Hmong group celebrates cultural heritage, traditions

by Elizabeth Putnam

Lee Pao Xiong said he can imagine what ground zero must smell like.

When Xiong was a boy growing up in Laos, he saw hardships and death in the Vietnam War. After his family moved to the United States, he said the smell of war would never escape him.

Xiong, president and CEO of the Urban Coalition and member of the Advisory Commission on Asian American and Pacific Islanders during the Clinton administration, was the keynote speaker at the annual Hmong Minnesota Student Association Heritage Festival on Saturday.

The festival was in conjunction with the Hmong New Year, which marks the end of the harvest season in Laos and Thailand.

“On campus we celebrate our heritage as well as the New Year,” said LaMee Vang, HMSA president. “We want to educate others about the culture, and it’s a celebration for everyone. It’s a way of mixing old traditions with the new.”

The festival’s theme was “Who are the Hmong and Where are They Now?”

“Board members wanted to focus on the origins of the Hmong culture because it’s a way for us to understand our origins,” Vang said. “The Hmong don’t have a country that they originate from so it’s important to understand the origin of the clans.”

HMSA members did an adaptation of “The Flood: How Hmong Names Began.”

According to the folk tale, the Hmong people came from one thing – a seed, Vang said.

The folk tale is about a boy and a girl who were the sole survivors after the world was flooded.

They conceived a baby that resembled a seed and broke it into pieces that became 19 children. They represent the 19 clans of Hmong culture, Vang said.

The festival included a fashion show of traditional Hmong dress in which students explained the significance of each piece of clothing.

“When I was a girl, my mom would wrap me in a black cloth around my waist, and I never understood the significance,” Vang said. “Because of the fashion show, I found out that it tells bachelors that you weren’t married.”

Shary Vang, activities co-chair, said the festival allows Hmong students to connect with their parents.

“It brings us closer because we are able to appreciate where we are now,” Shary Vang said.

May Pahou Ly, assistant director of the festival, said turnout was higher than last year and she was happy to see more families at the event.

“Parents are there to see that their kids are learning about their culture and reaching out to educate others,” Ly said.

HMSA adviser Joe Ortiguera said the festival brings the best out of the students and he encourages other cultural organizations to organize similar events.

“I wish for more student groups to have events that enhance the student experience because it creates community and it gives University officials an idea of what students are doing,” Ortiguera said. “It goes beyond academics and it lets students shine outside of the classroom.”

Vang said HMSA has more than 200 members and is the largest student cultural subgroup on campus.

There are 42,000 Hmong in Minnesota and 34,000 in Wisconsin, which make up 45 percent of the nation’s Hmong population.

Elizabeth Putnam welcomes comments at [email protected]