Hmong Collection and History

History and Refugee Services

When the Vietnam War and the unacknowledged "Secret War" in Laos ended in 1975, the U.S. withdrew from the conflict, leaving their Hmong allies to fend for themselves. The only help the U.S. gave was to provide a small number of planes for transportation out of Long Cheng, the U.S. military base in Laos. These planes were supposed to be for the high-ranking military officers, but they ended up carrying everyone they could. Those Hmong who were not able to escape on the planes were forced to find their own way out of the country. The genocide that followed led to the Hmong fleeing into refugee camps in Thailand and from there many made their way to the U.S.

From 1975 through the early 1990s, a large number of Hmong refugees would make their way to Decorah from the mountains of Laos and Vietnam. With the help of local churches through the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services as well as federal laws in the form of the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act or CETA of 1973 and the Job Training Partnership Act or JTPA in 1982, the Hmong refugees acclimated to their new life in America.

The Indochinese Refugee Assistance Program Appropriation Bill of 1978, the Iowa Refugee Service Center, and the Northeast Iowa Refugee Coordination Services (NEIRCS) also provided ways to help the Hmong arriving in Winneshiek County in their transition to life in the U.S. English language classes were provided by Northeast Iowa Community College. These programs also served to help other refugees, many from southeast Asia, as well as some from Poland.

Sponsors, however, were one of the primary resources the Hmong refugees had in adapting to life in Iowa. When they had questions about society or about how they were to pay for things, the refugees could turn to sponsors and church organizations for help. 

Textiles, Ornaments, and Jewelry

In order to support themselves and make a living in the refugee camps in Thailand, the Hmong made many textiles depicting their culture and experiences. This practice was carried over to the U.S. as a way to supplement their income. A sampling of these materials have been recently donated to the Luther Anthropology Collection and include story clothes and pandau, clothing, ornaments, jewelry, and dolls.

See everything in the Decorah Refugee Resettlement Collection.

Take a look at Hmong bags and their decorations or story cloths, which typically detail the journey that the Hmong took to flee and the obstacles in the way. Some also show images of cultural importance, such as the process of a marriage ceremony or scenes from folk stories. The Decorah Refugee Resettlement Collection also contains Hmong ornaments, jewelry and clothing, with intricate details and varied colors.

Accessing Hmong Textile Collection

The Hmong textile collection is housed in permanent storage in Preus Library and is available for study by appointment in the Anthropology Lab in Koren 319. Schedule an appointment by contacting the Collections and Lab Manager ([email protected] : Destiny Crider). Luther students and faculty are encouraged to consider the Hmong textile collection for class projects, senior paper studies, and for class room demonstration. Destiny Crider (and Anthropology Lab Student Collection Assistants) are available to make presentations about the Hmong Refugee Resettlement Program and the Hmong textile collection. Advance planning is required in order to accommodate scheduling.

Decorah Hmong Refugee Resettlement Program Archive

The Decorah Hmong Refugee Resettlement Program Archive is housed in the Luther Anthropology Collections and has over 10 linear feet of archival documents specific to the Resettlement program in Winneshiek County spanning the 1970s-1980s. Included are Decorah, Iowa, and nationally published newspaper and magazine articles that detail personal stories and issues relating to the Hmong refugees on their arrival in Decorah and the Midwest. The collection also houses the meeting minutes and documents of the Northeast Iowa Refugee Services organization once housed at the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church. A large collection of ESL and language training documents that were implemented with the adult English learners through the Northeast Iowa Technical Institute (Now Northeast Iowa Community College - NICC). Other papers include sponsor training materials, committee activities, and personal papers and photos of active Sponsors and Decorah community members active in different aspects of the Resettlement Program.

Accessing Archival Materials

The Decorah Hmong Resettlement Program Archive is located in the Anthropology Lab, Koren 319. Schedule an appointment by contacting the Collections and Lab Manager ([email protected] : Destiny Crider).Restricted Access and Stipulations on Use In certain instances, materials may be inaccessible, or may have stipulations on use and access. Often the finding aid will tell you whether or not there are any restrictions on use or access. Some reasons why there may be limited access are:

  • Copyright: A copyright holder has the right to control the use, reproduction, and distribution of those works, as well as the ability to benefit from works monetarily and otherwise. Archives must abide by these laws, which can be complex. Even if the Archives physically owns a particular document, we may not own the copyright. It’s important that you have a conversation with the staff if you want to reproduce materials, especially for commercial purposes.
  • Restrictions: Restrictions come in many varieties, but they are generally legally related, classified, sensitive, or mandated by the government.
  • Material condition: Sometimes, materials may simply be too fragile to be handled by researchers.