History, Hmong archive need a place

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Collection of "all things Hmong" is too big for current home.

On a quiet St. Paul street sits a modest house that is a hidden portal to the past. Inside, for public viewing, are the Hmong Archives -- a vast collection of maps, books, photographs and other assorted objects chronicling Hmong life through the years.

Like their once-migratory owners, the items in the nation's largest repository of Hmong artifacts are searching for a permanent home.

The collection has moved from site to site in St. Paul since its inception in 1999. The latest move from a floor above the Hmong ABC bookstore on University Avenue happened in December, after the building went into foreclosure.

Much of the collection is now on display at co-founder Marlin Heise's house. The rest of the 125,000 or more items are in storage.

Meanwhile, the keepers of the archives are looking for funding and a place to resettle the collection once and for all.

"For the future, the best thing we'd like to have for the archives is a facility big enough to house all of our materials," said Kou Xiong, an administrative archivist who sits on the Hmong Archives board of directors.

Preserving culture through archiving is a relatively new concept in the Hmong culture, explained Her Vang, the board's chairman.

"Historically, the Hmong did not have a place like this," he said. "People didn't think of the importance of keeping the pieces the culture produces."

The collection includes items with obvious historical value and the merely curious.

There's a qeej, or traditional Hmong musical instrument made of bamboo and used at funerals and New Year festivals.

Scattered throughout the exhibit are handmade story cloths, called paj ntaub, that show the Hmong exodus from Laos to nearby Thailand during wartime; pots and pans used in Ban Vinai, a well-known refugee camp in Thailand; and a 1940s musket used by Hmong hunters in Laos.

Among the quirkiest artifacts: an album of business cards from local Hmong-Americans and a postcard from Thailand showing a Hmong man who made it into the Guinness Book of World Records for having the longest hair.

The wide assortment has attracted scholars and researchers from all over the world, said co-founder Yuepheng Xiong.

Collection in motion

He and Heise, a retired library cataloger for the Minnesota History Center, teamed up to start the archives after they discovered they had a shared interest in Hmong history.

They called their project the Hmong Nationality Archives but they've since dropped the "nationality" part.

The archives' first home was Metro State University on St. Paul's East Side. A few years later, the collection grew and moved to the Minnehaha Mall in the city's Frogtown neighborhood.

In 2005, the archives relocated to Concordia University, where the school had just launched the nation's first Center for Hmong Studies. The center also collects and exhibits Hmong historical items, as does another local institution -- the Hmong Cultural Center.

The archives seemed at last to have found a permanent home inside the former Concordia president's house.

But the union between the center and the archives didn't last, and the collection moved to the spot above the Hmong bookstore.

Lee Pao Xiong, director of the Center for Hmong Studies at Concordia, said philosophical differences about the collection led to the parting of ways.

"We have different criteria," he said. "For us, we're an academic institution. For them, it's a community institution."

For now, the temporary Hmong Archives will continue to welcome visitors who want to step back in time.

Said Kou Xiong: "We like to look at it as a place to rediscover our own past."

Allie Shah • 612-673-4488


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