For the first time since they began resettling here in the 1980s, California Hmong leaders gathered in Sacramento on Saturday to confront the problem of domestic violence in their community.
The landmark Hmong Domestic Violence Forum featured Central California's top Hmong leaders and the late Gen. Vang Pao's chosen successor, his son Neng Chu Vang. It was prompted by the case of Pa Nhia Vue, 35, of Altoona, Wis. The mother of seven was strangled before her body was partially burned and abandoned in a shed. Her husband, Yeng Xiong, 41, faces murder charges.
Neither Vue's family nor her husband's would claim her body and give her a Hmong funeral, according to media reports.
The forum was one of four held across the nation on Saturday, the day the Hmong believe Vue's soul was released to the spirit world. The gatherings challenged the Hmong's traditional patriarchal society and the system of 18 clans whose male leaders have for centuries laid down laws and customs.
About 100 people attended the Sacramento forum, which was held at Bethany Presbyterian Church. The event was sponsored by a several nonprofit organizations and Hmong community leaders.
The most forceful talk came from Neng Chu Vang, who has inherited his father's role as a national Hmong leader. He held up his right forefinger and thundered, "As of today, Hmong women have the same rights as Hmong men; we have to respect them!
"We have lived in the U.S. for 30 years, and this is the day we must stand up together and solve the problem of domestic abuse."
Vang, who travels to Hmong communities in all 50 states mediating problems, declared, "If there is a problem, call me and I'll step in don't be afraid of the men. If I were you, I would have stood up to them long ago."
He criticized Wisconsin's 18 Clan Council for ignoring Vue's body as it lay in the morgue.
"It doesn't matter if it's a man or a woman. As long as it's a Hmong person, we should have stepped in to take care of the body," Vang said. "If a child is drowning in the pool, are you going to ask, 'What clan are you?' If we are human beings, we should not let this happen."
Vang said "our ancient culture will not disappear because we are Hmong, but in America, there is a law of the land" that says men and women are equal. "Hmong men usually say, 'I paid her bride price, and I can do whatever I want.' "
That price which a man's family pays to his bride's family "is to bring a wife home to love, not to kill," Vang said.
Vang's wife, Mary Heu Vang, called for a national Hmong crisis hotline for people suffering from depression, which can trigger violence. "I'd like to see that number in every Hmong home," she said. "It's time for our Hmong sisters to take the initiative and not wait for the men."
Many Hmong refugees are grappling with a variety of mental-health issues, including bipolar disorder, delusions and post-tramatic stress disorder, said mental-health counselor Norbee Xiong, who apologized on behalf of the Xiong clan for refusing to claim Vue's body.
"During the Vietnam War, all many of us had was training to kill," Xiong said, and that can manifest itself in anger and violence.
Domestic violence strikes all cultures, "and we don't want you to think all Hmong men are like this," Xiong added.
Hmong in crisis can call Sacramento County's Transcultural Wellness Center at (916) 875-1055 or My Sister's House at (916) 428-3271. About a quarter of the women who have used My Sister's House to escape violence are Hmong, said director Nilda Valmores.
Mycie Xiong of SILENCE of Hmong Village Inc. recounted the story of Pa Nhia Vue.
She said Vue came to St. Paul, Minn., in 1989 and got her doctorate in clinical psychology. In March, she married Yeng Xiong, who had previously been married twice.
Authorities say Vue's husband killed her and burned her body in a shed.
"A week later, some of her kids found her and didn't recognize her anymore; they thought she was a monster," Mycie Xiong said.
In 2005, under Vang Pao's direction, the 18 Clan Council ruled that if one spouse killed the other, "the killer's family is responsible to take care of the funeral and the kids," she said.
But the Xiong clan which suspected Vue had had an affair refused, and so did her own clan, Xiong said. It wasn't until the county said it was going to incinerate her body that Vue's 20-year-old son and a local women's shelter claimed her and had her cremated after a brief ceremony, Mycie Xiong said. "She didn't deserve to be killed like this she was treated like an animal."
Hmong of both genders are too quick to violence, she said. "In Minnesota on Friday a Hmong woman killed a Hmong man."
In America, both Hmong men and women have tried to rejuvenate themselves by having affairs or taking new spouses, said Elk Grove Unified School District Trustee Steve Ly.
He also said some Hmong men return to Laos for a second or third wife, which is bigamy, or marry a minor, which amounts to sex trafficking.
"In order for us to heal, we have to take a stand in times of crisis," Ly said. "We are at a critical stage where we are changing as a people. We have to rebuild our culture from scratch and realize that in America, men and women are equal."
Call The Bee's Stephen Magagnini, (916) 321-1072.