After racist vandalism, Hmong museum reopens stronger than before

A recently expanded museum in St. Paul, Minnesota, celebrates American Hmong culture and history. But rather than showcase rare artifacts from bygone eras, the collections focus on educating the public about the group: where they came from, what they looked like, and how they came to America .

“We’re not trying to be the next ‘Hmong Smithsonian’,” said Mark Pfeifer, program director at the Hmong Cultural Center, which hosts the museum. “Our content is based on what we think people should know about the Hmong.”

The expansion is supported by $150,000 in grants — a third of which comes from Google — that the center received in response to a spike in anti-Asian hate crimes in May. The funds helped the organization secure a five-year lease on the storefront.

But the museum has faced a racist incident of its own that delayed opening by three weeks.

In September, three people destructive Store fronts, spray-painted museum signs and a large Black Lives Matter mural and stenciled windows that read “Life, Liberty, Victory,” a slogan associated with the white Patriot group Fascist Front. Security repairs and upgrades cost in excess of $30,000, most of which Pfeifer said was ultimately covered by donations from corporations and community members.

Since the new exhibits opened in December, Pfeifer said, there has been strong interest from the community, both from individuals and school and church groups. But due to Covid-19 restrictions, capacity is limited to 15 people.

In a 1,200 square foot space on West University Avenue, the museum presents 21 displays of the Hmong religion, food, sporting and literary achievements and traditional New Year celebrations, as well as various historical documentaries about the Lao Civil War and The Secret War in which more than 30,000 Hmong soldiers died fighting Communist Laos during a covert CIA operation. The cultural section also includes an embroidery room and an interactive Hmong folk art exhibit focusing on traditional funeral songs and beloved musical instruments, such as the two-stringed violin, ncas (blade harp, etc.) mouth) and qeej, (six-pipe mouth organ).

Txongpao Lee, the center’s executive director, said the museum was established to raise public awareness of the Hmong.

“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs knows who the Hmong are,” he said, “but many people mistake us for Chinese or Japanese.”

Gymnast Suni Lee, who was born in St. Winning the Summer Olympics. But Americans’ understanding of this group, Lee said, is still limited compared with their perception of higher-income East Asian groups.

Many Hmong refugees fled to the US in the 1970s and 1980s, after their homeland in Laos was devastated during the Vietnam War. The largest concentration of resettled refugees is in Minnesota and Wisconsin, with more than 80,000 Hmong living in the former place.

A major exhibit that delves into Minnesotan Hmong history, including social justice movements led by the Hmong (including a 1998 protest against a radio DJ who provided commentary racism), notable businesses, and the formation of ethnic minorities in the Twin Cities, which boasts the largest Hmong population in a metropolitan area of ​​the United States.

Many community leaders consider the Hmong Cultural Center, located just a few blocks from the first Hmong refugee settlement in 1975, as a symbol of rebirth and resilience in the hearts of the community.

Sieng Lee, a Hmong artist who has consulted on the design of the exhibitions, says the museum acts as a cultural pillar linking the expat community to their foster home.

“For a refugee community or any marginalized community,” he said, “it is important to have a place where we can point to and say it belongs to us. , where we feel welcome. It allows us to take ownership of something.”

Established in 1992, the Hmong Cultural Center provides vital services, including English and citizenship classes, to the Hmong community in the Twin Cities. It has also taught more than 1,000 children to play qeej during funeral ceremonies.

In addition to the museum, which opened in 2014, the center also houses a library with a comprehensive collection of Hmong academic material, from theses on intergenerational trauma to articles on human abuse. rights against the Hmong.

Over the past year, as more states enacted legislation to integrate Asian-American studies into public school education, the center developed four K-12 curriculums in culture and history. Hmong history. The focus is on the Secret War in Laos, the contributions of the Hmong in Minnesota, embroidery and musical instruments.

Lee, the executive director, said an integral part of the museum’s mission is to educate second and third-generation Hmong Americans about their heritage.

“Many young Hmong people are losing their cultural identity,” he said, noting that the number of young people who speak Hmong and have basic knowledge of Hmong history is decreasing. “Unlike other Asian communities, we don’t have a country where we can go back and learn our culture.” After racist vandalism, Hmong museum reopens stronger than before

Jake Nichol

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