Sandy’Ci Moua and Kuoa Fong Lo, coming from different cities and without knowing one another, each proposed panel discussions on the new wave of shamanism for the 2013 Hmong National Development [HND] conference in Fresno, CA from April 5-7. HND, a national, non-profit organization, advocates national policy for a united, thriving Hmong-American community. Every other year, they hold a conference to bring together members of the community to network and dialogue and to celebrate their accomplishments. This year’s conference, the 20th annual conference, is a three-day affair and events are held to educate and promote discussion amongst the attendees about pressing issues for the Hmong community.
This is the first of three articles focusing on the new wave of Hmong shamanism. Also see The next wave of Hmong shamans: Sandy’Ci Moua’s story and The next wave of Hmong shamans: Kuoa Fong Lo’s story.
“[HND] saw that we had similar interests and suggested that we contacted each other to put something together,” Sandy said.
After Sandy and Kuoa met and traded experiences, they went straight to work on building a team that had ties in both CA and MN, and thoughtfully putting together a panel of professionals who could help to best explain the very real effects of being shaman. After much consideration, a select number of elder shamans, emerging shamans, and healthcare professionals that have experience working with Southeast Asian patients were chosen to come together and collaborate. They hope to give conference goers a deeper look at how this cultural element is not just very real, but continues to trend and evolve through the generations from cultural, generational, and health-world perspectives.
“We’ve also got a filmmaking team,” Sandy said, excitedly noting that the team was none other than the ones who made The Split Horn: Life of a Hmong Shaman in America, documentary that followed a man in Appleton, Wisconsin and how shamanism affected his life as his family acclimatized to American culture. “I think it’s detailed, well thought out, and really unique,” she said.
“There’s people who have been wanting to speak for quite some time but they don’t know how to engage in the community so they haven’t really gone anywhere with it,” said Kuoa. “There are individuals who have tried this kind of thing in the past, and are still trying, but we’ve gotten a phenomenal response to the HND panel. There’s going to be a big turnout. I don’t even think I can live up to it, honestly. I really just want to help the people who need it. People tell me it’s a big deal. Everyone wants to know more and to create easier paths for other emerging shamans.”
Kuoa and Sandy both express that shamanism has changed and evolved—what was once the norm and an everyday trait of life for every Hmong person has turned into a completely different experience. Kuoa noted that historically, practicing one’s shamanism happened every day, there was regular upkeep and regular teaching of what to expect for those who had the calling to be a shaman.
“[Older generation shamans] were brought up with their parents teaching them these things,” he said. “For our generation, there has been a lot that isn’t explained. We’re seen as younger and are just told what to do. But our generation needs to know how to pass this part of our culture along. The way I see it, the culture centers teach it the old way, textbook way. I’m worried about my generation, around the world, who are learning differently, getting info from internet, not reading as many books, audio visual learning. How do I create a way to teach this through the new wave?”
“As we mature, we don’t have playbook for how to be Hmong, we have some non-profit organizations about Hmong culture, but how do we as an overall community create something—how do we have reference tools?” Sandy asked.
Kuoa and Sandy are both aware of the challenges that are still to come. “It’s hard because these are not things we are really supposed to be talking about,” Kuoa acknowledged, referring to his tie into the shaman and spiritual world. “It’s these personal [experiences] that we go through that are really dear to us. Certain forbidden stories—a lot of [shamans] don’t really speak out. It depends on what they’ve done. They don’t want to use it to gain attention, or be famous, they want to stay discreet. There’s so much more I don’t know…but it’s really sacred and you want to respect that. But how do we support those who do need it? Our parents never taught us this, but there are SO many of us. When we say we want to help emerging shamans, we mean shamans of all ages, older, younger, from every field of business, all types of professions,” Kuoa said.
“We’re going to be judged, we’ve gotten judgment online, and people are skeptical,” Sandy said, in acknowledgment that neither Kuoa nor Sandy claim to be experts. “We know there are things we don’t know. The most important thing is raising awareness and creating a big conversation. How do we bring it back, not entirely, but the core? How do we save it? How do we make it relevant still, accessible, appealing to younger generation?”
“We can’t know our culture, the way culture is always changing,” said Kuoa. “We are in a prime position to let the culture change, not let external things to change it. We’re in position to shape culture proactively. Hmong shamanism is changing: old neeb versus new neeb. We’re in a new generation, a new level of consciousness, where everyone is awakening, not just shamans. Not just [the]Hmong, but everyone. People are becoming more spiritual. We’re in an age of information. We connect to each other quicker, self-organize, come together quicker. It’s happening.”
“We want a place where people can be spiritually free,” said Kuoa.
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Reporting for this article supported in part by Bush Foundation.