In the late 1970s, after the end of the Vietnam War, over 35,000 Hmong tribesmen and women with their children entered the U.S. They had been interned in refugee camps in Thailand, some for the last 20 years, while trying to escape the war and the Pol Pot communist regime who, having discovered that the Hmong in the mountains of Laos had secretly been helping downed American pilots, first wiped out over 30,000 of them causing the remaining population to flee, most via the Mekong River. Many were shot while crossing, many drowned.
The Hmong had lived in the mountains, the Lao people in the lowlands and towns. The Hmong in general did not learn to speak Lao, use their currency or intermarry during the 500 years of their sojourn in Laos. They had been transplanted there earlier by Hun Warriors in Upper Mongolia who took it into their heads one day to oust the darker, clannish Hmong from their territories.
They call themselves Miao or Meo, the free people. They weren’t warriors but preferred to peacefully herd their beautiful horses. They are also known for their exquisite Oriental embroidery, called Paj Ntaub (pronounced pan-DOW) and silver jewelry. They lived communally in long houses in the jungles of Laos, raising their own meat and growing their food, harvesting the seeds for the next planting season, carrying their babies on their backs wherever they went.
In 1978 Cha Say Thao and his wife Ma Xiong found themselves in Minnesota at the end of a very long journey out of war-torn Southeast Asia. Cha Say (pronounced jon-ZAI) had been a farmer. The Hmong language is pre-literate, or unwritten, so everything he knew had been passed down to him through the centuries by oral tradition, mainly story-telling and song. He knew when to plant each vegetable, what soil it needed, and when to harvest it. He knew how to gather the seeds. Many of the vegetables he grows today can be traced back to those seeds that made the voyage to America with him.
In the early 80s Mr. Thao was invited to work with 3M in their experimental hydroponic projects. He brings much of what he learned at 3M to his farming today, melding together Old World wisdom with New World science, and the results have been a success. One daughter in particular, Der Thao has chosen to carry the torch for the family into the next generation. A trained florist, Der has learned the art of farming from her parents and every week brings the fruits of the family’s labor to the farmers’ markets throughout the Twin Cities. Her unique floral arrangements are constantly in demand for weddings and other events.