Students Get First-hand Look at Hmong Culture Through Yearlong Study Project

Photo by MacKenzie
Randall School fifth-grader

This Hmong story cloth shows people crossing the Mekong River.

Fourth and fifth-grade students at Randall Elementary School in Madison are seeing Hmong culture up close during a year-long collaboration that has taken them from a butcher shop in Green Bay to a traditional funeral in Middleton to a shoe factory in Wausau. Fifth-grader Sarah wrote, "Every place we visited changed my perspective."

The Madison Children’s Museum, the Wisconsin Arts Board, and the Center for the Study of Upper-Midwestern Cultures (CSUMC) have teamed up with Mark Wagler’s students at Randall to explore Hmong culture and present it to a broad public through exhibits, web sites, and more.

The class has taken trips to Hmong community sites in Madison, Milwaukee, Sheboygan, Green Bay, Wausau, Eau Claire, and La Crosse. They’ve had several classroom visits, including ones from a seventeen year old shaman, a former resident of the Ban Vinai refugee camp, and presentations on Hmong funeral and wedding celebrations. The students have been documenting Hmong culture by audio and video recording, taking pictures, and writing extensive notes.

"Before the trip I thought Hmong was just some bizarre
culture, but now I know what the Hmong truly are," said Mariah, a fourth-grader.

Hmong culture has endured through centuries of dislocation and persecution by relying on a strong sense of family and community interdependence. Wisconsin has the third-largest Hmong population in the United States, with 33,791 Hmong residents, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. (California and Minnesota have the most.) Hmong, an ethnic minority in Laos, were persecuted and forced out of their homes after the Vietnam War, in which many fought for the United States. Heavy immigration to the United States began in the late 1970s and 1980s as Hmong escaped Communist persecution by fleeing to refugee camps in nearby countries, and then to the United States.

The outcomes of the student efforts will be many. They are consulting on an exhibit at the Madison Children’s Museum called Hmong at Heart, which features a Hmong village in Laos, a Thai refugee camp, and a Hmong-American home. The exhibit is schedule to open in January 2004. Also, two educational manuals will be developed for use in museums, schools, and other settings: Introduction to Hmong History and Culture and Teaching and Personalizing Culture. The students’ writing and pictures will be featured on the Hmong Cultural Tour website, part of CSUMC’s “Cultural Maps, Cultural Tours” project. The website is expected to be up by early May.

Teacher Mark Wagler acknowledged that the trips are lots of hard work but the payoff is great. "Never before have I seen students learn culture in such great depth," he said. "It's the best social studies curriculum I've ever taught--folklore, history, geography, political science, economics, sociology, and psychology all integrated into one ethnographic project with local, regional, and international dimensions."

A Hmong fifth-grader, Pakou, wrote in her journal, "First, I knew only a little about being Hmong, but then we visited a lot of Hmong people who have their own traditions which are related to my traditions. I now know more about myself. "

Ruth Olson is associate director of the Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures.



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Last updated: February 25, 2004