The Hmong people were originally located in Highland Cambodia in Southeast Asia. During the Vietnam War, they became allies of the U.S. forces there. As the U.S. troops pulled out, they were committed to evacuating as many Hmong families as wanted to go, primarily to avoid reprisals from the new Ho Chi Min government.
However, like so many well-intentioned programs, the Hmong resettlement was not thoroughly thought-out. When they made it to the U.S., They were spread out into areas that were very unfamiliar to them. Many of them went to the rust bucket states of the Northeast, New York, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts, into their decaying inner cities. They were not used to the frigid winters, and the crowded squalor of the inner city was far different from their thinly-settled, lush Rain forests of Cambodia.
The Hmong were able to communicate with relatives and friends, who had been better placed in areas like central California, or Florida. As they were able, families moved out from areas where they were originally placed, and settled in much nicer areas. Areas like Merced, in California’s Central Valley, became home to very large Hmong communities.
A book by Anne Fadiman, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, documents the Hmong community in Merced and, in particular, discusses their rather unique form of Shamanism. For the Hmong, epilepsy, and its attendant seizures, is valued as a means to bring on the trance, or trance-like state, so valued by shamans in their diagnoses. It is not scorned as a disease-state, as it is in Western cultures. The translation of “shaman” in Hmong is “Txiv Neeb.” This is a compound word, where “Neeb” is a healing spirit, and “Txiv” is a person. Thus, it is just a combination of “a healing spirit within a human being.”
Fadiman focuses on one little girl, Lia Lee, who has epilepsy, and is four years old when Fadiman is writing. Females among the Hmong, often become shamans, and epilepsy hastens this career path. To be a shaman among the Hmong confers high social status on the individual. First of all, she can give back to the community because she has the power to heal. Secondly, she gets this healing power from a Neeb, a healing spirit who would not choose a no-good human host to occupy. It is a sort of spiritual “character reference.” Finally, she can earn a good living wage as a healer.
This is in sharp contrast to what the Hmong observed around them in American, but in general, in Western culture. As an example, Tony Coelho was the State Congressional Representative for the Merced area, to the California State House in Sacramento. Coelho also had epilepsy, and he was also a Catholic seminarian, training for the priesthood.
Now, while Coelho did not hide his epilepsy, he did not advertise it either. After a while, though, his condition came to the attention of the church superiors, and he was thrown out of seminary. It is apparently established Catholic doctrine not to ordain individuals with epilepsy to the priesthood, at least it was in the 1980’s when Fadiman was writing. I have checked, most recently last summer (2019), and I have seen no evidence that this policy has been overturned. The Hmong just shake their heads and can’t understand the logic. They say that Coelho is a very special person, because he has already been chosen as a good and strong individual by a Neeb, and he is trying to train to work in a helping profession, the Catholic priesthood. He should be valued many times over, not dismissed. It is incomprehensible to them.
The Hmong religion, a variant of Buddhism and animism, is a reincarnating religion. Like many other religions, the Hmong are extremely opposed to autopsy. In fact, it is considered taboo for a Hmong person to have an autopsy. They feel that the soul will be angry, and incomplete from the cutting, and will refuse to be reincarnated. The Hmong figure that there are only a finite number of their souls in the system, and so each one that “drops out” of availability for reincarnation, is a future Hmong life that will not be possible. It is almost like a form of genocide from that perspective.
1. Why do shamans have a very high status in the Hmong community?
2. Why are autopsies taboo for the Hmong?
3. Tony Cohuelo was expelled from Catholic seminary because of his epilepsy. What did the Hmong think of this?