By: Mai Vang, Miggy Cruz, and Hoang Phuong Vy Nguyen
Demystifying Hmong Shamanism depicts an insightful discussion of Shamanism, a practice that has travelled across borders to help Hmong people maintain cultural identity and provide solidarity in a place far from their homeland. By providing a broad range of case examples, Linda A. Gerdner aims to promote the cultural and spiritual importance that Shamanism continues to play in the lives of Hmong-Americans.
To understand the central values of a certain culture, one must acknowledge the history of that ethnic group and recognize the importance of their religious source. Early written documentations about Hmongs derived from other cultural groups. They mostly located in isolated high-lands of Laos, but when the Vietnam war spread into Northeastern Laos, some supported the Communists, while others served the U.S -- resulting in a diasporic migration to the U.S. or other Southeast Asian countries when the U.S. withdrew its soldiers.
For refugees that resided in the U.S., their family and clan structure provided them support and necessary network for adaptations to the new life and experience. Family unit is part of a larger clan structure as that provides the basic social organization for the community. Hmongs heavily emphasize the concept of interdependence; in families, any life decision that one member makes can directly or indirectly impact the rest of the family. Meanwhile, clans interconnect as they practice exogamy; daughters have to marry outside of their own clan. Gerdner explains that Shamanism plays an integral role in these spiritual beliefs because as individuals practice spiritual well-being, they also form a healthier society where “individuals are interdependent and collaborative working for the greater whole, in contrast to a “sick” society that is highly individualistic and ruled by competitiveness.” (Gerdner 18)
Shamanism is placed within a greater context of Hmong cosmology. Gerdner expresses that “cosmology is divided into yai ceeb and yeeb ceeb” (Gerdner 11); people are born into the world of the living, yai ceeb, and is assisted back to yeeb ceeb during the time of death.
This represents a strong interdependence between the living and the deceased because as the two desire support for one another; the living pay homage to the deceased, in return, for protection by his/ her ancestors. Moreover, the human body is believed to host a number of souls; the isolation of one or more of these souls can cause spiritual illness. Animals are used as sacrifices to prevent the separation of these souls as their spiritual makeup differs from that of human beings; their one and only soul is equivalent to many of humans', hence, preventing deaths and illnesses. Consequently, sharing this mutual belief system is what unifies the Hmong community and maintain their existence in the U.S. Nonetheless, others may be skeptical towards cosmology as they view this as a form of superstition. Therefore, what is a superstition? How does it differ from tradition? How do we know where to draw the line between the two?
Shamans are chosen through spiritual calling that can be manifested in forms of “symbolic death and resurrection, dream or serious illness” (Gerdner 20). A few believes that individuals can also make conscious decisions to become a shaman and “communicate with benevolent spirits to help the Hmong” (Gerdner 28). Regardless, each new shaman will then be mentored by a master shaman, whose role is to mentor him in physical aspects such as preparing tools, setting up and maintaining a permanent altar. During the initiation ceremony, the new shaman will receive his permanent altar, while master shaman and his spirit helpers travel to see Siv Yis, the first shaman, to carefully assign spirit helpers to the new shaman. Although, altars that belong to Hmong-American shamans may differ from that of shamans living in Laos, in general, all shaman altars have basic similarities.
Image 1: Two altars: of Hmong-American shaman (left) and of Hmong shaman living in Laos (right)
Once a Shaman receives his or her spiritual calling, they “[make] a lifelong commitment to the practice of shamanism” (Plotnikoof, Numrich, Wu, Yan and Xiong, 2002, cited by Gerdner 57). Gerdner follows the story of a man who was born in Laos, Mr. T. Mr. T and his family fled Laos in 1975, the same year of the fall of Saigon. They travelled to Thailand and eventually to the U.S., most specifically to Minnesota, as refugees. The U.S. welcomes various religions, but most practice Christianity, Catholicism. Mr. T., after a few years of living in the U.S. converted to Catholicism. Gerdner discusses the differing opinions of the Hmong population in the U.S. The Hmong were grateful to the U.S. for opening its doors to them, but how to express their gratefulness differed within the group. Some felt willing to convert to Catholicism because they were indebted to do so. Some felt pressured, while others were “internally motivated to become Christians” (Gerdner 58). She notes that many were grateful, but the way they would expressed their gratitude.
The Hmong practice animism, or the belief that one cannot separate the spirit from the body, even after death, which proves why the Hmong practice interdependence, not just with their family, but also with their deceased family members. Mr. T. practiced Catholicism for thirty years, until he began feeling bodily pain. This incident caused Mr. T. to return to his shamanistic ways. He contacted a Master Shaman to conduct the induction ceremony. Gerdner goes into a great deal of discussion about the steps it takes to be a Shaman. There is a delicacy in the way a Shaman is blessed. The tools used and the people involved in the induction are particular. During Mr. T.’s induction ceremony, the Master Shaman gave each family member a task that each must perform prior to the ceremony, during, and after. Sacrificial animals are involved, and the entire ceremony is spiritually, emotionally, and most of all physically demanding. Moreover, the construction and placement of the altar is most important. Master Shaman Xiong “warned the new shaman that an altar should never be placed on the lower level of a home where persons walk on the floor directly above” (Gerdner 59). Shaman T. placed his altar in their basement, unwavering to the previous warning by Master Xiong. It was only after he fell ill again did he finally move the altar to the second floor of their home.
There are five ways in which a shaman can be chosen, spiritual calling. In all five ceremonies the master shaman must either write the name of the candidate or chant it. The ceremonies also include rice and a balance egg in the vertical position on top of an inverted glass cup. The shaman performs the selection ceremony three times. Certain severe illness require special physicians, which is why in Western medicine there are specialists such as oncologists and neurologists, to name a few. Similarly, there are also special shamans who perform particular ceremonies for problems identified by the individual and the family members. There are a number of ceremonies, and the most common is the Ua Neeb Kho, or the healing ceremony. The healing ceremony is particular to those receiving the spiritual help, and it also involved animal sacrifice (Gerdner 75).
Furthermore, Gerdner discusses two case studies where a shaman had to perform more than one ceremony to the ill in order to relieve them of their pains. The ceremonies performed takes hours and hours. The preparation itself is extensive and truly a labor.One case study relied purely on shamanism, while the second managed to incorporate shamanism and western medicine at the same time. Note that combining shamanism and western practices is decided by the family. In fact, many of the ceremonies cannot be performed in a hospital setting and must be done by the shaman in their home with a piece of clothing from the patient. Still the Hmong-American community rely heavily on these rituals for healing.
The most interesting was the fact that calling for a shaman to heal costs a good sum of money. For instance, in one of the case studies the family and the shaman made an agreement that the family would pay the shaman $1500. That came as a shock, but also understandable because by Gerdner’s research on how the ceremonies were performed and executed, the tools used and the labor is quite extensive. In particular the shamans, and in general, the Hmong culture, is very particular on their textile. The clothing of a shaman is very symbolic. The color and weaving patterns present in the clothing of a shaman indicate certain things about the shaman. For example, if a shaman were wearing a red hood, the primary spirit helper would be male (Gerdner 111). Both the physical and spiritual health of the Hmong people is important to them, and practicing interdependence means they value their family living or passed.
Image 2: Female Shaman practicing healing ritual in her home.
Shamanism still exist today because of the belief that our world is surrounded by the spirit realm. From conception, a life is protected by the shaman. As Gerdner had observed, “the shaman plays a critical role in the spiritual health of the mother and child throughout the pregnancy.” (Gerdner 127) Through case examples, the readers are given a detailed illustration of the setup and events that occurs during the ceremony. Throughout the passage we are introduced to the sacrifice of animals such as pigs and chickens as offerings to provide the safeguard of the child. During the ceremony, a live pig is placed in front of the shaman’s altar. Through chantings and the use of the divining horns, the shaman seeks to ask for the pig’s life and in return, the shaman will send the pig toward reincarnation. It is a belief that when an animal dies, they are reborn as humans. The pig’s consent to sacrifice his life is known when the divining horn is thrown and face the same direction three times.
After the birth of the child, another ceremony is performed to protect the child from danger. The soul-locking necklace is an object that is used for spiritual protection. During this ceremony, a rooster is used as an offering to enhance the protective power of the necklace. Like how the pig consented through the divine horn, the rooster shows the same consent. When the pigs and chicken has been sacrificed, the shaman send with them spirit money to help them in the spirit world. The necklace is a string that is tied to the child by the shaman and is to be left on for three days. The string necklace can later be replaced by a silver necklace for protection. Overall, this ceremony is meant for protection, blessing, and providing the child additional bondage to the extended family.
As a Hmong reader, I am amazed by the information and purpose that the author has provided for the audience. Raised in the ways of the shaman, I have yet to see these kind of rituals but I have seen rituals similar to these. As I know, a ceremony is performed before the birth of the child only when the mother sense complications or uneasiness with the pregnancy. As for the soul-locking necklace, this rituals seems to be practice less. But a ritual is performed after the birth, hu plig, to ensure the health of the child. Instead tying strings to the neck, strings are tied to the wrist. The meaning behind the soul-lock necklace and the wrist seems to be the same.
Shamanism is powerful to those who believe in it. In a case study, Gerdner provided the authenticity of the shaman’s power. A family was concern about their son who doesn’t speak. While the shaman was away, the family went to the shaman’s home and left 3 joss stick on the shaman’s altar. When the shaman returned to find the joss stick, he was able to determine the family’s concern. In performing a ritual, he was able to find the root of the problem. It went back to the great grandfather or the child who had died in Laos. His spiritual guidance has allowed him to see that an error had occurred during the grandfather’s burial where the family members forgot to take the coin out of the deceased mouth. The mute son was the result of this punishment. Another reason was that the boy did not like his selected name. When a child is born, they are given a name by the people in yaj ceeb. If the child did not like the name given, they will often become sick or cry very often. After the ceremony, there was a follow up. The child improved on his speaking skills but plateau after three years and was diagnosed with autism. Here we see that the shaman was able to give voice to the child even though it did not last long.
Shamans also play a role when a new year comes around. This new year is often celebrated between October to December and the Hmong calls it, Lwm Qaib. This is a ritual performed to drive out evil spirits with the new year. Family and extended families come together for this event. Those who are unable to attend will have their family members bring a piece of their clothing to represent them there, spiritually. The set-up is often outside where there are two poles with enough distance for people to walk around. Attach to the poles is a vine, often made from the leaves of lemongrass. While the shaman is chanting, the families walk under the vine counter-clockwise three times to release evil spirits. Once the shaman gives a note to move again, the families transition to clockwise to bring in good luck.
From my personal experience, Lwm Qaib, is pretty scary. The author did not mentioned this but during the walk, after every chants, the shaman sprays water through his mouth and it usually gets on the family members. We always tried to stay away from the sprays. Once the walking and chanting is done, before we are able to dispersed, the shaman slice the chicken’s neck to kill it for offering and throws the chicken above our heads. Sometimes the blood gets on us too. When this is done, we are to return home directly and enter through the back door, but before we do, our parents will have to call our spirits to go with us.
Hmong Shamanism has survived throughout history, despite the changes in geographic location. Particularly those residing in urban centers of the United States, their access to education and advanced college degrees put them at a greater risk of losing core aspects of their spiritual and cultural heritage. However, these external influences does not seem to have stopped them from maintaining traditional spiritual beliefs of animism and ancestor worship. Thus, Shamanism remains relatively strong. This is because Shamanism fulfills the people's spiritual yearning to participate in a sacred drama that makes life meaningful -- something Western medicine can never do.
Gerdner, Linda, and Shoua V. Xiong. Demystifying Hmong Shamanism: Practice and Use by Hmong Americans Across the Lifespan. N.p.: Bauu Institute, 2015. Print.
1. Gerdner, Linda A. Photo 4-1 and Photo 4-2. N.d. Demystifying Hmong Shamanism. Demystifying Hmong Shamanism: Practice and Use by Hmong Americans Across the Lifespan. N.p.: Bauu Institute, 2015. 30-34. Print.
2. Unknown Artist. Female Shaman practicing healing ritual in her home. “What is Shamanism? Where did it come from?” The world of Medical Anthropology. n.p. n.d. Web. 4 March 2016.