Decades after immigration to the United States following the US withdrawal from Vietnam, Hmong American across central Wisconsin are coming together to share their culture and heritage with the community through enriching cultural experiences.
(Note: Hmong is also spelled HMong or HMoob to emphasize inclusivity towards multiple dialect groups)
On a bright and sunny May morning Stevens Point, Wisconsin, a parade celebrating the grand opening of the annual Portage County Hmong Week festivities processed down Main Street towards the old city square. It was the opening of the fifth annual Hmong Week held by Portage County and the second to be held in partnership with nearby Wood County. The assembly featured a dynamic assembly of Hmong Americans across generations including a young dancing troupe, Hmong business owners, and a dignified row of Hmong veterans of America’s “Secret War” in Laos. Upon reaching the square, singers led the crowd in singing Hmong traditional songs before a troupe of students danced to contemporary Hmong-language hits. The Mayors of Stevens Point and Wisconsin Rapids read proclamations announcing the official start of Hmong Week before introducing the Hmong veterans to share their reflections.
The spirit of Hmong Week in central Wisconsin can be best expressed through the Hmong phrase “Sib Pab Sib Qhia,” which can be translated as “to help and teach.” After decades of struggle and perseverance, Hmong Americans in central Wisconsin are vibrantly embodying this “Sib Pab Sib Qhia” ethic by working in solidarity to teach the wider community about Hmong culture. In addition to the parade, the most recent Hmong Week experience featured a rich itinerary of events including a workshop on Hmong Shamanism, performances featuring traditional Hmong instruments such as the raj nplaim, a virtual tour of the From Laos to America Museum, and an exhilarating talent show at the Korean War Memorial Park. Though rural Wisconsin is often stereotyped as culturally and ethnically homogenous, the organizers of these lively cultural exchanges are making great strides in enhancing the visibility of Hmong Americans and challenging narratives. In addition to Hmong Week celebrated each May, the upcoming Wausau Hmong Festival to be held July 29-30 and the Hmong New Year held annually by the Hmong American Association of Portage County in September are just a few events that Hmong Americans and local government leaders believe are having a positive impact on multicultural understanding while demonstrating the growing enthusiasm to learn about Hmong culture.
Mike Wiza, Mayor of Stevens Point, is one such leader who has participated in Hmong Week and is delighted to see Hmong culture taking its rightful place among Wisconsin’s vibrant multicultural landscape. “Stevens Point has a rich history of Polish American heritage. Just as community members come to enjoy Polish food and music at the Dozynaki Festival, attending events such as Portage County Hmong Week is a way to learn about different facets of a culture,” said Mayor Wiza. “People may come to these events out of curiosity or just passing by, and before you know it you are learning.”
After learning about Hmong history through Hmong Week workshops, one cannot help but agree that the story of Hmong Americans in central Wisconsin and the United States at large is truly one of resilience and triumph. Following the US withdrawal from Vietnam in 1973, Hmong fighters allied with the Royal Lao government and the United States found themselves under siege by victorious Lao and Vietnamese communist forces. Many Hmong fled reprisals in Laos and made the perilous crossing over the Mekong River to Thailand only to find themselves in a state of limbo in refugee camps. Beginning in 1978, approximately 120,000 Hmong were resettled in the West, mainly in the United States, but also in Argentina, Australia, Canada, France, French Guyana, and Germany. Due to the secret nature of the US war in Laos, the US government was reluctant to officially recognize the contributions of its Hmong allies during the war and advocated repatriating Hmong at refugee camps in Thailand back to Laos. Pressured by human rights group and allies of the Hmong in Congress who scrutinized the persecution and disappearances of Hmong refugees being repatriated to Laos, President Clinton made an acknowledgement on May 15, 1997, to officially recognize the contributions of Hmong veterans and thereby accelerate immigration. After overcoming these countless obstacles, Hmong Americans are now recognized as trailblazers in every aspect of American life, ranging from launching successful businesses to winning gold at the Olympics.
According to the 2021 U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey, there are around 62,000 Hmong people currently living in Wisconsin. Other states with significant Hmong populations include California with over 120,000, Minnesota with over 107,000, and North Carolina with over 14,000. To overcome the disconnect caused by the diaspora being spread out across different regions of the United States, Wood County Hmong Week Committee member Yer Yang believes increasing communication and interconnectivity between Hmong communities is the key to giving Hmong Americans the strong voice they deserve. “The diaspora of the HMong people created disassociation between the HMong communities,” Yang said. “Because there is no ‘I’ in ‘TEAM,’ I believe that if the HMong communities in the surrounding/sister areas are willing to work together, we could create bigger and stronger voices to advocate for the HMong community.” To Yang, this year’s Hmong Week was especially significant as it marks a year of sustained cooperation between Wood County and Portage County to jointly celebrate Hmong Week, exemplifying the efforts to strengthen interconnectivity and coordination between Hmong communities across the state.
The indomitable drive to serve the community personified by Hmong Americans including Yer Yang and the veterans of the “Secret War” is readily noticed by Wisconsin state leaders. “I am so proud to represent such a rich and diverse community,” said Representative Katrina Shankland of Wisconsin’s 71st Assembly District. “People outside of the community need to understand just how patriotic Hmong Americans are. They are proud of their history of service and proud of their self-sufficiency.”
An enthusiastic participant in cultural events such as Hmong New Year, Shankland encourages more people to attend and strike up a conversation with their Hmong American neighbors. “Visibility and acceptance are so important,” She explained. “The experience of the Hmong people needs to be recognized. I am excited to see more members of the community attend Hmong cultural events and see more Hmong leaders being uplifted.” Inspired by the powerful testimony of Hmong Americans from across the state, Representative Shankland is currently working to provide Hmong Americans with greater access to medical translation and supporting efforts to teach Hmong American history in Wisconsin schools.
While Hmong Americans have long been neighbors, classmates, friends and family in central Wisconsin, it is the hope of community leaders that through these cultural events that all Americans can more fully appreciate the rich impact the Hmong people have had on the cultural fabric of the United States both yesterday and today. “Learning their story is critical,” Mayor Wiza stated. “By attending these events, community members can demonstrate their acceptance, encouragement, and understanding of the Hmong experience.”
Yang expressed her appreciation for members from the community coming together to uplift Hmong American voices, “The ability to work alongside allies wanting to advocate for a more diverse community is a beautiful feeling. And the fact that the community wants to learn about the culture is fascinating.” Though there is much work left to be done, Yang is optimistic that through the “Sib Pab Sib Qia” model of Hmong solidarity and community education that central Wisconsin is making good progress. “I want to tell our non-HMong community members to be open-minded to listen, learn about HMong history, and be bold and ask questions. We have to learn to be uncomfortable to be comfortable,” stated Yang. “And to my HMong community members, don’t be afraid to embrace and share your culture because if we don’t share, no one will understand why we are in America in the first place. Be proud of who you are!”
A special thank you to State Representative Katrina Shankland, Mayor Mike Wiza, and Yer Yang of the Hmong Week Committee for their insights and willingness to be interviewed for this article.
Check out these upcoming Hmong cultural celebrations! The Wausau Hmong Festival will be held July 29-30 at the Peoples State Bank Sports Complex at 602 East Kent Street in Wausau, Wisconsin. This year’s Hmong New Year Celebration will be held in Stevens Point at the Portage County Youth Soccer Complex from September 9-10.
Jon Formella is a participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East West Center in Washington. He is a graduate of the Columbia University and London School of Economics MA/MSc International and World History Program and an incoming first-year law student at Columbia Law School with an interest in international law and the law of armed conflict.