DEATH OF A SHAMAN

Shamanism

The Mien

A Mien shaman in traditional garments and colored headpiece performs a ritual. Ornately decorated To Sai crowns of wood and copper worn by Mien high priest during ordination ceremonies. Fahm’s aunt puts the final touches on Fahm’s traditional costume, while Fahm smiles.

The origins of the Iu Mien, or Mien, can be traced back to 2000 B.C. in northern China. In the late 19th century, the Mien tribe migrated to the highlands of Laos, living in small, matrilineal communities as subsistence farmers.

The Mien were the only hill tribe group in Laos with a written language. While the writing uses Chinese characters, the words are Mien. Most Mien and all women were illiterate, but a significant number of males learned the Chinese script and kept records of births and ceremonies. Few historical records documenting Mien culture exist. Instead, the Mien rely on oral traditions, myths and legends, practicing a religion that combines elements of Taoism, animism and ancestor worship.

Beginning in the 1950s, Mien communities in Laos were disrupted by French colonial powers and the “secret war” in Laos, America’s largest covert military operation during the Vietnam War. The U.S. Air Force dubbed the Mien an “efficient friendly force.” Because of this alliance, the Laotian Communist government targeted the Mien for revenge after the war’s end. The Mien were forced to flee to Thailand, where they were confined in border camps with inadequate shelter, sanitation and food.

From 1976 to 1979, the first wave of Mien arrived in the United States. However, unlike many other Asian refugees, they lacked exposure to formal education and paid labor, leading to a difficult transition.

Approximately 35,000 to 40,000 Mien currently reside in the United States, with significant Mien communities in Northern California, the home to Fahm Saeyang’s family in DEATH OF A SHAMAN. While the Mien language is endangered, there is a resurgence of interest in preserving the language and culture.

Sources

Historical Timeline

1959: Beginning of the Vietnam War.

1964: Secret U.S. bombing raids begin in northern Laos. Over the next five years, approximately 150,000 tons of bombs will be dropped in the area. The U.S. army trains Mien hill tribes to provide intelligence, surveillance and armed manpower.

1965: The U.S. sends combats troops into South Vietnam.

1968: The North Vietnamese Army retreats further into Laos and Cambodia.

1971: The U.S. continues its air strikes in Laos.

1973: Vietnamese and Americans sign the Paris Peace agreement. The last remaining American troops withdraw from Vietnam.

1974: North Vietnam violates the peace treaty and attacks South Vietnam.

1975: A Communist government, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, is established in Laos. The Mien escape Laos on foot, fleeing to Thailand, where they live in border camps.

1976: The first Mien begin to arrive in the U.S.

1991: The United Nations begins repatriating over 350,000 refugees from border camps in Thailand.

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