In the 1970s and 1980s, thousands of Hmong refugees left Laos and fled to Thailand after the Hmong had fought as the anti-communist allies of the United States during the Lao Civil War. In Thailand, they applied for resettlement in the United States. During that process, Joint Voluntary Agency (JVA) officials completed a biographical form that asked refugees for their name, date of birth, and place of birth. They also asked a deceptively simple but more complicated question: What is your religion?
For many Hmong refugees, it was a difficult question to answer. Hmong people historically had not organized their lives around the category of religion, which has roots in Protestant Christianity and Western colonialism, and the term was foreign to them. As the Hmong studies scholar Vincent Her explains, “in Hmong, there is no word for ‘religion,’” and “a concise translation of this familiar term, from Hmong to English, or English to Hmong, is difficult.”
The limitations of the biographical form also invited bewilderment. The form offered several possible checkboxes as options—“Christian,” “Protestant,” “Catholic,” “Buddhist,” “Ancestral Worship,” “Animist,” and “None”—and officials only selected one checkbox for each refugee applicant. Yet the practices of a Hmong refugee family could fall under more than one category: “Animism” and “Ancestral Worship” were both English words that Hmong people have used to describe their beliefs and practices. Another English term that Hmong people have often used to describe their ritual life—shamanism—was not an option. Hmong refugees were required to fit their beliefs and practices into a foreign scheme of religious classification, but their traditions confounded the categories provided.
The absurdity of fitting Hmong ritual life into mutually exclusive checkboxes became clear during a brief period around 1979, when the religious identification question on the biographical form appeared as an open short-answer question. The range of responses provided by Hmong refugees reveals both confusion and creativity. On several occasions, a respondent wrote “Buddhist” only to cross it out and replace it with “Animist.” Others used multiple categories, writing “Ancestral Worship” or “Buddhist” and qualifying these responses by also noting “Animist” in parentheses. Still, others refused any of the labels offered to them and chose instead to identify their religion by using a category of their own creation: “Hmong religion.”
Hmong refugees’ encounter with the religious categories on the JVA forms illustrates a broader point I make both in my book and in this essay: that resettlement in the United States compelled Hmong refugees to conform to new categories and describe their traditional beliefs, practices, and identities as a religion. In some situations, doing so was a state requirement, as was the case with the religion question on the JVA forms. In other situations, Hmong refugees chose to talk about their beliefs and practices in terms of religion in order to secure rights, recognition, respect, and resources. On this point, the American context was a significant part of the story. In the United States, the First Amendment holds tremendous legal, political, and cultural power, and claiming a religion matters. But unlike other groups resettled during the same period—Buddhist refugees from Vietnam and Cambodia, for instance—Hmong refugees arrived in America less likely to think about their beliefs and practices as a religion. At the same time, their traditions were less understood and recognized as a religion by the voluntary agencies and church sponsors who administered the resettlement program. As a historian of Asian America with a keen interest in how the state governs religious life, I was intrigued by the many stories I found through my archival and oral history research that showed the complex ways that Hmong refugees navigated the pressures to claim a religion in a setting where their traditions were not always legible as such.
In Laos, Hmong people did not have to discuss their beliefs and practices in terms of religion. Instead, traditional Hmong rituals—both the household-based rituals known as ua dab and the healing rituals of shamanism known as ua neeb—were known by their Hmong terms and understood as the “rule” or “way”—kev—of Hmong people. Nao Thao, a Hmong American shaman whom I interviewed, recalled how in Laos, her father described their traditions as “belief” and a “way,” not necessarily as religion or culture, and their rituals were an essential element of Hmong life that connected Hmong people in the past and present. As Nao Thao put it, “This is what we did, and this is what we do.”
But much changed when they resettled in the United States, including the language they used to describe Hmong traditions. The JVA form was only the beginning of Hmong refugees’ encounter with the category of religion. Practical needs connected to medical care or funeral plans sometimes required Hmong people to discuss their beliefs and practices with non-Hmong people, and talking in terms of religion offered a useful starting point for understanding and accommodation. For example, in her book about the Center for International Health in St. Paul, Minnesota, Biloine Young describes an encounter between a Hmong woman suffering a severe brain injury and a neurosurgeon in charge of her care. The Hmong woman wanted to postpone her craniotomy so that she could seek the help of a shaman. According to Young, the neurosurgeon assigned to her case was “a deeply religious man” whose own faith opened his heart to the need for interreligious understanding. “The neurosurgeon respected and understood their position of faith,” Young wrote.
Talking about beliefs and practices in terms of religion was also facilitated by the fact that Hmong refugees grew to understand the importance of religion and religious freedom in the United States. Cziasarh Neng Yang, a Hmong American man I interviewed in St. Paul, recounted that he only realized that he was free to practice Hmong rituals in the United States when he was a high school student learning about Roger Williams and Anne Hutchison. He emphasized how little Hmong people understood their freedoms when they first arrived. “We did not know the Constitution,” he said. “We did not know that there’s an amendment that allows people to believe what they believe and do what they do. We did not know that.”
Eventually Hmong people resettled in the United States did know about the Constitution, and legal cases in the late twentieth century reveal how Hmong Americans turned to the category of religion as a means of securing rights and respect. In Yang v. Sturner, for example, a Hmong American family argued that their traditional beliefs were religious beliefs that merited the protection of the First Amendment. The case centered on a Rhode Island Hmong man named Neng Yang, who suffered a seizure while sleeping. He lost consciousness, was rushed to the hospital, and died three days later. The hospital staff, unable to explain why Neng Yang had died, contacted the office of the state medical examiner, who conducted an autopsy on Neng Yang’s body without informing or securing the consent of the Yang family. Neng Yang’s parents did not want the autopsy to be performed and argued that the state’s autopsy statutes “violate their first amendment right to exercise their religion freely.” According to the court documents, the Yang family “adhere to the religious beliefs of the Hmongs, one of which prohibits any mutilation of the body, including autopsies or the removal of organs during an autopsy.” It was argued that an autopsy disrupted the spirit’s journey after death and potentially brought harm not only to Neng Yang’s spirit but also to the rest of the living Yang family. Ultimately, the court ruled that the state medical examiner had violated the Yang family’s First Amendment right to religious freedom, though the court later withdrew the decision upon considering the outcome of Employment Division v. Smith, which was decided a few months after Yang v. Sturner.
Newly created community institutions also show how Hmong Americans adjusted to the American setting and institutionalized the Hmong way so that it would be recognized as a religion by the state. Take, for example, the establishment of the Temple of Hmongism. According to the group’s website, the founders of the Temple of Hmongism created the organization to shift Hmong practices from the home to a common central site, with the overall goal of making Hmong rituals easy, effective, and affordable. The group emphasizes that “Hmongism is NOT a NEW religion” but “only a SIMPLIFIED VERSION of our traditional religion.” It is also one adapted to the specific legal context of the United States. As the bylaws state, the Temple of Hmongism was founded as a proper 501(c)(3) organization with religious purposes.
To be sure, Hmong Americans have not been united in the shift to call traditional beliefs and practices a religion. Some people, especially Hmong Christians, have chosen to describe traditional Hmong rituals as social customs or cultural practices that are not religious in nature. Doing so has made it more acceptable for Hmong Americans to practice both the traditional Hmong way and Christianity. The Hmong American writer Mai Neng Moua, in her memoir The Bride Price, describes how Hmong Catholics viewed practices such as the hu plig (soul-calling ritual) and khi tes (wrist-tying ritual) to be “prayers, blessings, or good wishes for the future instead of animist rituals that bound the spirit to the body.” For them, these practices were not “religious in nature” but primarily “social.”
Yet many Hmong Americans, perhaps influenced by multireligious American society, have felt comfortable openly practicing two religions. MayKao Hang, a Hmong American woman in St. Paul, explained in an oral history interview in the 1990s that she practiced both Christianity and the Hmong way. “I believe in the traditional religion as well as the new religion,” she said.
Other groups in the United States have also had complex encounters with the category of religion. As Tisa Wenger shows in her scholarship on Native Americans, as Prema Kurien shows in her research on Indian American Hindus, and as Courtney Bender and Jennifer Snow show in their overview of First Amendment jurisprudence after 1965, there is a long history of non-Christian people learning to reframe their beliefs and practices as a religion. Doing so was the product of outside pressures from society and the state as well as an intentional strategy by groups to gain rights, recognition, respect, and resources. Hmong refugees who chose to redescribe and reconfigure their beliefs and practices as religion are part of a larger story of outsiders finding their way into the mainstream by learning to talk about religion. Claiming religion, their experiences suggest, is the American way.