Friday, January 29, 2010
Yia Yang, who hosts a Hmong radio show about hunting, and an on-air guest, Capt. Roy Griffith, who runs California’s hunter education program.
SACRAMENTO — Along the barren airwaves of AM radio in Northern California, somewhere between gospel music and traffic updates, Yia Yang can be heard telling his devoted listeners to always be aware of their gun muzzles.
A 50-year-old Hmong immigrant from northern Laos, Mr. Yang is the host of a regular all-things-hunting program on KJAY 1430-AM. The station serves one of the nation’s largest Hmong populations — one for whom the link between hunting and survival is still palpable.
“In Laos a main source of food was wildlife,” said Mr. Yang, who owns a used-car lot in Sacramento, a city with more than 16,000 Hmong residents.
He said hunting brought back memories of the mountainous wilds of Laos, where his older brother, who he said was a soldier trained by the Central Intelligence Agency, taught him to shoot raccoon-like creatures out of trees.
During the Vietnam War, the C.I.A. covertly trained the Hmong to fight, unsuccessfully it turned out, against a Communist takeover in Laos. After the war, many Hmong fled to refugee camps in Thailand. From there, more than 200,000 immigrated to the United States, settling largely in the Central Valley of California and in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
“In Laos, a big part of the traditional role for men was to provide meat,” said Paul Hillmer, a professor of history and director of the Hmong Oral History Project at Concordia University in St. Paul. “The adjustment for Hmong men in this country was getting used to things like private-property boundaries, hunting licenses and regulations.”
So Mr. Yang patiently answers a steady stream of callers from all over the Sacramento Valley, whose questions range from the mundane — Do I need a special license to hunt deer with a bow and arrow? (No, but a hunting license is required, as is a deer tag for archery.) — to the exotic. How, exactly, one hunter wanted to know, was he to deliver the severed head of the black bear he had shot to the State Department of Fish and Game, as required by law. (Present the skull — even if damaged — to a department office or officer within 10 days of killing the bear.)
State officials praise Mr. Yang for translating the nitty-gritty of fish and game law for people from an ethnic group that can be wary of authority figures.
Capt. Roy Griffith, who runs the fish and game agency’s hunter education program and has been an on-air guest of Mr. Yang, said Mr. Yang provided “a huge service to the state.”
Although the number of California hunting licenses issued has fallen steadily since the 1960s, the number of requests for hunter education training courses in languages other than English is booming, Mr. Griffith said.
“We’re desperate for Spanish-speaking instructors and deep in need of Asian languages, too,” he said.
State agencies overseeing hunting and fishing in Minnesota and Wisconsin have hired Hmong speakers to educate, translate and work as cultural ambassadors to the Laotian immigrant population.
California depends on about 850 volunteer instructors, including Mr. Yang, to teach the 10-hour hunter education and gun safety course required for anyone seeking a hunting license. Classes are available in Hmong, Spanish, Russian, German and Mandarin, but with fewer than 15 bilingual instructors, supply does not begin to keep up with demand.
There is a waiting list of more than 30 people to take the next class offered by Mr. Yang, who was the state’s first Hmong language hunting instructor. There are now two more, both in Fresno.
When Mr. Yang does not have an answer to a question, he often turns to Mr. Griffith.
On a recent afternoon Mr. Griffith drove his green, state-issued S.U.V. down to the studio to answer tricky hunting questions.
“I want to remind your listeners of new regulations for upland game birds like quail and grouse,” he said into a microphone, in English. “You now have to leave a fully feathered wing or head attached to the body until you get home and put it in your freezer,”
Mr. Yang turned to his own microphone and repeated the message, in Hmong.
KJAY 1430-AM broadcasts from a rundown mobile home by the Sacramento River, on the city’s west side. The station plays Hmong programming during the day with hourlong segments dedicated to traditional music and talk shows focusing on the latest Hmong international news.
Occasionally on Mr. Yang’s show cultural collisions trump hunting regulations or advice on how to skin a deer. In 2007 a Hmong man out hunting squirrels in the woods of northeastern Wisconsin was killed by a white hunter. Three years earlier a Hmong hunter had shot and killed six white hunters in the northwestern part of the state.
After the shootings, hunters across the Hmong diaspora called Mr. Yang on air and off. “They asked me, ‘Is it safe for us to go hunting? What should we do?’ ” he recalled. He devoted several hourlong programs to the shootings.
“After that, a lot of people and a lot of elders quit hunting because they were afraid,” he said.
In the winter when bear and deer hunting seasons are closed, Mr. Yang’s program is heard less often, but occasionally he does take to the air with talk of hunting wild pigs, ducks and squirrels.
“People are calling on the radio asking me, ‘How many squirrels can I bring home?’ ” he said. “I tell them four. Squirrel soup with a lot of hot peppers is very popular.”