In 2004, Chai Vang wound up on private property while hunting in Wisconsin. The landowner and several friends confronted him. The encounter ended with Vang, a Hmong immigrant from St. Paul, opening fire on them and killing six. He was sentenced to six life terms.
To David Bengston of the U.S. Forest Service, the tragedy was an extreme example of the cultural friction some immigrant Hmong outdoors enthusiasts have encountered or helped cause in a country more developed and regulated than their homelands.
Experts say language and cultural barriers make concepts like "no trespassing" and limits on fishing confusing to some Hmong, a people who often hunted and fished for subsistence in their native countries in Asia.
Now, a film aimed at the Hmong population seeks to clarify some of the values and rules that frame the way people view and use U.S. wildlands.
"Yos Hav Zoov," or "Exploring the Wilderness," is the work of a team of researchers, including Bengston, who were concerned not just that some Hmong didn't understand the rules, but also that some aren't even trying to enjoy the woods or the lakes because they don't want to run afoul of the law or native residents.
The 57-minute video is divided into five chapters, with skits on fire safety, hunting and fishing regulations, and other rules on how to use wild lands responsibly. Actors from the Hmong community wear colorful costumes, and Smokey the Bear appears to talk about fire safety -- in Hmong.
The video advises: "When you see others in the wilderness, smile so that other people or groups won't think differently of you."
Most of the 2,500 DVDs made have been distributed to Hmong cultural centers and groups in Minnesota, Wisconsin and California; those states are home to about 80 percent of Hmong Americans, Bengston said. Minnesota, with 50,000 Hmong, has the nation's second-largest population, behind California.
Phasoua Vang, who played a squirrel in the film, said her family enjoyed the movie, which prompted them to have conversations about the environment.
"Don't step on the grass," Vang, 29, told her 4-year-old nephew, Maujkoob, on a recent walk in St. Paul. "Remember the movie? Step on the path that they made for us."
In the film, the translation of some concepts had to be improvised because they didn't have a Hmong equivalent. Fishing license, for example, became "the piece of paper that you need in order to be able to fish," Vang said, laughing.
'An outdoor culture'
The Forest Service funded the five-year project. Bengston, along with Michele Schermann of the University of Minnesota's Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering department, spent years studying the Hmong for the project and consulted Hmong natural resource experts.
Since the Hmong didn't have a written language until the 1950s, Bengston said, storytelling was a way to pass along knowledge. The film is a modern twist on that tradition.
The film's director, Foung Heu, 45, a refugee from Laos and an outdoorsman, said the movie taps into an affinity for nature that many Hmong feel in their core. "We came from an outdoor culture," he said. "We work the land, and we hunt. We cook crops, so that's part of our culture."
While most immigrant groups use the outdoors less than the general population, the Hmong use it more, setting them apart, Bengston said.
The movie, by promoting outdoor family recreation, might also help ease tension in Hmong families, said U of M history and Asian American Studies assistant professor Mai Na Lee. Traditionally, Hmong women care for children more and get outdoors less than men, she said.
"A lot of the social problems that emerge -- you know, like divorce, domestic violence, constant arguments -- result from that kind of segregation between men and women," Lee said.
Katherine Lymn is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.