When hunting season rolls around every fall, Cha Neng Vang is ready.
Come the first Saturday of deer season, the Winona, Minn., resident is packed up and driving out of town by 4 a.m., making his way to a secluded tree stand with a family member or two, his blaze orange cap on his head.
While it’s a ritual and practice many Minnesotans are familiar with, it’s one Cha Neng and other Hmong hunters have learned to adapt to.
When he was a younger man in Laos, hunting was an important source of food for his family. Now, while bag limits mean he can’t rely on hunting like he used to, Cha Neng continues going to the woods for the love of hunting — and, of course, the taste of home-cooked venison or squirrel.
Cha Neng, who told his story through Project FINE program development director and interpreter Chong Sher Vang, learned to hunt as a teenager in Laos. At the time, hunting in Laos didn’t require permits or a license, and there was no such thing as an offseason.
“When I got to the forest, I can hunt basically anything,” he said. “So if I am shooting deer, it’s fine, if I’m shooting birds, it’s fine, and as much as I can carry — there’s no restriction or limits.”
By contrast, hunters in Minnesota need licenses for each kind of prey. There are bag limits and size restrictions, and rules on transporting guns and loading them safely. And without the landowner’s permission, you can’t hunt on private land.
“It’s very different, so it’s like Earth and heaven, you know,” Cha Neng said with a chuckle.
Tong Vang, a Southeast Asia program community liaison with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, works with Hmong hunters adjusting to rules and customs of hunting in Minnesota. When people have conflicts during the hunting season, they call Vang to resolve them. Common problems include trespassing and competing for space on public land.
Cha Neng said he hunts on public land in the Winona area, and he’s comfortable with the regulations, but sometimes worries about accidentally crossing into private land, though he said he’s never been cited for trespassing.
“What bothers me the most is that sometimes with the signs, like private land, public land — they post it very far away, and only a few, so it’s really difficult to know when you’re stepping into private land,” he said.
Tong Vang does training on reducing confrontations, obeying laws and avoiding trespassing. The DNR updates hunting regulations every year, so he also spreads that information ahead of hunting season.
He said the department doesn’t offer special programs or special treatment for Hmong hunters, but treats all hunters equally.
“We have to adapt to the same rules,” he said.
Problems of trespassing and other illegal activities are not new — and, Tong Vang stressed, not only committed by Hmong or Asian hunters unaware of the rules.
He has been in the department for 23 years and says that every hunting season people are caught cheating, breaking the law, poaching and going over the limit, no matter their race or ethnicity.
Tong Vang said Hmong hunters sometimes are subject to a lack of perspective among white counterparts. A few years ago, he was at a landowner meeting set up by the DNR in Caledonia, Minn. Thirty people had been caught trespassing on private land that year in Houston County. Of the 30, 10 were Hmong and 20 were white. But discussion, Vang recalled, centered on Hmong hunters.
Hunting is increasingly popular among Minnesota’s Hmong population. Vang said there are about 25,000 licensed Hmong hunters in the state, across all seasons and types of game. There are more than 60,000 Hmong living in Minnesota, including more than 300 in the Winona area, according to 2010 census data.
While many hunters recall hunting in Laos, a growing group of Hmong youths born and raised in Minnesota are showing up for firearm safety classes and learning Minnesota regulations at a young age.
Vang said he has seen change and improvement among all hunters in his work over 23 years. Younger hunters are more accepting of diversity, and no longer surprised to see Hmong hunters in the woods, he said. Violations and trespassing are less common among Hmong hunters. At some fishing spots, Hmong anglers have moved from crowded shore areas to boats.
Vang said there is now a Hmong chapter of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association in the Twin Cities area, and it works to open communication with other chapters in the state and raise money for new hunting land.
He said it’s part of sharing the message that Hmong hunters are hunters, too, and have the same goals.
Cha Neng Vang came to the U.S. in September 1988, living in the Twin Cities until moving to Winona in June 2010. He had relatives there, and with them he learned the ropes of hunting in Minnesota. He said he’s only made one mistake in the field: He shot a buck he considered to be eight points, and he was fined because one of the points was too short.
He paid the fine, and the deer was confiscated. “They took the deer and that’s the end of the story,” he said.
He has never had a confrontation with other hunters, though every season, he hears about gun accidents and even conflicts, he said. He said he sometimes feels like white Americans don’t expect to see Hmong people hunting.
In Laos, Cha Neng’s large family raised some animals and grew their own food, but it wasn’t enough. So they hunted, mostly for small game such as pheasant, quail and porcupines. Wild boar was common and a staple. Deer were rare, but very large, so when somebody shot a deer, the whole village came to help carry it back from the forest.
Cha Neng said preparing and cooking animals for meals was also different in Laos, because they did not have a refrigerator or a freezer. They smoked much of their meat, which allowed them to keep it and cook it in vegetable dishes.
In that situation, “we hardly leave anything out,” he said. “We boil the bone with other vegetables, too.”
Hunting remains an important part of Cha Neng’s life. He usually goes with a few family members. When he gets a deer he splits it among his large family. They put the meat in the freezer instead of smoking it, but they still cook the same kinds of dishes, boiling the venison with lots of savory vegetables.