From the remote mountains of Laos to a new life on U.S. shores, Sai Shoua Yang was a tireless advocate for the Hmong people.

But his advocacy was abruptly cut short — Yang, 88, of Forest Lake, died of COVID-19 on Dec. 9.

"He embraced everything this country has to offer and felt we all have an obligation to make it better," said his niece Der Yang of St. Paul.

Born Dec. 31, 1931, to a farming family in Laos, Yang was forced to fend for his eight siblings and mother as a young man after his father died.

"He knew difficulty and poverty at a very young age," his niece said.

Yang was elected as tasseng — a legal officer — of the Xiangkhouang subdistrict, a position of great responsibility for such a young person, overseeing 10 villages and hundreds of people.

During the CIA's Secret War in the 1960s and 1970s, Yang battled communists in Laos alongside famed Gen. Vang Pao.

"He was not someone who would jump into war; he wanted peace and stability," Der Yang said. "But he understood it was necessary to preserve the lives of our people and to protect our culture."

When the United States withdrew from Laos in 1975, Yang provided for his family and hundreds of others who were left behind.

Ultimately, Yang led his people to refugee camps in Thailand, where he remained from 1979 to 1988. There, he "cemented his reputation as a leader for his people with his compassion and his care for those who came to seek his counsel and share from his table," said another niece, award-winning writer Kao Kalia Yang of St. Paul.

In 1988, Yang settled in Fresno, Calif., where he earned a living as a farmer. Nine years later, Yang moved to Minnesota, where he was an elder in the Hmong community and an oral historian regarding the war and its aftermath. He was a passionate advocate for peace.

Although he had been wounded in the war, Yang still walked every day and worked at the family farm in Forest Lake. He was vital until he contracted the COVID-19 virus.

His family said he should be remembered as someone who led an inspirational and brave life.

"He was a symbol of strength," Der Yang said.

Yang was preceded in death by two brothers. He is survived by four brothers, two sisters, 21 children, 116 grandchildren and 39 great-grandchildren.

Services will be held later.

Janet Moore • 612-673-7752