Shooting Ignites Hmong Racial Tensions

Voice of the Valley

Pacific News Service, News Report, Eduardo Stanley Posted: Jan 03, 2005

Traducción al español

FRESNO, CA — The morning of November 21 didn’t start off well for Chai Vang, a deer hunter in Sawyer County, Wisconsin. Vang purportedly got lost in the forest. When the owner of the property saw him, he asked Vang to leave. According to Vang, who is a Hmong resident of Saint Paul, Minnesota, the owner and his friend made racist jokes about his Asian origin as he was walking away. There was a clash with weapons. Before dying, the property owner was able to call other hunters on his walkie-talkie.

Four people who approached him were also fatally shot by Vang, who was later surrounded by authorities. The hunter explained that he was attacked, humiliated by the jokes and that the owner had threatened him with his rifle. The others, he said, were part of the conflict and when the situation calmed down, he put down his rifle and turned himself in.

But the shooting quickly gave rise to anti-Hmong sentiments. Hmong residents of Minnesota claimed they had received insults and threats, community activists asked Hmong hunters to refrain temporarily from hunting, and one bumper sticker read "Save a Deer, Kill a Hmong."

Originally from Laos, many Hmong participated in the Secret War that United States waged in that country during the Vietnam War (1965-1973). When the Communist Pathet Lao took control of the country, those connected with the CIA fled. After a long and difficult escape through the jungle, hundreds of families crossed the Mekong to live for years in Thailand’s crowded refugee camps. The American government ignored them until the 1980s, when it gradually began to accept them as refugees. A large part of the Hmong community settled in California’s Central Valley, where an estimated 30,000 Hmong residents now live. But the largest Hmong community can be found in Minnesota, which has elected a Hmong assemblywoman.

"These days it’s not very safe to be Hmong," says Mai Der Vang, who is the cultural organizer of the Pan Valley Institute of Fresno and is of no relation to the alleged shooter. "We condemn the incident, but the reaction generated because the hunter was Hmong is unjustifiable, and the same thing could have happened if he were Latino." Mai Der says that this wave of racism worries Hmong youth. "This would be a different story if the hunter were white."

"When the perpetrator of a crime belongs to an ethnic minority group, the message is that the crime is related to his ethnic condition, but if he is white, then they focus on his psychology," explains sociologist Myrna Martínez. "In other words, when the suspect is white, they look at him as human, something unthinkable when the suspect is an immigrant."

For example, mainstream media coverage of the shooting has called attention to the alleged shooter’s ethnicity – something that, according to Martínez, would not have made headlines if the suspect were Caucasian. The first sentence of a Reuters news agency article began, "A Laotian immigrant accused of shooting…" while the Associated Press reported that "The fatal shooting of six deer hunters by a Hmong hunter after a trespassing dispute….”

"We are under attack," says Ben Vue, a recognized Hmong journalist in Fresno. Vue says that during his radio show, Hmong hunters have called in to complain that on several occasions they were victims of racial jokes by white hunters.

"It is not a Hmong issue, its a social one," said Wemeng Moua, editor of the biweekly magazine "Hmong Today" of Saint Paul, Minnesota. "Other Asian communities in the area, like the Cambodian and Vietnamese, have expressed their concern to us over this racism," Moua said, adding that none of the racist incidents following the shooting has involved physical violence.

A majority of the Hmong community seems to feel gratitude toward the United States, as if the military alliance of the 70s were maintained. Because the United States welcomed Hmong refugees, criticism of the United States can be seen by the community as nearly equivalent to treason. As a result, racist acts generate strong emotions, but are not always recognized publicly.

"Incredible things are being said and written about us," said Vue, who recalls the discrimination he faced when he and his family were looking for an apartment to rent in Fresno.

After two decades of living in the United States, many Hmong may be seeing a different face of the society for which they risked their lives and lost their land.

Related Stories:

In Wake of Hunting Tragedy, a Young Hmong Writer Anguishes Over Mediator Role

Hmong Americans Celebrate July 4 in Minnesota

Sniper Fallout Merges With 9/11

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