Hmong American Center

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Hmong History

Life in Laos

The Hmong migrated from southern China in the nineteenth century to the mountainous areas of Laos, Vietnam and Thailand. During the Vietnam War the Hmong worked with the American CIA in the “secret war” in Laos, and therefore were forced to flee their homeland after the victory of the communists. After spending time in refugee camps in Thailand, many Hmong settled in a third country including Australia, France, Canada, Germany and the United States.

Have you ever wondered what life was like for a typical Hmong family in Laos? The Hmong people were farmers, most living in small villages high in the mountains. After helping the American CIA during the Vietnam War, the Hmong people were forced to flee for their lives. The old way of life was very different from their new way of life.

There are only two seasons in Laos, the rainy season and the dry season. It is warm year around. Homes and other buildings are made of bamboo and wood. There is no electricity for the mountain people, no machinery, and no roads. The Hmong walk to their farms and carry home the produce. All work is done by hand. They grow and make everything needed to sustain the family. They were independent self-sufficient people.

The Hmong In Wisconsin

Who are the Hmong?

The Hmong are an ethnic group of people with specific language and culture.  The Hmong originally came from China with over 4,000 years of history.  Some Hmong left China to Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Burma beginning in the early 1800’s as a result of land expansion by the Chinese government. Since 1975, after the U.S. pulled out of South Vietnam, thousands of Hmong have moved out of Laos to seek asylum in many European and Western countries including Australia, France, Canada, Germany, and the United States.  According to the 2010 U.S. Census, there were about 260,000 Hmong Americans living in the United States, with the majority living in the states of California, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

What were the Hmong’s roles with the U.S. during the Vietnam War?

In the early 1960’s, the U.S. CIA sought out the Hmong and recruited them to fight a “secret war” against the North Vietnamese and the communist Pathet Lao.  The Hmong played many critical roles under the directions of the U.S. CIA, including harassing the communists on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, providing intelligence about enemy operations, guarding U.S. strategic radar installation, and rescuing down American pilots.

After the war in 1973, the Hmong were singled out by the victorious communist governments of Laos and Vietnam.  The Hmong were hunted down, taken to concentration camps, put into hard labor and persecuted.  Their villages were sprayed with chemical weapons and bombed with napalm.  It is estimated that more than 10% (35,000) of the entire Hmong population in Laos died as a result of the war and its aftermath.  Many who survived suffered physically, mentally, and emotionally until this day.

Why are the Hmong in Wisconsin?

Unlike past immigrant groups, the Hmong were political refugees who fled their country because of war and persecutions. The Hmong refugees were legally admitted to the United States by the U.S. government and were initially resettled by church organizations such as Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Service.  Area churches sponsored Hmong families here in Wisconsin and other states in the U.S. The 2010 U.S. Census has shown that there are 49,240 Hmong Americans living in Wisconsin. Community with significant Hmong population include: Milwaukee, Wausau, Sheboygan, La Crosse, Madison, Eau Claire, Green Bay, Appleton, Oshkosh, Manitowoc, Stevens Point, Wisconsin Rapids, Menomonie, and Fond du Lac.

Hmong culture places great importance on the family.  Most Hmong move to Wisconsin from other states to join with families, relatives, and clan leaders.  Wisconsin also provides opportunities for Hmong families struggling to create a new life in the United States.  Wisconsin cities offer a peaceful and healthy lifestyle as well as educational opportunities for both children and adults.  Furthermore, Wisconsin provides agricultural opportunities such as farming and gardening for many Hmong families.

Do the Hmong want to integrate into American society?

The Hmong are integrating into American society. They are making great strides during the past 37 years. A significant number of Hmong are graduating from high schools and colleges.  95% of all able body Hmong-Americans are participating in the local workforce. Nearly 70% of all Hmong families have become homeowners. In addition, a growing number of Hmong families are starting businesses such as grocery stores, restaurants, specialty stores, and small manufacturing companies.

For the most part, Hmong children are doing well in schools.  An increasing number of Hmong high school graduates have gone on to colleges or universities. Many have graduated from college and are returning to the community to work and serve as bridges between the Hmong and the larger communities.

The majority of Hmong have become U.S. citizens.  The Hmong-Americans are getting more involved in the community, and generally doing the varied things that one would expect in any community.  In essence, they have become productive and contributing members of the community.

How are the Hmong involved in hunting and the outdoors?

Traditionally, Hmong have always enjoyed the outdoors. Hunting and fishing have always been a part of the Hmong’s way of life.  In Wisconsin, there are thousands of Hmong participating in fishing, hunting and other outdoor activities each year. Hmong are friendly and respectful people. They will treat other people with courtesy and respect and expect the same treatment from others.

Are there more Hmong coming to the United States?

There are no more Hmong coming to Wisconsin or the U.S.  The last group of Hmong refugee families that came to the United States was between 2004 and 2006. The U.S. government has no plan to bring additional Hmong refugees to this country.  The Thai government has repatriated most Hmong refugees in Thailand back to Laos. In December 2009, more than 4,500 Hmong refugees in Thailand were returned to Laos.  There was fear that the Lao communist government might imprison or even persecute Hmong leaders and men who were returned because of their roles during the Vietnam War under the U.S. CIA and their resistance against the communist Lao government after the war.

How can Wisconsin residents learn more about their Hmong neighbors?

 The best way to know more about the Hmong is to learn more about them and why they came to Wisconsin.  Local Hmong organizations can provide more information and presentations about the Hmong to community groups or businesses.