The deep cultural meanings in the traditional Hmong wedding ceremony has lost their relevance to many Hmong as they transition to life in the United States resulting in conflict in the community regarding the traditional Hmong wedding practices, especially the bridewealth.
The traditional Hmong wedding ceremony is the act of transferring a bride to her groom’s clan. Women are transferred between clans, forging relationships between these clans. In addition, traditional Hmong culture is animist.
In the animist tradition, human life is heavily dictated by ancestral spirits that are directly involved in the facilitation of human life from birth to after death. Women are not considered inherently endowed with spirits that facilitate the events of her life from birth to after death, as men are. In order for a woman to have the protection of spirits, she must be connected to a man and she must be assimilated into his clan.
The Hmong wedding ceremony ensures that the bride will be overseen by the groom’s ancestral spirits who will facilitate her journey into the afterlife upon her death. Upon marriage, she is transferred from her father’s spirits to those of the groom. Thus, marriage procedures must include agreements about her funeral. The groom and his clan must demonstrate their commitment to provide her with a proper burial in the future.
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Finally, the bridewealth, which is paid by the groom’s clan to the bride’s father signifies the introduction of new female labor to the groom’s family. Her parents are compensated for this loss of labor.
Hmong women who refuse to participate in the bridewealth are often accused of going against cultural values by standing in the way of two clans. At the same time the Hmong men are socialized that it is their responsibility to provide their son with a wife through the traditional Hmong wedding ceremony.
Hmong who have adopted Western values believe that the bridewealth objectifies women. She is exchanged for money. In addition, the bride is considered political currency- she is used as political leverage to hold the groom’s clan accountable to her father’s clan. Once she is a member of her groom’s clan, his clan must remain accountable to her father’s clan for maintaining positive relationships between clans.
Relationships between clans are forged in this manner throughout time via the wedding ceremony. Due to immigration to the United States, the varying levels of acculturation to Western society among members of Hmong society has resulted in ongoing disagreements about the bridewealth between men and women, and between elders and youth.
The Hmong 18 Council of Minnesota was established in 1996 following the growing recognition that the Hmong community of Minnesota needed conflict resolution and mediation that would take into consideration cultural values that were not consistent with those of the American legal system. The Council is intended to represent the 18 most common clans in Hmong society. These clans include Lo, Vang, Thao, Yang, Xiong, Moua, Lee, Vue, and Her among others.
The Hmong 18 Council of Minnesota developed a Certified Mediator Program in 1999. In conjunction with Hamline University’s nationally recognized conflict resolution program, the Council has trained 30 Hmong mediators who are certified by the State of Minnesota. Mediators consist of selected elders in the community, both men and women. Currently, there are Hmong 18 Councils in states such as Wisconsin,Texas, Arkansas, and Missouri.
The Hmong 18 Council of Minnesota developed culturally specific regulations that provide resolutions for conflicts (plaub ntug) in incidents that affect all members of society such as assault, rape, divorce, marriage and death. However, the regulations put out by the Council are unique in that they take into consideration the culturally specific requirements laid out in Hmong cultural tradition. A large emphasis in the regulations pertain to the treatment of women in Hmong society.
For example, a Hmong man is held accountable for a woman’s funeral if he has resided with her for more than one year outside traditional marriage (yuav poj niam tsis raws Hmoob txoj cai). The regulations are published in Hmong, making it difficult for those not fluent in the Hmong language to understand the fine nuances inherent in these regulations. These regulations can be found on the Hmong 18 Council of Minnesota webpage http://h18c.com/h18c/Home.htm.
The Hmong 18 Council is recognized as an entity that oversees culturally specific mediation and conflict resolution when a case does not merit the involvement of the American legal system. Civil cases are often referred to the Council when American court representatives believe the case can be resolved through the clan mediation system utilized by Hmong. However, the legitimacy of the Council and its relevance is questioned by members of the Hmong community who no longer utilize traditional conflict resolution methods. However, Hmong who rely on traditional conflict resolutions methods accept and take seriously the standards put forth by the Council.
For those outside the community, it is hard to believe that one small nonprofit organization would take it upon themselves to regulate the cultural traditions of a whole people. However, Hmong community is collective and elders are considered authoritative figures and the arbiters of culture.
The elders who sit on the Hmong 18 Council are considered by many as authorities on traditional Hmong practices. However, as Hmong transition to the individualistic and youth based lifestyle of American society, Hmong who are more acculturated to American society have begun to challenge the authority of their elders.
The Hmong 18 Council of Minnesota hosted a National Hmong 18 Council Conference at Hmong American Partnership in St. Paul, Minnesota on October 19-20, 2013. The conference was attended by several leaders from the Councils throughout the United States. The conference included a panel presentation on Hmong traditional wedding practices led by members of the Hmong 18 Council of Minnesota. This was an informational session on the current wedding guides and suggested revisions.
The document “Hmong Wedding Guides in the United States” was distributed at the beginning of the panel presentation. The “Hmong Wedding Guides in the United States” is a 20 page document created by the Hmong 18 Council of Minnesota as guidelines on how to conduct Hmong traditional weddings. These regulations are proposed as those accepted and applied by Hmong individuals nationwide. The wedding guide provides standards for mediation of conflict during wedding ceremonies.
The title includes the words “in the United States” because it is important to note that Hmong wedding practices have changed substantially since their immigration to the United States as a result of acculturation to Western society. With this reality, the guise states in the second sentence of the guide — “Tus xav li cas los yuav ua ywj siab” (Those who think differently may do as they please). This statement is included because not all Hmong families follow these rules and in actuality, the parents of the bride have the right to conduct the wedding ceremony to their preference, irrespective of these guidelines.
The “Hmong Wedding Guides in the United States” provide guidelines on how to conduct a traditional marriage ceremony, in the case that conflicts arise between families. These are not the only way all Hmong conduct a traditional Hmong wedding ceremony since procedures vary by each family and clan. The guide simply documents the practices of the traditional Hmong wedding ceremony through input by members of one party (The Hmong 18 Council ), and may not be consistent with the traditional marriage practices of all Hmong families. The guide does not serve as a legal document, however, it may serve as a source of information during conflict resolution and mediation at the Hmong 18 Council of Minnesota.
The document includes five chapters (Ttshooj) and several sub-levels (txheem), each describing suggested steps in the traditional Hmong marriage ceremony. Each level consists of several items.
The first chapter is titled “Tshoob Qhib Roog Tuam Ntsa”. Another term Hmong may use is “Lub Tshoob Qhib Rooj Tuam Ntsa” or “Hais Nram Tsev”. This means to “ask for the bride’s hand at her home”. Under this chapter are levels of “Tsab Luam Yeeb” (also known as Tsab Yeeb).Tsab yeeb is a symbolic greeting offered by the groom’s representatives as a sign of goodwill as they enter the father’s home to ask for his daughter’s hand.
Chapter one lists practices for standard traditional weddings (hais nram tsev); for when the groom comes to the bride’s home to ask for her hand in marriage. The term “Ua Tshoob ua Kos” translates as “To forge relations in a positive manner”. Therefore, a daughter serves as the the impetus or motivation that behooves the groom’s clan to forge positive relations with the bride’s clan. Thus, if the groom’s clan wishes to marry a woman from another clan, he must reciprocate with a bridewealth and enter into a ceremony to “forge positive relations with the bride’s clan.” The practice of bridewealth is seen in tribal societies throughout the world and is not unique to Hmong society.
Chapter one includes a bridewealth of $5,000 (nqi saws tshoob saws kos- also nqi tob hau). The bridewealth is the wealth that the groom exchanges for the bride. It is the symbol of goodwill and commitment from the groom’s clan to the bride — as a form of social exchange between the two clans.
The bridewealth is the reciprocation by the groom’s family — an act that states “we are invested in forging positive relations”. This is why the bridewealth is termed “nqi saws tshoob saws kos” (cost of forging relationships). It is also believed that the bridewealth is a gesture of appreciation to her parents for raising her (nqi mis nqi nog — cost of milk and burden) and a commitment from the groom’s clan that she will be taken care of. In modern day, many Hmong Americans have interpreted the bridewealth, often referred to as “bride price” as the “selling” of daughters because the bridewealth is exchanged for the bride.
The following four chapters in the “Hmong Wedding Guides in the United States” provide costs for marrying through elopement, and marrying a divorcee or widow.
Chapter two has a list of practices for marriage when the bride elopes with the groom (“Tshoob Coj”). The bridewealth in the case of elopement is also $5,000.
A bride who is a widow or a divorcee fetches a bridewealth that is substantially lower than that of a never-married woman. The guide describes the different types of divorcees in Chapters three and four (Tshooj 3 & 4). These are poj nrauj (divorced woman), poj thim (a woman who was returned by her husband whereon the bridewealth was returned to him), and poj xa (a woman who was sent back to her birth family and the bridewealth forfeited).
The bridewealth of a divorcee is dependent on how long she was married to her previous husband. The guide states that a woman who was married for five to 11 years would fetch a bridewealth of $3,000. If she was married for six to 10 years, the bridewealth is $2,000. A woman who was married for 11 to 24 years is valued at $1,600. And a woman who was married for 25 or more years would only be worth a bridewealth of $1,000.
Chapter five of the document prohibits bride kidnapping (tsis pub zij), engagements (tsis pub qhaib), and free brides (txwv tsis pub muab ntxhais ua tshoob pub dawb). Reducing the cost of a divorcee depends on how long she was married to her previous husband does suggest a “value” of a woman based on how much she has been married to another man.
The guide, by stating that brides must not be given away for free (pub dawb), suggests that the Hmong 18 Council values the social exchange inherent in bridewealth. The Council would require a groom to pay the bridewealth if there was conflict regarding this matter.
For example, if a groom and his bride chose not to implement the bridewealth rule and wished to marry without paying the bridewealth, when the conflict is brought to the Hmong 18 Council for resolution, the Council’s position would be that the groom must pay the bridewealth in order to move forward with the marriage.
At the National Hmong 18 Council Conference on Saturday, these guides were presented to the audience during a one hour monologue. It was suggested that the bridewealth be increased to $6,000 from $5,000 and that the parents’ share of the funeral cost (nyiaj ncauj tsiag) was to be voted on during the session. In essence, the parents of the bride would pay ahead of time to be notified of her death. They also pay for her burial sacrificial animal ahead of time. This obligates the groom to notify them of her death in the future.
The suggested funeral cost is currently $600, however, the panel suggested that the price be increased. The audience was asked to vote whether or not they accept the funeral cost of $600.
There was dissension regarding this vote because the audience was not informed ahead of time that there would be a formal vote at the meeting. In addition, few people were willing to participate in the vote.
The vote was tabled, and the President of the Hmong 18 Council of Minnesota, Kevin Vang, issued a press release on Oct. 25 (http://bit.ly/17qIJ85) stating that the $600 funeral cost would be removed from the guidelines, concluding that Hmong 18 Council of Minnesota will no longer be mediating disagreements regarding this matter. The suggested increase of the bridewealth to $6,000 was also retracted in this statement, keeping the bridewealth at $5,000.
The debate about the Hmong bridewealth included the daughters who say, “We are worth more than $5,000, the price should be higher” and “To put a price on our head is to cheapen our value.” While Hmong men argue, “The price is too high, it costs too much to get married” or “Why would you sell your daughters for $5,000?”
These discussions miss the point of the bridewealth. The bridewealth is the groom’s effort to forge relations with the bride’s clan and a sign of appreciation to her parents for raising her. It is the groom’s way of honoring the bride’s parents.
The bridewealth is a highly valued form of reciprocation among elders. Parents would not accept a gift offering of an item in lieu of the bridewealth even if was valued higher than $5,000.
The assumption in the bridewealth is that when the groom and his family exchanged some form of wealth for his bride, he will treat her better. The bridewealth symbolizes his commitment and goodwill to her clan. When a Hmong bride refuses to participate in the bridewealth, she prevents this social exchange.
The assumption in the funeral costs to be paid by the bride’s family is that upon her death, the groom’s side of the family will properly notify her parents of her death and provide her with a proper funeral. Proper notification of the bride’s parents upon her death prevents the groom and his clan from improperly disposing her body when she passes.
Hmong women serve as the vehicle by which clan relationships are forged. Because American society is not clan based, Hmong youth who grow up in the United States do not recognize the clan structure and the cultural practices of Hmong society.
Yet, elders continue to maintain these practices and obligate youth to participate. In addition, Hmong American women who interpret the traditional marriage ceremony as the objectification of women often encounter conflicts with Hmong community members who continue to uphold the traditions that support clanship.
Inevitably these traditional practices will no longer be relevant for many Hmong Americans that choose not to use the Hmong 18 Council for conflict resolution. However, it is important to recognize that traditional practices must be documented and recognized since they are still relevant for Hmong who may ask the Hmong 18 Council to resolve these types of conflicts.
Everyone has a stake in the codification of cultural practices. The traditional wedding guidelines are used informally by Hmong across the nation outside of conflict resolution. Culture only becomes culture through discourse and debate as seen in the case of the traditional Hmong marriage practice guidelines.
Pa Der Vang, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Social Work at the University of St. Thomas and St. Catherine University. (Photo by Rebecca Zenefski)