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Celebrating Hmong culture: Local community ushers in new year with Saturday celebration

Pao Vang (left) of Poplar helps Jennifer Xiong of Duluth cook egg rolls while preparing for the Hmong New Year celebration at First United Methodist Church in Duluth Friday. They are preparing 960 egg rolls and 125 pounds of sweet rice for Saturday's celebration. --- Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com1 / 6
Bea Larson (left) of Duluth and Ploua Vang of Poplar talk as they roll egg rolls while preparing for the Hmong New Year celebration at First United Methodist Church in Duluth Friday. They are preparing 960 egg rolls and 125 pounds of sweet rice for Saturday's celebration. --- Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com2 / 6
Nue Xiong and Xaiutub Xiong, both of Duluth, build egg rolls while preparing for the Hmong New Year celebration at First United Methodist Church in Duluth Friday. They are preparing 960 egg rolls and 125 pounds of sweet rice for Saturday's celebration. --- Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com3 / 6
Freshly wrapped egg rolls wait to be fried while preparing for the Hmong New Year celebration at First United Methodist Church in Duluth Friday. They are preparing 960 egg rolls and 125 pounds of sweet rice for Saturday's celebration. --- Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com4 / 6
Pao Vang, of Poplar, Jennifer Xiong and Lee Neng, both of Duluth, cook egg rolls while preparing for the Hmong New Year celebration at First United Methodist Church in Duluth Friday. They are preparing 960 egg rolls and 125 pounds of sweet rice for Saturday's celebration. --- Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com5 / 6
Lee Neng of Duluth pulls out freshly cooked egg rolls from the fryer while preparing for the Hmong New Year celebration at First United Methodist Church in Duluth Friday. They are preparing 960 egg rolls and 125 pounds of sweet rice for Saturday's celebration. --- Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com6 / 6

It's not a staccatic loud beat that echoes from Hmong instruments. Nor is it a subtle reserved hum.

"It's haunting," said Bea Larson. "When I hear those sounds, it's like I'm also in their villages, and in their mountains and I can see the mist and hear the chickens."

For anyone else interested in hearing the tones of bamboo flutes, they can experience that transformation during the traditional Hmong New Year. The celebration, being put on at the First United Methodist Church on Skyline Parkway, concludes their annual harvest and makes ready the Hmong people for the slow season.

"They pay off their debts, they sweep out their houses to be fresh for the new year," said Larson. "It's three or four days of celebrating."

Minnesota is home to the largest population of Hmong people in the United States. The first Hmong people to come to the United States came as refugees. Native to the highlands of Laos, they were an integral part of the Vietnam War effort, assisting the American military in strategic bombing and rescuing downed pilots in the '60s and '70s.

Larson said the Hmong people knew that if Vietnam fell to communism, then Laos would as well. After the war, they were offered refuge in the United States, in return for their service. About 90 families lived in the Twin Ports area in the '90s—a number that has dwindled down to about 17.

"It's a consequence of economics," Larson said. "People could't find ways to make a living up here. Their families tend to be a little bit larger than the typical American family."

That difference has slowly blended together, with their families becoming smaller. Besides the introduction of modern technology to the culture and the addition of egg rolls during the ceremony, the new year celebration has remained the same since the Hmong people first came to the U.S..

"This was an oral culture, not a written culture," said Larson.

Because the Hmong people didn't have a written language until the 1950s, much of their traditional new year incorporates singing, dancing and social mingling, all tenants of storytelling for oral cultures. Saturday's celebration will be no different. Even the ritualistic ball toss — a form of flirtation between young boys and girls — will be on display.

Dwarfed by the much larger celebration that takes place down in the cities, Saturday's event is intended to be smaller for those who want to avoid the craze of a larger gathering.

"It's huge and expensive and some of the elders say that it's scary," Larson said. "And they want their younger kids up here to be exposed to their culture."

Don't think this is a closed off ceremony, however — the public is encouraged to attend. The Hmong culture's community-mindset has persisted through the years. But with that invitation is a request that visitors acknowledge their presence in Minnesota is justified.

"It's very important to them that people understand that they have a right to be here, because of their role in the Vietnam War," said Larson.

If you go

When: Dec. 1 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Where: First United Methodist Church, 230 E. Skyline Parkway Duluth, MN 55811

Cost: Free

Details: There will be a lunch provided as well.

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