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Chico State

History, Hardship, Culture: ‘Hmong Reflections’

Traditional garments worn by Hmong women on display at the Valene L. Smith Anthropology Museum at CSU, Chico.
Photos by Jessica Bartlett / Student Photographer

The Hmong exhibit at the Valene L. Smith Museum of Anthropology on Friday, January 20 2017. (Jessica Bartlett/ Student Photographer)

MaiHoua Lo still can’t forget the treacherous journey that her parents and eight siblings braved to escape persecution in Laos along with tens of thousands of other Hmong people during the Vietnam War.

Just a toddler then, Lo doesn’t even remember her older sister, who died after accidentally stepping on a land mine as the family fled through the jungle, from village to village, desperately seeking safety.

Her family finally crossed the Mekong River into Thailand in the late 1970s, destined for one of the crowded refugee camps there. Sponsored by a Lutheran church, the family was eventually brought to Oklahoma. In 1990, they moved to join other relatives in Chico, where they have built a new life.

“I remember parts and pieces of it, like a dream,” said Lo, a financial aid advisor at CSU, Chico, about the experiences that upended her family’s world.

A traditional Hmong garment.
More than 200 traditional Hmong items, including this outfit, are on display at the Valene L. Smith Museum of Anthropology.

Lo’s journey, and those of other Hmong people now living in the North State, are being explored through new exhibition, Hmong Reflections: Stories of Our Own, on display through July at the Valene L. Smith Anthropology Museum at CSU, Chico.

The exhibition’s grand opening will take place January 26 from 4:30–6 p.m.

In attendance will be the museum’s namesake and CSU, Chico Department of Anthropology Professor Emerita Valene L. Smith, fresh off a travel tour of Laos in November. An active supporter of the anthropology museum since its inception in 1970, Smith taught in the anthropology department from 1967–1998.

The multimedia Hmong Reflections exhibit blends stories of history, hardship, and culture, and was developed over 15 weeks by 19 students enrolled in anthropology professor William Nitzky’s “Exhibit Research, Design, and Installation” class.

None of the students—which included undergraduate and graduate students majoring in art history, sociology, and anthropology—had any prior experience creating museum exhibits.

And, like senior Erica Hill, most of the students weren’t at all familiar with the history of the Hmong people, either.

“I have friends that were Hmong. But I had no clue how they came to the US, and I had no clue about their culture,” said Hill, an anthropology major.

She called creating the exhibit “completely eye-opening. While I was researching, I could tell this was something that needs to be in museums and needs to be available for the public to see.”

She was particularly moved by the portion of the exhibit she created about the power of music in the Hmong culture, focused on the elaborate bamboo flutes that are used during traditional funeral ceremonies to play songs that could sometimes last for three days.

Several colorful, traditional Hmong garments on display at the "Hmong Reflections: Stories of Our Own" exhibit.
Chico State alumna and employee MaiHoua Lo’s swirling, pleated skirt was created to wear to traditional New Year celebrations. She has since handed down the historical Hmong garment to her daughter.

“Certain instruments could actually speak; they would mimic the tonal language of the Hmong,” she explained. “You could actually hear what they were communicating to the deceased, how to get into the spirit world. It’s really beautiful.”

The University’s exhibit includes vibrantly-hued Hmong clothing, garments that are adorned with embroidery and glittering silver coins, and set off with chunky, multilayered gold or silver necklaces.

A swirling, pleated skirt in crimson, pink, yellow, and green created using traditional hand embroidery that belongs to Lo is on display. After wearing the skirt for several years, Lo said she has passed it on to her daughter.

Having Hmong history and culture showcased in the exhibit is “really important, identity-wise, for our students because they do struggle a lot with identity. [It’s] not that they don’t know who they are, but it’s the fact that others don’t know who we are,” Lo said.

The exhibit shows them they should be proud of themselves, she said, because their culture has such “a beautiful history….and such beautiful things.”

Another section of the exhibit uses thumbtacks and slender black ribbon to illustrate the locations of major refugee camps throughout Thailand, while another area shows a typical refugee tent made from mosquito netting, with simple mats on the ground.

A traditional Hmong flute made of bamboo.
Senior Erica Hill called this traditional flute an instrument that can “speak.” In Hmong tradition, the qeej is used to play songs that direct the soul of the deceased to the spirit world, she said.

The exhibition lays out the Hmong experience using historical photographs, videos, artifacts, and audio clips from student interviews conducted with Hmong individuals from across the North State. The University students researched, developed, and installed items displayed in the exhibition, guided by suggestions from members of the Hmong community about what aspects of their history should be included.

Areas explored include the Hmong people’s traditional culture, how they were threatened during the Vietnam War, struggled in refugee camps, and journeyed to other countries including the United States. Hmong religion, clothing, art, and family traditions—including wedding and funeral practices—are also part of the exhibit.

Members of the local Hmong community, including Lo (BA, Social Science, ’10; MA, Social Science, ’14), provided insight for the displays. Lo also served as the main translator for the exhibit.

The Hmong are an ethnic group from China, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand. During the Vietnam War, they were recruited by the United States to fight against Vietnam and communist Lao insurgents. After the war’s end, hundreds of thousands of Hmong fled to Thailand seeking political asylum. Many have since resettled in the United States.

Nitzky said Hmong Reflections was created using a “participatory approach” to museum studies, one which places the subjects of museum exhibits firmly into the center of discussions about how museum exhibits ultimately appear.

Chico State Anthropology Professor William Nitzky.
Anthropology professor William Nitzky teaches students how to create museum exhibits. His most recent “Exhibit Research, Design, and Installation” class included 19 students majoring in art history, sociology, or anthropology.

Early on, the class conducted a feedback session with representatives from Hmong community groups on campus and elsewhere in Butte County.

“It wasn’t just, ‘Let me find some information about this group from a book.’ It was, ‘Let me go meet with someone in Oroville in their home, or speak with community members at our museum and learn about their experience,'” Nitzky said. “It creates a lot more understanding of the cultural diversity of Chico for our own students, which is very important. The students gained a lot from that.”

Students stand in the Hmong Reflections: Stories of Our Own exhibit.
Students spoke with many Hmong individuals about their experiences and culture. That feedback helped shape the Hmong Reflections exhibit. (Photo courtesy of William Nitzky)

Near the rear of the exhibit room, a few rows of bus seats, a small, battered suitcase, and a mural of anguished faces show how some of the approximately 150,000 displaced Hmong people made the journey to refugee camps during the war. Museum-goers will be able to use iPads to view photos and hear interviews the students conducted with local Hmong people who experienced those trips.

“You can see so many people saying goodbye,” said Hill of the mural. “There’s pain that these photos express that you couldn’t put into 1,000 words.”