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Studying shamanism in Uptown: an ethnographer among the Hmong

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For Dwight Conquergood, the slow movement of Hmong refugees into Uptown was like a dream come true.

The Hmong's spiritual leaders are shamans -- folk healers who rid the body of evil and ill spirits with chants, animal sacrifices, and elaborate rituals dating back to ancient times.

And Conquergood, by trade, is an ethnographer, a student of the origins of human cultures. His specialty is the study of folklore and folk performance. And now less than a few miles from his north-side home, was an ancient culture transplanted and struggling to survive amid the rumbling of the elevated trains in Uptown.

At first, he proceeded cautiously. He had to. He could not just barge into the homes of the refugees and announce, "Hi, I'm Dwight Conquergood, scholar and professor at Northwestern University, I'd like to study your culture."

No, he had to show respect, and act with some subtlety, charm, and grace. He remembers climbing the rickety stairs that led to an old, cluttered one-room office that then housed the Hmong refugee center in Uptown to make his introduction to Xiong Hu, a leader in the community.

That was in 1982. Since then, Conquergood has made dozens of close friends in Chicago's Hmong community, now about 2,500 strong.

He's slept in their homes, supped at their tables, studied with their shamans, and together with filmmaker Taggart Siegel he has produced a 30-minute documentary, Between Two Worlds: The Hmong Shaman in America.

The story he tells is of the extraordinary ability of man not only to survive but to flourish under often violent and murderous circumstances. His message is the importance of toleration.

"We cannot think that because we do something it is right," says Conquergood. "Or because we don't do something it is wrong. The key to success for any refugee group is to control the process of adoption. Some parts of their culture will stay, others will drop out. This is a process, a dynamic process that the refugee groups, be it the Hmong or whoever, should control as much as possible."

Already many Hmong refugees have found success here. Some have earned college degrees; others have saved enough money to buy property. Their success, Conquergood says, can be attributed to hard work and the fact that they have maintained many old-world traditions, such as devotion to family and friends and a primary respect for their spiritual leaders, the shamans.

For contrast, the film briefly depicts the struggle of Native Americans. Their shamanistic culture was devastated by European invaders who branded it barbaric and valueless.

"You cannot just put a culture in a time warp," says Conquergood. "You cannot guarantee that it won't change. Once a culture comes into contact with another culture, changes begin. But you should let the people control that change as much as possible."

For the Hmong, assimilation, still going on, was not without major obstacles. They come from the mountains of Southeast Asia where they had a heritage of fierce independence. "They are called Miao or Meo by outsiders -- pejorative terms which mean 'barbarian,'" Conquergood wrote in his booklet, I Am a Shaman: A Life History of Paja Thao, a Hmong Healer. "But they call themselves Hmong, which means 'Free People.'"

For the most part, they lived in the mountain regions of Laos, a small country sandwiched between Vietnam and Thailand, just north of Cambodia. In the 1960s, Laos and the Hmong were dragged into the Vietnam War.

The first aggressors were the North Vietnamese, whose troops cut through Laos to slip behind American defense lines and launch guerrillalike raids into South Vietnam. In retaliation, the Americans' began bombing North Vietnamese supply lines in Laos, and the CIA recruited Hmong leaders for the war effort.

"They were front-line anti-Communist fighters," says Conquergood, "who led daring rescue missions for captured American soldiers."

After the United States withdrew its troops in 1975, the Laotian government fell to Communist insurgents, who persecuted the Hmong. Not only had the Hmong fought on the "wrong" side of the war, but the fighting had stirred years of ethnic hostilities.

An estimated 50,000 Hmong fled, most settling in the Ban Vinai refugee camp along the Thai border. And it was from there, in the late 1970s, that they slowly moved to the United States, finding their way to Chicago and other cities (particularly on the west coast) through the efforts of various not-for-profit refugee resettlement groups.

"When I first became aware of the Hmong settlers, their community here was very small," says Conquergood. "It was much more clannish then. And the people were a lot less assimilated."

In those early days, Conquergood frequently visited the refugee center. He had heard talk of shamanic practices, but was never invited to see them. Indeed, at first many of the Hmong denied that they practiced such rituals, perhaps fearing that an admission might somehow endanger their security.

During the summer of 1982, however, Conquergood finally established his trustworthiness. The Hmong intended to apply for a federal grant to finance their community center; they would need a grant writer and typist. Enter Conquergood.

"That experience bonded us, and broke down all barriers," he says. "It also pointed out the difference between oral and literature cultures. In an oral culture, everything is communal. And the Hmong are a communal culture."

For instance, he explains, unassimilated Hmong would not dream of eating steak individually -- each diner with his own hunk of meat -- as Westerners do. Instead, they would use the meat to make a stew, and then eat communally from the same pot.

And that, in effect, is how they wrote the grant.

"Everybody had a job -- everybody," says Conquergood. "One guy would put the paper into the typewriter. Another guy filled the coffee cups. There was a fellow who stood over me with a whiteout and when I made a mistake he would white it out. And then another guy would blow the whiteout dry.

"It was a process totally foreign to a Westerner. Usually, we lock ourselves away to write. It's anything but a communal experience. Of course, I never complained. I loved it, I learned from it. Had I complained, had I said 'Please back off, you're crowding me,' they would have backed off. Oh, they would have been very polite. They would have been polite with a vengeance. That also would have been the end of our close relationship. For they would have known that Dwight Conquergood was just another well-meaning, well-intended American. I would never have crossed that line."

They got the grant, however, and Conquergood indeed "crossed the line." Gradually the Hmong opened up to him. Soon he was invited to observe and film shamanistic rituals.

It was a fascinating experience, beyond any he had before encountered. For there are no figures in Western culture that perform similar functions. The shaman, Conquergood often says, is a combination doctor, priest, and therapist.

Their power is rooted in the belief that in a universe "dominated by spiritual beings, the fortunes and calamities of everyday life are explained by the loss or capture of someone's soul, the retaliation of an offended nature spirit, and the need for ancestor spirits to be fed and appeased," Conquergood wrote in the preface to his booklet.

"The shaman is the one who can enter the unseen side of reality and intercede with the spirits that control the world. While all Hmong people are deeply involved in spiritual reality, the shaman is uniquely qualified to intervene in time of crisis. He or she -- many Hmong shamans are women -- achieves direct contact with the spirits through the distinctive ability to enter ecstatic trance performance. The way to cross over from the side of reality that is seen, to the spiritual side that is unseen, is through ecstatic trembling -- 'shaking' --induced by rhythmic movement and dance, covering the face with a mask, beating a gong or drum, burning incense, and incantatory chanting. The distinctive characteristic of the shaman in all cultures is this predisposition and ability to achieve ecstatic trance."

Conquergood wrote those words in the spring of 1985, while visiting Ban Vinai. There, he wrote, he was awakened most mornings "before dawn by the drumming and ecstatic chanting of shamanic performance."

Well, that sounds good and well for a refugee camp in Thailand, but just try living below or above that racket in an Uptown tenement. Imagine how the landlord might feel.

Conquergood laughs at the incongruity. And in the film, he and Siegel effectively juxtapose scenes of Uptown street fife with the exotic rituals in the Hmong apartments.

The film eloquently articulates this conflict with the story of "Boy Rescue," an infant who is born prematurely and in need of medical care.

The infant's father earns a living at a local Burger King while studying chemistry at Northeastern Illinois University. He plans one day to become a pharmacist.

Not surprisingly, he places his son in the intensive-care unit of a local hospital, where the child is offered the most sophisticated treatment of the high-tech age.

And he also seeks the guidance of a shaman.

"Too much was at stake to ignore the shaman," Conquergood says.

"They smuggled the shaman into intensive care and he made a silent pact with the spirits. 'If you save the boy, I will sacrifice a cow.' And so the family raises $500 [through donations of friends and family] and they buy a cow. They slaughtered it and then they used everything, including the gallbladder, stomach, lungs, entrails, pancreas, everything."

The cow sacrifice scene is in the film, as well as a brief discussion of SUNDS (Sudden Unexpected Nocturnal Death Syndrome). This mysterious disease killed more than 80 Southeast Asian refugees, all of them young men, who died in their sleep. Autopsy reports were inconclusive. But many experts feel that refugee stress could be a factor. And some shamans believe the cause is retribution of sorts for abandoning the faith.

Whatever the case, some researchers believe that the shaman reduces refugee stress by, as Conquergood once wrote, "providing a sense of order and continuity during a time of drastic change and loss."

Of course, not everyone agrees with this point. The film also offers the testimony of Brother John, a Christian missionary, who attempts to "save" the Hmong by converting them.

"Jesus died for our sins," Brother John tells several Hmong listeners in the film.

As Brother John's words are translated, his Hmong listeners look confused. "What sin?" one replies, "I've done nothing wrong."

"They have no beliefs," Brother John later says to the camera, speaking without contempt. "They're waiting for someone to fill the void."

Unknowingly, Brother John stands before a shaman altar as he says those words.

For the moment, Conquergood contends, most Hmong resist attempts to completely shed their cultural practices.

Eventually, however, the Hmong may be like many immigrants who preceded them. They may voluntarily abandon shamanistic beliefs as they become more and more assimilated. The next generation may sneer at the rattles and veils of the old shamans. Indeed, a passage in the shaman Paja Thao's life story, which Conquergood taped, helped translate, and edited, and then published in poetic form, notes the passing of some traditions:

They said it is the Hmong way

To hang this spirit paper on the wall for protection

It is the spirit of the family's wealth

If you change to Christian

You throw out this paper which hangs on the wall of your house

The most important of all spirit papers.

But in time this attitude may also change. One day, third-generation Hmong, raised in the suburbs, speaking no Hmong, may seek their roots. Ironically, they may then turn to the works of Conquergood, a white Anglo-Saxon raised in rural Indiana, for some answers.

"We shot 40 hours of film," Conquergood says. "We didn't do it efficiently. We let the cameras roll because we felt it was important for future historians. It's amazing what the Hmong have done. They were devastated, and dropped into a clock-driven technological society. But they survived. And their survival has given me renewed faith in the resiliency of people."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.

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