ST. PAUL (AP) -- As a Hmong woman who grew up in the Twin Cities, Bo Thao wanted to learn how war and migration from Laos affected other Hmong women but found little record of their experiences.
That's when she decided to ask them herself.
The result is the Hmong Women's Oral History project, which Bo Thao and others in the metro area's Hmong community are producing with support from the Minnesota Historical Society. She discussed her research recently at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul.
"A lot of things written about Hmong history are about Hmong men and men going to war," Bo Thao said of Hmong soldiers who fought in the CIA's secret war against Communists in North Vietnam during the Vietnam War. "We don't hear about what women were doing and how they contributed when the men went to war. We were interested to hear that, how the women made decisions when the men were gone."
The oral history is based on interviews with 18 Hmong women, three each from six families, representing three generations. When the project is complete, likely this summer, interview tapes and transcripts will be available at the history center, and transcripts will be accessible through the historical society's Web site.
The historical society welcomed the opportunity to record what Jim Fogerty, head of the acquisitions and curatorial department, called an "incredibly important moment" for Hmong immigrants, who began arriving in the 1970s after their country fell to the Communists and now number an estimated 70,000 in Minnesota.
"We're going to be able to capture the reflections of women from three generations," Fogerty said. "From grandmothers who lived in the Laotian hills, mothers who raised children in Laos and this country, and granddaughters ending up as college-educated. If we didn't seize this moment it was going to be gone."
The interviews, Bo Thao said, offered insight into how Hmong women faced fighting in their homeland, fleeing to a new country and resettling, a perspective she said often has gone overlooked.
"We're trying to include women in the history of the Hmong community and trying to give women a voice where in the past maybe they didn't have one," said the 27-year-old chairwoman of the Hmong Women's Action Team, which is working to counter what she said is sexism in the Hmong community.
"We've been talking to a lot of young Hmong women who are often in search of their own identity and who want to know these things," Bo Thao said. "We hope to inspire young women to understand their mothers are not these illiterate women who have no skills, but that in fact many of them were very courageous and had leadership abilities."
In Laos, women traditionally were not community leaders, Bo Thao said. That changed during the war, when women had to take charge of their families and villages. Women such as her mother, Bo Thao said, had to decide on their own when to move the family into the jungle to seek safety, although they often play down their contributions.
In this country, many younger Hmong women have pursued education and careers that have moved them to the forefront in the workplace but often are expected to fulfill traditional roles at home, Bo Thao said.
"A lot of women have gotten leadership positions but not necessarily in our own families," she said. "When we come home, it's still a different story."
Fogerty said the oral history is shaping up as "a gem of a project."
"These stories for the first time give a human face not just to their immediate experience but to the whole process," Fogerty said of the Hmong women. "Leaving home, coming to a land you know nothing about, trying to raise a family, dealing with customs of your own and a new place and dealing with a language you're not familiar with -- all of the little and not so little things that make up the real life. They are such personal narratives."
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.