The Future of Hmong Shamanism

From the pespective of the specific persons in the Hmong community to whom we spoke, the tradition of Hmong Shamanism was at risk of dying out. According to John Moua, Hmong Shamanism risks dying out because of sloth.1 John gave himself as an example: though he has been chosen to become a shaman, John at the time of this writing does not actively participate in the rituals conducted at his home.Active participation for him would include bowing, striking the gong or burning paper money.“ The first day of spring break,” John said, “we had a ritual, but I woke up at 1:00 p.m., so I literally missed the whole thing. And the day I was going to leave, I woke up at 1:00 p.m., and I came right when they were serving food. I’m a bad son.”

Even though John is ostensibly called to be a shaman, he is not at this time interested in actively participating in the rituals readily accessible to him. As John said, “I’m pretty pessimistic about what will happen to Hmong religion. I think it’s due to laziness. We just don’t want to do anything; I don’t want to go through [the rituals]. It’s not that I’m going to become a Christian; I don’t want to do that either. I just don’t want to do anything.”

The perfect storm to lose your religion is in America. It’s not all America’s fault: the people who are going to continue your religion are the young, and if they don’t want to do it, it will [die out]. — John Moua

But given that so many Americans in young adulthood are at a stage that often reevaluates commitments to the religious traditions of their upbringing, it remains difficult to predict where John Moua's story will take him.

The same may be true for Fue Lee, a college senior at the time of this writing who grew up with a father who is a shaman.  For him, the risk to the future vitality of Hmong Shamanism is not laziness, but distance from family and practice.2 Though Fue said that as a child, his family “taught [him] what each specific thing is in order that [he] can help them out when [he’s] older” yet after being at school for four years, he said he is “distancing myself from Shamanism in a way, because I don’t participate in the rituals anymore. I’m not there anymore to help or witness [them] . . . Most of my older siblings are the ones who are helping out. The younger siblings, [those who] are under 30 are there to lend a hand, if they ask for it. . . but myself and my [younger] siblings don’t know any of the rituals anymore.”  

For Andrea Vang, a college senior whose parents practice Shamanism but who herself identifies as a Christian, reiterated this idea of the loss of culture: “When I observe [Shamanisticc rituals], I see that most of my [younger] sisters don’t know what to do.”3 Thus Shamanism may not survive because, whosever fault, the rituals are not being passed down.

From the perspective of Judy Yang, a shaman, the onus is on older generations to pass down the traditions of Hmong Shamanism.4 “I think that [the younger generations] are being taught English, Westernized. They go to [American] schools now. Their parents are losing their culture, and so they are not passing it onto their [own] kids . . . I think [Shamanism will soon] be forgotten.”

Yang went on to explain, “Because [the Bible] is on paper, people can see that it does have some values and morals. The Hmong people don’t have that”. But that, said Judy, is not the fault of the Hmong people, for “[the Hmong] couldn’t teach the[ir] literature, because they didn’t have the paper. Who was going to provide the paper in the mountains?” One way to preserve the Hmong culture, according to Judy, is to “mak[e] a Bible or a journal for ways to heal people.”

Indigenous and other peoples everywhere are finding new ways to commit oral traditions to collective memory. We have attempted here to record the feelings, thoughts and stories of some members of the Hmong community. The Hmong culture is rich with narrative and it is the preservation of these narratives that will best help Shamanism to survive in America.

  1. John Moua, interviewed by Jess Gick and Yer Moua, May 22, 2013, Northfield, MN. 

  2. Fue Lee, interviewed by Jess Gick, Koua Her and Yer Moua, June 4, 2013, Northfield, MN. 

  3. Andrea Vang, interviewed by Yer Moua, Jess Gick and Koua Her, May 9, 2013, Northfield, MN. 

  4. Judy Yang, interviewed by Koua Her, Jess Gick and Yer Moua, June 2, 2013, Saint Paul, MN.