The first time I saw my people mentioned in an American history book was sophomore year in college. It was a very brief one sentence side note on the section about the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War. “Hmong hill tribes of Laos helped Americans in what was called the ‘Secret War’ during the Vietnam War,” or something to that degree.
Imagine going through school for some 15 years carrying the knowledge that your grandfathers and Hmong people supported and fought alongside the Americans in Vietnam and wondering each time you learn about the Vietnam War why your people is not mentioned.
Our history has always been written by others. The Hmong passes our history through oral traditions and did not have a written language until 1952 when three men, Dr. Linwood Barney, Father Yves Bertrais and Dr. William Smalley, used Latin letters to come up with the Hmong Romanized Popular Alphabet (Hmong RPA). Growing up, I’ve always listened to the Hmong’s history through the voices of my father, grandmother, or the elders in the community. And although told through different perspectives and lived experiences, the stories were always the same.
What happened with the Hmong in Laos was not part of written American history because it was a CIA secret operative. The Hmong and other ethnic groups were disposable. When things did not go as planned, it was as easy as pulling out and denying anything happened at all. How long did it take for the US to acknowledge the Secret War and its impact on Laos and its civilians? In 1999, President Clinton addressed the Hmong community in a video clip during the Hmong National Development Conference recognizing that “Hmong soldiers fought bravely alongside Americans.” In 2016, President Obama publicly acknowledged the Secret War on a trip to Vientiane, Laos for an economic summit. That’s 41 years after the US pulled out of Laos.
The Hmongstory 40 project celebrated 40 years of Hmong history in the United States by showcasing the Hmong involvement in the Vietnam War and Hmong diaspora. I had to choke back tears when I visited the exhibit in 2015 for the first time. It can bring feelings of sadness, helplessness, yearning, and nostalgia. While standing at the huge picture of Ban Vinai Refugee Camp (my birthplace), a middle-aged man approached me and told me about his life in Laos and the refugee camp. Afterwards, he asked as he wiped away tears with a handkerchief, “Puas tu siab thiab? Koj pom tej no puas tu siab thiab? (Do you feel sad when you see all of this?)” Tu siab kawg li (It is sad indeed).
Yesterday, ValleyPBS and Hmongstory 40 released a 56-minute documentary called, “The Hmong and the Secret War.” This was envisioned and made by Hmong folks (with others support). This is the story of our grandparents, parents, elders, community. This is our story, told mainly through our voices.
Although I enjoyed watching the documentary, I felt it was too short and left out important details and events. Those of us who grew up hearing stories of war and Laos can understand the context of each short excerpt in the documentary. However, for our younger Hmong generations and mainstream American viewers, they may be lost or confused. I take this documentary as an introduction to a much more lengthy series of the Secret War, which I hope will happen sometime in the future.
In the past decade or so, there has been an increasing movement for the Hmong community to take ownership of our stories and tell them with our voices. Hmong authors, poets, scholars, researchers, historians, artists are telling our stories in their various creative forms. The elders have always feared losing our culture, traditions, spoken language, and oral traditions to the immense influences of this western land we have settled in. It may not be in our traditional forms of kwv txhiaj (song poet), dab neeg (oral traditions), or paj ntaub (embroidery/cross stitch), but our community is preserving our heritage and history in the modern ways we know how.
*Edited to include President Clinton’s address to the Hmong community.
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