Hmong blend traditions, new medicine

Elizabeth Putnam

When her father had a stroke last month, LaMee Vang and her family went to see a shaman.

Struggling to balance Hmong tradition and Western medicine, the Vang family sought the healing power of a shaman after repeated attempts by a physician seemed to fail.

“I have noticed a change in his spirits,” Vang, former president of the University’s Hmong Minnesota Student Association, said two weeks after her visit to the shaman. “His mood has lightened.”

The shaman – a traditional Hmong healer who helps the sick by working with evil spirits that cause ailments – sought to remove the evil spirits that surrounded the family by offering two pigs and a goat. The animals symbolized a protective barrier between the family and evil, Vang said.

Throughout its experience with the shaman, the Vang family still visited its physician. They believed the visit to the shaman was successful but weren’t ready to give up on Western medicine.

Understanding this balance between shamanism and Western medicine is the focus of a two-year study completed last month by the University’s Center for Spirituality and Healing.

Gregory Plotnikoff, the center’s medical director, said the study was initiated to better understand the Hmong community’s health needs.

“What we were curious about is what role the traditional healer plays in the Hmong culture,” Plotnikoff said. “If physicians, nurses and pharmacists understand this better, it is likely that they will be able to provide better care.”

Plotnikoff said drawing blood and taking prescription drugs are foreign practices to many Hmong.

“Many physicians do not realize that for many of Minnesota’s immigrant communities, Western medicine is considered quite alternative,” Plotnikoff said.

The study found religious and cultural beliefs influence how Hmong Americans access health care in Minnesota. It evaluated 32 Hmong patients and 11 shamans in an attempt to grasp how the Minnesota Hmong culture uses Western medicine.

According to the study, shamans serve as a symbol of cultural stability in the Hmong community. Many believe that shamans heal by communicating between an unhealthy spirit and surrounding spirits. They treat the spiritual causes of disease, indicated by general symptoms such as fatigue, bad dreams and weakness. There is no equivalent health professional in Western medicine.

Minnesota has the country’s second-largest Hmong population. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are 41,800 Hmong in Minnesota.

The study will provide information for physicians nationwide and will be used in medical school curricula, Plotnikoff said.

The study is part of a larger movement “to enhance the capacity to serve patients by shifting from a compliance way of thinking to a concordance approach with the patient/physician relationship,” he said.

The shaman way

When Mai Yang was a young woman, she was
constantly ill. Despite seeking medical help, her illness continued. It wasn’t until she sought the help of a shaman that she began to get better.

“This was a sign to me that I was to be a shaman,” Yang said in Hmong to a translator.

Two altars line the wall of the room designated for rituals in Yang’s house. Lines of string crossing the ceiling serve as a channel for the spirits. The altars are adorned with candles, incense and cream-colored paper that, when burned, acts as an offering of money to the spirits.

Using incense to summon the spirits and goat horns to interpret the spirits’ messages, the shaman, Yang said, is able to heal spiritual ailments, but can’t heal many physical problems.

Many of Yang’s patients seek medical attention from a physician in addition to seeing her. Yang herself sees a doctor.

“If you don’t get better from medicine, then there is something wrong with your soul,” Yang said.

Although it is uncommon for physicians and shamans to work together, Yang said it could benefit the patient.

“It’s better for the spirit,” she said.