War and the deer hunter

Published : Dec 31, 2004 00:00 IST

The interest in the killing of six people by a Hmong American in Wisconsin goes far beyond the dangers of deer hunting and of murder in general; it has taken racist undertones, adding to the woes of the Hmongs, victims of the United States' war in Indochina.

ON November 21, in Sawyer County, Wisconsin, a massacre took place. A 36-year-old United States National Guardsman shot eight people, killing six. The court indictment details the unfortunate events. The man, Chai Vang, trespassed on the lands of Robert Crotteau in a frigid part of the U.S. that borders Canada. What happened next is unclear. Vang alleges that the men surrounded him, began to assault him with racist phrases, and fired a shot at him. He then commenced to shoot at them. The survivors dispute this story. According to Sawyer County Sheriff Jim Meier, after Crotteau told Vang to leave the land: "The suspect got down from the deer stand, walked 40 yards and fiddled with his rifle. He took the scope off his rifle, he turned and he opened fire on the group." It took less than 20 shots for Vang to hit eight people. In the California National Guard he earned an Army Service Ribbon as a sharpshooter. Vang is currently incarcerated, awaiting trial.

Chai Vang, like the men he killed, had gone to the north woods to hunt deer. Each year, thousands of people like the Crotteaus and Vang leave their city and town lives to camp out for a wilderness experience. Because many of those who hunt are amateurs, each year finds more and more people falling victim to accidents (they average about 140 per year, with about 20-25 fatalities). This year, in Wisconsin, the rate of hunting accidents has already crawled above the mark for last year, and the season is still on. Tim Lawhern of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources told the Associated Press: "History has shown over the last few years the gun-deer season often provides us with 50 per cent of our total hunting accidents." Deer hunting is always dangerous but this was plainly murder.

Nationwide interest in this incident went far beyond the dangers of deer hunts and of murder in general. What sparked the media frenzy was the perpetrator himself: Chai Vang. Two decades ago, Vang left his native Laos for the U.S., where he eventually settled in St. Paul, Minnesota, married a Hmong woman, raised six children and many chickens. His family and friends say that he is a renowned shaman, who caters to the 24,000 Hmong refugees who make St. Paul their home. Indeed, this Minnesota city is the largest Hmong city in the world. Some of Vang's friends, and his brother, have begun to mount a cultural defence, arguing that the Hmong are averse to ideas of private property, that Vang may not have known he had trespassed and that since he is a shaman he might have been in a trance. His detractors argue that he has lived in the U.S. for 20 years and is aware of the laws associated with hunting. A few years ago he received a citation for over-fishing in a local river, one of his few run-ins with the law (another, most disturbingly, was a 2001 domestic violence incident when he threatened his wife with a handgun).

A local businessman in Haugen, Wisconsin, told the Associated Press: "It's pathetic. They let all these foreigners in here, and they walk all over everybody's property." The questions that lingers in all the news reports, but is unanswered, is why are the Hmong here?

IN the hills of Laos, around the Plain of Jars, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) inherited a Clandestine Army that had been fashioned out of the Hmong (Meo) communities. Persecuted in south Szechwan province in China for several hundred years, the Hmong eventually fled en masse in the mid-19th century for the northeastern hills of Laos. By 1971, Laos was home to 2.5 million Hmong, most of whom were involved in slash-and-burn agriculture and the opium trade. Rice allowed the Hmong people to subsist, opium allowed the Hmong elite to rule. After the French entered the region in 1893, they began to buy opium in large quantities from the Hmong, even creating a special tax to drive more Hmong into opium production. The "warlord" structure of Hmong society benefited the French who relied upon some influential leaders to both provide the opium, and to destroy any resistance, notably from the Hmong Resistance League in the mid-1940s. The Hmong Clandestine Army grew out of these local enforcers.

When the U.S. government took over from the French, they began to use this Army against the slowly growing movement of the communist Pathet Lao. This 30,000-strong army under the command of General Vang Pao worked for the CIA from 1960 to 1975. Edgar "Pop" Buell, the CIA official who ran the Clandestine Army and the Plain of Jars, described the Hmong army: "Thirty per cent of the kids were 14 years old or less and about a dozen were only about 10 years old. Another 30 per cent were 15 or 16. The rest were 35 or older. Where were the ones in between? I will tell you, they are all dead." The ones who joined the force "are too young and are not trained. In a few weeks 90 per cent of them will be killed". Buell and Pao sent the Hmong army forward like cannon fodder, using them in the most dangerous missions against both the Pathet Lao and the North Vietnamese Army. The loss of life grievously damaged Hmong society, and with a shortage of field labour, the only economic crop that enabled survival became opium. From an Indiana farm background, Buell encouraged the Hmong to grow their poppy more effectively. "If you're gonna grow it," he said, "grow it good, but don't let anybody smoke the stuff." Opium became the main crop in the area, and as the Pathet Lao surrounded the Plain of Jars, the U.S.-funded Air America service had to fly out the crop to the market or else lose the only economic basis of its main infantry force in the region. The Hmong homeland became Ground Zero of the Golden Triangle.

"Now they are all destitute," said an American relief worker, "as a direct result of the attrition they have had to endure, from the battles we encouraged them to fight." In 1970, Buell told a reporter: "The best are being killed off in this country and America will never be able to repay them for what they're doing." Nothing the Hmong endured until then would measure up to what happened five years later. When the U.S. finally withdrew from Vietnam in 1975, they left their loyal allies, the Clandestine Army and General Pao behind. The CIA eventually extricated Vang Pao and settled him on a 400-acre farm near Missoula, Montana. The bulk of the Hmong faced the Pathet Lao without U.S. air support, only to be killed in large numbers. About 200,000 Hmong crossed the Mekong river into Thailand. The Thai government put them in camps, eventually got the governments of Australia, France and the U.S. to allow some to emigrate and recruited a group of them into another secret army, this time against Thai Communists. In 1991, the U.S. government spent $15 million to close the Thai camps and to send the Hmong back to a hostile reception in Laos.

When I lived in Providence, Rhode Island, I met a group of Hmong families. They used to come to the local farmer's market and sell their quilts. While many of the quilts had traditional designs, one repeated pattern told the story of the Hmong migration. It begins with the CIA contact in the hills of Laos, tells of the Hmong combat against the Pathet Lao, then of their abandonment by the U.S. government and eventual flight into Thailand. The last frame shows a Hmong family disembarking from an aircraft into the U.S., where a hostile policeman greets them with his semi-automatic gun. Resettled in cold cities that had not been sufficiently prepared for this influx of migrants, the Hmong have had a hard life in the U.S. Poverty rates among the Hmong remain high (64 per cent); their per capita income ($2,690) is much lower than the national average ($30,271) and close to three-quarters of Hmong children are raised in poverty. Being poor in America means that they have an adversarial relationship with the police, who work largely to maintain discipline among those whom the state has abandoned.

UNLIKE the Cuban and Vietnamese refugees who have an animus against progressives and favour the Republican Party, Hmong Americans see the world from their social condition and vote overwhelmingly for the Democrats. Their lives have been dire but in each of their resettlement cities they have formed progressive organisations. These organisations (such as Providence's Hmong United Association) protect the community from the wiles of the state and ameliorate the after-effects of war and dislocation. The strongest organisations in the Hmong American community (such as St. Paul's Women's Association of Hmong and Lao, and Sacramento's Hmong Women's Heritage Association) take on the prevalence of anti-woman violence and the deep-seated misogyny in the Hmong community. Chai Vang's assault on his wife is an example of this, but so too is child marriage, bride price, polygamy and a disdain for the education of girls.

In 1978, American cinema audiences sat riveted by Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter. The movie followed the lives of a group of working-class friends from western Pennsylvania who spend their leisure time in a bar or in the forest, hunting deer. They are shipped off to Vietnam, get captured and tortured, and eventually one of them, Mike (played by Robert De Niro) returns home. The other friends are either dead, or broken. For old times sake, Mike goes hunting deer with some acquaintances. A deer comes into his range; Mike aims at it, then, removes his finger from the trigger and yells, "OK." The hunt is over. The war has killed his desire to kill. Mike is America's hope, that Vietnam can be overcome. In the forests of Wisconsin, another group of white men, during this time of war, came up to a man who, to them, looked Vietnamese, and (according to Chai Vang) yelled racist insults at him. The incident of Chai Vang, his deer hunt, is also the legacy of the Vietnam War.

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