Hmong Story Cloths

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Hmong Story Cloths


By: Beth Schlanker

Date: November 10, 2005

Source: Schlanker, Beth. "Hmong Story Cloths." AP Images.

About the Author: Beth Schlanker is a contributing photographer to the Associated Press, a worldwide news agency based in New York.


These Hmong story cloths are embroidered panels created by many Hmong refugee women who settled in the United States during the 1970s and 1980s. The panels illustrate the Hmong way of life and their experiences fleeing Laos in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. As a comparatively new folk art genre, story cloths were first made in the Thai refugee camps around 1975. The designs have changed over the years in response to American consumer tastes and exposure to new ideas.

The Hmong originated in China. In the early nineteenth century, in response to political and cultural persecution by Chinese authorities, some Hmong moved south into Laos, where they formed one of about sixty ethnic groups. They had no written language until American missionaries created one for them in 1950. Anthropologists categorized the Hmong as a premodern people for their slash-and-burn agriculture and animistic religion.

In Laos, the Hmong were known as meo, or "savage" for their long tradition of fighting against authority in China, against the French colonizers in Laos, and against the local Laotian governments. With this history, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) recruited the Hmong to fight against the North Vietnamese, who were using Laos as a base for attacks against South Vietnamese and Americans in the Vietnam War. From 1960 to 1975, an estimated fifteen thousand Hmong died in the conflict. With the end of the war, many Hmong were forced to live in refugee camps, largely in neighboring Thailand. From these camps, about 150,000 have been resettled, with 100,000 immigrating to the United States and the rest heading to France, Australia, and Canada.



See primary source image.


The Hmong have struggled to adjust to their new homelands. More so than other recent immigrants, they have been faced with dramatic lifestyle and cultural changes. An agricultural people with little experience with technology, they have been resettled in cities in highly developed countries. In the United States, they have chiefly been located in Minneapolis/St. Paul, with a far different cultural and geographical climate than Laos.

Some of the Hmong customs, such as polygamy, bride purchase, and bride kidnapping, are illegal in the West. This has forced them to abandon practices that date back centuries. The shift in the status accorded women has been a particularly noticeable change for the Hmong. In 1992, a Hmong woman, Choua Lee, was elected to the St. Paul school board, making her the first Hmong refugee to become an elected official.

The difficulties that most Hmong are experiencing in assimilating are evident in the low income levels of the Hmong. In the United States, the Hmong are the poorest ethnic group with about sixty percent of the people living below the poverty line in 1990. However, the Hmong have produced more offspring than the Cambodians and Laotians who also fled the Vietnam War at the time of the Hmong exodus. More than a third of the Hmong in the United States in 1990 were native-born. The children of the immigrants are successfully adjusting to American life, attending college, and becoming more prosperous than their parents.



Chan, Sucheng. Hmong Means Free: Life in Laos and America. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994.

Hamilton-Merritt, J. Tragic Mountains: The Hmong, the Americans, and the Secret Wars for Laos, 1942–1992. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1993.

Hein, Jeremy. From Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia: A Refugee Experience in the United States. New York: Twayne, 1995.