USA: The Hmong Community’s Interactions with Public Lands in Wisconsin

A childhood in rural Wisconsin consists of thousands of mosquito bites, school trips to cranberry bogs, swimming in the frigid Great Lakes, praying that the temperature drops to -30° F so school is cancelled, and driving hours through amber prairie to get anywhere. My county boasts more cows than people, and my neighbors include bear, deer, foxes, owls, river otters, mink, turtles and whooping cranes—to name a few.

Almost 17 percent (5.7 million acres) of Wisconsin’s landscape is public lands. The purpose of public lands is to provide the space for all to enjoy Wisconsin’s natural beauty and attractions. However, public land management currently falls short of providing appropriate and inclusive services to all of Wisconsin’s residents—particularly Hmong Americans.

Wisconsin has the third-largest Hmong community (after California and Minnesota) in the United States. A significant population lives in the town of Wausau—about 50 miles from my home. Wisconsin’s Hmong population nears 50,000, which is a 4o percent increase from the 2000 census reported population.

The Hmong

The Hmong people are an ethnic group from the mountain regions of Laos, Vietnam and southern China. During the Vietnam War, the United States CIA recruited the Hmong to fight against the spread of communism in Laos by the invading North Vietnamese Army. For more than fifteen years, more than 30,000 Hmong fought in ground combat, engaged in espionage and flew airstrike missions. Hmong soldiers suffered heavy casualties—dying at rate ten times as high as American soldiers. Entire Hmong villages were destroyed and massacred, and many Hmong died from disease and hunger. It is difficult to determine how many Hmong died during the war, but some estimates range as high as one-half of the Southeast Asia population.

In 1973 the United States withdrew from Vietnam, and the Pathet Lao—a communist movement—assumed political power in Laos. Facing retaliation for assisting the United States military, thousands journeyed to Thailand to settle at United Nations refugee camps. Christian missionary organizations (mainly Lutheran) aided Hmong immigration and resettlement in the United States, particularly in states with strong Lutheran religious networks such as Wisconsin and Minnesota.

The Hmong & Public Lands

Hmong culture has a deep connection with the natural world. Natural resource gathering activities—such as hunting, fishing and gathering edible plants—are important traditional cultural activities. Approximately 17 percent of Hmong in Wisconsin are active hunters, and the Hmong community’s per capita participation in natural resource-related activities in Wisconsin and neighboring Minnesota is disproportionately high relative to their population size.

However, traditional Hmong hunting practices and culture, language barriers and a lack of knowledge of Wisconsin/state hunting and fishing regulations have resulted in conflict between the Hmong community and state natural resource management. The perception of land and natural resource management is different in the Hmong and American context. In Laos, property rights are often poorly defined and there is no concept of a regulated hunting season.

Confusion about the boundaries between private and public lands instigate confrontations between Hmong hunter/gathers and Wisconsin landowners. Several Hmong women gathering plants have reported landowners sending dogs to chase them off of private lands. Last November, a Wisconsin landowner was charged with attacking a Hmong hunter—who suffered a lacerated liver and internal bleeding—after the Hmong hunter trespassed on private land while squirrel hunting.

During the the 2004 November deer-hunting season, landowner Terry Willers approached Hmong hunter Chai Soua Vang, who was sitting in a deer stand on Willers’ property. In the events that followed, Vang fatally shot six and injured two others from Willers’ hunting party—all were unarmed but one. Later in a police interview, Vang claimed to have been lost and did not believe he was on private property. He also reported that the hunting party verbally harassed him with racial epithets and fired a rifle, claiming that he fired in self-defense. Vang is currently serving six consecutive life terms.

The tragic incident had repercussions on the Hmong’s use of public lands. The media assigned collective blame on the Hmong community by trying to establish a causal connection between Hmong culture and the incident. The Hmong community experienced racially motivated harassment events, such as the dissemination of hate literature, property vandalism and the sale of racist bumper stickers in hunting supply stores.

In addition, Hmong hunting practices—such as the squirrel hunt—are altering the ways in which people utilize public land spaces. Squirrel stew, known as nas in the Hmong language, is a traditional Hmong food source. Upon arriving in the United States, Hmong families began to hunt squirrel on public lands, including in urban areas. Due to liberal hunting limits (seven squirrels per person) and a traditional hunting method that results in killing more females, squirrel populations in Minnesota have dropped significantly in the last decade. Little research has been done on squirrel populations, and Hmong hunters-conservationists are calling for the Minnesota DNR to tighten hunting restrictions.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and other environmental management institutions must consider the Hmong community in its programs and planning to mitigate natural resource-related conflicts.

  • First, there needs to be inclusive participation in decision-making by the Hmong community in Wisconsin natural resource management. Currently, there is an underrepresentation of Hmong employees in public land agencies—an example of structural racism.
  • Second, information should be posted in Hmong to communicate park rules. As many Hmong—especially the elderly are not accustomed to a written language, the signs should include symbols.
  • Third, state DNRs should hold classes in Hmong to communicate public land rules and concepts and conduct hunter safety courses. As women’s natural resource-related activities are different than men’s, workshops should be held specifically for women.

Wisconsin’s demography is changing, and for Wisconsin’s public lands to be truly inclusive, state environmental management institutions must mainstream the needs of the Hmong community (and other communities) in programs and policy.