Almost all of the Hmong people in Wisconsin either lived in Laos or had relatives who did. The Hmong were happy in the mountains of Laos, although they didn’t have television or telephones. They found other ways to communicate and entertain themselves. But because of the Vietnam War and a couple other minor wars the Hmong were forced to refugee camps in Thailand. It was a tough journey and they were always in fear of being killed. After spending many hard months in the refugee camps families were chosen to come into the U.S.A. and start new lives.
Although most of them were young, the Hmong have memories of life in Laos, and many families have gone back to visit relatives and villages they once knew so well. We learned about life in Laos through pictures and orally, but also Laos was connected in other ways such as shamanism and funerals and qeej playing.
One of our first visitors, Dang Yang, lived in Laos for the first few years of his life. He makes all kinds of Hmong instruments, all of them were made in Laos. He showed us the Hmong violin that had been brought from Laos. The violin had a colorful head of a dragon at the top of the instrument’s neck.
Sue Bassett came and showed us photos of life in Laos. I thought it was amazing how they built bamboo houses with thatched roofs from scratch, and kept their animals running freely. The children had to help around the house, but also had fun playing in the mud and inventing other games.
Also, at a four-day Hmong funeral, the spirit makes a journey back to Laos (through the spirit world) to receive her placenta. The journey is like a life reward. They travel from America to Thailand camps, across the Mekong River and back to where they were born in Laos.
In the case of shamanism, the shaman travels to the spirit world, which is a form of Laos and the shaman’s early life memories. He/she takes a sword and shield to protect them from the evil spirits. The shaman also carries money in case the spirits won’t let him pass.
Whether your spirit or your body travels to Laos, your eyes or your mind, the memories of life in Laos will always be a huge part of Hmong culture.
–Sarah and Gabby
The Journey back to Laos [section] can have several categories: funerals, shamanism, traveling, storytelling, music, sacrifices, and more. I feel that strongly, without these wonderful things, life would be very… lost indeed.
Funerals are one of the most powerful experiences I can find. Most of them take over one day, maybe even over four days! On the first day, there’s mostly exchanging of happy memories, music, ceremonies, and – laughter. Laughing doesn’t happen very much at American funerals, but it happens at Hmong funerals. The body of the deceased isn’t put in the coffin right away. The body is laid on a kind of platform and later moved into the coffin. There is crying, but it isn’t usually very much in the beginning, growing more and more in the late first and early second days. It’s a strong, powerful, emotional thing if you’re actually there.
Sacrificing actually connects with funerals. In the funeral, a rooster and maybe a cow are sacrificed. The rooster is to guide the spirit back to its ancestors, back through the places the person lived when he/she was alive. Qeej music is also used to guide the spirit. Sometimes, qeej players have to play for days and nights in a row! This is done by having one player play for a while, then send in another, then change to another, and so on.
Journeying to Laos can be done in many different ways. I hope I’ve told enough.