The current exhibit of Hmong history and culture at the Minnesota History Center in Saint Paul is both delightful and profound.
In the first of two rooms, we learn of the Hmong's traditional lifeways in the highlands of Laos, and their contributions to the American war effort in southeast Asia during what is popularly known as the Vietnam War era.
Large video screens show us villagers hoeing fields on steep hillsides using hand tools, while others replay scenes of combat in endless tape-loops. Military uniforms are exhibited on the wall behind Plexiglas cases containing aboriginal multi-reed flutes, while other cases nearby recreate the mess of unexploded personnel bombs that still litter the Laotian countryside.
An attempt is made to outline the complex political environment of Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam during the mid-to-late twentieth century. The various maps and text may be difficult to absorb fully, but they serve as a refreshing corrective to the simple-minded view many of us grew up with regarding the course of events prior to and during American involvement in the region.
One thing is clear: the Hmong who fought against the communist elements in Laos at the time were fighting for their lives, and after the war hundreds of thousands were executed by the Pathet Lao. A smaller number escaped to refugee camps in Thailand, while fewer still were granted refugee status in St. Paul, Fresno, and other cities throughout the United States.
The second room of the exhibit contains artifacts of Hmong life in the New World. In one video, a young woman describes how important a tape deck was to her father; he used it to send audio messages to relatives in refugee camps back home. Traditional notions of portable wealth are also on display: bars of solid silver and appliqué necklaces fringed with small coins.
One kiosk explains differences in Hmong dialects and orthography. A low-hung poster lists the eighteen Hmong clans. (Examining the list, I noticed the Her clan, and was reminded that not so long ago we bought a Toyota off the lot from a saleswoman named Yer Her.)
One corner of the room is devoted to Hmong contributions to farmers markets and the truck gardening industry. And the back wall is covered with video screens displaying images of Hmong MTV-style pop music performances, Hmong fashion-runway shows, and news broadcasts in Hmong from stations in California. Just wait a minute and you'll see men dressed in traditional garb dancing as they play their wooden flutes—a scene that morphs into a young man breakdancing.
I left the exhibit with a powerful if inchoate sense of heroism, sacrifice, hardship, loyalty, sweetness, and the simple enjoyment of life and family in a new environment.