Seeds of Community 

An Invisible Counterculture

Ravaged by Vietnam, Hmong immigrants return to farming as they make a new life in Western Montana

"There would be 200 or 300 people in bags a day," Moua says. "Families would line up and unzip each one, looking for relatives."

Moua, who has been a Missoula resident for 21 years, describes this gruesome scene from his tidy home near the Blue Mountain area. He has a spectacular view of Lolo Peak; the silent, dominating crags of Western Montana remind him of Laos, a small country bordered by China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand.

It was partly this geographical affinity that led Hmong General Vang Pao to settle in Hamilton in 1976.

But the general was followed by a steady stream of refugees, and it was more than a love of mountains that grew Missoula's Hmong community to its current 250 souls. The Hmong worked for the U.S. during the war, and when Uncle Sam brought his troops home, North Vietnamese communists began extracting their revenge.

With the help of the U.S. State Department many escaped, resettling in American communities. Here, having survived the brutal chaos of a nation scarred by war, Moua and other refugees faced a whole new set of challenges. Very few of them could speak English, many were accustomed to technology-free, agrarian jungle lifestyles, and even in idyllic Western Montana, they faced discrimination from potential employers and landlords as a visibly non-white group.

Before the French, before the Americans, before the communists, the Hmong lived a rural, migrant existence in Laos. They were known as industrious workers who practiced slash and burn farming. The peaceful, spiritual Hmong moved seasonally, their calendar revolving around their agriculture.

Some, like Moua, moved to urban areas to attend school. Moua was a second year high school student in Vientiane, the largest city in Laos, when the Vietnam War changed everything.

In 1973, General Pao put out the call for young men to return to their villages and fight. Hired by the CIA, Hmong soldiers were unusually proficient in jungle guerrilla warfare. Their main duty was to guide American pilots who were bombing the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Vietnam.

"We didn't know what the CIA was. We just know the white man comes with money and pays you to fight. We didn't know any politics," Moua explains.

The Hmong paid dearly for their alliance with the United States. Moua recalls trucks carrying guns and ammunition rumbling into town, followed by soldiers in strange uniforms. It was 1975, and the communists had arrived in Laos.

Moua says the CIA fled the country, proceeded by the highest ranking soldiers and their families.

"The general just flew away. We thought they would only be gone a few weeks. The soldiers in the mountains didn't even know."

Moua says he was one of the lucky ones. He understood what was happening and, in the uncertain days before the communist government officially ruled Laos and patrolled its borders, he followed his brother's lead and crossed Mekong River into Thailand. He spent six months in Namphong, the largest refugee camp in the country, before coming to Montana.

The U.S. government opened its doors in a limited way, allowing over 200,000 Hmong people to emigrate after a waiting period and asylum determination. It often took the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees anywhere from six months to six years to hack through bureaucratic red tape for each family. Once here, the first Hmong were given minimal assistance, while at the same time they were expected to get jobs and learn English. (While many got public assistance in the form of welfare, it's an avenue that's since been closed. One must be a citizen to receive welfare, but one must wait five years and become fluent in English to receive citizenship.)

Moua's story is a variation on a theme often repeated in Montana's Hmong community. Another local farmer, Chue Vang, came to Missoula under like circumstances in July of 1979.

From 1962 to '65, he fought alongside his father and brother. In 1967, Vang moved from his jungle village to attend school in the city at his father's insistence. A few years later, when the opposing army raided his village, his brother was killed and his father was imprisoned. He never saw his father again.

Prior to the communists' takeover of his country, Vang says, war was only waged against other soldiers. By 1975, they were killing everybody. The Hmong, who were viewed as traitors, suffered horrible reprisals from those newly in power. According to Susie Lindbergh Miller, Bounthavy Kiatoukaysy and Tou Yang, who edited the 1992 book Hmong Voices in Montana, communist soldiers killed more Hmong between 1975 and 1978 than had died during the entire 14-year war, eliminating a quarter of Laos' Hmong population, so that only a few hundred remain there today.

The new government rounded up professionals-lawyers, teachers, doctors, scholars, politicians-and forced them into so-called "training camps," where they were ostensibly going to be taught about communism. Many were told they'd be working on farms or helping to build roads, according to Vang, who says most of the people who were plucked from families and sent away never made it back.

"They would take 100 people, maybe 10 come back," he says. "Some Laotian come back, but no Hmong. Many people committed suicide in the state where I lived."

Vang says thousands died crossing the Mekong, many of them kids. One thing he remembers about his journey out of Laos was the nearly constant sound of wailing children along the way.

"Laos was very, very scary," he says. "There was fighting all the time. The younger generation doesn't know anything about it."

In Montana, though gunfire and violent death had become a thing of the past, the Hmong found themselves struggling daily to maintain their culture, while simultaneously hoping to succeed in their new homeland.

Until recently, Vang worked as an interpreter for the Missoula Health Department, when state funding for his job was eliminated as part of welfare reforms. He's having a hard time finding work, which he attributes mostly to his less than perfect English and employers' reluctance to hire someone middle-aged.

He spends his days helping to raise vegetables in his family's garden, about an acre in size, his primary outdoor task being to rotate a lone sprinkler around the field at half hour intervals. He sells what his family doesn't consume, making perhaps a few hundred dollars off the total harvest. He says he works hard for enjoyment rather than for money. Vang is one of two Hmongs who serve on the Farmers' Market Board of Directors.

Indeed, the Farmers' Market is probably most Missoulians' only interaction with the local Hmong community. It's the center of their cultural and spiritual life. Pao Moua says his family's garden is essential to his mother's well being. And bringing the produce to market, he adds, gives her a connection to her community.

"There aren't many opportunities for elderly people to visit, and that's what they like to do," he says.

Mary Yang, a case manager at the Refugee Assistance Corp. and a refugee herself, confirms that the meaning of the Farmers' Market runs deep.

"It makes the older people happy. They can see a lot of people from Missoula buying vegetables, excited about the vegetables, being nice to the people and treating them with respect," she says.

The market is not a commercial venture for most, Yang says, but a continuation of the pastoral life her people have lived for centuries. Tribal hill people originally from China, the Hmong consider gardening a way of life, she says, often regarding the feel of soil between the fingers as a kind of therapy.

The Hmong trust their own vegetables, Yang adds, and see every object in the natural world as having a soul. They practice a religion that is similar to Native American spirituality, a form of animism that is steeped in the belief that loved ones and family members who are no longer living will provide help and guidance.

These cultural differences have often served to keep the Hmong invisible socially, Yang says. The traditional Hmong call on a number of supernatural beings and spirits for assistance, and prefer consulting a shaman to visiting a Western doctor. They have little use for nursing homes, as it is understood that children will care for their parents.

It is this sense of being part of a close-knit community, Yang says, that may cause Missoulians to perceive the Hmong as being a seldom seen group of people.

And Missoulians were not always welcoming. During the early 1980s, when the Hmong were beginning to settle here, she says, there were instances of discrimination and harassment. Teens in pickups threw rocks at Hmongs on bicycles. In another incident, a group of elderly Hmong were walking down Spurgin Road when a group of young men drove by and yelled, "Fuck you! Asians go home!" from their vehicle. As a result, Yang says, some of the older Hmong residents fear appearing in public.

"It made people scared," she says. "They were afraid of getting hurt."

Pat Dontigney, coordinator for immigrants at the Missoula Health Department, says that although some harassment against the Hmong still occurs, it has settled down a lot.

"Part of the problem at first may have been that we had people who had fought in the Vietnam war who couldn't distinguish the Hmong from the Vietnamese," she says.

Dontigney says the majority of refugees' health problems are related to the abrupt change in culture. Concepts like germs causing disease, she says, were difficult for them to understand. Things modern Americans take for granted, like using a toilet or turning on a stove, were totally unknown.

"There was a lot of depression," she says.

Pao Moua understands the emotional upheaval of culture shock. He says that he was extremely depressed the first five months he lived in Missoula. He had a job at Murault's and he would see students come in and out of the store.

"I thought, 'If I were in Laos, I would be a student right now,'" he says. "I felt like a slave."

Tou Yang represents the younger generation of Hmong. The 35-year-old is a student at the University of Montana, with a double major in pre-education and medical lab technology. He is married and has seven children.

He escaped from Laos as a teenager, leaving his parents behind. They are still there, and although the Lao government has opened the door for visitation, it can only take place in Vientiane, and only for a maximum of 30 days, flight time to and from Laos included.

After spending six years in the Ban Vinai refugee camp, where he worked for the hospital and learned English from a Bible class, Yang arrived in Missoula in 1987. At age 24 he enrolled at Hellgate High School within a month of his arrival. His dream was to go to college and pursue a degree.

"No matter how hard it is, I go for it. Work without a degree is too challenging," he says.

He wants to be a role model for Hmong kids in the community, encouraging higher education and discouraging gang membership, a huge problem, he says, for Hmong children in urban settings like Minneapolis and Sacramento.

Moua too looks more to the future than the turbulent past. While he could get a higher paying job elsewhere-he has a brother living in Sacramento and would be welcome there-he stays in Missoula for his family. City life, he says, has destroyed his brother's family. Of his three nephews, one finished high school and two joined gangs, one of whom was killed in a gang-related shooting.

Moua's 18-year-old son, Tom, completed high school at Big Sky, and is planning to attend Montana State University. His youngest child is four, and Moua says they will stay here until the toddler finishes school.

"The people who remain here now wanted to take hardships, to sacrifice for their kids' future," he says. "We mainly stay here for our kids, because education is very important."

Further, Moua thinks native-born Missoulians could learn a thing or two about community from the Hmong.

"I think the public would agree," he says. "We can exchange with them the way we believe in our families."

Photos by JEFF POWERS

For older Hmong people like Pao Mova's mother, Ying Thao, the Farmers' Market is a central part of community life, providing a chance to socialize with peers.

The entire Moua family participates in farming. Here, Pao's nephew Yeng, shows off the chickens he helps to tend.

Ying Thao takes a break from working her family's vegetable plot.

Pao Moua says it was for the sake of his children, including son Hmong, that he settled in Missoula.


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