Linda Gerdner spent more than 10 years in the company of Minnesota Hmong elders to learn about age-old shamanic traditions.
Now, the Hmong Cultural Center is showcasing her book as part of a recent push to draw young people to its newly renovated space, tucked away on St. Paul’s University Avenue.
The center’s leaders say Hmong youths may dismiss their forebears’ healing practices as obsolete superstition, at odds with the Christian faith many Hmong have embraced. But they also see a resurgence of interest in these practices, which some medical professionals have come to embrace in tandem with Western treatments.
“Many young people think these practices are outdated,” said Txongpao Lee, the center’s executive director. “But others are coming back to the traditional beliefs.”
Lee hopes Gerdner’s book, “Demystifying Hmong Shamanism,” will pique that curiosity and start an ongoing conversation about tradition. A book launch Thursday, April 21, ramps up the 24-year-old center’s bid to feature more fresh faces and interactive events.
In recent months, the center added permanent exhibits on Hmong history and embroidery. It’s also in the middle of a major expansion of its library collection, including a boost to its children’s book selection.
Now, the center is eager to show off some of that work. New to the popular website Trip Advisor and on social media, the center wants to bring in visitors beyond the participants in its English and citizenship courses and occasional library users.
“We have two target audiences — the larger society to help them better understand the Hmong community and young Hmong,” said Mark Pfeifer, the center’s director of programs and development.
Pfeifer and Lee thought Gerdner’s book would be a great fit to showcase the center’s more outgoing new persona. Lee’s wife became a shaman several years ago after a traditional healer helped her with an illness that had gone undiagnosed for years. He was impressed by the level of detail in the book and the access Gerdner got to ceremonies that are often closely guarded.
Witnessing and documenting
Gerdner, who has a doctorate in nursing and now lives in Iowa, did most of her research while teaching in Minnesota. She befriended Shoua Xiong, the co-owner of a Hmong bookstore in St. Paul. Xiong introduced Gerdner to a local shaman and his family.
In the following years, Gerdner got a chance to witness and document many traditional ceremonies, from one performed to protect a fetus early in pregnancy to one aimed at extending the life of an elderly person with chronic illness. Before long, other shamans also offered to participate in the project, in the hopes the book would safeguard their practices.
In 2009, a California hospital became the first to officially allow Hmong shamans to meet with patients, and more practitioners have taken note of the role of family support and spirituality in healing since.
“There are important aspects of the healing process that Western medicine does not address,” said Gerdner.
Thursday’s event at 5 p.m. at 375 University Av., is slated to feature family members of Gerdner’s protagonist. Organizers were pleased to see young people RSVP on the event’s Facebook page.
“Shamans are part of our beliefs and our tradition, so we need to keep that,” said Lee. “I believe they won’t go away very quickly.”