"It is extremely difficult to make a live apart from family members. My grandfather had always shared that he was the only one of his brothers who came to the us and he was like a lost child because he had no one to call his own siblings. Even though many people were kind to him, being far away from his own blood brother was lonely and isolating for him in America."
Hmong History is American History, 2022
The Hmong who resettled in the U.S. are mainly from the northeast region of Laos, a country colonized by the French from 1893-1954. Laos became a focal point of the U.S. strategy to contain communism in Southeast Asia. The domino theory argued that if Laos “fell” to communism, so would the entire Southeast Asia region. The 1954 Geneva Accord declared Laos a neutral country, free of foreign intervention during the Cold War. Therefore, the U.S. involvement in Laos was covert and came to be known as the “Secret War.” Subverting the Geneva Accords, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) recruited Hmong and other ethnic minorities, led by Hmong General Vang Pao, to fight a proxy ground war on the U.S.’s behalf in the eastern regions of Laos against the communist Pathet Lao and the North Vietnamese Army. In January 1973, the signing of the Paris Peace Accords led to a ceasefire in Vietnam and Laos. By the end of the Secret War, an estimated 30,000 Hmong died in the war, and the U.S. had dropped 2 million tons of bombs in Laos alone, the most in the history of the world (Chan 1991).
The communist Pathet Lao took over the Laotian government in 1975 and the increasing reprisal of the Pathet Lao against those who fought with the Americans made Laos increasingly dangerous for the Hmong. Many Hmong soldiers felt “used and abandoned” by their American allies (Hamilton-Merrit 1993; Lee M 2018). In 1980, 102,479 refugees, 95 percent of whom were Hmong, arrived in Thailand (Stuart-Fox 1997; Chan 1994; Hillmer 2010; Vang CY 2010). Hmong sought asylum in Thailand and were later relocated to western nations: the U.S., France, Australia, Germany, and French Guiana. In the U.S., the Hmong were first dispersed throughout the nation to avoid over-burdening states. The Hmong later migrated to places where their families lived to make adjustment easier (Chan 1991). This secondary migration gave way to Hmong mostly residing in California, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. In Wisconsin, the Hmong are uniquely dispersed, predominantly concentrated in Milwaukee, Eau Claire, Wausau, La Crosse, Madison, and the Fox Valley.
The Hmong population in Wisconsin has risen steadily since those first arrivals in 1976. In 1990 there were 16,373 Hmong Wisconsinites. Ten years later that number doubled to 33,791. One reason for the increase was the migration of Hmong out of California to the midwest as a result of the Welfare Reform Act of 1996, which stipulated that only those seniors who were U.S. citizens would be eligible for public assistance. Many Hmong elders were not citizens due to the language and financial barriers of obtaining citizenship (Lee, 2016). Many Hmong left California to the midwest because of the lower cost of living and the abundance of low-skills work in manufacturing industries. The most recent census in 2010 counted 47,217 Hmong in Wisconsin. Of that number, the counties with the highest population of Hmong are: Milwaukee (10,917), Marathon (5,644), Sheboygan (4,046), and Dane (4,016) (Applied Population Laboratory & UW Extension 2015).
The traveling nature of this exhibit is important and significant for the Hmong and non-Hmong communities. First, we hope this Hmong-centered approach highlights the expertise of Hmong people to be the authority of their own stories and opens up possibilities of healing from historical, racial, and intergenerational trauma. Second, we hope non-Hmong Americans see and recognize their interconnectedness to the Hmong experience and that Hmong history is an American history about the ongoing consequences of war. The CBPR component of this exhibit where Hmong community expertise and WHS work in equal partnership is transformational. Together, we showcase Hmong American stories and experiences in Wisconsin as valid and deserving to be showcased, included, and celebrated in public and taught in institutions. Ultimately, the goal is to see that the inclusion of Hmong American stories as part of Wisconsin’s story is not just history, but just history.