Hmong Archives: Ten years of collecting, preserving and serving

Sunday, June 14, 2009

June 14, 2009

Hmong Archives was chartered on February 10, 1999, as a nonprofit with the mission to research, collect, preserve, interpret, and disseminate materials in all formats about or by Hmong. A dozen young Hmong professionals had this grand dream, but I credit Yuepheng Xiong of Hmong ABC with changing discussion into action by securing a charter and keys to a Metropolitan State University room. My role, and great joy as archivist, has been as chief volunteer recorder.

Hmong refugees from the Secret War in Laos first came to Saint Paul in 1975-76 to an environment very unlike their tropical mountain villages. After 15 years of war and relocation, they had lost or worn out most of their possessions. Very few were able to attend schools in the turmoil and poverty of Laos. Only in the 1960s did Hmong become a written language in Laos, using both Latin and Pahawm writing systems. Almost all Hmong knowledge has been oral, passed down through the generations.

By 1999 the Hmong Saint Paul community had undergone dramatic changes. Hmong had become market gardeners, teachers, grocers, doctors, realtors, lawyers, and with Choua Lee’s 1991 election, local government officials—but at the same time maintaining (or adapting) old traditions. Such changes lead to the loss of old knowledge and cultural materials, as well as developing new ones. Thus, Hmong Archives found its mission almost 25 years after the first refugee arrivals. Our inspiration came from the Minnesota Historical Society, and from the Norwegian-American Historical Association, founded in 1925, a century after modern Norwegian immigration began.

Our volunteers have invested 13,000 hours in caring for the 115,000 items entrusted to Hmong Archives, now in six rooms above Hmong ABC. Our 750 donors and 2500 researchers and visitors are mostly from the US, but also from Australia, China, England, France, Germany, Japan, Laos, the Netherlands, Norway, Thailand, and Vietnam. Our collections of audios, books, cards, files, maps, newspapers, objects, periodicals, photos, posters, videos, and works of art come from all parts of the Hmong world. What a great educational resource for students, teachers and researchers, locally and internationally! We are proud of connections with Hmong Cultural Center, CHAT, Hmong Today, Hmong Times, Jackson Elementary, Phalen Lake Elementary, Seexeng Lee, Kao Kalia Yang, Noah Vang, and many others who make Saint Paul the Hmong cultural capitol of the US.

Daily archive work can be slow and tedious, processing a thousand donated items each month. However, there are also exhilarating moments, such as when Grandma Yer discovered her skirt discarded in Wat Tham Krabok is now a museum piece. Or a Lao American researcher laid hands on Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book in Lao. Or a proud high school student donated her History Day DVD. Or Hmong veterans discover their younger selves in Vang Xiong’s Ban Vinai photos.

Hmong Archives is open to the public at 298 University Avenue West, from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and by appointment by calling 651.224.8754. Groups are very welcome, but please call first. Our website is, and we are on Facebook.

I wish to thank Chong Toua, Chia, Tong, Dang and Shoua, co-workers at Minnesota Historical Society in 1980-81, for introducing me to the rich culture Hmong have brought with them and continue to develop in Saint Paul, a culture Hmong Archives has collected, preserved and served for a decade.


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