Who are the Hmong?
The Hmong people are a minority ethnic group who originated in China as early as the third century. With the rise of communism, the Hmong were forced to conform to Chinese customs. After several wars with the Chinese, they started to migrate. Many settled in Burma (Myanmar), Thailand, and Vietnam. However, a majority of the Hmong people found peace in Laos and stayed there for years.
In the 1960’s and 1970’s, a vast majority of Hmong men were secretly recruited by the CIA as part of a plan to defend Laos against communism as well as assist Americans in their war efforts in Southeast Asia. In 1975, the American armed forces lost the war and pulled out of Vietnam and Laos. This withdrawal left thousands of Hmong in danger because of their alliance with the United States. They were then the target of retaliation and persecution under the new regime. Without a safe place to hide or rebuild their lives, the Hmong were forced to trek across the deep Mekong River into Thailand for freedom. This marked the beginning of the mass exodus of Hmong people from Laos.
Once in Thailand, the Hmong were housed in refugee camps while waiting for their opportunity to come to America or to other countries. From the late 1970’s to the mid 1990’s, a large percentage of Hmong resettled in countries like the United States, Canada, France and Australia. In 2004, the last wave of Hmong refugees came to America through government-implemented refugee programs.
Data retrieved from the Hmong American Partnership at http://www.hmong.org/page33422626.aspx and http://www.hmong.org/page33444533.aspx.
Today, there are close to 300,000 Hmong people living in America. In the city of Milwaukee alone, there are approximately 10,000 Hmong residents.
At birth, a Hmong child automatically takes the father’s surname and becomes a lifetime member of that clan. Women, however, marry and take on new identities in their husband’s clan. There are 18 clans within the Hmong community. They include: Cha (Chang), Chue, Cheng, Fang, Hang, Her (Herr), Khang, Kong, Kue, Lor (Lo, Lao), Lee (Ly), Moua, Pha, Thao (Thor), Vang, Vue, Xiong and Yang.
Hmong clans exist to provide social support, legal authority and economic security for each other. All members of the same clan are referred to as “kwv tij”, or brothers, and are socially and culturally expected to provide mutual assistance to one another. Any disputes or issues between two Hmong people or different clans will typically be settled by clan leaders. Each clan leader is responsible for handling conflict negotiation and occasional maintenance of religious rituals. However, within each clan are several sub clans whose members can trace their ancestors to a common person or share a common tradition of ancestral worship and other ritual practices.
When two new Hmong people meet for the first time, they usually exchange names and clan membership. If they belong to the same clan, they will establish the relationship within the clan. If not, they will establish their relationship through the marriage of their kin, beginning with their wives and aunts. They will address each other using kinship terms such as brother, uncle, aunt, and so on. All Hmong people consider themselves related somehow, either through close or distant relatives. As a result, kinship is the essence of Hmong life.