Heritage Museum hosts 'Hmong in America' exhibit

For a good reason, the title of Hmong in America: Journey from a Secret War puzzles many of the Hmong. The war in Laos was never a secret from them. The American people were the ones in the dark, unaware that since the early 1960s the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency had directed a war against communists in Laos and Cambodia in direct violation of the Geneva Accords.

Regina Hackett, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

The Dunn County Historical Society is hosting a traveling exhibit that tells the story of the Hmong people traveling to America. It gives a unique look into the lives and community of the Hmong in Wisconsin.

'Hmong in America' is a sweeping history, a story of immigrants, and an interpretation of the Vietnam War most Americans have never gotten. On both sides of the political spectrum, the Vietnam War continues to spark divisive, impassioned arguments among scholars and lay people. What are the lessons of Vietnam?

America's involvement in Laos, and as a consequence its alliance with the Hmong, has received far less attention, yet is written about and debated with no less conviction. Hmong soldiers served as the primary "anti-communist" force in Laos. The multi-million-dollar operation, unreported in the American press until 1969, wreaked havoc on the land and its people.

Eau Claire Hmong elder Chia Koua Xiong said, "In Laos, we helped you fight the war. The Americans came to live with our leaders in our country ... We provided food ... If the Americans came to our house, whatever we ate we treated the Americans equally ... If we found an injured soldier ... we ... carried the American to the base... In some dangerous situations we were willing to let ten Hmong soldiers die so that one of your leaders could live..."

When American forces withdrew from Southeast Asia in 1975, thousands fled to Thailand as refugees and subsequently resettled in the United States. The experience of the Hmong cuts to the core of American politics, touching upon issues which have been widely debated throughout U.S. history.

'Hmong in America' is the dramatic story of one of our region's largest group of immigrants, the Hmong, told through the voices of the people who lived this contemporary history. Their journey begins in the scenic, rugged highlands of Laos, travels through the Vietnam War, pauses in the over-crowded refugee camps of Thailand, and ends with the challenges of resettlement and a new life in America.

The exhibit at the Heritage Museum was part of a national project to build six exhibits that would travel regionally, and it produced a lot of firsts: America's first traveling museum content about the Hmong, and the first book (a companion to the exhibit) about the Hmong voyage to America. And one of the first exhibits bringing scholars together with the subjects of a history exhibit. Susan McLeod, who was then director of the Chippewa Valley Museum, recently explained the latter to the Wisconsin Humanities Council:

"We invited a national group of scholars, Hmong elders, and other Hmong community members. It was a bilingual process and necessarily slow. Collectively we arrived at the main concepts for the exhibit and what we would need to do to develop the content and interpretation. One historian remarked that he had been part of many such meetings, but this was the first where people whose history was under discussion actually took part. His comment confirmed for me the importance of what we were doing."

Frank Smoot of the Dunn County Historical Society noted that "even though we've had Hmong friends and neighbors for forty years now, this is still a story that not everyone knows. It's an amazing part of our area's recent history. At some point, for almost all of us, our ancestors traveled to get here, and then adapted once they arrived. Whether you're talking about 1875 or 1975, the treks we all made to get to Wisconsin are really astonishing."

'Hmong in America' will be at the Rassbach Heritage Museum at least through June.

The exhibit is included with admission to the Rassbach Heritage Museum, which is $5 for adults, less for kids, students, seniors, and active-duty military.

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Dunn County Historical Society
PO Box 437, Menomonie, WI   USA  54751
(715) 232-8685