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North American Hmong

North American Hmong

ETHNONYMS: Meo, Miao, M'peo, H'Mong, Mong, Moob, Hmoob


Identification and Location. When the Hmong resettled in North America beginning in the late 1970s, they were dispersed in small communities across the United States and Canada. By the late 1980s secondary migration had resulted in the formation of ethnic enclaves in specific areas. The largest consolidations of Hmong people are in Minnesota, California, and Wisconsin, although Hmong live in at least twenty-eight states in the United States. There are approximately seven hundred Hmong people in Canada.

Demography. Hmong refugee admissions to the United States were greatest during the period 1975-1990, with peak admissions in the late 1970s and early 1980s and again in the late 1980s. In 2000, the Hmong population in the United States was estimated at approximately 170,000. There are approximately 700 Hmong living in Canada. According to the Refugee Services Section of the Minnesota Department of Human Services, in 1999 approximately one-half of the Hmong population was composed of individuals born in the United States.

Linguistic Affiliation. Hmong is a tonal language related to Yao, or Mien, and to other languages classified as Miao in China. There is no agreement about its wider relationships, but some linguists place it in the Sino-Tibetan language family. The two principal dialects in Laos are moob leeg and hmoob dawb (White Hmong). Other dialects are spoken and are mutually intelligible. The moob leeg are called hmoob ntsuab (Green or Blue Hmong) by the White Hmong.

History and Cultural Relations

Most sources date the origin of the Hmong to between 2700 and 2300 b.c.e. in the Yellow River and Yangtze River regions of China. Facing numerous conflicts with Han invaders from the north, the Hmong moved from their homeland to the mountains of Southeast Asia, settling in the nation-states of Vietnam, Thailand, and Laos in the early 1800s.

The history of the Hmong is characterized by a succession of migrations. There are enclaves of Hmong people in China, northern Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, northern Laos, and, since 1975, France, the United States, Canada, Australia, Argentina, French Guyana, and Germany. Swidden agriculture was the primary adaptive strategy among Hmong living in Laos. Their crops included rice, corn, and vegetables for subsistence and opium for medicinal use and sale. The resettlement of Hmong people from Laos to North America is a direct result of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. As many as forty thousand Hmong men and boys fought on the side of the United States and supported the Royal Lao government against the insurgent Pathet Lao. Most served in "Special Guerrilla Units" that received logistic support from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency beginning in 1961. A smaller number of Hmong joined the Pathet Lao, which received aid from the North Vietnamese and the Russians. After the fall of the Royal Lao government in 1975, loyalist Hmong families were attacked as they attempted to flee into mountain recesses or cross the border into Thailand. Countless people died from starvation, exposure, drowning, and disease during wartime migrations to escape the Pathet Lao and Vietnamese forces. Many Hmong fled from Laos, crossing the Mekong River to Thailand, where they lived in refugee camps until most were resettled in other countries.


Initial sites for resettlement were determined by voluntary agencies working with the Office of Refugee Resettlement. The U.S. government's plan for resettlement was one of dispersal, but a wave of secondary migration resulted in Hmong ethnic enclaves forming in specific local areas, with large populations concentrated in California and Minnesota. U.S. Census 2000 figures computed by the Hmong Population Research Project show there are 169,428 Hmong in the United States, although there are significant discrepancies between local estimates and census figures. The Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota metro area has one of the largest populations of Hmong in the United States numbering as high as 80,000 people.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Hmong in North America are employed in many different kinds of wage labor, ranging from farming and factory work to social service work. Some Hmong refugee families still depend on welfare assistance from the federal government. Hmong are beginning to enter the legal and medical professions in significant numbers and are increasingly being promoted to business and social service management positions. Besides their participation in the U.S. market economy as workers and consumers, Hmong people are purchasing and operating small businesses.

Division of Labor. Women have the primary responsibility for child care and domestic activities. Men participate in these activities to a lesser extent. It is acceptable for both men and women to work outside the home.


Kin Groups and Descent. Descent for men and women is patrilineal; that is, it is traced through an unbroken succession of male ancestors. Men of the same patriline, their wives, and their children constitute the kwvtij, literally, "younger and older brothers." A woman marries into the kwjtij of her husband and is entitled to the ancestral rights of that group. A married woman retains her original xeem name because she is physically part of the clan she was born into even though she belongs to the spiritual world of her husband. The exogamous patrician (xeem) is the most encompassing level of kinship organization. At least eighteen patricians are still recognized in the United States. According to the rule of exogamy, a person can only marry someone from another patrician, although violations of this rule have been reported in the United States. Lineage organization is composed of all patrilineal descendants of a historical male ancestor, often a well-known political leader who lived five or more generations earlier. The Hmong term for lineage is caj ceg, meaning "a (single) trunk."

The next level of kinship formation is the family association, or pawg neeg. Although this term can refer to any organized group, it has a more specific meaning when applied to kin relationships. Closely related kwjtij, usually not an entire caj ceg, often form localized, semicorporate groups under the leadership of one or more elders to provide economic assistance and social support to the member families. These sublineages will extend help to neejtsa, the patrilineal relatives of wives, who have become separated from their close kwjtij and are unable to form their own support groups. The pawg neeg may consist of multiple houses dispersed over a geographic area. Members frequently trade services such as child care, participate together in rituals, and share other resources. Family members who live together constitute a "one house people," or ib tsev neeg. This group may include extended family members: a man and his sons, wives, and children as well as his parents, brothers, and sisters-in-law.

Hmong people also may be organized to a lesser extent on the basis of friendship, mutual acquaintances, common interests, affinal relations, and reciprocal advantage. Patrivirilocal residence in sublineage groups is preferred, but there are exceptions. Segmentary kinship allows for great flexibility in responding to changing conditions and may provide the Hmong with the means for surviving in urban America as a distinct ethnic group.

Kinship Terminology. In addressing or referring to relatives, kin terms invariably are used for some statuses and frequently are preferred for others. The common practice of teknonomy is described by Donnelly (1994): "If Nhia Doua and his wife Mee have a child Kong Meng, usually Nhia Doua will call his wife Kong Men's mother and she will call him Kong Meng's father."

Hmong kinship terms distinguish between the patrikin (kwvtij) of the father and the mother. This prevents parents' siblings from being merged into categories such as uaunt" and "uncle." Kin terms mark generational differences and in some instances relative age within a generation. Thus, father's older brother is txiv hlob, whereas mother's brother (with no relative age distinction) is dab laug. Males of the same generation who belong to one lineal group refer to each other as younger or older brothers, kwv or tij (hug). All females in this category refer to one another as sisters, viv ncaus. The children of clan brothers use sibling terms for one another. Separate terms exist for cousins who belong to other clans, which includes all cross cousins. Matrilateral parallel cousins, the children of two sisters, may belong to the same clan or different clans. In either case, these female cousins may refer to each other as viv ncaus. Hmong kinship terminology does not fit neatly into any of the kinship taxonomic groupings.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage outside the xeem, or patrician, is still customary among North American Hmong. First cousins who belong to different clans occasionally marry (cross cousins and matrilateral parallel cousins). If a serious interest develops between a man and a woman, often "go-betweens" (mej koob ) and perhaps a negotiator's assistant (thiaj com ) negotiate bride-wealth and help formulate an agreement acceptable to both families. Although some Hmong leaders have recommended that the bride-wealth be abolished, many Hmong practice this custom. Elopement can occur in the face of family opposition to a marriage. As in Laos, men sometimes try to force the commencement of a marriage negotiation by taking hold of a woman (zij pojnaim ). With the help of kinsmen, the man removes the woman to a secure place until her parents have been informed and asked to consider his marriage proposal. Usually no repercussions result beyond the payment of a fine by the would-be suitor. However, such actions have sometimes resulted in legal charges of kidnapping and sexual assault in the United States.

Polygyny continues in private, although it illegal in the United States and is viewed with condemnation by the dominant culture. The levirate is customary in Hmong society. If a man dies and leaves a widow, the levirate decrees marriage between this woman and her husband's younger brother. If he is married, he takes the woman as his second wife. This practice provided support for numerous war widows and fatherless children during the war and the exodus from Laos. Both the junior levirate and polygyny are becoming less common as American-born Hmong mature and start families. This is also the case for sororate marriage patterns, in which a widower marries a sister or patrilateral first cousin of his deceased wife to maintain close bonds with the neej tsa.

After bride-wealth and a marriage contract have been agreed on, parties are given in honor of the marriage. Euro-American marriage customs may be integrated especially if the couple or their families have converted to Christianity. Nevertheless, life cycle ceremonies continue to express Hmong ethnic identity after resettlement despite some stylistic changes. Marriage rituals continue to symbolize the change of care for the bride from her family of orientation to her husband's family and the importance of an alliance between the two groups. Divorce is not common among the Hmong in North America, but it seems that as a result of migration and acculturation it is occurring more frequently. Similarly, there are attitudinal changes regarding gender roles and relations.

Domestic Unit. Many Hmong people live patrivirilocally in extended family groups that may include cognates, usually fathers, brothers, and patrilateral parallel cousins and their wives and children. Men and women commonly work outside the home. Families may form mutual assistance associations on the basis of friendship, common interests, and reciprocal advantage. A married couple may decide to leave the husband's sublineage and reside with the wife's group.

Inheritance. The nearest male relative inherits material possessions.

Socialization. Extended family members often play an important role in children's lives as caretakers. In Laos social maturity came early. Children were encouraged to accept responsibility in the social and economic life of the family. This practice has continued to a much lesser extent in North America. Particularly girl children often take care of younger siblings or perform household duties. Although Hmong girls fourteen to sixteen years of age and boys only somewhat older get married in the United States, the average age of both sexes at marriage appears to be rising with increased educational levels. Before resettlement, corporal punishment and firm control over children's mobility were customary. Many Hmong parents feel distressed by what they perceive as a lack of positive influence over their adolescents' lives and are disturbed by the influence of a dominant culture that values individualism over interdependence.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Gender and age play a large role in Hmong social organization. Within the sublineage there is a male who speaks for the entire group when a collective decision has been made. Many family matters are considered private and are not referred to in the sublineage. The person who acts as the principal adviser and spokesperson is usually the oldest living male. Hmong family counseling emphasizes accepting responsibility and correcting behavior for the good of the family.

Political Organization. In most cities where the Hmong have settled, Hmong Community Associations and Lao Family Community, Inc., work as information clearinghouses and refugee assistance centers and provide cultural transition services to refugees and the wider community. These local organizations also have ties to the Hmong national leadership group. The political culture of the Hmong in the United States functions at several levels. Kinship is a relevant issue for organization and consensus as patrilineage and sublineage membership extends from the local to the national level. Hmong Student Associations have important social and civic functions and exist at many state universities where there is a sizable Hmong population.

Social Control. Pressure from the kin group is still a motivating force for most Hmong people, although how long this pattern can persist in a society that encourages individualism is questionable.

Conflict. In cases of domestic conflict partners may turn to their sublineages for support or, in their absence, to patrician descendants living nearby. Elders in kinship groups still provide guidance and advice. Some people may choose outside arbitrators and utilize host country legal processes. In communities with large Hmong populations public organizations such as schools, police departments, hospitals, and social service offices often hire bilingual workers to deal with linguistic and cultural barriers. Service organizations such as Lao Family Community Inc. and Hmong American Partnership, Inc., offer both technical support and conflict resolution assistance on many levels. There have been attempts to establish interclan councils in a number of communities, and the Hmong of Minneapolis-St. Paul have founded Hmong Circles of Peace, a grassroots movement that focuses on conflict resolution and restorative justice. Distinguishing features of the Hmong refugee experience are organization for self-government and to assist members in the acculturation process as well as the ability to redefine roles to fit new circumstances.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Generally, Hmong living in North America prefer to coj dab (bear [witness to] the spirits) or practice some form of Christianity, although some see no contradiction in practicing both. The more eclectic Hmong also participate in Buddihist rites with Lao friends and relatives. Persons who aspire to positions of political leadership particularly have to show tolerance for all faiths.

Hmong who coj dab have a concept of the soul or multiple souls in the special language of spiritual curers called txiv neeb. They believe in the existence of benevolent spirits and dangerous wild spirits and ceremonially venerate their ancestors. For health to be maintained, individuals must attend to good and evil forces. Equilibrium is sought by maintaining the coexistence of life-souls within the body through conversation with ancestral spirits and natural world spirits. Hmong txiv neeb speak of twelve human souls: three major souls each of which associates with three shadow souls. For a person to be in equilibrium, each of these souls must be intact within the body.

Christian missionaries were in communication with Hmong since 1600, but it was not until the 1940s and 1950s that Protestant missionary activity began to produce large numbers of converts. Many of those who immigrated did so with the sponsorship of Christian organizations, and many Hmong joined these churches. Fervent Hmong Christians who have lawb dab, or "cast out the spirits," avoid social situations associated with coj dab practices, such as baby-naming ceremonies, and anyone who eats food that has been ritually offered to the dab is condemned. Because wives are expected to adopt the religious orientation of their husbands, Christian parents want their daughters to marry coreligionists. Several authors have noted regional trends among Hmong refugees to convert to Christianity, but no studies indicate the rate of change across North America.

Religious Practitioners. A (tus, "classifier") txiv neeb enters into a trance to communicate with spirits. In such a state he (more rarely, she) learns what has happened to an individual's soul or what dangers are threatening a person or group. A txiv neeb not only heals or protects clients but may be called upon to guide the dead to rest or determine whether circumstances are propitious for certain activities. Most kinship groups include several members who have these abilities. An individual usually is called by the ancestors to be a txiv neeb, but he or she must learn from a practitioner. A number of other spiritual practitioners and healers are associated with coj dab. The expression (tus) khawv koob has been translated as "magician-sorcerer," but it is more accurate to classify such a person as a healer who specializes primarily in reducing the pain of burns, stopping excessive bleeding, or causing broken bones to set. A tus saib yaig can ascertain what is likely to happen in the future, and a kws tshuaj is an expert on herbal cures. Christian Hmong serve their communities as ministers, priests, lay preachers, and church elders.

Ceremonies. There are many Hmong ceremonies. If harm comes to an individual, one of the most common forms of healing is hu plig, or soul calling. Infants are welcomed into their families by a naming ceremony. The nyuj dab, which requires the sacrifice of a cow, is performed to obtain help from the ancestors on behalf of an ill person. The males in a lineage group are responsible for taking the lead in ritually honoring the ancestors. New Year's celebrations conducted during November or December bring together large numbers of people in a celebration of ethnicity and to welcome in the New Year. There are many customary rituals connected with this celebration. The ball toss (pov pob) is a courting ritual between a boy and a girl. Many ceremonies are conducted at funerals, including prescribed songs played by the qeej player or players, music, food, offerings, and rites conducted by male family members.

Arts. The Hmong qeej, a free-reed multiple-pipe musical instrument, is used to communicate in words with the spirit world. Each one of the seven tones in the Hmong language as well as all the vowel sounds can be replicated on the qeej. Thus, for knowledgeable listeners the qeej is said to speak Hmong. The Hmong are well known for embroidery; this elaborate hand artwork is called paj ntaub. More recently, these intricate and vivid pieces have become story clothes illustrating Hmong migration, folk tales, daily life, and the war and the exodus from Laos. The tradition is passed from mother to daughter.

Medicine. Hmong in North America may use Western biomedicine, traditional Hmong healing and spiritual practices, or a combination of both. The medicinal use of herbs has a long history in Hmong culture. The use of herbs (tshuaj ntsuab ) by practitioners who understand the curative properties of particular plants for various ailments is one type of medical specialization in Hmong culture. Spring (1989) found that 92 percent of the medicinal plants cultivated by Hmong refugees in Minnesota were potentially efficacious according to Western biomedicai criteria. Hundreds of herbal treatments for somatic illnesses exist, and it appears that they are available to and are utilized by many Hmong people. Other medical practices include abdominal and herbal body massage, coin rubbing, cupping, and moxibustion.

Death and Afterlife. The prayers and chants at a coj dab funeral recount the perilous passage of the deceased's soul back to its ancestral home in China. According to some researchers, Hmong who coj dab believe that an individual has three soul entities: one that stays with the body, one that stays with the family, and one that eventually is reincarnated. When a husband or wife dies, a txiv saib is hired to speak at length, often in rhyming couplets, about the life of the deceased. He also helps reassure the neej tsa that death will not break the relationship between the kin groups. Family elders then call upon the ancestors to witness a blessing (foom ) of good fortune that they are bestowing on all of the surviving members of the deceased's family.

For other cultures in Canada and The United States of America, see List of Cultures by Country in Volume 10 and under specific culture names in Volume 1, North America.


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Donnelly, Nancy (1994). Changing Lives of Refugee Hmong Women. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

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Dunnigan, Timothy (1982). "Segmentary Kinship in an Urban Society: The Hmong of St. Paul, Minnesota," Anthropological Quarterly 55(3): 126-134.

Hall, Sandra E. (1990). "Hmong Kinship Roles: Insiders and Outsiders," Hmong Forum 1: 40-45.

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Koltyk, Jo Ann (1998). New Pioneers in the Heartland. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Lee, Gary Yia (1986). "White Hmong Kinship: Terminology and Structure," Hmong World (1) Council on Southeast Asian Studies, Yale Center for International and Area Studies.

Miyares, Ines M. (1998). The Hmong Refugee Experience in the United States: Crossing the River. New York and London: Garland Publishing.

Morrison, Gayle (1997). "The Hmong QEEJ: Speaking to the Spirit World," Hmong Studies Journal 2(1).

Spring, Marline E. (1989). "Ethnopharmacologic Analysis of Medicinal Plants Used by Laotian Hmong Refugees in Minnesota," Journal of Ethnopharmacology 26: 65-91.

Internet Sources

"2000 Census Hmong Population Growth," Hmong Population Research Project, Department of Economics, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.


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