Maybe you’ve heard the story before about the Hmong of Minnesota. Fought for the CIA in a secret war in Laos. Made this state home to second-largest Hmong population in the country. Massive soccer tournaments. Colorful New Year’s festivals.
But those are just highlights. Walk through the 2,800-square-foot exhibit opening March 7 at the Minnesota History Center and you’ll see artifacts that reveal little-known stories about the Hmong experience in the land of 10,000 lakes.
There’s the jersey from a celebrated girls flag football team in St. Paul. And the rare gun owned by both a powerful Hmong general and a sitting U.S. president.
Collectively, the 250-plus items on display chronicle four decades of struggle and success since the Hmong — an ethnic group with roots in ancient China — first arrived here as refugees.
“It’s one of the best things to ever happen in our community,” co-curator Noah Vang said of the exhibit. “We’re here in Minnesota, and this is a Minnesota story.”
We got a sneak peek at “We Are Hmong Minnesota” in order to bring you these five surprising finds.
OLD becomes NEW
The traditional Hmong woman’s outfit is typically worn during special events, such as New Year’s celebrations or weddings. Embroidered in the cloth are symbols that form a hidden language. The meaning of this ancient language is lost, but scholars suggest the design tells the story of Hmong migration over centuries. The dress on the left dates back to Laos in the 1980s. Borrowing from the past, local fashion designer Ashaley Yang created an evening gown that puts a fresh spin on old traditions. She’s part of a wave of Hmong-American designers fusing traditional and contemporary looks.
Pronounced “gheng,” the qeej is a musical instrument with pipes made of bamboo and a reed made of wood. It sounds a bit like a flute but you can judge for yourself — a video shown at the exhibit features a qeej playing in the background. The ones on display date back to the early 1960s. The instrument is experiencing a bit of a revival with some younger Hmong learning to play it. Commonly used at funerals, the qeej is also a spiritual tool. “The qeej has this special way of connecting the soul of the deceased to the afterlife,” Vang said. “It also provides that guidance of the soul of the deceased making [the] journey back to their ancestors.”
BROTHERS IN ARMS
In 1968, Gen. Vang Pao traveled to the United States for the first time and brought a gift for then-President Lyndon B. Johnson — this flintlock rifle. The general, who famously led the Hmong first on the battlefield and later in their migration to this country, was fond of sharing Hmong artifacts with American allies, Noah Vang said. The rifle is on loan from the LBJ Library in Texas. “The gun has never been on loan to any other institution,” Vang said. “This is the first time it’s being brought here.”
In 1982, when author Chia Koua Vang wanted to write in the Hmong language, he had his typewriter altered to show letters of the Hmong alphabet. Originally, the Hmong language was primarily an oral tradition and this particular dialect did not take a written form until the 20th century, Vang said.
THE OTHER FOOTBALL
The Hmong Soccer tournament still draws tens of thousands of people to St. Paul every summer — but flag football has a passionate fan base too. A jersey worn by a member of a flag football team called the Valkyries (2006-2010) tells the story of how a band of Hmong high school girls formed a special bond. Beyond winning competitive titles, the team became a symbol of female empowerment in the community. “It shows the participation of women in Hmong sports,” Vang said. “That’s important.”