I wrote this paper summer of 2009 for an english research essay. To me, it served much as a personal analysis of my background. Take a look if you will:
"...Religion is always a hot, controversial topic. Often times I receive strongly opposing views or negative comments about Shamanism, which makes me uncomfortable. I have come to realize that the customs, traditions and knowledge bestowed upon the newer generations are slowly dissipating. “Americanized” Hmong are forgetting their cultural roots. Conversions in religious beliefs often result in ignorant, incorrect views about Shamanism, and the education of Hmong cosmology is not taught widely, leaving younger generations with clouded views of their customs. To understand the ancient religion of the Hmong, you must understand the culture and history of the Hmong.
The new generation of Hmong Americans lack valid information about their own history leaving them uncertain about the Hmong’s rich, cultural history. One thing that was certain was the diasporas within the history of the Hmong. The exquisite ethnic group faced long-lasting challenges as they fought for their independence and tried to maintain their lasting existence. History has long dated Hmong people from ancient times as early as 3000 B.C. (Faderman, 2). Hmong or Hmoob is also known as “Miao” or “Meo,” although, the term “Hmong” is more suitable. A Hmong scholar stated that the term “Miao” is actually a derogatory term meaning “barbarian,” given by the Chinese (Symonds xxv). The Hmong did not have a writing system; therefore, there are many controversies and confusion about where the Hmong originated from. Some believe the Hmong came from Mongolia, (hence the similar pronunciation) migrating to Siberia and then settling into China. However, this is just a theory. It is more certain that the Hmong have made their historical presence in Southern China, since the Chinese have records in their book of Shujing (Book of Documents) that the “Miao’s” have appeared from dynasty to dynasty.
It is said that a Hmong kingdom was established in the earlier centuries around 400-900 B.C. (Lao Family Community of Minnesota, Inc.). It later fell into the hands of a ruler in the Sung Dynasty. The Hmong then dispersed across China and returned to their nomadic ways. After this event, the Hmong lived peacefully for a few years until the expanding Chinese with a higher power came along and threatened the Hmong.
The Chinese posed a high threat of subjugation, leaving another major emigration in the Hmong history. Wanting to civilize the Hmong, Chinese rulers tried enforcing punitive taxations, forced servitude under govern rules, and conducted ethnic persecutions. The Hmong refuted this mandate and began rebelling which resulted in numerous revolts. The Hmong have excellent tactics for defending themselves especially in ambushing their victims. The aftermath of rebellious fighting pushed many Hmong to move down into Indochina; there they settled in Thailand, Laos, Burma, and Northern Vietnam, settling deep into the mountain sides and highlands. For many decades they lived freely as hunters and farmers while practicing slash-and-burn farming. It wasn’t until the 1960’s during the Vietnam War that the Hmong got involved with the Americans, resulting in the last massive emigration after the end of the Vietnam War.
Nearly fifty years ago, the Central Intelligence Agency recruited and provided artillery along with military equipments to General Vang Pao and his armies to fight in what is known now, the Secret War (Weiner). Since it was kept from the American public, the involvement in Laos was concealed and was not let out until many years after the war. General Vang Pao and many Hmong agreed to be allies with the Americans because they sought tranquility and freedom from the communists. Vang and his recruiters were sent on a mission to cease the infiltration of Northern Vietnamese invasion in Laos; especially since the Hmong knew the mountain sides well. Other assignments were to rescue and protect fallen American pilots who were assigned to bomb North Vietnam. The pugnacious forces grew into somewhere around 39,000 guerrillas (Weiner). In 1975, America pulled out from the Vietnam War, leaving their Hmong allies behind. Communists quickly learned about the Hmong’s involvement and retaliated quickly against them, leaving a horrid bloodshed in casualties. Fearing for their lives, many fortunate Hmong fled to France and America as soon as possible. Many others found refuge across the country’s borders and poured into Thailand. Wherever the Hmong went, they faced foreign challenges in their new world and grieved upon their losses. The rest of the Hmong were left to fend for them selves. Still, to this day, many groups of Hmong are scattered throughout the jungles of Laos. They are being hunted down like animals by radical communists involved with the Lao government.
Lillian Faderman explains about the Hmong in her book: I Begin My Life All Over,
'The Hmong were often in their history like the ancient Israelites who had flee Egypt and became strangers in a strange land, wanderers, forced to run from attempts at genocides. (2)'
In the present day, large populations of the Hmong can be found in China, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Burma, France, Germany, French Guyana, Australia, Argentina, and among the most populated, in the United States of America. The state of Minnesota, California, and Wisconsin are heavily concentrated with the Hmong ethnic group (Yau). Here they begin a new episodic struggle: clashing with the American culture.
Like the struggle to keep their existence, it is important for the Hmong to preserve and continue practicing their customs and traditions. My parents and their parents have always practiced the Shamanic rituals since their historic days in Laos and Thailand. My siblings and I have been happy to acquire only the basics about the Shamanic rituals and Hmong traditions. As the first generation of the Hmong American world, it appears that some of my siblings and Hmong peers have little or no traditional values; we know so little about our rich heritage.
The term shamanism is not necessarily a religion, but rather it is a form of medicinal practice. Whether it is mental or physical illness, the Hmong do not classify their illnesses; the ones who have confidence with shamanism believe a person’s illness is sent by spirits as a result of being imbalance (Sydmonds 11). Anne Fadiman, author of, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, notes of her understanding that
The Hmong culture does not dissect easily into disparate parts and neatly labeled categories, as everything in it stubbornly remains connected to everything else (Symonds 10). Medicine ties into religion as religion ties into society and circles back to medicine (Faderman 10). Birth and death is considered arbitrary, as it is seen to be different stages of a continuous cycle. In the land of light, also known as the land of the living, all existents are interconnected (Sydmonds 11).
In the Hmong culture, everyone is from a clan lineage and is the main source of identification. There are eighteen renowned clan lineages within the Hmong and is usually used as a surname in the United States. For instance, my last name is Xiong; I may be identified in the Xiong (or Xyooj) lineage. Although, when I marry, I would then be considered apart of my husband’s clan as I carry his surname. Hmong women who marry into a clan will be reincarnated back into their husband’s lineage and are expected to portray a gender role since it is a male-dominant culture. Men are seen as the stronger body; therefore they have a form of brothers who then decides important decisions within their lineage.
The physical body is seen as a vessel for souls. For the body may have more than one soul, the Hmong usually consider having three: the Sun and Moon soul, the Breath soul, and the returning vital soul also known as ntsuj plig si/ntsuj qaib (Symonds 21). When a child is born, the Hmong believe it is the returning vital soul of an ancestor from the same lineage that has arrived back into the land of light. Usually, three days after birth a soul calling ritual is held where a shaman would chant the calling (hu plig or “who-plee”). A pig or chickens will be sacrificed as the spirit of the animal is to guide the soul back from the land of darkness and into the new born. With out the ritual, the new born will not be considered as fully human.
The shaman is an essence to the conducting of rituals; he or she is the healer. A Hmong shaman serves as a medium where he or she travels between both the land of light and the spirit worlds, also known as the land of the dark. It is not in the shaman’s favor to choose its role but is predetermined by the renowned powerful deity, Siv Yis (ee -yee), the first claimed shaman assigned by Yawm Saub (yer-show) pulled from Hmong folklore. A person falls very ill as he or she is being called by the guides of Siv Yis. For example, the illness of Epilepsy is considered a sign as some one who may become a shaman; the shaking of the seizure is similar to a shaman shaking in the state of trance (Symonds 18). An experienced shaman will normally see to the problem. This is usually inevitable for the victim. If he or she fails to accept, the illness will proceed and in many cases eventually leads to death. When a person accepts to being a shaman, he or she will have to set up an altar in their house where all his or her necessities are place for tuning in a séance. A bench seat, made to resemble a horse, is made specifically for that shaman for no one else may use it. He or she will then have to acquire other important tools and learn the fundamentals of the divined practices from their teacher who is more than likely a skilled shaman. When in the state of trance, the shaman’s spirit is thought to have detached itself from the physical body as it will travel into the land of the dark on a horse to capture the fugitive spirit and liberate it from evil spirits so it can return back to its body (Mottin). A shaman may obtain spiritual guides who help them during the state of trance. My mother, who is a shaman, is endowed with thousands of spirit guides. Many shamans differ from one another by skills and experiences. The black-faced shamans wear a black-cloth veil, covering their face and are able to withhold a stronger set of power from the white faced shamans. White faced shamans simply perform without a mask and do not go into the state of trance for they were not originally called by Siv Yis. Among the powerful black clothed faces, the shamans who wear the red cloth veils posses the strongest powers (Sydmonds 23).
In the universe, everything correlates to one another: plants, water, rock, animals (humans) and spirits (dab or “dah”). There are the tame spirits that offer protection from the wilds spirits. They live in and watch over the home of a Hmong. When you are involved in an accident, a simple spirit calling can be held to prevent further problems. Spirit callings are however held at the end of the year; the head of the house hold chooses a propitious day starting in November through January. Red and white threads are intertwined into bracelets or necklaces and are tied on with a blessing. It serves as a protection from evil harming. Other times blessings of white strings are tied on wrist from family members outside of the immediate family to influence good health and a prosperous life. Hmong Christians may practice string tying too.
Although, if you are not careful you may run into wild powerful spirits that lurk the outside; this may instill fatal illnesses to your health. If that is the case, a ceremony known as to ua neeg (“oo-ah neng”) will be conducted. The shaman will go and see what is wrong as he will negotiate with the demonic spirits to free the imprisoned soul. Food and money will be offered in return with the fugitive soul, but in some cases, the evil spirit prevails and does not accept the grant. The body of the ill one will eventually give out, resulting in a grief stricken lost if little is done.
When it comes to death a precise process of a funeral will be given, lasting typically for three days. Of the three souls that lie within the flesh of a body, the first soul, the Sun and Moon soul stays with the body at death serving as a guard. The second soul forwards into the land of darkness. There, it joins its community of ancestors as it waits to join its spouse’s soul as one. As for the last soul, the vital soul will need to return back the land of darkness as it waits to be reincarnated again. A specific chant called “Qhuab kev” is recited accompanied by the beat of a drum and pipers blowing special instruments (the “qeej”) as it serves to guide the spirits back to find its “jacket” or better known as the placenta which is buried at birth. With out the jacket, the soul of the dead can not reincarnate or complete the journey back into the land of the spirits. Food, liquor, and spiritual money are given to the dead to replenish and help with debts along its long journey. Family members of the dead usually fold thousands of paper boat money and decorate the room in which the coffin is laid. After the funeral, it will be burned and sent along with the dead person’s spirit. From time to time, more spirit money will be sent to the ancestor later.
By and by I have observed my fellow Christian peer opposing to the shamanic practices. As they try to assimilate into the American or modern world, they become heavily blinded by their Christian beliefs that they may even force their religion onto others, claiming that shamanic practices are wrong. This is the result of discriminating those who are loyal and true to the Hmong belief system.
It is possible that the youthful generation of the Hmong population are denying themselves because of the complex traditions. Customs may clash with the misunderstanding that traditions are from an older time and living in the modern world, you must adjust yourself to live within the contemporary. What they do not understand is that it is possible to assimilate both matters simultaneously..."
Yea. quite long, I know. But its good to know! Especially my fellow Hmong peers who don't know much about the Hmong culture. Comment as you will. I take no offense.