At the Hmong American Friendship Association we were met by a women named Seng Lo. She’s lived in Milwaukee for over twenty years by now. She told us the Hmong American Friendship Association is so named because Hmong and American people work there and because everyone helps each other and, in doing so, learn each other’s language.
When I got to HAFA, I thought the vast, enormous building would be all fancy and filled with the flowery smell of funny incense that makes your nostrils quiver. But, gee, was I wrong! Sure, it was big but it was definitely NOT fancy. It was cool!
We walked into a room with the biggest story cloth I’ve ever seen: six feet high and eight or more feet long. That is taller and much wider than me!
The first room we went to was the sewing room. Old grandmas were sitting in there, cutting out paper.
Seng Lo told us about the story cloth. It had a teacher and a little boy or girl. It looked like the little boy or girl was going to get hit.
Seng Lo guided us through the museum. It was cool because they had lots of things like the rice mill…, shamanism stuff like the horns, money and bells and stuff like that. Then we moved on and she talked about the rice grinder…and some blacksmith stuff. There were knives, a gun they used to use to kill animals and a crossbow. The crossbow was for shooting birds in Laos (the crossbow was probably the most useful thing to use).
We moved on and saw the enormous and most beautiful, brightly colored Hmong women’s clothes. In the gift shop there were so many cool designs, I couldn’t believe my eyes because there were so many bright colors. The designs on the clothes were marvelous and hand made.
Sheng Lo said you could tell if someone is white or black Hmong by their clothes because they each wear different clothes.
Emma put on the Hmong clothes. I think she was happy, I could tell by the smile on her face. Then some of the other girls got into the Hmong clothes. I think they were happy like Emma because of the smiles. Everybody looked like they were having fun. I was glad they were happy.
In the first display case were things a shaman (Hmong doctor) would use like goat horns (used to see if the shaman made a successful journey to the spirit world), cymbals and gongs that the shaman’s assistant uses to make the shaman’s army stronger to fight the evil spirits, and a split, doughnut-like thing the shaman uses to see if he has caught and returned the spirit back to the body.
There were Hmong clothes that people used to wear in Laos. The cloths were old fashioned with many designs on them. There were corn leaves used for wrapping things up. There were pictures of the Hmong people leaving Laos and heading for the United States, gardening, playing games, doing needlework and just looking at the camera.
There were hollow rings with bells inside them, used when the shaman gallops off to the spirit world. The bells jingle pretty loudly.
There was also a Hmong soldier’s uniform and boots from the CIA (secret) war. Sadly, there were many young soldiers and many of them died.
There was a rice grinder which is just a bowl with a big fat stick in it because there were no machines to do it for them.
There were also big silver necklaces. Every girl should have one.
The bow and arrow was practically made of wood alone, including the arrows! The girl’s necklace looked like silver and gold. I wonder how much it cost? I bet it probably cost a whole lot of money, or maybe I am wrong, maybe they cost less.
There were Hmong rifles filled with black powder, knives and even Hmong mouse traps!!! Last but not least there was a cool Hmong violin with a big dragon head and red eyes!”
Hmong women always carried their babies on their backs using only very tough rags that were sewn together.
A story cloth is a “quilt” woven by the Hmong women to represent their journey and culture to other people. For example, we have a story cloth in our classroom showing everyday life in Laos before the Vietnam War. Another example is being displayed at the Hmong American Friendship Association in Milwaukee. This storycloth shows [the journey] from life in Laos to the new life in America.
Story cloths are kind of a mixture of books, tapestries, and quilts. They have pictures, look like blankets, and are hung on walls. They remind the Hmong people of Laos, family, the hard journey, and life here in America—hardships, losses, kindness, and hope for a better life here. Story cloths tell of many things us Americans don’t understand. They have maps, traditions, ways of traveling, places in Laos, loved objects, and memories and stories from long ago. They’re like books, only without the hard-cover beneath the cloth, no words, either—just pictures, cloth, and memory.
These special things are made in Laos, Thailand, China, refugee camps, and here in America. Often, there is a mountain design border near the edge. In the middle, there are pictures. Traditional animals are often there: pigs, cows, roosters and bulls. One of the things I found interesting was the size of them. Most of them are rather small, a few are medium, but a couple of them are HUGE! The largest one I saw was 5 by 8 feet. The bigger it is, the more story it contains. On this huge story cloth there were stages, villages, oceans, animals, and much more. It showed Hmong buildings, soldiers, aircrafts, people fleeing, and the Mekong River. The Mekong River was a large stretch of water that the Hmong people from Laos had to cross to get into Thailand, where they would be safe. But enemy soldiers guarded the shores. If they caught you, they would shoot you.
When we got off the bus to go inside the Hmong American Friendship Association, all I saw was a small building with windows. I had no idea what a huge amount of Hmong culture would be inside.
We met Sheng Lo, the teacher of a sewing class. She showed us a huge story cloth, six feet wide and eight feet long. It was covered by plastic for protection. The story cloth showed four different places: China, Laos, Thailand, and America. It was divided in half by the Mekong River. The story was the history of the Hmong. First, it showed them escaping from China into Laos, where the cloth showed them farming and living a peaceful life. Then it showed the Americans coming and asking the Hmong to participate in the CIA “secret war”. Many Hmong were killed and many escaped into the jungle. They could spend years in the jungle, living on roots! [The cloth showed how] some Hmong finally escaped to the Mekong River, but only some. The Communists found out where they were hiding and poisoned the water that they drank. The storycloth shows people escaping across the Mekong in boats, or with bamboo under their arms, or swimming. Sheng Lo told us that a man drew the story cloth and a woman embroidered it.
At the Hmong American Friendship Association there is a 5 by 8 story cloth made by a 67-year-old woman who lives in Thailand. It showed all of the Laotian Hmong’s history—coming to Laos, their life before the Vietnam war, the CIA secret war, escaping Laos, crossing the Mekong River with Communist soldiers patrolling the bank, life in a Thai refugee camp surrounded by barbed wire, the buses to Bangkok, and a corner for modernized America.
It was amazing.