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THE SPLIT HORN
the story



presented by ITVS

presented by NAATA


The Story


THE SPLIT HORN is the sweeping story of a Hmong shaman and his family living in Appleton, Wisconsin. Documenting the 17-year journey of Paja Thao and his family from the mountains of Laos to the heartland of America, this poignant film shows a shaman's struggles to maintain his ancient traditions as his children embrace American culture.

The Hmong ("mung") are an Asian tribal culture. After fighting valiantly for the United States in the Vietnam War, many Hmong like the Thao family were forced to flee their homeland in Southeast Asia. Since 1975, over 200,000 Hmong refugees have resettled in the U.S.

Paja Thao, Paja's daughter, Paja's son and granddaughter
top: Paja Thao in shamanic trance

Middle: Paja's daughter Chai

Bottom: Paja's son Koualy with daughter

For over 17 years since the family arrived in America, filmmaker Taggart Siegel has chronicled the intimate and private lives of Paja Thao, his wife and their 13 children. THE SPLIT HORN focuses on Paja, a shaman whose spiritual leadership plays a vital role in Appleton's Hmong community. He ministers to the physical and spiritual needs of friends and family with elaborate rituals that bridge the natural and spirit worlds. As his children grow up, however, they are losing touch with their father's ancient traditions. In a pivotal scene, Paja, wearing a black veil, dances on a wooden bench, shaking and chanting in an ecstatic trance. Across the room, three of his children lounge on the sofa, transfixed by The Simpsons and MTV, ignoring the ancient spirit battle played out by their father.

Chai, the shaman's 12-year-old daughter, is caught between the richly traditional world of her parents and the complicated life of a typical American teenager. As the film's narrator, Chai shows viewers the collision of cultures taking place in her house and in the Hmong-American community.

A year of sadness leads Paja to conduct a ceremony for his family during which he discovers that his own soul has strayed from his body. He spirals into a depression, unable to heal himself or others. The community, worried by Paja's depression, asks two shaman friends to lead a healing ceremony for him. The Thao children come together, putting aside their religious differences to support their father and mother. One of the older sons, Koualy, returns to Hmong tradition after 14 years and helps his father with the ceremony. Paja beams with joy and renewed strength.

THE SPLIT HORN, which can be watched in the Hmong language on SAP (Secondary Audio Program), captures the daily struggle of a family caught between two worlds and examines the intergenerational rift between immigrant parents desperate to maintain their ancient traditions while their children embrace American lifestyles.



Cultures Collide The Journey Resources The Film Talkback Hmong Culture Shamanism The Split Horn