Involvement in the Vietnam War
In 1954, the Geneva agreement ended the fighting and declared Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam independent countries. The agreement also split Vietnam into two countries; communists governed North Vietnam and South Vietnam became a democratic country. North Vietnam reneged and the communists tried to take over South Vietnam, so the American military fought the communists in a battle that became known as the Vietnam War (Barr, 2005). The Hmong in Laos experienced tragic, long-term consequences for their wartime allegiance with the United States by secretly fighting in the Vietnam War.
At the beginning of the Vietnam War, Laos was an officially neutral country (Mote, 2004). Freedom is important to the Hmong. The word Hmong means “free man” (Murphy, 1997). However, the Vietnam War spread to Laos when communist leaders decided to use Laos as a route to deliver supplies to their troops fighting in South Vietnam. Fearful that a communist victory in South Vietnam would eventually lead to communist victories throughout Southeast Asia, the United States Department of Defense, State Department, and Central Intelligence Agency “secretly created and administered a billion-dollar military aid program to Laos. (Castle, 1993).
The U. S. military recruited and trained Hmong men and boys who wanted to protect their freedom from the communists. Tens of thousands of Hmong soldiers fought alongside U. S. soldiers to stop the communist’s troops and supplies from reaching South Vietnam. In 1975, the United States lost the Vietnam War and withdrew its soldiers from Vietnam and Laos, leaving behind the secret army of Hmong soldiers (Barr, 2005). Immediately, communists took control of South Vietnam and Laos, and declared war against the Hmong in Laos.
Without the protection of American soldiers, Hmong soldiers and their families were hunted down and killed by communist soldiers. From 1975 until 1990, hundreds of thousands of Hmong fled Laos (Barr, 2005) to resettle in Thailand refugee camps. The United States promised to “find a new place” (Mote, 2004) for Hmong people, if the war against communism was lost. The United States had an agreement with Thailand, a democratic country, to provide safety and refugee camps. For several years, Hmong families struggled to survive in refugee camps until they received official permission from the United States to resettle in America (Murphy, 1997).
When the first Hmong families arrived in the United States, they did not speak English and “lacked written language, formal education, financial saving, and support networks. ” (Su, Lee, Vang, 2005). In spite of that, they held tight to their Hmong identity and loyalty. To be a Hmong in the eyes of the Hmong community of parents and elders is to be fluent in Hmong, have respect for elders, participate in family celebrations, help each other when needed, and have the will to succeed while maintaining one’s identity (Moore, 2003). Today, 18 different Hmong clan names are still passed down from generation to generation.
Hmong clan names are equivalent to American last names. First names identify people and last names identify clans. The 18 clans provide life-time membership and ongoing material and spiritual support to their members from birth to death. Newborns are given the father’s clan name, which they cannot change. For that reason, Hmong women retain their clan name when they get married (Moua, 1995). The foundation of Hmong life is marriage and family (Millett, 2002). An ancient ritual requires the groom to pay “a bride-price,” a negotiated sum of money paid to the bride’s parents.
Hmong newlyweds live with the husband’s parents until they have two or more children. However, Hmong culture expects the last-born married son, his wife, and children to permanently live with, support, and care for his parents and grandparents until their death. Unfortunately, time-honored Hmong traditions are challenged by American culture. For example, there is conflict between Hmong Christians and Hmong Animists. Animists sacrifice animals to worship spirits; they believe “that all living things have spirits” (Brittan, 1997).
Hmong Christians worship God and condemn animal sacrifice. As a result, Christianity altered traditional Hmong rituals and ceremonies. For instance, Christianity eliminated the payment of a bride price and animal sacrifice. It also, eliminated the reciting of lengthy songs paying attribute to ancestors and natural spirits during funerals. These changes and other social and adaptive conflicts continue to cause disagreement and division among some Hmong families, friends, and clans. Once upheld with high respect and status, the Hmong shaman’s role in America has been downgraded.