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The Hmong Oral History Project Origin

The Hmong Oral History Project began in the spring of 2001 when I was taking Tou Thao, then a sophomore at Concordia, to an internship site at the University of Minnesota. I asked him about his family and the story of how they made their way to Minnesota, and he confessed that he knew far less about that story than he cared to admit. Seizing on that confession and the opportunity it presented, Tou and I recruited other Hmong students at Concordia and initiated the Hmong Oral History Project. Along with Tou, Khia Lee, Tou Lee, Marly Moua, Chou (Peter) Vang, and Lee Vang contributed to this inaugural effort. They were given a basic overview of the goals, responsibilities, and anticipated outcomes of the project, trained in the art of good interviewing, and given a substantial amount of reading through which they could learn more about their own history and prepare intelligent, appropriate questions to ask their interviewees. Once all had finished their reading assignments, they met to compile a list of common questions they would ask of the people they interviewed. These questions inquired about life in Hmong villages prior to the advent of the Vietnam War, the effects of the war on their lives, their experiences in refugee camps, their migration to Minnesota, and their adjustment to life in an entirely new setting. These interviews were conducted in the Hmong language and were recorded on audio cassette. They were later transferred to compact disc. On Friday, April 26, 2002 these six students presented some of their findings to an audience at the Asian Festival, a celebration of the many cultures represented by our Asian student population here at Concordia.

As a result of this effort, Peter Vang decided to immerse himself in this process, applying for and receiving a Phillips Scholarship. With this prestigious award in hand, he was able to devote himself to translating and transcribing many of the interviews left unfinished during the previous year, as well as conducting numerous new interviews on his own.

Owing to my book on the YMCA, I was unable to lead a group in 2003 or the spring of 2004, but I hope to recruit a new band of students this fall and begin the work anew. Hmong history is important, particularly in this part of the world, for a number of reasons. First, the story of the Hmong mirrors our own families? stories. All of us, whether in this generation or in any of a dozen or more before, have an immigration story. My own mother was raised on a farm in Northwest Iowa and spoke only German until she was forced to learn English in the one-room school house she attended. She and her brothers served as a bridge between her parents? culture and the new culture in which they had decided to live. Most of our Hmong students serve that same purpose today. In learning more about the struggles their parents and grandparents have had to endure, our Hmong students are providing all of us with a window into our own past. Their immigration experience is also ours. Through these interviews our students can more fully appreciate the sacrifices that the previous generations made in order to provide them with the opportunities they enjoy today. Those sacrifices are still being made, as many of their parents and grandparents continue to struggle with the double life of being Hmong and being American.

The Hmong experience is also important because citizens of the United States, and particularly citizens of St. Paul, where so many Hmong immigrants live, need to understand the terrible price the Hmong paid for fighting with the United States against the North Vietnamese and the Pathet Lao. It was not until 1994 that former CIA Director William Colby publicly acknowledged that Hmong forces under the command of General Vang Pao had held the line in Laos against North Vietnamese General Giap and his armies. In 1962, Giap sent 7,000 of his best-trained men to fight the Hmong. By 1972, the number had grown to 70,000, but Vang Pao's soldiers still held the line. Hmong soldiers rescued and sheltered downed fighter pilots and took the brunt of attacks that would have otherwise been aimed at Americans. Once the United States withdrew from Southeast Asia, Hmong were killed by the thousands. Those who question whether Mayor Randy Kelly should be inviting more Hmong to live here should not ask the question until they have carefully studied the history of the Hmong's bravery and fidelity.

This page will grow in the coming months, but will start with the text of a few interviews conducted by our students during the past three years. Stay tuned!

PH
July 2004

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