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“We became Catholic when I was four, … but I have always been between because I can’t just forget about my old religion and shamanism because that’s a big part of my culture.” —Yia Lor, 2008

Shamanism | Kev Ua Neeb Ua Yaig

Traditional Hmong spiritual beliefs combine ancestor veneration with animism. Spirits inhabit all things, and Hmong people traditionally offer animal sacrifices and perform ritual ceremonies to maintain good relations with the spirits. A shaman serves as a spiritual guide and healer, and treats spiritual illnesses by negotiating with spirits on behalf of ill clients during ceremonies performed in the home. Today, about half of Hmong Americans practice shamanism, and ceremonies typically occur on weekends to accommodate work schedules. Many Hmong Americans use traditional healing practices in addition to Western medicine

Hmoob ib txwm ntseeg tias ua neeg nyob txhua leej txhua tus muaj ntsuj muaj plig yog li Hmoob thiaj ua neeb ua yaig kho ntsuj kho hlauv kom tej ntsuj tej plig los nyob puab duab puab cev thiaj tsis muaj mob muaj nkeeg. Tus txiv neeb yog tus ua neeb kho tej ntsuj duab ntsuj hlau kom tsis txhob qaij txhob qaug thiaj tsis muaj txiab muaj nkeeg. Niaj hnub nim no Hmoob ib nrab tseem ua neeb ua yaig hauv vaj hauv tsev rau ob hnub tsis ua laj ua kam. Hais txog kev kho mob mas Hmoob Asmeskas kuj ua neeb ua yaig pab thiab kuj mus ntsib kws kho mob thiab.

Mrs. PaZong Xiong performing a spirit ritual at Sia Yang’s house in 2018. Her assistant beats a nruas neeb, or gong, while she communicates to the spirits by chanting and ringing tswb neeb, or finger bells. Video courtesy of Sia Yang.
Txooj Vam Yang performs a soul calling ritual using a txiab neeb, or hoop rattle, and kuam, or divination horns in 2018. Video courtesy of Sia Yang.
Tou Ger Lor performs a neeb kho, or healing ceremony, for Sia Yang’s visiting parents in 2018. Video courtesy of Sia Yang.

“Every year we have to call our soul because we believe that individuals have twelve different souls. Then we have to make sure that each one will be attaching to your body so you don’t get sick.… They say that you have a soul to monitor your head, monitor your eyes, and your mouth, and your body… When we got sick [in Laos] they had to go see a shaman and make sure that our soul is attaching to our body. If not, if one of our souls is gone, they have to do some performing to call him back.”Jennifer Vue, 2018

“At first I doubted, because I’m the new generation, right? I was sick for four or five years, and they said yeah, you have to become a shaman, and I said no, I didn’t want to. Because that’s only for people in the traditional way. I denied it. But after the ritual, it worked…. Do I believe it? Yes. And do I cure people? Yes. But sometimes we say go to the doctor first, and if they cannot find anything wrong with you, you can come to us and we will see the other world, the other dimensions, to balance the mind, and soul, and body. That’s pretty much what shaman do.”Tong Thai Xiong, 2018

  • Christianity | Kev Ntseeg Vaj Tswv

    Christian missionaries began establishing churches and schools in Laos in the 1950s, and some Hmong joined the Christian church during the colonial period. Hmong Americans worked with the Christian Missionary Alliance in the late 1970s to develop a Hmong district within the organization and formed a number of congregations across the country. About half of Hmong Americans today practice the Christian religion. The first Hmong Christian Alliance Church in Eau Claire was established in 1981. Today, several Hmong Christian congregations provide social and religious support for Hmong American families.

    Cov neeg ntseeg Vaj Tswv tau tuaj pib ua tsev teev hawm Vaj Tswv thiab tsev kawm qhia txog Vaj Tswv nyob rau teb chaws Nplog xyoo 1950 yog li ib co Hmoob thiaj tau mus ntseeg Vaj Tswv lawm. Hmoob tau ua hauj lwm nrog cov neeg ntseeg Vaj Tswv rau thaum xyoo 1970 thiab tsim muaj ntau pab pawg neeg ntseeg nyob rau hauv Nplog teb. Niaj hnub nim no Hmoob ib nrab yog cov ntseeg Vaj Tswv. Lub tsev teev hawm hu ua Hmong Christian Alliance Church nyob rau hauv lub zos Dej Ntshiab no yog thawj lub tsev teev hawm uas tsa muaj rau xyoo 1981. Nim no muaj ntau pab pawg neeg Hmoob ntseeg Vaj Tswv kuj tsim muaj kev lom zem thiab kev sib pab rau tsev neeg Hmoob nyob rau Asmeskas teb.

    “We had a big change thirty-five years ago when we came to Eau Claire. We used to practice those ancestor beliefs, what you call animism, and now we just go to church. My father was a shaman and now we have pastors.”Houa Vue Moua, 2011

    “We were thinking if myself or someone in the family passes away, where are we going to end up? And that is the main point that we decide to convert into Christians. Based on our tradition, when someone dies in the family … we need someone to guide his spirit back to Laos, or back to his or her ancestors with the three day funeral. All those are very difficult and we don’t want to misguide the spirit, so either you convert to Christianity and you go directly to God, or you go back where you’re coming from and then go to God. We decide to take the shortcut to go directly to God. That’s why we converted to Christianity. Honestly, my family, we came [to the U.S.] very early and we didn’t know that we were going to have this many Hmong come in after us, so we decided to become Christian. But all the Hmong who came later, they still carry their own traditions, their own culture.”Yong Kay Moua, 2011

    “I have two children. They go to the Alliance Church and the other goes to the Christian Church. Because they graduated from college and they learned so much and they know so much about Western medication, and so they don’t know how to practice like shamans or things like that. They have decided to go their way.”Jennifer Vue, 2018

  • New Year Celebrations | Noj Peb Caug

    In Laos, Hmong families celebrate New Year in December after the harvest to honor all living things. Relatives from distant villages come together for festive days of feasting, games, music, and courting. Elders lead spiritual ceremonies expressing gratitude for the past year’s bounty and casting aside its misfortunes. Animal sacrifices appease and honor spirits and ancestors. New Year celebrations in the United States combine traditional practices such as the pov pob courtship ball toss game with new elements such as beauty pageants and dance competitions. Hmong Americans in Eau Claire began holding New Year celebrations in 1980, and the annual event continues to bring families and friends together to celebrate the end of the harvest year.

    Nyob rau teb chaws Nplog mas peb Hmoob noj 30 rau thaum lub 12 hlis ntuj uas yog lub caij sawv daws twb ua liaj ua teb tas lawm. Lub sij hawm noj 30 no mas kev neej kev tsav thiab phooj ywg nyob deb nyob ze los tuaj koom kev lom zem ntau yam xws li tuaj noj tuaj haus, pov pob, hu nkauj thiab ua ntau yam ntxiv. Tej laus yuav los cheb vij sub vij sw thiab kev phem kev tsis zoo nrog lub xyoo laus mus. Yuav tua tsiaj tua txhuv los npwg laig tej laus/poj koob yawm txwv kom yus tsev neeg tau kev noj qab nyob zoo. Nyob rau teb chaws Asmeskas mas thaum noj 30 nws muaj ntau yam los txuam nrog kev pov pob xws li sib tw zoo nkauj zoo nraug thiab seev cev/las voos. Cov Hmoob nyob hauv lub zos Dej Ntshiab no pib noj 30 thaum xyoo 1980 los lawm. Kev noj 30 txhua txhua xyoo mas yog lub sij hawm tej txheeb tej ze thiab phooj ywg tuaj koom kev lom zem thiab xa lub xyoo laus mus. Yav thaum Newub mas noj 30 ces yuav muaj kev pov pob rau tej hluas los tso daj tso luag thiab ua kev lom zem rau lub xyoo tshiab. Qhov nov yog ib qho ua rau tej hluas tau tuaj sib ntsib, sib pom thiab sib paub.

    “We still keep partial traditions. For example, like the New Year and like a wedding or funeral…. All of those [traditions] have disappeared partially. We say traditional Hmong New Year, but it’s not that traditional anymore.… We still dress up, and we still do ball tossing. So we have some mixed practices, and it is not really tradition anymore.”
    Houa Vue Moua, 2011

    “Another difference is the New Year. In Laos and Thailand, each city has their individual New Year. And we still do that here in the United States because of the different timing. But back in the homeland, we don’t have to rent space. It’s a real New Year celebration where families, friends, people all come together to spend time together. It’s a time for young people to come together to find their significant others, and that kind of stuff. But here in the United States, we are restricted too, because you can’t just go out to a park and be like, OK we are going to have the New Year.… So again that kind of restricts cultural practices. For example, here in Eau Claire, the New Year event is indoors versus back at home all New Years are outdoors.
    ” — Sia Yang, 2018

    Sweeping away spiritsMan sweeping away last year's spirits at the New Year in Ban Vinai Refugee Camp, 1970s.

    decorated povpob balls
    Decorated pov pob balls made by Jennifer Vue, 2018.

    “[Pov pob] is a traditional game but it is technically for single people to come together to get to know each other. Courtship…. The ball toss is like an activity to give you guys the time to get to know each other. But really it’s so you could actually chant to each other.… Not so much here now with the young generation, but with elders, they still practiced that…. As society changes, we have new generations now and they are very direct. With technology, too, people are just so direct that if they go to New Year’s events and they like each other they’ll ask for phone numbers. Like what is your phone number? Where do you go to school? They are really direct now so they don’t chant. I also think that they’re direct because they don’t know the culture. They don’t know the chant. And if we don’t know the chant, you want to do just go with whatever is convenient.”
    Sia Yang, 2018

  • Weddings | Kab Tshoob Kev Kos

    The mej koob chanting near the end of a wedding, requesting to leave the bride's house. The rolled blanket is carried by the groom during the journey back to his family's home. (2017). Video courtesy of Sia Yang.
    Qaib Faib Siav, in which the wedding party departs the bride’s family’s house during a Green Hmong wedding. A cooked chicken is split and shared with the bride’s mother and the wedding party. (2017). Video courtesy of Sia Yang.
    On the second day of the ceremony, the mej koob performs a chant to welcome the wedding party back to the groom’s family’s home. (2017). Video courtesy of Sia Yang.

    A traditional Hmong wedding takes place in the home of the bride’s family. During the ceremony, the mej koob lead the bride and groom through a series of rituals that acknowledge family members from both clans and several benevolent spiritual beings. The mej koob, or wedding song specialists, also serve as mediators and witnesses between the two clans. At the end of the ceremony, the mej koob present the newly married couple with an umbrella to protect their souls and ensure a successful union. Today, Christian Hmong American couples might also hold a wedding ceremony at their church, blending traditional practices with new religious beliefs.

    Kev noj tshoob haus kos mas yog ua rau tom tus ntxhais niam thiab txiv tsev. Lub sij hawm ua tshoob no mas muaj plaub tus Mejkoob yog cov coj lub rooj tshoob, rooj kos ntawm ob tog niam txiv uas muaj tus tub thiab tus ntxhais sib yuav. Plaub tug Mejkoob yog cov coj lus thiab ua pov thawj rau ntawm tus tub tus ntxhais nkawv rooj tshoob thiab rau nkawv ob tsev neeg. Thaum muab rooj tshoob ua mus xaus lawm ob tus Mejkoob tog tub yuav muab lub kaus coj los nthuav roos tus tub thiab tus nyab tej ntsuj plig kom nkawv ua neej nqaj nto ntuj, nploog nto ntsis. Cov ntseeg Vaj Tswv ces lawv kuj ua tshoob rau tom tsev teev Vaj Tswv lawm thiab. Qhov nov yog ib qho tshiab uas yog muab ntxiv rau tej kab tshoob kev kos uas tej laus ib txhis ua los lawm.

    Listen to a wedding song sung by Chao Xiong, 2018. This song is typically sung at the end of the ceremony to wish the new couple well. At the end of the song, the mej koob presents the couple with an opened black umbrella which serves to protect the new couple’s souls from evil spirits.

    “Well, you cannot really complete a marriage, a wedding, without the mej koob. The mej koob are the negotiators. We need negotiators for the girl’s parents’ side, as well as for the boy’s parents’ side. The mej koob are more like negotiators, or messengers, or mediators. They communicate back and forth between those two clans about dowry, or any past issues with previous marriages. For example, I am married to someone in the Lor family. If we got divorced for any reason and later my children or someone from our clan went to marry someone from the Lor clan, they (the Lor family) are going to say, one guy from your family married one of our daughters and their marriage didn’t last, so how would you assure us that that’s not going to happen again? So they bring those kinds of things up in marriages. As the mej koob, you have to exchange information and/or negotiate between those two clans until the clan leaders on both sides come to a conclusion.”Chao Xiong, 2018

    wedding basketChao Xiong with a wedding basket, called a kawm. These baskets were traditionally used to transport the bride’s dowry items to her new home with her husband’s family. Chao says that these days the baskets are more ceremonial rather than functional, but he still uses them to transport items when he is facilitating a wedding as a mej koob, a traditional marriage broker.
    Photographer: Sallie Anna Steiner

    tying the siv ceeb on the umbrellaMej koob Va Xiong tying the siv ceeb on the umbrella at the wedding negotiation table, 2018.
    Photographer: Sia Yang

    “So I think, as the generations change, the younger generations are taking what they feel is best. I guess the more important roles, the negotiating of the bridal price, and which side takes what, and who is responsible if the bride and groom should ever have conflicts or issues, those things are still very strong. Doesn’t matter what religion you have, at the background those are still negotiated on the proposal night. Other than that I think other aspects, little things are changing. Especially like ours, we had the traditional where my husbands side came and did the proposal … and we had the whole church wedding as well, and we finished it off with the traditional sending of the bride…. So those are things we kept, but we added little tidbits of the American wedding in there as well.”PaSia Lor Moua, 2011

    story cloth
    Storycloth depicting traditional courtship and a wedding ceremony in Laos, 1980s. The embroidered scenes at the top show women and men playing pov pob, the ball tossing courtship game, at the New Year. The middle sections depict the wedding ceremony with the spiritual offering of a cooked chicken, the mej koob negotiating the dowry at a table, and the preparation of the feast. The final scene shows the wedding party traveling between the bride’s and groom’s houses led by a mej koob carrying the protective umbrella
  • Funerals | Kev Pam Tuag
    Listen to “Rooster Song” performed by Joe (Joua) Bee Xiong, 1992. The song tells a mythological story about a rooster, and is both sung and played on the qeej.
    Qeej Tu Siav at the funeral of Dia Vang in 2015. The song directs the soul of the deceased home to the ancestors. Video courtesy of Sia Yang.
    Listen to Qeej song played by Chao Xiong, 2018. Chao explains the song’s meaning: “It’s basically a guy and a girl are dating from a long distance and the guy misses the girl so much that he commits suicide. The txiv qeej (someone who knows how to blow the qeej) blows the qeej song expressing the dead person’s sadness, feelings, and why he commits suicide.”

    Traditional Hmong funerals are important family gatherings that usually last several days. Complex sacred rituals ensure the prosperity of the deceased person’s soul and comfort surviving family members. Qeej musicians guide departed souls home to meet their ancestors. While Hmong Americans continue these traditions, several modifications to the traditional practice have occurred. Today, funerals must take place in funeral homes instead of the family home due to state regulations, and ceremonies typically happen over a weekend to accommodate work schedules.

    Yav thaum ub mas Hmoob kev pam tuag yuav siv ntau hnub los ntawm tsev neeg thiaj pam tau ib tus tuag. Kev pam tuag yog ib qhov xwm txheej nyuab uas yuav tau ua rau tus neeg tuag kom nws tus ntsuj duab ntsuj plig mus dawb mus huv nws thiaj yuav pov hwm pov yawm nws tsev neeg nyob tom qab. Rab Qeej yog coj los tshuab xa tus tuag rov mus cuag poj cuag yawm. Hmoob Asmeskas tseem coj tej kev cai dab qhuas qub no tab sis kuj muab tej yam pauv lawm thiab. Niaj hnub nim no kev pam tuag mas yuav tau mus nrhiav tsev pam tus tuag lawm vim lub teb chaws Asmeskas no muaj cai ntau yam, tsis zoo li yav thaum ub es pam tuag hauv tsev xwb. Tsis tas li ntawv kev pam tuag nyob rau lub teb chaws Asmeskas no mas yuav tau ua rau ob hnub uas sawv daws los so tsis ua hauj lwm lawm xwb.

    “At the very beginning when Hmong people die, they have to giver her or him some new clothes to wear and wash the body…. The qeej players have to play … a certain song…. The Hmong people believe, if you die, your body is dead but you have many spirits and your spirits need to go back to where you first came [from] … to become a human being again or whatever god plans you to be…. The song … directs you step-by-step back. Even if an elder dies, every village or province or town that he lived in before, we take his spirit back … until the original village that he was born…. That song is very long. It takes about three to five hours.”Joe Bee Xiong, 1992

    “Back in Laos, for example, if someone dies, you can do the funeral services right away. Now because we all work, and because of the limited space, when someone dies we may not be able to do his or her funeral services right away. Sometimes we have to wait for weeks before we can find a place to do the services, so that’s a big change. Also, back in Laos, when someone dies we sacrifice animals for that person, but now we try to reduce the number of animals that we kill for the funeral services. In the U.S., we usually start a funeral service on a Friday and the burial is on Monday of the next week. We usually spend about three days to do a funeral service. The funeral service is usually open 24 hours a day. This is a tiring and exhausting process and it requires everyone’s time, cooperation, help, and support.”Chao Xiong, 2018

  • References

    Cha, Dia. “The Hmong 'Dab Pog Couple' Story and its Significance in Arriving at an Understanding of Hmong Ritual,” Hmong Studies Journal, 2003, 4:1-20.

    Koltyk, Jo Ann. New Pioneers in the Heartland: Hmong Life in Wisconsin. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1998.

    Pfaff, Timothy. Hmong in America: Journey from a Secret War. Eau Claire: Chippewa Valley Museum Press, 1995.

    Vang, Chia Youyee. Hmong in Minnesota. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2008.

    Xiong, Nao; Xiong, Yang Sao. “A Critique of Timothy Vang’s Hmong Religious Conversion and Resistance Study,” Hmong Studies Journal, 9:1-22.

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