Kamolchai Hang, 12, of St. Paul, could become the next shaman in his Hmong family, continuing a religious tradition of more than 1,000 years.
Kamolchai was born in Thailand but moved to St. Paul in 2004 and has been raised as a Hmong shaman since infancy.
When Kamolchai found out he was a shaman, he “was shocked and felt like a stranger.”
“I never knew I would become a shaman,” he said.
The Laotian people call a shaman a soul doctor who can communicate with both humans and souls in the spiritual world. A shaman heals sickness caused by problems with your soul.
About 1,000 or more Hmong people in Minnesota are shamans, but the majority are women, said Txong Pao Lee, executive director of the Hmong Cultural Center. Back in Laos the majority of shaman are men, but this changes back and forth over time.
Thousands of years ago, the Hmong didn’t have medication or doctors, so shamans were the healers, Lee said.
Shamans cure illnesses of the soul by communicating and repairing things in the spiritual world, Lee said. Only shamans know how they fix things the spiritual world.
But a shaman would also be used when women are pregnant or about to give birth. Most Hmong families perform a ceremony in which a shaman can tell if the baby is a boy or girl, and they’re usually right.
The shaman can also tell if the baby could become a shaman.
Right: There are many reasons why someone would seek out a ceremony like this: a bad dream, feeling like something bad is going to happen in his life, even feeling or getting sick after eating food can indicate soul sickness.
A shaman told Kamolchai’s parents he would become one, but the family didn’t believe it until he got sick. That can be a sign that a separate shaman spirit has come along with the baby’s spirit.
Babies who bring shaman spirits with them are the chosen ones. The age at which they become a shaman depends on when the shaman spirit wants them to be a shaman.
A few days after Kamolchai was born, he could not drink his mother’s breast milk. He would throw up every time his mother fed him. They didn’t know what was wrong, so his father went to the same shaman for advice.
The answer was the same: Kamolchai will become a shaman. He was sick because the shaman spirit was trying to let them know. When they accepted it, Kamolchai stopped getting sick from breast milk.
So Kamolchai’s dad, Kou Hang, started raising Kamolchai differently. The shaman spirit guided Kamolchai about what food or meat he could eat by making him feel sick at the sight of certain foods or even making him hiccup non-stop after eating certain foods.
Kamolchai can’t eat meat from a funeral or any meat that feels unclean. He also doesn’t want to eat sheep, goat or deer. Not all shamans avoid these meats; it’s just that some shaman spirits are “cleaner” than others.
Becoming a shaman takes a lot of training, so Kamolchai must find a master to teach him how to become one.
A shaman cannot become one or perform traditions without a master. The master passes down his or her healing techniques to the student.
A shaman goes into the spirit world only after putting a cloth over his face. When he starts shaking, people know the shaman spirit is in the spiritual world.
But Kamolchai will probably not do everything shamans used to do before the Hmong came to America. Traditional Hmong back in Laos and Thailand butcher animals such as chickens, pigs or cows in the home or yard if someone’s soul is lost.
Left: The shaman offers a pig’s spirit to the spirit world to either go look for a lost soul or take the place of Ying’s soul and stop illness.
The Hmong believe the animal’s soul will either travel to the spiritual world and find the lost soul and bring it back, or trade places with it.
But killing animals in your home is considered inappropriate in America. So the Hmong no longer practices that tradition.
People always ask Kamolchai about what being shaman is like, he said, and what shamans do, how he does it and have questions about the spiritual world.
It was hard for Kamolchai to take the responsibility.
“It was very difficult,” he said, but he hopes he can make people feel safe.
It takes about two to four years for some new shaman to learn the practice, but it takes five to 10 years for a shaman to feel confident of his or her abilities. In Kamolchai’s case, he’s not ready to perform any ceremonies.
Finding a master shaman to teach him is his parents’ responsibility. Depending on what type of shaman becomes your teacher, it could cost a minimum fee of $1,200. Training can cost thousands of dollars.
“Being a shaman is not my will, but the will of my shaman spirits,” Kamolchai said.
If Kamolchai’s parents find a master shaman for him, then he will become a shaman who can heal people for the rest of his life.