun to explore organic farming.

In the 2010s, the Hmong community has ventured beyond the agricultural efforts of the 1980s. Before they could join the American middle class, first-generation Hmong refugees focused on accumulating basic necessities. Their frugal values built a foundation for eventual success in Hmong home ownership—over 50 percent in the Twin Cities—and in business investments. The success of entrepreneurs in the Twin Cities stimulated the formation of the Minnesota Hmong Chamber of Commerce in 1996. The Chamber’s 150-plus members own health clinics, law firms, restaurants, car dealerships, grocery stores, tax and consulting services, banks, elderly home care and real estate companies, hotel chains, bars and nightclubs, and other businesses.

In 2004, Hmong entrepreneurs in the Frogtown neighborhood of St. Paul established the Hmongtown Marketplace, a two-building shopping complex with stalls staffed by individual proprietors. The atmosphere at Hmongtown is reminiscent of the open-air markets in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and Vientiane, Laos. In 2009, a group of nine businessmen and women opened a similar shopping complex on the eastside of St. Paul. Called Hmong Village, the single-building complex contained over twenty restaurants and 250 merchant stalls.

Altogether, the Hmong businesses in the Twin Cities command annual revenues of more than one hundred million dollars. According to community leaders, the Hmong command an overall spending power in excess of one billion dollars. Hmong-owned newspapers such as the Hmong Times, Hmong Pages, Hmong Tribune, and Hmong Today, as well as several radio stations and a television program, also endorse the achievements of Hmong Minnesotans.

Despite the success of some, poverty remains a serious issue for many. One quarter of the Hmong population in Minnesota lives below the poverty line. For this reason, organizations geared towards addressing economic and social issues remain prominent. St. Paul boasts over ten Hmong non-profit groups, including the Hmong American Partnership (HAP), the Hmong Cultural Center, and the Center for Hmong Arts and Talent (CHAT). CHAT is unique in its focus on developing literature and art in order to define a space for young Hmong Minnesotans.

MAJOR POLITICAL STRIDES

Some scholars argue that strong Confucian values, inculcated by millennia of contact with the Han Chinese prior to their immigration to Southeast Asia, inspire the Hmong to value political involvement. According to the Foom Koom, the ritual blessings that are sung to surviving descendants during a funeral, the highest aspiration is for one’s children to obtain political posts—that is, to “become kings.” The Hmong also have a strong history of political participation in Laos. For these reasons, many have been active in politics in the Twin Cities region.

Intriguingly for a patriarchal, patrilineal society, many of the Minnesota Hmong who first entered mainstream American politics were women. One reason for their early emergence as elected officials may be that, for decades following exile, many male leaders focused their political efforts on returning the Hmong to their homeland in Laos. While these elder leaders, who have deep ties to the Secret War, strategized for repatriation, women and younger men with education maneuvered for integration into the American mainstream.

In 1992, Choua Lee became the first elected Hmong American official when she won a seat on the St. Paul School Board. Neal Thao, a man of the younger generation, replaced Choua in 1995 and served for seven years. He was followed by two more women: Kazoua Kong-Thao, elected in 2003, and Vallay Varro, elected in 2009.

Minnesota State Senator Mee Moua, who earned an undergraduate degree from Brown University and graduate degrees from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs and the University of Minnesota Law School, took Hmong politics to the next level. Moua’s landmark victory in District 67 of East St. Paul during a special election held in February 2002 gained her a place in American history as not only the first Hmong, but also the first Southeast Asian American to serve at the state level. She was reelected as the incumbent candidate that same November. Cy Thao was also elected into the Minnesota House of Representatives in 2002, representing District 65A. Both Mee and Cy left their positions in 2010 to pursue new careers.

Three Hmong men stepped forward to campaign for Moua’s District 67 seat without success. In the subsequent election round in 2012, however, Foung Hawj ran again as the lone Hmong candidate and won.. Blong Yang was also elected as the first Hmong to serve in the Minneapolis City Council, representing Ward 5, and Dai Thao won his campaign in Ward 1 of St. Paul.

Mee Moua’s and Cy Thao’s victories in 2002 captured the attention of local politicians who recognized the changing demographics of their constituents. Political figures like Congresswoman Betty McCollum, Governor Tim Pawlenty, Governor Mark Dayton, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Ryback, and St. Paul Mayors Randy Kelley and Chris Coleman engaged the community by making public appearances at Hmong events. Both Kelley and Coleman chose Hmong individuals for their advisory boards.

When the winning margin is miniscule, as it was during the gubernatorial contest between Mark Dayton and Tom Emmer in November 2009, the Hmong vote can be critical. Dayton, who triumphed in a recount by only a few hundred votes, had the endorsements of Dr. Yang Dao and General Vang Pao, figureheads who represented opposing Hmong political views. Politicians in Minnesota can no longer ignore the Hmong community’s electoral influence.

A SECRET-WAR MEMORIAL IN ST. PAUL

Hmong political participation in Minnesota was also spurred by the Welfare Reform Act of 1996, which stipulated that only senior American citizens would be eligible for public financial assistance. For decades, many Hmong elders had delayed seeking citizenship because of the language barrier. They also dreamed of returning to Laos with General Vang Pao.

The tenor of their thinking shifted dramatically in 1998, when the Welfare Reform Act’s policies went into effect. Many non-citizen Hmong elders were notified of their financial and food assistance cut-off dates. An elderly Hmong man in Wisconsin saw the reform as another American betrayal and protested by committing suicide when he received his benefits termination notice. Others on the East and West coasts followed suit by also committing suicide.

Those in Minnesota were shaken by these events. Vang Pao and the Lao Veterans of America (LVA), based in St. Paul, worked with others around the country to address the wellbeing of Hmong in the U.S. Obtaining U.S. citizenship became their new focus.

Before the welfare reforms, the LVA of Minnesota, with the support of Congressman Bruce Vento, had begun to rally for Congressional recognition of Hmong veterans of the Secret War. A small memorial plaque that honored Hmong veterans had been erected at Arlington National Cemetery in 1997. In 1998, the LVA and others pushed policy-makers to delay applying the welfare-reform policies to the Hmong. They worked with Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone to spearhead what became the Hmong Veterans’ Naturalization Act of 2000. The act waived the written English-language requirement of the citizenship exam for Hmong veterans of the Secret War, their spouses, and widows. Qualified individuals were allowed to take the exam orally in Hmong.

The bill aimed to allow elders beyond retirement age to become citizens and qualify for public assistance. Its effects, however, were more pervasive. Non-profit organizations like the Lao Family Community and the Hmong Cultural Center began holding citizenship classes in the Hmong language for elders. The new citizens began exercising their voting rights, shifting the political landscape of Minnesota.

Hmong and Lao veterans later gained further recognition in the state. After winning election in 2002, Cy Thao rallied for the state to allocate money for a Secret War memorial to be built on the capitol grounds in St. Paul. State Senator Foung Hawj took over the project after his election in 2012. The groundbreaking ceremony for the memorial, attended by Governor Dayton and other politicians, took place in May 2015. The ceremony was scheduled to coincide with the fortieth anniversary of the mass Hmong exodus from Laos in May 1975.

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© Minnesota Historical Society
  • Bibliography
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Chan, Sucheng, ed. Hmong Means Free: Life in Laos and America. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994.

Faruque, Cathleen Jo. Migration of the Hmong to the Midwestern United States. Lanham, NY: University Press of America, Inc., 2002.

Hillmer, Paul. A People’s History of the Hmong. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2010.

Lee, Mai Na M. Dreams of the Hmong Kingdom: The Quest for Legitimation in French Indochina (1850–1960). Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2015.

Pfeifer, Mark E., et al. Hmong 2000 Census Publication: Data and Analysis by Hmong National Development Inc. and Hmong Cultural and Resource Center.
http://hmongstudies.org/2000HmongCensusPublication.pdf.

——— , and Zha Blong Xiong. 2012. 2010 Census Special Issue in Hmong Studies Journal 13 (2).
http://www.hmongstudiesjournal.org/hsj-volume-4-2003.html

——— , et. al. Diversity in Diaspora. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2013.

Lor, Yang. “Hmong Political Involvement in St. Paul, Minnesota and Fresno, California.” Hmong Studies Journal 10 (2009): 1–53.
http://hmongstudies.org/YangLorHSJ10.pdf

Morrison, Gayle. The Sky is Falling: An Oral History of the CIA’s Evacuation of the Hmong from Laos. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1999.

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

Related Images

Color image of a Hmong American boy in traditional clothing. Photographed by Vue Xiong, c.1992.
Color image of a Hmong American boy in traditional clothing. Photographed by Vue Xiong, c.1992.
Yang family in Ban Vinai refugee camp, Thailand.
Yang family in Ban Vinai refugee camp, Thailand.
Black and white photograph of Hmong students in a class at the Lao Family Community Center inside a branch of the St. Paul YMCA, c.1980.
Black and white photograph of Hmong students in a class at the Lao Family Community Center inside a branch of the St. Paul YMCA, c.1980.
Black and white photograph of a Hmong conference at Concordia College. Photographed by Alan Ominsky in 1981.
Black and white photograph of a Hmong conference at Concordia College. Photographed by Alan Ominsky in 1981.
Black and white photograph of a Hmong wedding reception in St. Paul, 1981. Photographed by Michael Kieger.
Black and white photograph of a Hmong wedding reception in St. Paul, 1981. Photographed by Michael Kieger.
Color image of a Paj ornament made by May Yang, c.1982.
Color image of a Paj ornament made by May Yang, c.1982.
Color image of an inset of a Hmong story cloth (paj ndau) depicting the flight of the Hmong across the Mekong River, from Laos into Thailand. Made in 1985.
Color image of an inset of a Hmong story cloth (paj ndau) depicting the flight of the Hmong across the Mekong River, from Laos into Thailand. Made in 1985.
Color image of a Hmong story cloth (paj ndau) showing a traditional Laotian village scene. Made in Ban Vinai, Thailand, c.1989.
Color image of a Hmong story cloth (paj ndau) showing a traditional Laotian village scene. Made in Ban Vinai, Thailand, c.1989.
Color image of a Hmong girl’s hat in the traditional style. Made in St. Paul in 1989.
Color image of a Hmong girl’s hat in the traditional style. Made in St. Paul in 1989.
Color scan of a Hmong New Year postcard showing two young women in traditional Hmong dress, c.1980s.
Color scan of a Hmong New Year postcard showing two young women in traditional Hmong dress, c.1980s.
Color image of a corrugated cardboard box used as a packing carton by Blia Cha Thao and family—Hmong refugees who moved from Thailand to Minnesota in 1993.
Color image of a corrugated cardboard box used as a packing carton by Blia Cha Thao and family—Hmong refugees who moved from Thailand to Minnesota in 1993.
Color image of a reversible cotton vest with front panels of geometric cross-stitching made by a Minnesotan Hmong woman and sold by the Southeast Asian Ministry. Worn by Bea Vue-Benson, c.1999.
Color image of a reversible cotton vest with front panels of geometric cross-stitching made by a Minnesotan Hmong woman and sold by the Southeast Asian Ministry. Worn by Bea Vue-Benson, c.1999.
Color image of a Qeej (Hmong wind instrument) made by Shong Ger Thao of St. Paul in 1999.
Color image of a Qeej (Hmong wind instrument) made by Shong Ger Thao of St. Paul in 1999.
Black and white photograph of three generations of Hmong women (Mao Thao Yang, Mai Vang Thao, and Bo Thao), 1999.
Black and white photograph of three generations of Hmong women (Mao Thao Yang, Mai Vang Thao, and Bo Thao), 1999.
Color image of a Man’s Hmong New Year outfit worn by Doua Cheng, c.1999.
Color image of a Man’s Hmong New Year outfit worn by Doua Cheng, c.1999.
Color image of a Hmong religious altar made c.2005.
Color image of a Hmong religious altar made c.2005.
Color image of Minnesota state senator Mee Moua speaks at a rally on October 30, 2008, in support of Barack Obama, Al Franken, and other Democratic candidates.
Color image of Minnesota state senator Mee Moua speaks at a rally on October 30, 2008, in support of Barack Obama, Al Franken, and other Democratic candidates.
Color image of Hmong recording artists Kong and Shu perform at the 11th Annual Hmong Arts & Music Festival at Como Park in St. Paul, July, 2014.
Color image of Hmong recording artists Kong and Shu perform at the 11th Annual Hmong Arts & Music Festival at Como Park in St. Paul, July, 2014.
Color image of a meeting of the Hmong Health Care Professionals Coalition, 2013.
Color image of a meeting of the Hmong Health Care Professionals Coalition, 2013.
Green Hmong women's ensemble
Green Hmong women's ensemble
Hmong rooster hat worn by an adult
Hmong rooster hat worn by an adult

Overview

The Hmong are an ethnic minority indigenous to China who migrated to mainland Southeast Asia in large numbers in the mid-nineteenth century.

After aiding the U.S. military in the Secret War in the 1960s and 1970s, thousands of Hmong and their families fled Laos for refugee camps in Thailand. Beginning in 1976, many of them resettled in Minnesota .

In 2015, Minnesota contains the second-largest Hmong population in the United States: over 66,000 individuals, most of whom live in Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Bloomington, the most densely concentrated area in the U.S.

Chronology

1975

The first Hmong family settles in Minnesota.

1977

Twin Cities-area Hmong create the Association of Hmong in Minnesota (AHM), a forerunner of Lao Family Community, Inc.

1980

Congress passes the U.S. Refugee Act, triggering more Hmong emigration to Minnesota and other states.

1982

Agricultural initiatives designed to support Hmong farmers—the Hiawatha Valley Farm Cooperative and the Hmong Farming Cooperative—take root in Homer and Oakdale.

1992

Choua Lee is elected to the St. Paul School Board. She is the first Hmong to hold public office in the United States.

1996

Hmong entrepreneurs found the Minnesota Hmong Chamber of Commerce.

2000

After the passage of the Hmong Veterans Naturalization Act, Minnesota non-profit groups like the Lao Family Community and the Hmong Cultural Center began holding Hmong-language citizenship classes for elders.

2002

In February, Mee Moua is elected as the first Hmong politician in the Minnesota Senate.

2002

Cy Thao is elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives.

2004

A final wave of Hmong families arrives in the United States after the closing of Wat Tham Krabok, an unofficial refugee camp in Thailand. Hmongtown Marketplace opens in St. Paul’s Frogtown neighborhood.

2009

Hmong Village, a shopping complex similar to Hmongtown, opens in the Phalen Park area of St. Paul’s eastside.

2010

The U.S. Census documents more than 66,000 Hmong people living in Minnesota.

2015

Governor Mark Dayton and other Minnesota politicians attend the ground-breaking ceremony of a St. Paul memorial to Hmong veterans of the Secret War.