The earliest written accounts show the Hmong living in China since 2700 B.C. However, following conflicts with the Han Dynasty, during the 19th century, some Hmong migrated in large numbers to the highlands of Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand in an effort to maintain their cultural identity (Quincy, 1995).
Life in the highlands was arduous. People worked extremely hard as they cleared the jungles, built homes from hand hewn logs, and planted rice, corn, and vegetables in the fragile thin soil with few horses or water buffalo to help them.
They lived in small villages with extended patrilineal households, where revered elderly grandparents worked to contribute to the household, while caring for and providing wisdom and guidance to their children and grandchildren. The Hmong originated as a non-literate society, with grandparents passing on their rich heritage orally. Although a written language was developed in 1956, many Hmong elders have retained this oral tradition.
In the 1960s, the war in Vietnam spread into Northeastern Laos, where many Hmong lived. Villagers were recruited by both the Pathet Lao communist regime under the leadership of Lo Faydang and the Central Intelligence Agency for the American cause under the leadership of General Vang Pao. Consequently, Hmong men and boys served as soldiers on both sides of the war. From the early 1960s to 1975, an estimated 18,000-20,000 men died as soldiers, while an estimated 50,000 civilians died directly from the fighting or indirectly from disrupted village and agricultural life (Robinson, 1998, p. 13).
The changing political climate within the United States (U.S.) resulted in the withdrawal of its soldiers in 1975, leaving the Hmong to face persecution or death from the communist Pathet Lao. As people fled the war and resettled in new villages or foraged in the jungles, they were unable to raise crops to survive. From 1975 to 1997, approximately 138,000 Hmong escaped by crossing the hazardous Mekong River to refugee camps in Thailand, and an estimated 50,000-100,000 people died from fighting, diseases and starvation (Robinson, 1998, pp. 107, 294). Many elders have horrific tales about their physical and psychological traumas, suffered during the war and during the refugee flight.
The Hmong stayed in refugee camps supported by The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the Thai government and international non-government agencies, who provided security, shelter, food, water, medical services, and limited economic opportunities (Robinson 1998). Camp officials encouraged people to resettle to other countries, as the camps were a temporary arrangement. Many people were reluctant to leave for a variety of reasons, including their not wanting to leave Asia, giving up on liberating Laos, splitting up their families, or beginning new lives in foreign countries where they didn’t know the language and the customs (Hamilton-Merritt, 1993).
Resettlement education programs tried to allay these fears. Ultimately from 1975 to 1997, over 100,000 Hmong resettled to the U.S; others went to France, Australia, French Guyana, or Canada (Hamilton-Merritt, 1993; Robinson, 1998), Once the last official refugee camp closed in 1997, the remaining refugees either officially returned to Laos with UNHCR support, or they illegally stayed in Thailand. Tens of thousands of Hmong people found safe haven at Wat Tham Krabok, a Buddhist monastery under the protection of head monk Luam Phaub (Nelson, 2003).
In December of 2003, the U.S. Department of State and the Thai government declared their plan to resettle 15,000 registered Hmong people at the temple as official refugees. From June 2004 to June 2006 the majority of these Hmong resettled in California, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, joining their family members (Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2005a).