The Hmong Home as Sacred Space

Altar with branch above (a bit of a further view)

Chai's altar with branch.  Photo by Ia Vang.

Full Image of Bao's Altar

Bao's shaman altar.  Photo by Ia Vang.

According to Ya Po Cha, “every Hmong home is a shrine.”1 All the religious practices of Hmong tradition take place in the private homes of Hmong families.  In fact, if one didn't know about home altars and the practices of Hmong Shamanism that distinguish Hmong homes as sacred places, one might overlook them entirely, as they blend into the cityscapes of Minneapolis/St. Paul or the suburban Twin Cities. 

Traditionally, the Hmong house is a representation of the cosmos.2 There are spirits that guides certain part of the house. consists of a bedroom, altar, oven, central pillar, hearth, main door and plaag xuas (surrounding area of the home); each of these components is a separate space, guarded by a gatekeeper.3 The central pillar, too, is religiously significant: following birth, the placenta of a baby boy is buried under the central pillar, whereas that of a baby girl, under the bed.4 There is also a center beam that supports the house; the dab niam dab txiv (ancestors) are said to live here.5

In 1990, the Science Museum of Minnesota, in conjunction with Hmong elders, recreated a conventional Hmong home using traditional tools and wood from Minnesotan forests.6  The house remained on display until 2010, when it was donated to the Hmong American Partnership of Saint Paul.

In the Twin Cities, the homes of members of the Hmong community are a far cry from the traditional homes of Southeast Asia. On the outside, these homes look no different from those of their American neighbors. The interior layout of these homes may feel more "American" than Hmong.   

But the homes and certain places within them carry enormous religious significance no less, and mark out Hmong sacred space. The lintels above the main door, txhiaj meej, has a guardian, which serves to protect the family’s reputation.7 Living Rooms may have a space for paper money to be placed, or the family’s shrine. These items of religious significance are placed in the living room so that they can be properly aligned with the front door of the home.8  And living rooms can be the setting for ritual healing, ua neeb, involving shamanic travel to spirit worlds to call back an errant soul. The Hmong home is so important  because when calling a soul back into the body, the home where the body is must be made known to the soul.

  1. Cha, Ya Po. An Introduction to Hmong Culture. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2010. 137.

  2. Vincent Her, “Hmong, Cosmology: Proposed Model, Preliminary Insights” Hmong Studies Journal 6 (2005) 11.

  3. Vincent Her, “Hmong, Cosmology: Proposed Model, Preliminary Insights” Hmong Studies Journal 6 (2005) 11.

  4. Her, Vincent. “Hmong Cosmology: Proposed Model, Preliminary Insights”. Hmong Studies Journal 6 (2005): 17.

  5. Cha, Ya Po. An Introduction to Hmong Culture. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2010. 138.

  6. Science Museum of Minnesota. “Traditional Hmong House”. Accessed June 9, 2013. http://www.smm.org/exhibitservices/history/collections/gallery/3

  7. Cha, Ya Po. An Introduction to Hmong Culture. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2010. 140.

  8. Koua Her, personal communication with the author, June 9, 2013, Northfield, MN.  

A far view of Lia's altar

Lia Moua's Altar.

Shaman Shrine

Chai's home altar. Photo by Ia Vang.

Home Altars

The practice perhaps most important to the sacred space of the Hmong home is making and keeping home altars or shrines. The main household altar is the xwm kab, which honors spirits of prosperity and protects the whole house. It is a design on a rice-paper, lined with gold or silver. The design uses a chicken feather, silver and gold leaf. This is renewed every New Year. Other altars, the seej khab, consist of a small bowl of rice or corn used to hold incense.

Altars and shrines in Hmong homes anchor religious practice and organize domestic space with reference to the spirit world and to ancestors.