Photo By Cameron Wittig
Wameng Moua, Noah Vang, Lee Pao Xiong
Wameng Moua, Noah Vang, Lee Pao Xiong
How do you tell the story of a community of more than 66,000? For organizers of We Are Hmong Minnesota—the new exhibit at the Minnesota History Center commemorating the 40th anniversary of their migration to Minnesota, where 25 percent of the U.S. Hmong population lives—the story is told through the objects their community cherishes most.
“Each family has some treasure that belongs to their history,” says Noah Vang, an independent researcher who co-developed the exhibit and contributed some of his personal items as part of the collection. “With objects, you can diversify the story.” The exhibition is as robust as the community itself, showcasing artifacts, including photos and clothing, works by contemporary Hmong-American artists, and an interactive marketplace featuring traditional Hmong foods.
Opens March 7. $11. 345 Kellogg Blvd. W., St. Paul, 651-259-3000, minnesotahistorycenter.org
Wameng Moua: Publisher of the community newspaper Hmong Today and exhibit advisor, Moua has covered Hmong milestones for more than 10 years.
Noah Vang: The curator of We Are Hmong Minnesota, Vang wrote a letter to the Minnesota History Center, planting the seed three years ago.
Lee Pao Xiong: An exhibit advisor, Xiong teaches political science and Hmong studies at Concordia, directs the Center for Hmong Studies, and has served on half a dozen city boards advocating for the Hmong community.
Excerpts from my conversation with curator Noah Vang.
Erin Kincheloe: A lot of the materials are yours.
Noah Vang: Especially photographs. I know that the best way to tell the history of a people is through photographs.
EK: You just liked to keep them for your own interest?
NV: It's also curiosity. I didn't grow up in Laos, as our parents did, and I need to understand their life and how they lived. Through the old stories I have gathered. I know that within our community, each family has some treasure that belongs to their history, so that's why it makes sense for this exhibit that people are able to share the things that they care about, that they carried to the United States as treasures.
EK: I was struck by the diversity of voices in your exhibit.
NV: We tried to be as inclusive as we could. Our story is very unique in a way that—it happened 100 years ago. It was the last 40 years. There's a large concentration of Southeast Asian immigration stories here to the United States, but our story is here to Minnesota. It's very different from what we anticipated. We didn't know where we were going. In Laos, we didn't have that kind of information, that education about United States' life. It's a world power, of course, but what does that look like? What does that structure look like? Nobody knew they were going to be here.
EK: How do you think you represented those trials?
NV: That comes in the form of story. When they first moved, first came here it was kind of like Minnesota landed on us instead of "We landed on Minnesota."
EK: What are some of the tenets you wanted to convey to visitors?
NV: I hope that anybody who's curious about Minnesota history—the migrations, not just of Hmong, but of Hispanics, other groups that come here—but I hope that this moment will offer opportunities to understand the migration of a different culture that came to begin a new life here. I grew up in the Midwest, so I know this culture, I know this life. But I'm also disconnected from my history. Your history is different from our history.
EK: The community has come a long way in 40 years.
NV: I think we're changing so fast that the younger generation is completely losing their native tongue. That's just how fast it is.
EK: It's hard to stay connected, the further you get away from your past.
NV: I think it would be boring to look at every Asian and say, "Oh, they're just all Asian." Or look at all the white people and say, "Oh, they're just all white." It's about a sense of history. To be able to look back and say, You know what? We're Germans. Or, We're French. I want to be able to know where I came before here. So that one day I can share with my kids, so it doesn't get lost. I might not be able to interest everybody, but I will be able to interest a few.