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World-renowned Hmong shaman is preserving his culture through a masters degree at BYU

SHARE World-renowned Hmong shaman is preserving his culture through a masters degree at BYU
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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Yang Vang might look like any other master's degree student walking around campus wearing a BYU baseball cap, but his story is like no one else's.

At just 5 years old, in a Hmong refugee camp in Thailand, Vang was called to be a shaman. He started training for all the traditional Hmong rituals and by age 10, he had mastered more than 70%.

Now, at 37 years old, Vang is frequently traveling around the country and the world on the weekends to perform wedding and funeral rituals for Hmong communities, all while he completes his degree at BYU.

The journey to BYU

Vang's family moved to Wisconsin when he was 11 because the refugee camps in Thailand were being closed.

School in America was hard for Vang because he didn't speak English. Part of his school day was spent in the first grade classroom practicing reading and writing in English.

Vang eventually completed a degree in anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, got married, started a family and moved to Minnesota to teach Hmong classes for five years.

While he always had grad school in the back of his mind, Vang couldn't find a program that fit. He and his wife moved back to Madison, Wisconsin, and they bought a house and farm where they could raise their six children.

In 2017, Vang attended a Hmong conference in Thailand where he reconnected with Jacob Hickman, a professor of anthropology at BYU. Vang had met Hickman 10 years prior at the University of Chicago where Vang was a Hmong language guest speaker in one of Hickman's doctorate classes.

Hickman spoke to Vang at the conference in Thailand about the fieldwork BYU was doing in Hmong communities, as well as the research that students were conducting on the Hmong global diaspora. Vang was interested and wanted to be a part of it, but the timing wasn't right.

Two years later, Hickman called to say he was a tenured professor at BYU and that he would love to work with Vang as a master's student. Vang decided to apply and the family moved to Utah. He now has just one semester left, while he teaches Hmong language classes at BYU.

Yang Vang, a Brigham Young University master's degree candidate in anthropology, walks on campus in Provo on Oct. 13. Vang is also a world-renowned Hmong shaman.

Yang Vang, a Brigham Young University master’s degree candidate in anthropology, walks on campus in Provo on Oct. 13. Vang is also a world-renowned Hmong shaman.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Keeping Hmong culture alive

The Hmong people are an ethnic group originating in southwest China, but a major migration to southeast Asia occurred in the 1800s, due to the Taiping Civil War.

While the Vietnam War was happening in the 1950s through 1970s, a communist movement called Pathet Lao rose up in Laos to fight with the Royal Lao Government and the Laotian Civil War occurred.

During this war — which the Hmong call the Secret War — the CIA recruited many Hmong soldiers in Laos to fight against the communists. The Pathet Lao won the war, forcing the Hmong to flee the country.

This massive relocation of Hmongs to other countries is known as the Hmong global diaspora. Today, Hmong people are spread across many countries, with large populations in Thailand, China, Vietnam, the United States, France and Australia.

Hickman has been doing fieldwork with Hmong communities for over 20 years, spending extended periods of time analyzing how Hmong communities adapt their religious and cultural practices in new places.

Yang Vang, a Brigham Young University master's degree candidate in anthropology and world-renowned Hmong shaman, holds an embroidered family history in Provo on Oct. 13.

Yang Vang, a Brigham Young University master’s degree candidate in anthropology and world-renowned Hmong shaman, holds an embroidered family history in Provo on Oct. 13.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Hickman said, particularly for the Hmong in the U.S., the history of repeatedly being displaced looms in their understanding of themselves and their people. "It's religiously and cosmologically central to who they are, having lost that ancient kingdom."

Vang is a U.S. citizen but said it is hard for him to answer the question, "Where are you from?"

Even though he was born in Thailand and his passport says his nationality is Thai, Vang was never considered a Thai citizen.

In many Asian countries, being born doesn't guarantee a person citizenship. Vang's parents were born and raised in Laos, but they aren't Laotian citizens.

Vang said the Hmong are a "stateless people. We don't have a country."

Similar to Jews and the scattering of Israel, the Hmong used to have a homeland but have been continually forced out and dispersed around the world.

Vang's master's thesis is an ethnographic film focusing on the oral traditions, rituals, language and culture of the Hmong to try to answer questions including, "Where are we from? Who are we? Do the Hmong have their own identity?"

The film is called "Hmong Intellectual History" and is about where the Hmong homeland resides.

"The Hmong homeland is in their oral stories, in their oral traditions, in their dreams and is a concept in their mind," Vang said.

A surprising connection

As Vang's family came to Utah and adapted to the existing culture and lifestyle here, Vang found a surprising connection with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

As a shaman, Vang acts as a bishop, having spiritual duties among his community while living a normal life. He said the Hmong beliefs and values are not so different from Latter-day Saints.

The Hmong believe in God, moral ethics, doing good to others, taking care of the environment, the importance of family and in doing rituals for ancestors. Vang said he connected with the Latter-day Saint church because both have a history of being pushed out and having to move on to survive. Both also have a history of polygamy.

Vang continued to learn about the church through experiences with neighbors and was eventually given a Book of Mormon and invited to attend church.

"The more I learned about the Mormon culture, the more I was like, 'Wow this is similar to my culture.' So we had the missionaries come visit us regularly," Vang said, adding it wasn't easy, at first.

Because Vang is a practitioner in the Hmong culture and faith, he and his wife decided to not be baptized, but they do attend church regularly. After much thought, they also decided to allow their children to be baptized into the Latter-day Saint church.

Because Vang is busy and won't always be around to lead his kids and show them the right way to live, he said he trusts that the church will be able to provide a foundation of morals, teachings and spirituality to help them stay close to God and be good people.

Hickman said he tried to talk Vang out of baptizing his kids, as he was worried about the potential pressure put on them. But Vang said he truly wanted his kids to be members of the church and to have "the moral compass of the church."

Many Hmong are part of Christian denominations and tend to see things as not mutually exclusive, Hickman said. They don't draw boundaries in religions to say only one is true and all others are false.

"Hmong people are interested in finding goodness and truth anywhere they can find it," Hickman said. "The more time I spend with my Hmong friends, the more I learn about the varieties of good ways to be a good human."

For Vang, God, family and education are drivers.

BYU masters student Yang Vang and his family pose for a photograph. Vang is a world-renowned Hmong shaman and his children are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

BYU masters student Yang Vang and his family pose for a photograph. Vang is a world-renowned Hmong shaman and his children are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Yang Vang

Because many Hmongs haven't had the opportunity to be educated, Vang prioritizes it for himself and his family.

"If you can have a degree of education — it doesn't matter what field you go into — if you can have education, a degree of some kind, your moral ethics will be better. You'll love your family more if you have an education. You will believe in God more. You will trust the process more," he said.

Life as a shaman

Being called as a Hmong shaman at age 5 was unusual, as individuals in the culture are typically called around 40 to 50 years old, or older. Shamans conduct rituals, communicate with spirits and help people who are sick, especially those who might have a mental illness, Vang said.

The shaman call also typically follows through the father's lineage. Vang's grandpa was a shaman and when he passed, the spirits chose the next in line. Usually, he said, the spirits will choose the oldest or youngest, and Vang, the youngest son, was chosen after he had gotten sick at a young age.

Vang didn't have a typical childhood growing up as a shaman. There were expectations placed upon him, and he had to constantly be learning the language and studying the rituals from the elders.

"Since I can remember ... your attitude and personality had to be like an adult because everybody looked up to you as an adviser, as someone they can ask to help them when they need help," Vang said.

Years of hard work learning the rituals paid off for Vang.

Traditional Hmong weddings and funerals last several days, consisting mainly of chanting, blessings and telling tales of the ancient Hmong kingdom. Vang is also proficient at the qeej, a central Hmong instrument used in funeral and wedding chants.

"It would be something akin to memorizing 'The Iliad' because it's all verbal performance and you have to memorize it and perform it," Hickman said.

Mastering these traditions at such a young age is abnormal for any human being and is an incredible feat, Hickman said.

During the war in Laos, many Hmongs were gathered together at Long Tieng, a secret CIA military base in Laos. Royal Lao Army General Vang Pao called a competition to see who the most knowledgeable ritual expert was in the Hmong community.

Master Shong Ger Thao won and was determined to be the shaman who knew the most correct, best versions of the Hmong rituals and traditions. Thao chose Vang to be his student 12 years ago and imparted his knowledge of the rituals and theories behind the rituals to Vang.

Before Thao passed away, the Hmong community held a public ritual in St. Paul to pass the torch from Thao to Vang.

Hickman said Vang is in such high demand because he knows the proper versions of the rituals, and doing the rituals right is crucial for the Hmong people, as the rituals impact their ability to live with ancestors after they die.

A humble leader

"Yang is — as many respected Hmong leaders are — he is very humble. But at the same time, I think it's worth noting the things that are really striking about him as a person," Hickman said.

Hickman said before he got to know Vang, he had multiple people in Hmong communities tell him there was a person believed to be the reincarnation of a prophet, someone like a Hmong Moses figure.

Some Hmong communities are starting different religious movements and were hoping to court Vang as their leader. Hickman said although Vang totally could become a leader in any of the communities, he cares more about what really matters: preserving traditional Hmong knowledge and passing it to the next generation.

Yang Vang, a Brigham Young University master's degree candidate in anthropology and world-renowned Hmong shaman, works on his thesis project on campus in Provo on Thursday, Oct. 13.

Yang Vang, a Brigham Young University master’s degree candidate in anthropology and world-renowned Hmong shaman, works on his thesis project on campus in Provo on Thursday, Oct. 13.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Hickman said Vang is such a good fit at BYU because he is seeking an intersection of faith and intellect, from a Hmong perspective.

By getting trained as an anthropologist, Vang is able to have a critical, social scientific perspective on Hmong history, using skills of critical analysis and an understanding of culture and history integrated into his faith tradition.

"I think that has huge potential in both the Hmong world and the anthropology world," Hickman said.

Vang plans to continue his work to make Hmong ritual knowledge more understandable and hopes to pursue a doctorate degree following his work at BYU.