Hmong Religiosity and Shamanism in the Twin Cities

Authored by Koua Her, Yer Moua, Jess Gick, Ia Vang, and Ellen McKinstry, with contributions by Will Yetvin, Colin MacArthur, Rachel Foran, Hannah Telegen, and Izzy Zeitz-Moskin.

Dia Cha's Story Cloth
Dia Cha's Story Cloth
Dia Cha's Story Cloth

Dia Cha’s paj ntaub (story cloth) illustrates the hardships her family faced on the Hmong journey from Laos homelands.

“Without Hmong Religiosity, we will just become another Asian face.” – Paj Ntaub Lee, txiv neeb/shaman

Minnesota is home to the second largest concentration of Hmong immigrants in the United States.  From their roots in the mountains of Laos to refugee camps in Thailand to immigration to the U.S. and to Minnesota, Hmong people have brought with them not only their language and culture, but also their religious traditions.

Because the practice of these traditions is largely familial, taking place in Hmong homes and keyed to healing and to life passages— birth, marriage, and death, Hmong religious traditions do not take the same visible public shape as other religions.  Although some in the Hmong community have recently formed a "Temple of Hmongism" in St. Paul to help organize and promote "our religion of the future,1 there are altars and shrines in homes, but no traditional temples, or equivalents to churches or mosques.  There is no agreed upon sacred text or recognized hierarchy of clergy.  Interestingly, .

Some practice of these traditions can also be observed for some Hmong people who identify as Christian.  One rough estimate suggests that up to 50% of Hmong people in the U.S. are Christian,2 but, as with other indigenous traditions around the world, Hmong Christians may continue to practice elements of Hmong traditional religion, including veneration of ancestors, and the practices of traditional Hmong Shamanism for healing.  As one of our interviewees put it, Hmong Shamanism is as much "a way of life" as it is a religion.3 .

Here, we explore the distinctive traditions of what we are calling Hmong Religiosity or Hmong Shamanism.  Although there is a debate on what to call the Hmong religion, Hmong Shamanism is the terminology in English used most often to refer to it, focused on the txiv neeb, or shaman.  But as with traditions of other indigenous peoples, Hmong Religiosity is hardly exhausted by the healing and divination rituals performed by the txiv neeb.  The traditions are embedded in proper ethical and ritual respect for ancestors, maintaining good relations with a variety of spirits in the spirit world, and the care of the entire person, including souls.

We are also asking how Hmong people with different generational experiences variously engage those traditions and asking what has changed and what has remained the same. Today, many Hmong families practice Hmong Shamanism and related religious rituals in their homes. Some Hmong families have become Christian, but a large majority of the Hmong population still values the life-cycle ceremonies and practices of Hmong Shamanism.

Hmong people in Minnesota can be distinguished by generation and even by different experiences within the same generation. The older generations include those who lived through the horror of the Secret War.  Younger generations include those who were born in refugee camps in Thailand and came to the U.S. with recollection of growing up in Thailand, those who may have been born in Thailand but came to U.S. so young that they grew up with largely American ways. The second and third generation of Hmong people consists of those who were native-born U.S. citizens.

Our ethnographic research involves what Hmong Religiosity means for different Hmong people. We wanted to find out what makes one “Hmong”. The practices and beliefs of Hmong Religiosity have been a prominent marker of identity for Hmong people.  Will the Hmong people really become just “another Asian face”?

Key Terms: Hmong Words and Definition used in this profile.